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Coronavirus and music: Do we need all these songs?

OUT TO SHINE: Since measures were announced by the president to curb the spreading of the viral coronavirus, artistes famous and obscure have headed to studios to release songs about the crisis, but do we need all these songs? Andrew Kaggwa finds out.

Coronavirus or Covid-19 have changed our lifestyle and the way we work. Yet, on a lighter side, the virus has connected people for the better.

For instance, one day you will be watching Perspective with Josephine Karungi hosting friends in the US and the UK and on another day, it will be a music concert where all performers are doing it in their living rooms.

Among those connecting, was Bobi Wine with various African leaders and former presidents. The artiste last week released Alone Altogether, a song that seems to address the social distancing and isolations going on around the world.

But Bobi Wine was not alone, he is joined by South African folk-rock Robin Auld, Greg Mills, Amuta Stones from Nigeria as well as former presidents and personalities Olesegun Obasanjo from Nigeria, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president Liberia, former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga and Liberian President George Weah, among others. All these leaders stayed where they were but contributed to the song through the various social media applications that have been availed to us.

George Weah and Bobi Wine have a thing in common, Alone Altogether was the second time they were on a song for coronavirus. Bobi Wine, for instance, was one of the first African artistes to release a message song on the scourge. Titled Corona Alert, the song talks about the need to wash our hands and of course the known symptoms.

George Weah on the other hand released his coronavirus song at the end of March. Like Bobi Wine, the former AC Milan and Chelsea FC player sings about the known symptoms as well as praying to God to protect his people.

Of course Weah is not as prolific as Bobi Wine behind the microphone, thus it is easy to understand why some people did not even notice the song was made to begin with.

But Liberia has been on the calamity front with music longer than many countries. For instance, when they had an Ebola outbreak in 2014, various Liberian artistes produced songs such as Ebola is Real and Ebola in Town, all creating awareness.

In Uganda though, even with as many recorded Ebola, Hepatitis B and other outbreaks, songs have rarely been used to create awareness, even those done on the ever present malaria or the HIV/Aids pandemic, have been commissioned works by NGOs.

Coronavirus and local music

With Covid-19 though, after Bobi Wine released his Corona Alert, you would think he had given local artistes an idea. And just like that, they had an excuse to hit the nearest studio.

Bobi Wine’s song was recorded at a time Bebe Cool and a group of artistes were also working on another song on the matter. Nevertheless, it was Bobi Wine’s version that came out first.

Like an advert from the health ministry, the song spelt out all relevant information, detailing the symptoms and possible solutions. Because of his status as an African activist, Corona Alert spread like wildfire, getting various mentions on Al Jazeera, SABC, BBC, Channel One in the UK, Huffington Post, Mail & Guardian, and Voice of America, among others.

It may not be surprising that by the end of March, the song already had more than 500,000 views on YouTube and a talking point of some sort.

Then came Bebe Cool’s Corona Distance, with the help of friends A Pass, Fik Fameica, Fresh Kid, and Swangz Avenue’s girls Azawi and Vinka, among others. A bouncy song, its star power easily carries it, but the message is not as outstanding.

Over the same time more songs all about coronavirus were released by artistes such as Spice Diana, Ykee Benda, Fik Fameica, King Saha, Omulangira Ssuna and Khalifah Aganaga. There are very many coronavirus songs that each day, you are bound to listen to a new song, some done by artistes that have been on their musical hiatus and are probably using this for a comeback. While others seem to be using the crisis to forge a breakthrough.

Music and crises

Music is no stranger to crises, since the 1980s, artistes such as Bob Geldof through Band Aid, and his Live Aid concerts have used music to address the situation in Ethiopia.

They worked with acts such as Queen, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Cher and Paul McCartney. But Bob Geldof had started his campaign for Ethiopia when he teamed up with Midge Ure, a Scottish singer, songwriter and producer to form Band Aid. The band is mostly known for their Christmas classic, Do They Know it is Christmas, meant to raise awareness and money for Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985.

The two artistes put up a super group consisting of themselves and other British artistes such as Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael, Marylin, Status Quo, Sting and Big Country.

The success of the song motivated Jamaican-American artiste and activist Harry Belafonte to have something similar with American renowned artistes. Ken Kragen was instrumental in turning Belafonte’s idea into the song We Are the World, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

The song brought together artistes Cyndi Lauper, Al Jarreau, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers and the Jackson family among others.

The song was the lead single for the album of the same name and the plan was to have the proceeds for both the single and the album donated to a new organisation, United Support of Artistes for Africa.

The organisation would then feed starving people in Ethiopia where more than a million people are said to have died during the country’s famine.

According to usaforafrica.org, four months after the release of the song, the organisation had used about $25m to offer relief in Ethiopia. The majority of the money came from record sales in the US alone.

Since then, other songs have been used to raise awareness and funds for different crises. In 2010 for instance, Canadian artiste Kenaan joined by other artistes from the country such as Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne redid Waving Flag for people in Haiti.

What’s the message?

Coming to Uganda, Covid-19 has got artistes creative, with each one releasing a song on the matter.

According to Batt Badru, a Ugandan music critic based in South Africa, beyond Bebe Cool and All stars and the Bobi Wine songs, the rest of the songs coming out are simply an exaggeration.

“Bobi Wine and Bebe Cool delivered the message, other artistes seem to be repeating what they said,” he says.

And indeed, most of the songs are talking about the same things, if they are not asking Ugandans to wash their hands, they are asking them to social distance, the same messages the president emphasises each time he addresses Ugandans.

Artiste David Lutalo says the reason he has not done a song on the topic is basically about messaging; “When I listen to the songs that are out, they address the necessary key points, and I do not see why I have to add my voice to say the same things.”

Badru says there is more artistes can choose to talk about without sounding like they are repeating themselves.

For instance, he gives an example of a South African youth choir Ndlovu whose song We’ve Got This, also about coronavirus has been received well. The song creates awareness about coronavirus but approaches other topics Ugandans have not explored, such as avoiding spreading wrong information or asking people not to panic.

“This is a different message that most of our artistes are not thinking about, they are all preaching symptoms and handwashing.”

Some artistes have however ventured out of the box. Baximba Waves and the Lubuulwas released a gospel song, God Save the World, Mesach Semakula released a spoken word piece, though the most recognisable gospel song is Jose Chameleone’s Bolingo Ya Nzambe.

The Lingala song is not new though, it is one of the most famous songs Catholics will sing while celebrating Mass. Boligo Ya Nzambe, boleki bonene, the first lines he sings in the song mean, ‘The love of God, surpasses greatness’.

According to Chameleone, being a staunch Catholic, at such a time he felt that besides everything humans are trying to do, God remains the ultimate answer.

Some people have also argued that Jose Chameleone’s song is one of the few whose longevity surpasses coronavirus.

Do we need all of them?

With artistes still hitting the studio to discover themselves with a virus, the question is, are all these songs needed?

According to Badru, Uganda is a small country that was covered well by Bobi Wine’s song that even had subtitles and Bebe Cool’s song that featured other artistes.

Artistes elsewhere, according to Badru are contributing to the cause while are busy recording songs.

“Fally Ipupa through his foundation has given back to the people, where are the Ugandan artistes that run charities they talk about in interviews?” he wondered.

Footballers Samuel Eto, Didier Drogba to artistes Youssou Ndour, Kofi Olomide, Davido and 2Face, among others have pledged support.

Much as many such as TV presenter Douglas Lwanga and Badru concur that local artistes may not be as wealthy as their Nigerian counterparts, the argument still stands that they should do something.

When Bebe Cool released the second chapter of his coronavirus song last weekend, some people were quick to note that much as they appreciate the effort, songs are not what Ugandans need.

Of course using music for charity is something Ugandan artistes may not plan for before going to a studio. While in Uganda people do charity-related songs to be counted, with other markets though, artistes only do a charity song when they are aware this song will have an impact.

For instance, with the streaming age, an artiste will record a song, market it with all sales from the song being channeled to the cause.

In Uganda, most of these songs land on people’s phones via WhatsApp and later on YouTube.

“The songs are important, because they are part of the awareness but at the end of it all, the artiste benefits more via relevance,” says Simon Mukisa, a music consumer.

Unnecessary songs

Mukisa says artistes are only standing up to be counted but not genuine to the cause they pretend to sing about: “Besides crowding airwaves with their gibberish writing, their songs are useless, they are bringingnothing new, not attracting aid or even contributing to aid,” he said, adding that what we have are a bunch of bubblegum songs that are not serving any purpose.

Other people have urged artistes that it is the time they show Ugandans that keep paying to access their shows that they too can give back. While appearing on their weekly show, Talk and Talk on Dembe FM, Jenkins Mukasa, one of the panelists noted that before local artistes have a concert, they will go downtown and to the slums giving out sugar and soap.

“This is the time these people need them the most, these are their fans, they spend money to watch them, they should be giving back to them,” he said.

Artistes though have responded for those asking them to give by noting that they are too affected by the situation and are making the biggest of losses since they are not able to perform. Dr Hilderman, for instance, reasoned that instead of artistes, people should be looking at corporate entities that have more money than artistes.

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