Often underestimated: Religious, Topical, and Political Songs and Poetry in Africa

Ferris Leander Fechner, BA
Associate, Policyinstitute.net

The following is a synthesis of Chapters 7 and 10 of the book ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ by Ruth Finnegan: Chapter 7, ‘Religious Poetry’ and Chapter 10, ‘Topical and Political Songs.’

To a partially or largely illiterate audience, poetry in various forms poses an effective mechanism to capture, memorize and spread ideas, perceptions and sometimes propaganda – be it in a religious or political context. In both, oral literature has longstanding tradition all over Africa. Songs, hymns, and poems express political attitudes, religious feelings, and culture in a diverse and often underestimated way.

Contrary to common belief, there are almost no general commonalities between various forms of ‘African’ religious poetry in terms of content, form, intensity, or stylistic approach. According to Finnigan, it can only be stated that the hymn in its various forms is a prevalent form of poetry; that apart from Islamic poetry there is little significance of didactic and narrative driven religious poetry; and that there is widespread Christian influence. Oral religious literature can praise gods and other figures, moan the needs of the human being and pray for them to be met, or tell stories including life lessons. The one thing truly characterizing oral literature in Africa is, in the end, just its oral nature and inherent distribution potential. It is this potential that lives on in political and topical songs.

Sometimes, following the structure or even melody of their traditional or religious counterparts, political and topical songs have themselves become a traditional part of many African societies. In their most basic form, they are used on tribal levels to communicate relations to other groups, but also to criticize or praise present or aspiring leaders. This established means of spreading political views gathered pace in modern times by supporting resistance against various occupiers – including European and Arab colonizers – making use of the fact that those were usually not able to understand the respective natives’ language, which made propaganda against colonial governments much less dangerous and thus easier and more effective.

At latest by the early 1960s, songs had become an integral part of every recognized political party’s campaign. “Songs can be used to veil a political message from opponents, to publicize it yet further, to whip up popular support, or to pressurize its enemies. In different contexts, songs can have the effect of intensifying factional differences, or of encouraging national unity.

Songs can be picked up and learnt by heart, transmitted orally from group to group, form a real and a symbolic link between educated leader and uneducated masses—in short, perform all the familiar functions of political propaganda and comment”.

Finnegan 2012, 288

The importance of oral literature in religious and political contexts in Africa can thus not be exaggerated. Though not unified by content or structure, they share the purpose of distributing ideas effectively among an uneducated audience. Their effectiveness in doing so is illustrated for example by the fact that Nigerian military rulers banned political songs in 1966 attempting to restrict political activities. Oral literature in Africa should not be conceived as a misleadingly homogenous aspect of an ever more diverse African culture, but as a frequently appearing tool for these cultures to communicate their respective cultural – and that is religious and political – activity.

Finnegan, R. (2012). ‘Oral Literature in Africa.’ Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

(The views expressed in this text are those of its author and do not reflect those of Policyinstitute.net)

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