The Three: January 2021 Edition
Cultural happenings that caught my eye this month
Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks for rocking with me the entirety of 2020, and sharing online. I see y’all, I appreciate y’all.
A Short History of Protest Movements in Abuja
The EndSARS protests were just the most recent example of Abuja being a hotspot for civic engagement in Nigeria, but a look through the city’s history of the city shows that this was not quite the plan. The history of Abuja is the history of a city becoming more Nigerian, more ours.
The FCT was founded on the disenfranchisement of its indigenous population and a desire to keep its lower-income population at bay. The demolitions on structures that were a contravention of the city’s master-plan was part of work to strictly enforce the exclusion of a certain kind of development within the city’s borders. Along with all expensive cities comes the sprouting of shanties within its borders, especially with more formal housing being out of the reach of many. Lower-income people were driven to satellite towns away from the glare of the city’s lights; even the wide expressways and highways reinforced the distance between the wealthier part of town and the place of lower-income people.
In fact, the first round of civic engagement in the city was to combat the stripping of the low-income indigenous population of their land, in line with the powers vested in the state by the Land Use Act. These protests had no central location or meeting point. There was also no central struggle or figure, as the different ethnic groups fought the government for their own access to compensation and land on which their people can feed their families. The ripple effect of these land rights struggles continue even today, with many of these communities that have been forcefully uprooted settled in ghettos on the outskirts of the cities.
Much like the city was not established in 1979 for the everyman (the capital didn’t actually stop being Lagos until 1991), it also was not built with civic spaces for engagement with the everyman. You can tell, because the only “public square” in Abuja is the Old Parade Ground which was not at all meant to be a place for ordinary people to linger. Even the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos that was built in the colonial era close to the then-seat of power in Marina had an area of commerce explicitly for ordinary Nigerians. Besides, unlike TBS, Parade Ground isn’t close to any real residential area and has highly restricted entry, so therefore can easily shut out unwanted activity. This relative lack of affordable housing in the center of town is very much intentional, especially taken together with the highly limited mass transport in the city.
The growth of the FCT’s population put a stop to the government’s plans of making Abuja a super-planned, wealth-fuelled idyll. The city’s population rose markedly during Obasanjo’s administration between 2000 and 2010 by over ~139.7%, with a steady influx of a middle class population into its districts and a continued shaping of the civic conversation into what we see today. Unity Fountain was originally intended as a place of celebration, and people would gather there for annual New Year celebrations in the early 2010s. It is perfectly located for large gatherings: much more easily accessible than Old Parade Ground; is opposite the Transcorp Hotel where high-level government and non-government functions are held; and also has the benefit of being a mere five-kilometer walk from the Three Arms Zone, so called because it contains the three seats of power in the country (National Assembly Complex, Presidential Villa, and Federal Secretariat). Even though the New Year celebrations officially came to a stop in 2014 due to a terrorist attack in Wuse II, the Fountain’s reputation as a place where people could gather more easily than other places endured. It is hard to say which was the first protest to use Unity Fountain, but there is a media mention of Occupy Nigeria fuel subsidy protest in 2012 using the Fountain for media engagement on their aims. The symbolism of Unity Fountain as a place for civic engagement was solidified, though, with the #BringBackOurGirls sit-ins from 2014 to 2018.
Be it the Occupy Nigeria protests in 2012, #EndSARS in 2020, and even other protests like the lingering Shia Protests from 2015 to date, The uptick in civic engagement in the 2010s has mostly been driven by the desire for change in national policy. There have, of course, been other demonstrations, such as traders and police clashes over market space and anti-AEPB demonstrations in response to the Abuja agency’s needless mass arrests of women and sexual assault while in custody. The #EndSARS protests, like the Shia Protests which began in 2015 in reaction to the arrest of the Shia Leader Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, used high-density areas like the Berger Roundabout and fanned out by shutting down expressways across the city. Unlike the Shia Protests, though, EndSARS protesters alternated between rallying in groups in different parts of the FCT and rallying together as a large mass, a tactic we’ve also seen employed during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. #EndSARS also successfully shut down entire expressways, neighborhoods, and key access roads into and out of Abuja -- the first time a protest was sufficiently large enough to achieve this. Even the counter Pro-SARS “protesters” were also more violent than I’ve ever seen politically-motivated counter-protesters be, burning cars they suspect belong to protesters and attacking unarmed protesters in the city and elsewhere in the country.
As I think of the rise in civic engagement in Nigeria more broadly and in Abuja in particular, it is not lost of me that all of this mobilizing for protests is happening with a seemingly steady reduction in the number of people casting their votes. Turnout of our elections has reduced steadily from ~70% in 2003 compared to 35 percent in 2019. Although one must take into consideration the stuffing of ballot boxes and outright rigging that’s been a feature of our elections since 1999, it still says something that an exaggerated depiction of the electorates’ interest gives lower and lower numbers. Perhaps the lesson is that younger Nigerians who are mostly the ones protesting understand the performance of faith in their country and the faith in their leadership as two separate things.
A big thank you to Prof. Jibrin “Jibo” Ibrahim for the conversation that helped to shape my thinking as I wrote this. You can read his Premium Times column here.
Between the October edition of this newsletter and this, you can probably tell that I’m still thinking a lot about how to think of this moment in the larger context of Nigeria’s history. I wrote about the importance of upper-middle class Nigerians’ involvement in EndSARS and how it fits as a response to what I think of the country’s political impasse for Le Sahelien. Check it out here.
Also: The good people over at the The Republic have a new edition out. This one takes stock of #EndSARS, what it means and where we go from here.
Jazmine Sullivan Regales Us with Heaux Tales
Jazmine Sullivan returns with a new EP after six years away that’s heavy on storytelling, celebration of flawed womanhood and vulnerability. The EP is structured around a conversation among a group of women wherein they discuss love, sex, self-worth, sexual norms, money and relationships in ways that are at once hilarious, thoughtful, full of honesty and also, somehow, pretty vulnerable. Each song that follows a woman’s “tale” is inspired by it and dives into what that feeling and experience feels like. I’m honestly annoyed at the fact that we’re really only getting 7 songs (the remaining 7 tracks are an intro and 6 women telling the stories that inspire the songs), but I love that she dug into an instinct we’ve seen in her most previous album Reality Show where a song explores a character or archetype in black popular culture, like Mascara, Brand New, and #HoodLove. The record also reminded me of Ari Lennox’s album Shea Butter Baby, where her often hilarious intros together with her playfully conversational lyrics added great personality to her songs.
As a body of work, this record is cohesive as hell and paints a complex portrait of the topics she sings about. My favorite thing -- besides the incredible texture and emotional power of her voice, of course -- is how these songs come with a lot of humor, earnesty, and absolutely zero judgement. The record starts on a hell of a note with Bodies, where a woman laments having hooked up with someone while under the influence and has no recollection of who he is, giving us one of those topics we struggle to discuss and own publicly right from the onset. Pick Up Your Feelings is a smooth R’n’B cut with incredible vocals such as we’ve come to expect from Sullivan. Songs like Lost One, though, are my favorite kind of Sullivan song: confessional and earnest, the kind of song you’d sing after your third drink when you’re still wondering how your break-up happened, even if it was your fault. Ari Lennox gives a hilarious intro on this record, too, before collaborating with Sullivan on the sexy smooth On It, which felt like it could have fit in quite neatly on Shea Butter Baby even though they obviously have great chemistry and did play really well together. The soulful, soaring vocals along with lyrics like “got it wetter than the whole Chesapeake Bay” and “lil bow-legged nigga with a nine inch” made me laugh, but it also kinda felt like the point. The confident sexuality on display in On It feels like it’s in conversation with Girl Like Me, another album standout about self-worth and feeling threatened by other women’s desirability and confident sexuality, and thinking about how “this good girl shit is exhausting”.
Strangely enough, Girl Like Me the one time I recall the actual usage of “heaux” (I love when people French things up), and it’s just as well. More than anything, the record did make me come away wondering what “being a ho” actually means. The stories are of flawed and complex enough that they defy . Maybe that’s the point. That’s exactly what it needed to be.
Like any sane person who’d been working like a demon all through this pandemic, I spent much of December not doing much of anything. Once work was done on the 21st, I started Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard, which I’m still dipping in and out of, and Leila Leilani’s Luster, for which I’m currently on the last 80 pages. Besides copious amounts of GTs and champagne, I’ll tell you the two things I managed to finish: “Bridgerton” and “How to Ruin Christmas”.
As far as light, romantic confections go, “Bridgeton” is pretty awesome. It’s got beautiful gowns (not a shady Aretha reference, the gowns really are awesome), a handsome Duke, and enough steaminess to fog up your windows. There’s actually been some questions in the past about if Queen Charlotte was mixed race, so indulging in the “what if?” by casting her as black was a pretty cool jump-off point. I think writers and shows are allowed to indulge in some baseless fantasy, so I mostly rolled my eyes at some of the critiques about not reckoning with race in a more direct manner, or avoiding slavery by not answering the question “how did all those black people get there?” What did make me arch my eyebrows, though, was the lack of informed consent in the sex scenes. I won’t spoil it for those who plan to watch it, but the lead character Daphne Bridgerton had no idea what sex was at all, and the Duke (let’s just say he was well-acquainted the topic) took advantage of that. Then when she found out, she also violated him, and there was no real engagement with the fact that what she did was wrong. It was all pretty messed up to see, especially as it was rendered pretty uncritically. I’m happy that newer romance writers are making a conscious effort of writing consent into their work.
“How to Ruin Christmas” is a South African mini-series about a girl who pretty much fucks up her sister’s wedding. The first South African show I ever saw on Netflix was Queen Sono, and even though it had great material it was actually pretty bad for many reasons, but especially this: everyone’s acting except for the lead character’s was awful, and poor Pearl Thusi had to carry the entire cast on her back by giving the only performance worth a damn. This is only the second SA show I’m catching, and I’m glad to say that “How to” gave me no such irritation. It was well-acted, with great comedic moments. The lead character’s best friend and love interest was a solid sub-plot, and I love how they wove English and the native languages into the dialogue. Great stuff all around.
I love conversations on craft, so I really enjoyed that these videos where Native Magazine gets producers of major afrobeats hits to talk about how they made the beats to some of our favorite songs. I don’t even like Burna’s “Wonderful”, but I liked watching Funkula talk about how he made it. They also did one breaking down the production of Rema’s monster hit “Woman”.
I’m a big fan of excellent cinematography, and many of the scenes in Season 4 Episode 8 of Insecure “Lowkey Happy” were absolutely beautifully framed. The main Director of Photography for Insecure Ava Berkofsky has done such incredible work with the visual story of the show since its beginning, but she was the director this particular episode. Given how much I love her stuff, and also my aforementioned love of craft, I really enjoyed discovering this long interview she did at SXSW on photography and telling stories with images.
Until next time.