Odafe Atogun’s recently published novel Taduno’s Song is one of those stories that can only truthfully be classified as pure magic. Entrancingly and exquisitely composed, it is the story of a man—Taduno—who began making music with songs of love, then songs of protest, and ultimately a song of freedom. The story takes place in the present time in a Nigeria that is politically and culturally similar to that present. However, it could also take place in many other nations both past and present.
Taduno is a guitarist and singer whose songs became rallying cries for a people’s movement. Arrested, beaten and tortured he is ultimately forced into exile to save his life. It is there where the story begins; he receives a letter from his true love in Nigeria asking him to return to fight the dictator once again. She writes from a hellish prison, where she has been placed after being kidnapped by secret police. The similarities with the story of Orpheus, who spent much of his life trying to retrieve the love of his life Eurydice from Hades are intentional and meant to remind the reader of the power music holds on the human soul.
When he returns, Taduno discovers that he is forgotten by the multitudes he sang for: the poor, the workers and the people who dared to speak out against the dictator. Nobody recalls his face or his songs. His voice is broken because of beatings he received from the sticks and fists of the dictator’s police. A friend helps him get a guitar—not because his friend remembers him, but because he has faith in whom he knows him as in the present. His ability to play guitar returns but his voice does not. Still, once Taduno’s music begins to shake things up on the streets the dictator arrests him. He then tells Taduno he must sing songs praising the dictator if he ever wishes to have his true love back. Taduno accepts the deal because he loves her so much. He spends the rest of the tale wrestling with that decision.
Dave Randall is a rock guitarist who has toured with the band Faithless and Sin’ead O’Connor, among others. He has also been involved in a number of endeavors combining music and politics. It is these experiences that compelled him to examine the relationship between music and political change. This is the subject of his book titled Sound System: The Political Power of Music. The text is an insider’s look at the actual reality fictionalized in Atugon’s Taduno’s Song. It is simultaneously a history of music in movements for social justice and revolution, with a mention of its role propping up the powerful and elitist—from the Catholic Church to numerous regimes around the world.
As anyone who listens to popular music knows, there are certain periods when protest songs have made their way high up the charts. The period known as the Sixties is probably the best example of such a time. Most songs recorded then, whether they were intentionally pop-sounding like Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit single “Eve of Destruction,” or the unusual blend of rock and violin found in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” were clearly meant to be understood as protest songs. It is Randall’s contention that a fair amount of today’s music is also subject to such an interpretation. As an example, he discusses Beyoncé’s 2106 Super Bowl performance of her tune “Formation.” If one recalls this performance, it included references to African-American radical groups and individuals like the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis. The struggle against police murders of Black men was also highlighted. Of course, right wing and pro-police organizations attacked the performance and police forces threatened to refuse to protect Beyoncé when she performed in their towns. Randall mentions that there were folks on the Left who also opposed the performance, criticizing it as an attempt to make money off of genuine political movements for social change. As he points out, Beyoncé ends the tune by essentially telling her audience that the way to beat the system is by getting rich; a concept that obviously worked for Beyoncé, but is ultimately not a real solution. Randall then brings up the story of the hip-hop artist Killer Mike, who as a fighter for social justice decided to endorse the social democrat Bernie Sanders in his campaign for president in 2016. Even if Killer Mike’s approach was more genuine, Randall points out that the reaction to Beyoncé’s performance moved the discussion about police brutality and racism further into the mainstream, thereby providing all sides in the debate (including that of the radical Left) a considerably larger forum.
As I noted above, the protagonist in Taduno’s Song wrestles mightily with his decision to sell out his political principles to save the love of his life. In what can only be described as the callousness of the dictator and his police, money is also offered to Taduno. Naturally, he rejects the money. I was reminded of this while reading Randall’s discussion of the repercussions of his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s establishment of an apartheid regime in regards to the Palestinians. This is because some of his fellow musicians who originally supported BDS backed away when they were threatened with the loss of income. To be fair, losing one’s income is not the same as losing the love of one’s life, but the point is that both circumstances reveal that the powerful understand the power of music. When they have nothing to counteract that power to defend their injustice, their only solutions involve threats, censorship and death.
Sound System is a brief look at the potential role music can play in a movement for social change. In his brief telling, author Dave Randall notes the tragic story of Chilean revolutionary singer Victor Jara and the Nigerian guitarist and composer Fela Kuti; he mentions Beethoven and Schoenberg, Rage Against the Machine and Marvin Gaye. He discusses the nature of electronica and its roots in the early underground acid house scene of 1980s Britain; the roots of hip-hop and the corporatization of music festivals. He also looks at the atonal work of Schoenberg and the nature of the corporate star machine. Odafe Antogon’s novel Taduno’s Song tells a similar story via a poetic and delightful narrative about one musician and his struggle to be true to his people, his love and ultimately himself. The single message from both texts is that music can change the world when that is the intention of those who make it.