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Young Musicians Call For Change In Ogoniland, Nigeria

For decades, Nigeria's Ogoniland region was the scene of massive oil extraction by Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiaries. Since then, a series of major oil spills have turned the region, which lies on the Niger Delta, into one of the world's largest environmental disaster areas.

But Ogoniland's musicians are not standing idly by; they're helping to create a new beginning. Their work has resonated with the community, showing how music can be a way forward for the region and its discontented youth.

Take young hip-hop artist MC Kay, who witnessed the impact of a devastating oil spill firsthand. MC Kay's father died young, leaving him to support the family as a fisherman. But the latest oil spill in 2009 took all that away. Consequently, he turned to music.

"I want to send a message on what is happening in my country that is affecting the poor people and affecting the youth," he says. "I cannot go to the government and tell them, but I can say this through the music and people will hear it."

MC Kay's most popular song, "January Money," deals with the aftermath of the 2009 spill. According to Eric Dooh, a village chief in Ogoniland, people affected by the spill were expecting compensation. So in 2012, Dooh and other plaintiffs took their case to a Dutch civil court, seeking meaningful redress for the loss of their land and fisheries.

"Shell came here to explore oil, long ago, in the '50s," Dooh says. "Right from then, they have not changed their pipelines. Their pipelines are overaged, and because of that, it has been corroded, and there has been a series of spills."

Chief Eric Dooh believes that young musicians are crucial to the future of his community.
Banning Eyre / NPR
Chief Eric Dooh believes that young musicians are crucial to the future of his community.

Dooh and the other plaintiffs' efforts paid off: In January 2015, Royal Dutch Shell reached a settlement with these residents.

"But when the money came, it was peanuts," Dooh says.

The total sum was $83 million. That's about $3,300 per fisherman — which seemed insufficient for people who had lost their homes and livelihoods, and had been condemned to live in an environmental wasteland.

This settlement, and the month in which it was reached, inspired the title of MC Kay's song "January Money." The song spread through Ogoniland mostly via grassroots circulation: People sent the track to each other via Bluetooth, phone to phone.

The way "January Money" resonated with the people of Ogoniland has strengthened Chief Dooh's belief that young musicians have a crucial role to play in the future of his community.

"Look at our musicians who are supposed to be the light of the world tomorrow," he says. "If I am paid compensation now, what I would do is establish a very powerful studio for them."

Another local star is reggae singer Tumsi, whose song "Jah Message" uses Jamaican Rastafarian rhetoric to assail broken promises — including political promises made to the people of Ogoniland, who have been left without hospitals or schools.

"Nobody for to send us school, any things," Tumsi says. "You know, we just live by God Almighty. Except for God Almighty, we are nothing."

Alloy Khenom, a veteran Ogoniland journalist, is another mentor for these young artists. He says idleness is the root of the violence and crime in Ogoniland: If young people have no opportunities, support or choices, it's unsurprising that they'd turn to crime. But, as Khenom says, they could instead choose music.

Though the odds may be long, the recent success of Nigerian music stars from the capitol, Lagos, has given role models to the artists in the Niger Delta.

"Music remains the most powerful instrument to solving situations," Khenom says. "Through the music you reach anywhere in the world. Ask people to look at those problems that are facing us and highlight them through music."

It might seem fanciful to imagine that musicians like these can be a force against oil companies and corrupt governments. But if there's a road forward for Ogoniland, it has to start somewhere – and these musicians are game for the challenge.

Hear "January Money" by MC Kay and "Jah Message" by Tumsi, among other songs by artists from the Niger Delta, in the playlist below, compiled by Afropop Worldwide:

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Banning Eyre