BANTU and The Return to Roots

BANTU in performance at COSMO Festival JunkYard 2023 Photo: Klaus Langer BANTU © WDR/Claus Langer

Nigerian-German singer and Afrofusion artist, Adegoke Odukoya aka Ade Bantu is the leader of a 13-piece band known as BANTU speaks with Ngozi Uma on the recent tour of Europe, Afropolitan Vibes’ debut in Germany, the new album.

You just returned from your Germany tour, why did you choose to tour Germany first with your new album?

Germany is important to us because that was where BANTU started. This was like us going back to our roots. I have a new album called “What Is Your Breaking Point?” I am part of a 13-pieces band that is called Bantu. We released the album and we quickly went on tour so we haven’t been able to launch it in Nigeria. We went on an eight- week tour in Germany; we played across Germany and we just got back. We are presenting the album to Nigeria in October and November this year.

We have released two singles ahead of the official album release, the first single was called “Wayo and Division” and the second one is “Na Me Own My Body”. “Wayo and Division” is addressing the way politicians used ethnicity and religion to divide us Nigerians and it’s something that is played across Africa. So we felt we needed to address it. “Na Me Own My Body” is about women’s rights, the rights of women to decide and claim full ownership of their bodies instead of allowing men to make decisions for them.  Our starting point was the comment Buhari made about his wife’s place being ‘in the living room or the other room’, which we find insulting towards the women folks.

As an artist or empathetic human being, I can’t close my eyes and pretend that I am not seeing what is happening and can’t be singing about drinks, dancing, and big buttocks when there is a problem around me.

What is the message behind the new album, “What is your breaking point?”

The idea is to reflect on how we got here as a nation and why even with our backs against the wall we don’t react. We keep on shrugging our shoulders and saying everything go better.  When do you get to that point where you say enough is enough and where people stand up for their basic human lives? And realise that your basic human right is being violated when you don’t have security, or proper infrastructure; when inflation is high and basically life is upside down. And you are relegated like an animal fighting for survival.

It’s a socio-political song and a reflection of our time.  And we comment on what is happening around us. It is important to document what is happening around us and the question is what is your breaking point?

This album was recorded in a six-month period, from November to April 2023.That was an important period in Nigerian history when you look at the preparation for the general elections, the introduction of the new currency, fuel shortages, and the crisis around the west coast like Mali, and Burkina Faso. I want people to question why they are silent. Why are they not acting or reacting?

I want a reaction from everyone. I want self-reflection when I say ‘What is your breaking point?’ It is a very personal question. When do you say I can’t take it anymore?

I want them to identify with that title and meditate on it and ultimately come to their own personal conclusion which would lead to their own truth because we can’t be indifferent. There is a level of oppression that is going on, there is a political, spiritual, and total disregard for our Africaness and our true identities, we are not mediating and reflecting on it.

How is the acceptability of the new album in Germany?

It was well received. We had over 25 shows in Germany. It was well received and since it coincided with the album release it was good. It was a perfect way to present our new song and test-run it on the audience and it was a beautiful experience.

We performed at different festivals, there are lineups made up of artists from all over the world. What we did was we went completely green. We were the first Nigerian bands not actually go on the road by car. We traveled by train for all our dates. That means our carbon footprint was low, supposing taking a car and burning fossil fuel. it is very important we are having this discussion among the creatives and we supposed to have this discussion in Nigeria because the way the world is going, they are already having this discussion and we can’t lag back. What the climate emergency is doing to us as a nation. When you talk of desertification, displacements of Nigerians in the northern part and even the forest areas in the southwest, and the oil pollution in the South-south.

How is doing live band now compared to when Bantu started?

Life shows are ways to go if you want a successful career as a musician. There is no money in Spotify. You need about 300 places on Spotify to make one dollar and you can do the Maths. You are not making any money from Spotify, boom play, or Apple Music, so if you are on one of those platforms you will not be able to have a sustainable career except you are Kanye West or Beyoncé. Those are the outliers. You have to be on the road, you have to put together a good show. When you are good on the stage, when you are authentic and interesting, and when you have engaging performances, people will book you for shows.

Nigerian artists understand it. I think someone like Burnaboy understands this. He has tight shows and he plays over 150 shows in a year. Considering that he is among the frontiers in this country at the moment. Live is very important and with the new model and longevity of career, live band is the key. You need to invest in live shows.

Can you clarify the working relationship between you and your band?

BANTU is not Ade Bantu. BANTU is a 13-piece band, and we own rights to the music together. We come up with the idea together and ultimately get the band in shape. It would be very cruel of me and disrespectful if I won’t honour not only the loyalty but the exceptional creativity of my band. Hence, we travel together. Going with my bands is not always easy-from visa procurement to housing. I have always said I will never go to Europe and source for bands. I am very loyal to my band because they have been very loyal to me too.

Do you think technology in any way has affected live shows?

Technology is good, you just have to harness it to your advantage. Some people are afraid of AI, but I am not afraid of AI. AI can replicate my voice but can it really replicate me as a human? I doubly it, and even if it does, it cannot replicate me completely.

New technology helps to advance where you are at a point in time. We come from new technology, I started music not with a live band, just like these young people do now where you program beats and sample music. That was where I came from, I was doing hip-pop 30 years ago. Over time, I started incorporating live music, samples, and beat programs. Later, it was live music and samples. Now, it is live music with my own idea and that of my band. And we own the copyrights to the songs.

What is your advice for artists who are afraid to speak up?

When I say be fearless, I don’t mean you should be stupid. What is important is, to speak your truth and be respectful.  You shouldn’t be disrespecting authority because they are not super gods or humans. You must hold them accountable, your parents and yourself accountable. Live up to your own moral and ethical standards.

Since the covid-19 pandemic, live shows have not really picked up, what is the outlook for this tour in Nigeria and West Africa?

 It’s always a risk, we are not pop stars, we are not on the radio. What is important is to make culture accessible, and engage people beyond their popular culture, and music. Bantu has its own audience, and we have always found a niche. And there are people that identify strongly with what we stand for.

We are risk-takers and it’s not about maximum profit, it has been very difficult for musicians I agree since covid-19 we haven’t really recovered but we can’t just stick our heads in the sand. We just have to keep pushing. The shows are planned for October and November.

Tell us the idea behind the Afropolitan vibes.

The idea was to help spike the life of live music and we were able to achieve that. We had close to 200 artists that performed. All the top-tier artists apart from Davido. Legends and even the upcoming then who are now celebrated artists like Adekunle Gold were all there. Afropolitan Vibes started here in Nigeria and what was important was to take Afropolitan Vibes to Europe to Germany we did the maiden Afropolitan festival, and it was a total success. We also had a panel of discussion: the role of women in Afrobeat and in particular, the marginalisation of female voices and gender stereotypes and other conversations about the transformation of Nigerian pop, and how it has grown into a phenomenon called Afrobeat.

We are going to have a second edition next year (2024) for sure. Afropolitan is important because it engaged you intellectually, most importantly it is also trying to identify the pointers when it comes to the urban African experience itself. That is what we tried to represent with Afropolitan. I see myself as a bridge between the continents because I am privileged to be able to live in Nigeria long enough to call myself Nigerian and the same with Germany as well. What we did in Germany was a stand-alone festival.

In the past, we have the likes of Fele, and other legends questioning authorities, do you feel that arts have somehow failed in the sense that we seemed to be talking to ourselves rather than those who are in the corridors of power?

There has always been a form of resistance from the artists like Fela Kuti, Sonny Okosun, and other legends. There is a form of resistance within the art, the problem is that power dynamics come to play now when you look at what hyper-capitalism has done to Nigeria, what it means is that if you are a political artist normally in a sane environment the public broadcaster would give you the room and the freedom to express yourself and play your music but now when you look at Lagos for example with over 30 private radio stations, no one wants to rock the boat because they are afraid that they would lose sponsorship and better still when you have a situation where your government is stifling freedom of speech and when broadcasters are been fined they start self-editing and self-censorship then there is a problem.

It is not the art; it is the hostile environment in which we are where people are limited in terms of expressing their fundamental rights, their freedom of speech. Art has not failed. If you would look around, there are enough artists commenting even young ones in their 20s talking about their current situation, and the oppressive nature of the system they are trying to survive. Now, how do you amplify this? You need platforms and these platforms do not exist. They are relegated to social media. And how many Nigerians can boast of unlimited data? They only watch entertainment to escape from their problems.

The last time when you had this tour, you were in Mali, Burkina Faso as well, and now these areas are no-go areas. How does it make you feel when you reflect on the situation of things in West Africa and the Sahel region?

I was surprised that Nigerians didn’t react to the first set of coups that happened on the west coast when I heard about Guinea Conakry, the attempted coup in Guinea Bissau. Nobody reacted, and obviously in Burkina Faso and Mali. We have a song in our album that is called ‘ten times backward’ and the song reflects on what these people are doing right now because we see them as undertakers. They are reversing the clock.

There was this idea by Thabo Mbeki and others came up with the idea of the ‘African Renaissance’ and Olusegun Obasanjo was behind it. It was weaponised by political elites.

Now look at where we are, what we have is a situation around the Sahel region, of course, you need to add Niger as a coup d’etat state. What you have to understand is that you have first, civil society groups organised against repressive democratic detectors, so they had leadership they wanted to hold accountable, but they couldn’t because institutions were failing them and so they went out on the street. What you had was a coalition of religious, student unions, and trade unions. They are at the forefront of the fight. They took a stand. What you have now is the army now coming and hijacking this movement and with the very paternalistic attitude that is absolutely uncalled for, now say that oh! We are now the voice of the people; we are the ones that will guide you back to democracy.

When you have young people gathering around this idea of African sovereignty which is important, but that is being represented by armed personnel then it is problematic. It goes to show you that there is a disconnect between historical facts and also between the younger generations and older generations because we are not communicating. The older generations have failed the young ones. If actually, we worked them through what dictatorship was and what we experienced because there is nobody that went through the horrors of Abacha that would be clapping or applauding what is happening anywhere in the Sahel zone.

We have to be very vigilant. I am not talking about Nigeria; the Nigerian Armed forces has made a clear stand, and I find it very interesting for the first time ever, they made a public statement, a written statement that they are going to abide by the constitution. But we need to look at Senegal because of where Senegal is heading and the crisis that the country is facing. They never had a coup d’etat. There is a possibility that something can happen.

I hope this will generate a new awakening amongst young Africans to be more vigilant about what is happening around them.That is why I do what I do with my music, I can engage and get the new generations to talk and we can find common ground. I don’t have to coward, I don’t have to fear anybody, I just have to speak my own truth. It’s also important for posterity.

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