Falz and the Limits of Sentimentality

Why the crutch works for Nigerian films but fails the rapper

Rapper Falz performing at See Me Live in December 2017. Photo: IfeOluwa Nihinlola

In 2018, Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, visited Nigeria as part of a trip to various countries in Africa. He shared stories from the country across social media and they were received positively. Stanton was showing Nigerian stories that were “touching” in their realness and many Nigerians were grateful. But there was a minority that witnessed the storytelling and recognised in it the kind of flaws that made Melissa Smythe write in Warscapes: “HONY presents photographs derived from this tradition but divorced from its vast potential for social import. Its brand of “humanity” requires no scrutiny, for it is designed to do what photography’s critics have accused the medium of doing at its worst: to capture, to possess, and to provoke in the viewer unprocessable, useless emotion. Yet this is precisely why the blog has not only garnered such an audience, but has also engendered a mass of imitators.”

Admirers of Stanton’s work believed Nigerians attempting a critique of it were ungrateful ‘haters’ or haughty middle-class folk who did not appreciate his good work. Yet, the idea that a work of both artistic and social import precludes criticism feels like an automatic critique of its creation. I’ve thought of that episode again as I’ve followed the response to the release of the single ‘Talk’ and album Moral Instruction by rapper Folarin Falana, popularly known as Falz. His embrace of social activism in songs and quest to become a champion of political music has made him the darling of many in Nigeria. If he had fans before, he now has fanatics ready to defend his honour in the face of anyone who thinks they have any reasoned objection to his work. He’s the messiah who, in the words of popular rapper MI Abaga, “…needs to be protected at all at all all all cost people.”

Falz knows that by declaring that he takes politics seriously and anchoring his music to that of Fela Anikulapo Kuti he would secure the love of a Nigerian audience that seems starved for conscious music. His work often feels like the product of a focus group survey titled “How to Be Popular and Distinct from Your Nigerian Peers in Music.” While this may sound like an uncharitable reading of his work, it’s one that can be applied to other forms of cultural production in Nigeria. The assumption in Nigeria, it seems, is that to create art that is widely accepted, all you have to do is pay attention to quality production and back that up with extreme sentimentality.

December 2018. I sat in a theatre to watch Knock Out Blessing, the second film by filmmaker Dare Olaitan, whose debut feature Ojukokoro was the standout Nigerian film of 2016. Olaitan is part of a growing crop of young Nigerian filmmakers who feel a fidelity to the form as art. Their impulses aren’t first of all commercial, as it has always been with the Nigerian film industry, but a need find unique ways to tell very Nigerian stories. When I entered the theatre, I was the only one there to watch Knock Out Blessing. A few minutes later, another man sauntered in and together we experienced Olaitan’s work. I knew with an audience like that the film would not stay in the cinemas beyond the usual two weeks. Later that day, I saw Up North, a Tope Oshin film that had been garnering rave reviews on the internet. The theatre was now full, but once the film rolled, it was obvious I was witnessing a lesser work of art. But Up North’s wide reception isn’t for nothing. It’s a well shot advert for the landscapes of Bauchi and the cultures of Northern Nigeria. Yet, it features a story so basic it can pass for parody. This was part of a pattern I used to categorise the big Nigerian movie releases of late 2018 into works of art or sentimental spectacles: Kasala is an artful piece of guerilla filmmaking, Lionheart is a beautiful appeal to women and Igbo culture; King of Boys is brilliant film noir, Chief Daddy is whatever marketing nonsense EbonyLife wants to call its recent releases.

The problem with sentimentality isn’t that it’s an inherent evil, but when a supposed work of art is predicated on it, the result is a bludgeoning of the audience into an emotion, which cannot move them into any kind of action. The audience isn’t told a story complex enough to allow them a myriad of feelings, or detailed enough to allow them see beyond the creator’s narrow intentions. Instead, they are shepherded into a room of canned feeling when they could be exploring a world of emotional possibilities. In Knock Out Blessing, the viewer leaves the final scene having gone through a story where they’ve been allowed sadness, laughter, suspense, relief. But Up North is so monotone you can plot the story arc from the first scene: it’s a flat line with occasional emotional bumps, all in their expected spots.

It’s easy to see why Nigerian filmmakers have bound their wagons of ambition to wheels of sentimentality. Nigerian audiences have established, through the success of mediocre films like The Wedding Party, that they are partial to unearned sentiment. Up North, therefore, takes the Nigerian Youth Service Corps, a program designed to spur Nationalism, as the film’s conceit. And people respond: thank you for showing our culture to the rest of Nigeria. Knock Out Blessing doesn’t appeal to your emotions in this manner. Even sex workers who are at the core of the film are allowed to be full people. You love them, you hate them, but they do not become vehicles for a PSA about the need to legalise sex work in Nigeria. This isn’t a dismissal of sentimental movies. The Nigerian movie ecosystem is at a stage where it needs to celebrate the artistic and the sentimental. The former is needed to push the boundaries of film, while the latter is needed to make money. In this case, the elevation of sentimentality because of its potential for commercial success can be treated as benign, but when it is evident in an artist who enjoys the moral high-horse like Falz does, it becomes malignant.

If the signal of art is emotional freedom,” writes Ashley Barnes in Los Angeles Review of Book’s Avidly, “then an artist who wants to move her audience to group action, say to redress some real-life suffering, is in a tight spot.” Falz’s problem is that he doesn’t recognise that he’s in a tight spot. He thinks his mission to inspire Nigerians towards political consciousness doesn’t require other forms of awareness. His response to criticism of his misogynist comments was emblematic of this. Instead of reflectively considering opinions that have been repeated about his music, especially after ‘Child of the World’, and how they paint the picture of vanilla misogyny, he doubled down on his attitude towards women in general, and sex workers in particular. It’s not enough in the 21st century to claim that you “hate transactional sex” and expect your audience will accept that as gospel. Fela got away with his misogyny because he was a genius who lived in less socially-aware times. Falz is no genius whose flaws can be excused, neither can he torpedo his audience into the dark ages of social justice.

Falz fancies himself a moral arbiter who can speak about the ills plaguing Nigeria the way Fela did. His mistake, of course, is that he doesn’t realise Fela didn’t always assume moral superiority over his audience, and even when he did, the audience knew he was a deeply flawed man whose didn’t pretend to be perfect. Falz wants to be a crusader, a moral and political beacon in what he perceives to be a wilderness of music filled with hedonism. His challenge, which he doesn’t seem to appreciate, is well articulated by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker: “What Eudora Welty observed about the novel is also true of the song: if it hopes to succeed it cannot crusade. That isn’t to say it can’t look serious political issues in the eye — only that, if it ceases to animate and start to sermonize, it will fail.”

Fela understood that the mystique of his work lay not just in the sermons he preached, but the music he created. He produced a unique blend of horns and drums that animates the body in ways no other brand of music can. Words are important to Fela’s art, but they are not preeminent. This is what an artist like Burna Boy understands: You can approach Fela’s essence without a regard for the words if you pay attention to the sounds. And those who aspire to Fela’s brand of consciousness cannot assume moral superiority over the Burna Boys of Nigerian music. Making bad music is a cardinal sin, no matter how righteous you are. There’s value in having words that move the listener, but all of that is wasted if you do not have the sound.

Falz’s Moral Instruction is an improvement on his agitprop in ‘This Is Nigeria’. It’s an album that aspires towards excellence with exquisite production. He milks all he can out of the Fela samples, and mixes them in ways that enhance his hip hop curd. But if the chatter about his work seems negative, he has himself to blame. Nigerians aren’t averse to politically sound music. The first hip hop production in the country in 2019 was Show Dem Camp’s Clone Wars IV, a mixtape as politically charged as anything Falz has attempted in his career, yet well received by the group’s growing fanbase. The difference, of course, is that Falz has commercial ambitions the SDC duo do not share.

Falz’s sentimental desires wouldn’t be onerous if he doesn’t want to be so popular for his political consciousness. He needs the audience to listen and be angry as a way to validate his direction and he’s annoyed when the response is anything but that. His desire for sentimentality has also led to a place where response to his work can only be singular: We will comment about it — either for or against — but it is impotent to move us into action. Right now, he can only have ‘fanatics’ and ‘haters’, but nothing close to the movement he wants. For that to happen, he needs to become something more than a caricature of consciousness. He should return to making works of art, not the ten commandments. Until then, his pronouncements will sound like that of a charlatan who has found a shortcut to distinction in a crowded field.