Throughout history, music has had a vital role in African communities in communicating news, advice and educational messages. In the face of the Ebola epidemic, West African musicians have taken the lead in spreading awareness and information to the public through popular songs. Robert Ambrose, creator of the African music blog Rhythm Connection, points out some of the songs that have been recently recorded to issue vital warnings and advice to help allay the catastrophe, including “Africa Stop Ebola” by a significant collective of superstars from Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Congo DRC and Ivory Coast.
Ebola. The word itself conjures many emotions. In the United States it ranks alongside ISIS as the two sources of evil that many news corporations sensationalize. Coming after years of apocalyptic plague films ranging from 28 Days Later to Contagion to the two most recent Planet of the Apes movies, the world’s population is primed for panic when news mimics movies. In Africa, especially West Africa where the current epidemic rages, Ebola evokes terror because it is a real life threat, and remorse because many families have been touched or overwhelmed by the disease.
While panic causes countries including Canada and Australia to close borders to anyone from the most affected countries and U.S. politicians to impose quarantines on medical volunteers returning from shifts helping with the crisis, practical steps are being taken in West Africa to manage the disease so that it can be contained and overcome. Ebola is a public health crisis and, as is often the case, education is the key to solving the epidemic because it is human behavior that causes it to spread.
West African governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have expended tremendous effort and resources trying to educate their populaces, often with little success. Indeed, such efforts often have sown the seeds of mistrust. While governments and organizations have made modest gains, African musicians are stepping forward to record songs bearing public health messages, and music is proving once again that it is a powerful agent of change.
Perhaps the most remarkable “Ebola” song is “Africa Stop Ebola,” a collaboration involving some of West Africa’s greatest stars that was released on YouTube.
As related by Tiken Jah Fakoly, one of the stars in this reggae-infused song, to a Voice of America reporter, the musicians began talking among themselves and realized that people would listen to them more readily than to politicians. The very polished production benefits from its all-star cast, including veterans Salif Keita and Mory Kante, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangaré. The song begins as a ballad sung by Guinea’s Kandia Kora, but the rhythm section drops in when the ensemble chorus sings “Ebola, ebola, invisible enemy,” beginning a song that evolves even as its message remains constant: “Trust your doctor.” Mory Kante actually shifts the momentum to the younger generation when he chants, “Get up, stand up, Ebola is a problem for us.” Oumou Sangaré follows in Bambara with the same beat, paving the way for three rappers, Didier Awadi (ex Positive Black Soul) from Senegal, Konko Malela from Guinea and Mokobé from Mali, who give the song a closing urgency.
“Africa Stop Ebola” is a masterpiece in the sense that it presents a cross-cultural, cross-generational message in a song filled with hooks, and the message is delivered in French, Bambara, Soussou, Malinké, Kissi and Lingala. It is too early to judge it’s impact, but the number of views on YouTube is growing exponentially. Soon it may surpass the other main Ebola song to go viral in West Africa, “Ebola in Town,” a thumping dance tune produced by a trio of young Liberians. Where the established musicians focused on building confidence for the medical system, “Ebola in Town” advises personal behavior like no kissing, no touching friends, and no eating bush meat. Check it:
Shadow and D-12, two of the three musicians who produced “Ebola in Town,” came to the U.S. last summer to accept music awards, and they have stayed on because the epidemic in their country is getting worse. They are not the only musical Ebola refugees. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are stuck in Providence, Rhode Island, reluctant to return to a disease epicenter.
There are many Ebola songs posted on social media. Some of them, like Liberian reggae star Black Diamond’s “Ebola=Outbreak in West Africa,” reflect anger and question the origin of the disease, while the bizarre “Ebola, Africa Must Stand and Fight Together,” patches together Ghanaian activist musician Barima Sydney (Sydney Ofori) with Liberian football star George Weah, who seemingly recites a U.N. Ebola memo over music from South African gospel singer Lionel Petersen. Perhaps the peak of weirdness in Ebola music is the soca romp “No Ebola” from Benjai and Screws that declares “the Ebola can’t stop my soca” because you can “jump up with gas mask!” It’s not at all useful for fighting the epidemic, but it can fill a dance floor, and sometimes that can be just what the doctor orders.
Music has played a crucial role in many social and political movements. I have a record called Guitarra Armada from revolutionary Nicaragua that has songs that explain in detail things like how to break down and clean a Garand rifle. It was a tool spread through a population via music to achieve an ambitious result. Music could also be instrumental in West Africa’s struggle with Ebola, and perhaps when musicians take the lead, as in “Africa Stop Ebola,” people most affected by the epidemic will see a path forward with hope.
How you can help:
New York Times article listing humanitarian aid groups and their projects, including Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, International Red Cross, Partners in Health, Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children, Unicef, World Food Program
Microsoft founder Paul G. Allen has set up a site to direct small donors to projects needing funds: TackleEbola.com