Ode to Africa's Urban Space: Image of the City in Cameroonian and Nigerian Popular Music

Ode to Africa's Urban Space: Image of the City in Cameroonian and Nigerian Popular Music

Floribert Patrick C. Endong (University of Calabar, Nigeria) and Grace Eugenie Ndobo Essoh (Department of Modern Languages and Translation Studies, University of Calabar, Nigeria)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9821-3.ch006
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This chapter examines Cameroonian and Nigerian pop singers' portrayals of urban cities in their respective countries of origin. Using a textual analysis of 10 popular songs composed by these pop singers, the chapter argues that popular musicians in the two countries tend sometimes to challenge negative stereotypes which over the years have represented Cameroonian and Nigerian cities exclusively as under-developed, primitive, exotic, and dangerous spaces. Through their lyrics and pop videos, these musicians often portray cities such as Douala, Nkonsamba, Bamenda, Kribi, Limbe (of Cameroon), and Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, and Calabar (of Nigeria) as beautiful places, fast-developing towns, lands of multiple tourist attractions as well as the homelands of very dynamic political elites. Some of these musicians, however, nuance their representations of the 9 cities mentioned above through portrayals which rather endorse a number of gloomy popular myths. By such myths, Cameroonian and Nigerian urban cities – like other African metropolises – are not immune from the common vices and challenges (notably insecurity, growing rate of criminality, pollution, and slums) plaguing even the biggest and most urbanized cities of the world.
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The physical and built environment have always been a great source of inspiration to man, perhaps because of what is popularly called the genius loci myth (the spirit of a place). Travelers, tourism planners, poets, writers, musicians and other kinds of artists have most often been attuned to this spirit. Musicians in particular have often found inspiration in natural phenomena such as rivers, mountains, forests and places to compose songs that have quickly become kinds of patriotic anthems in their respective cultures of origin. As noted by Doomits (2017), cities and rivers have always been two of the most fruitful artistic concepts in the whole human history; and songs that celebrate places are arguably our favorite genre of music. In the same line of argument, music journalist Nick Coleman goes to the extent of saying that apart from love, “pop is better on cities than anything else” (cited in Cohen 2001, p. 3). A clear illustration/evidence of the above-mentioned myths is the fact that all nations have revered national anthems which celebrate their countries. Another evidence is that, in almost all traditional or folk poetries, there exist patriotic or folkloric songs about places or people that are transmitted from generation to generation. A good example in the Chinese experience is the famous “ode to the motherland” which is today arguably believed to be China’s second national anthem. A third evidence of the fact that music about places is our favorite lies in the fact that popular music about places is recurrent in all countries. In effect, in countries across the globe, popular artists have since embraced or always perpetuated the culture of using music about places to express their patriotism as well as to criticize or protest against socio-political vices prevailing in particular city/towns. Popular artists thus use music to also manifest their nostalgia.

Singing in such context most often involves the popular artist’s subjective view or portrayal of the city or place being celebrated in the song. In the specific case of an ode to a place, the singer most often foregrounds the beautiful or attractive facets of the place s/he is interested in, while downplaying or overlooking any negative stereotype about this place. In effect, odes tend to exclusively – if not “myopically” – underscore the virtues of life in a specific city. Meanwhile, in the case of a protest song, the contrary is most often done: the city, town or urban space is most often (re)presented as a place of suffering, imperfections and vices or bleak and decaying morals among others. Whatsoever their goals and sources, popular songs about places (towns, cities or countries) contribute immensely to the debate around the image of specific cities and places. Sharing corollaries, Cohen contends (1995) that:

[Popular] music plays a role in producing place as a material setting comprising the physical and built environment; as a setting for everyday social relations, practices and interactions; and as a concept or symbol that is represented or interpreted. This production of place through music is shown to be a contested and ideological process, whilst the dynamic interrelationship between music and place suggests that music plays a very particular and sensual role. (p.434)

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