Music, Drugs and Mental Wellbeing in Nigeria


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Patrick Iwelunmor


Music, as perhaps the strongest vehicle of Nigeria’s popular culture, has had a very rich and eventful history that can be deconstructed from its various forms through different social milieus. Between 1960 and 1970, highlife and apala music genres were the most popular in Nigeria. Musicians of that era exuded nationalistic zeal and where more preoccupied with the propagation of morally didactic messages through their compositions.

Rex Jim Lawson, Osita Osadebe, Haruna Ishola, Bobby Benson, Cardinal Rex Lawson, Victor Olaiya, Ayinla Omoruwa and Olatunji Yusuf were some of the outstanding performers, who used their music as tools to inspire positive national consciousness. Most musicians of this social and historical milieu stayed away from hard drugs but still managed to send very strong messages of social and attitudinal change across to their teeming fans. For instance, Haruna Ishola’s album, translated as “Punctuality is the Soul of Business”, became a hit and passed a very important existential message at that time.

That class of Nigerian musicians birthed a social generation of ambitious and focused Nigerian leaders and captains of industry. People drew inspiration from the positive messages in the music of those times, which were churned out to help shape society and drive it towards illustrious pursuits and engagements.

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Most Nigerian who listened to musicians of that era later became very successful in their chosen fields of human endeavour and enjoyed very sound and stable mental outlook. This was mostly due to their observance of very disciplined, focused and God-fearing ways of life, which they imbibed from the moralistic deliveries of their icons.

Generally speaking, musicians of that time were socially responsible and saw themselves as the conscience of the society. To this end, they avoided actions and associations that could portray them in a negative light. Instead, they served as role models to the many generations of Nigerians.

Chief Ebenezer Obey, who became popular in the mid-sixties endeared himself to the large Yoruba-speaking communities spread across the length and breadth of Nigeria. Between 1964, when he established his International Brothers band, and the early 70s, the Ogun State-born juju musician had released great hits (with very deep cultural and universal messages), such as Ewa Wo Ohun Ojuri (1964), Aiye Gba Jeje (1965), Oro Miko Lenso (1966), Olomi Gbo Temi (1967), Ore Mi Ese Pele Pele (1968), Ode To Nso Eledumare (1969), and Esa Ma Miliki (1971).

Ebenezer Obey becomes very relevant to this discourse because of events that later characterised his journey in the Nigerian musical firmament. During one of his tours to London, it was alleged that he had set his musical instruments on fire in order to conceal the presence or any trace of hard drugs which he had imported into Shakespeare’s country, when it had dawned on him that the police were privy to the whole saga. However, on many occasions, Obey has maintained his innocence to such allegations, arguing that he has never been involved in anything relating to drugs. Many of his fans strongly believe him, largely due to the moral rectitude and pious undertones of almost all of his compositions.

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From his earliest beginnings, Obey’s songs have focused more on meekness, good moral upbringing, the fear of God, nationalism, contentment, marital bliss, patience and civility. No wonder why even after almost six decades, his music is still relevant to Nigeria and the world.

Fast-forward to the present time. The crop of musicians we have in Nigeria now are a complete contrast to the aforementioned generation. Today, the public abuse of hard drugs, the use of sexual imageries, involvement in internet fraud and other forms of illicit ventures underscore the major focus of their worldview. Many of them are having a very negative influence on the mental wellbeing of young Nigerians who have embraced their anti-social philosophical leaning. Now, Nigerian musicians aid and abet crime and other forms of violent behaviour through their songs. This has led to many young people dropping out of school to chase filthy lucre on the streets.

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How does one find morality and decency in Naira Marley’s “Ijo Soapy”, which promotes what some people call “masturbatory activism” – knowing that the act of masturbation in itself is highly condemnable in medicine and religion and has dire consequences on one’s mental wellbeing? Or how do we explain the rationale behind his alleged complicity in the physical assault on Ruggedman – a fellow musician who may not have bought into his philosophical orientation? A mentally stable person, a public figure for that matter, would not resort to violence, no matter the level of provocation.

Though the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) recently disclosed that Naira Marley has renounced his involvement in drugs, what happens to the millions of youths who roam about the streets, claiming to be Marlians and unleashing terror on society?


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