When his song became the anthem of the #ENDSars movement, the artist didn't back down from the political moment.
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In the fall of 2020, the people of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and economic center, began losing faith. They no longer trusted that the government, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, would ensure justice for the victims of police brutality at the hands of the corrupt Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
SARS was established in 1992 as an undercover special unit of the Nigerian Police Force, tasked with reducing armed robberies in Lagos. Over the next thirty years, it devolved into a corrupt government agency, murdering a bus driver for not paying a 15-cent bribe, harassing young men for wearing dreadlocks, and suppressing human rights like due process under the law.
On October 3, 2020, SARS killed an innocent man in the southern Delta state of Nigeria. The murder was recorded on a cell phone, and the police unit claimed was footage was fake before arresting the man who filmed the encounter. For the people of Lagos who saw the viral video, enough was enough.
For two weeks, anti-SARS protests flooded far beyond the streets. On October 9, the #ENDSars hashtag was a top trending topic on Twitter, buoyed by celebrities like Lil Baby, John Boyega, and Big Sean, and attracting more than two million tweets. More people were discussing the plight of the Nigerian people on social media than they were discussing the upcoming US presidential election or Game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals. And with the world watching, the protesters, with their dancing feet and jubilant voices, chose the song “FEM” by Davido, a pioneering Afrobeats artist, as the anthem of their plight.
“FEM” is a defiant party starter whose title roughly translates from Yoruba as “shut up.” The song, released only a month before, was a jovial escape to the dancefloor for people isolated from one another during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. On October 13, in the Alausa, Ikeja section of Lagos, protesters yelled the lyrics in unison as Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu attempted to address the crowd, but the deafening chants made it clear: the silenced would no longer be silent.
The 29-year-old Nigerian star was blown away when the song went viral, but he understood how his party jam was transformed into a protest song. The first verse starts off with the lyrics O boy you don dey talk too much / Small talk, you don dey talk who talk, FEM. “It’s something we used to tell the government,” Davido told Mic over Zoom. “‘We’re tired of you guys talking, fam. We don’t want to hear you, so keep quiet.’”
Celebrity is both a product of the people and an agent of influence. But just because people choose an artist as the representative of their good times doesn’t mean that a celebrity will be a soldier for their cause in the bad times. When the #ENDSARS protests dominated the news and social media with “FEM” as the anthem, Davido could have done the bare minimum we’ve come to expect from public figures: send tweets in support, donate some money, and watch the streaming numbers explode from the comfort of his home. But as a proud Nigerian, Davido has memories of being harassed by police, and he shared the protesters’ frustrations. He knew his celebrity afforded him a certain level of access to the politicians the Nigerian people are trying to reach.
At 10 A.M on October 12, a little over a week after the protests first began, Davido was on the ground in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, meeting face to face with the inspector general of police. He relayed the demands of the protesters, which included releasing all the protesters who were arrested, establishing an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct, and psychological evaluation and retraining of all former SARS officers before they are redeployed into the streets.
Davido also explained to the inspector general why the issue of police brutality in Nigeria extends far beyond SARS, showing how Amnesty International detailed how the entire Nigerian Police Force (NPF) was subverting people’s constitutional rights. The numerous cruelties include hundreds of people sentenced to death row after spending a decade in prison awaiting a trial, and people being detained for months before seeing a judge, even though 48 hours is the constitutional limit for such a circumstance.
Davido had reached out to other Nigerian music stars to use their celebrity in solidarity with him but to no avail. “The day before I went to Abuja, I put out a tweet saying, ‘I have a meeting with the Inspector General of Police. All my colleagues, if you are available, let’s all go together,” Davido said. “I didn’t get any feedback so I went by myself. I felt it was a responsibility I had to do because I had the access.”
“It’s something we used to tell the government. We’re tired of you guys talking...so keep quiet.”
He also took himself into the thick of the protests before his meeting, speaking with the protesters and letting their frustrations envelop him — you can’t feel the pulse of the people if you’re out of touch. Davido’s voluntary philanthropy for his countrymen didn’t start once his song became a soundtrack for the resistance. It started as soon as the people needed help.
In early April, as Covid-19 was ravaging Nigeria and the country was still waiting on the vaccine, Davido and his family donated $1.3 million to the Nigerian government, $600,000 worth of rice meals to the Nigerian people, and proceeds from a music video to vaccine research. He’s been imbued with that generosity since he was young, attributing it to lessons he learned from his father. “I come from a very generous background. My father has shown me how to share your success, wealth, and blessings.”
Nearly a year later, progress on SARS has been slow. As a result of a special presidential directive from Buhari, SARS was dissolved on October 11, with the president insisting on January 1 that the government was committed to fulfilling the five demands of the protestors. Twenty-eight state governments across Nigeria have also set up judicial panels to investigate SARS human rights abuses in accordance with the protesters’ demands for independent investigations into these atrocities. The Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters, for example, has gone on for nearly a year with protesters detailing the horrific treatment of SARS officers during the protests and questions as to why the 99 bodies recovered during the protests have yet to be identified in the subsequent year.
Davido has kept that same connection with his homeland over the last 10 months since the #ENDSars protests, opting to not turn a blind eye once the world stopped caring. He knows the fight is far from over. “I’ve met people in the government who tell me they don’t know what’s going on. Right now, all the doctors are on strike. All of the hospitals are filled up with no oxygen. I’m talking to the leaders and they don’t even know what’s going on. They’re as confused as us.”
Moving forward, Davido has plans to continue spreading the joy to his Nigerian people and everyone around the world with an upcoming 11-song project set to drop this fall. The project will be the follow-up to the 2020 album A Better Time, where “FEM” originated. He has a single dropping this month and was in the studio until nine in the morning before our chat. If the music is anything like “FEM,” his fellow Nigerians will be armed with more feel-good music to combat the harsh reality this pandemic and the misanthropic government has placed them in.