Thursday, June 18, 2009

MUGU DON PAY! The Gospel According to Kelly Handsome

Kelly Handsome, a singer of modest talents, is one of the latest artistes to grace the flourishing Nigerian music scene. His break out video entitled Maga don Pay is an ode to Nigeria’s notorious 419 fraudsters; an unabashed psalm of adoration for their nefarious exploits. Like most Nigerian music videos, it projects a range of compelling cultural meanings. There is the ardent glorification of criminal behaviour, the vile objectification of women and the celebration of unearned riches. The bling-bling fixation, the sagging of trousers and the grandiose imagery are all imported from the American hip-hop tradition which itself is largely a product of American jailhouses where a disproportionate number of African-American youths are now languishing. It has been suggested that the more violent strains of hip-hop are indicative of the moral collapse of the African-American community, particularly those of the decaying inner cities of the US. The apparent germination of this brand of hip-hop on our shores is thus worthy of careful study.

Kelly Handsome’s single is only part of an emerging pattern. Before him, Olu Maintain’s Yahoozee and Nkem Owoh’s I go Chop Your Dollar enjoyed great airtime and following especially among youths. But it is Handsome’s lyrical content that demands attention. Mugu don pay, shout hallelujah! – So go the lines of his song. The chorus suggests a spiritual chant, a perverse spiritualization of illicit profit and a reconciliation of God with Mammon. On one level, it indicates the idolization of wealth that is rife in our society. Let there be no mistake: strains of Nigerian hip-hop can be linked to the general alienation, drift and purposelessness of our youth. It reflects the level of narcissism and nihilism that has taken root in their psyche. But the fruit has not fallen far from the tree. Theirs is merely a generational reloading of our social sins – the celebration of overnight success and avaricious acquisition practised by the doyens of Nollywood and publishers of society magazines, not to mention the fact that plunderers of the national treasury are serenaded and criminals are rewarded for their exertions with national honours and public office. However perverse the images purveyed by young Nigerian artistes, we must understand that they do not indicate a generation gap or an acute moral divergence from the ways and means of their fathers and mothers. If anything, they have lyricized and cast in pictures the hypocrisy and corruption of our broken society.

However, it is on a subliminal level that Kelly Handsome might have more to offer. When he suffixes his self-adulation with the Hallelujah chant, it may be an unconscious or veiled tongue-in-cheek social commentary. He is implying a moral equivalence between 419ers and Nigerian popular spirituality. His music bids us to explore the fraud that lies beneath the veneer of faith in Nigeria. Kelly Handsome’s message is fraud as faith and faith as fraud. In his estimation, 419 and Nigerian religiousity originate from the same conceptual universe. The evidence seems to bear him out.

Both 419 and Nigerian pop-spirituality share a common emphasis on immediate gratification and on miraculously disproportionate returns on modest investments. The emblems of success in both realms are identical – easy sweatless wealth achieved as quickly as possible, designer wardrobes, posh cars, fancy houses, beautiful girls, etc. Advance fee fraud blossomed around the same time as Nigeria’s religious boom. It was during the 1980s and the 1990s, General Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme had wiped out industries, annihilated the middle class and impoverished families. As governance failed, people turned to self-help. The naira plunged and society followed in its wake. The spiritually-inclined turned to the new-generation churches that were mushrooming in the midst of decaying urban centres. These religious movements proposed that salvation was upward mobility and fiscal health. The same self-help instinct fuelled atavistic behaviour. Individuals tried to make a living by duping and fleecing others. Finance houses or magic banks promising incredible returns on deposits sprung up all over the country. Depositors discovered too late and with devastating costs that the so-called magic banks were scams. The emergence of fraudsters and faith gurus was reminiscent of the money-doublers of yore that boasted “a trial will convince you.”

Kelly Handsome’s song is best interpreted as a commentary on the state of Nigerian spirituality. In 419 as in these spiritual temples, the gullible exist to be fleeced. The marketplace of faith is the marketplace of fools. Each of us must find our own niche. We must scam or be scammed. Beyond this, the idea is that we are being scammed all the time by someone – the state, PHCN, clerics, a customer, even a wife or a husband. The only way to thrive is to be equally fraudulent – under-declare your assets, cheat at every turn, steal your own share of the national cake if you can and beat the system. And do it all in the name of Allah and to the glory of Jesus. This is how to win in Nigeria. The almighty will understand so long as you return to render what belongs to him. In northern Nigeria, we would say Allah ga na ka, which means ‘God, here’s your share.’ In the Christian parlance, the winner must render “tithes and offerings” – heaven’s tax on our booty. This explains why some of the greatest thieves in the country have distinguished themselves by building mosques and churches. Mr Handsome’s subliminal suggestion is that Nigerian spirituality is sanctifying a culture of theft.

The subtext of Mr. Handsome’s poetry may well be that our entire social and political reality is a fraud. Here after all is a country in which many of those holding public office were actually unelected and who having gained power through electoral heists now purport to serve the society. This is a country in which youths patronizingly referred to as the ‘leaders of the future’ are treated to sermons by those bankrupting that very future to sate their greed today. If there is anything that approaches a generational or even a national ethos in Nigeria, it is the proposition made by songs like that of Mr. Handsome and Olu Maintain: ‘I scam therefore I am.’ Nigeria already has a reputation as a fraudsters’ paradise. The former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell once characterized Nigerians as marvellous scammers. This perception of Nigerians as being inherently deceitful and as natural born con artists is something we must vehemently reject. But we cannot do so without understanding how deeply the culture of fraud has embedded itself in our socio-cultural DNA and the associations with Nigerian religiousity that reinforce it.

The scope and intensity of religious feeling in this country suggests the neurosis of a society that was previously prosperous but is now unable to come to terms with its privation and broken promise. The fixation on demonology, witchcraft and allied paranormal phenomena is a way of externalizing responsibility for our failures. Thirty years ago, we were blaming western imperialism for our woes. After three decades during which we amply demonstrated that we didn’t need western imperialists to dig us into a hole, we have discovered witches, wizards, demons and allied metaphysical forces out to truncate our progress. Tomes of religious literature on our bookshelves purport to disclose all kinds of satanic conspiracies aimed at us. The only solutions are to pray, await the rapture or some messianic advent, to retreat from this dark, wicked world and to find shelter in any of the temples and shrines all over the country. In the alternative, it is to flee abroad preferably across the Atlantic which, according to Nigerian theology, is heaven on earth.

Nigerian religiousity is a product of our unique socio-economic circumstances – poverty, the pervasive dysfunction of our institutions and the sheer arbitrariness and low estimation of life on these shores. It is also the poetry of defeat; the swansong of a society that has since surrendered in fatalistic resignation to chaos and which is unwilling to take responsibility for its own destiny. It has thrived by providing scape-goats for our own inadequacies and theological justification for some of the worst aspects of our culture, particularly tendencies towards avarice, short-termism, mental laziness, vulgar ostentation and superstition. This sort of faith is possible only in the context of a massive failure of the state. The social contract is in tatters and both soldiers and civilians have proven to be equally corrupt. After the fall of the Second Republic, the onslaught of SAP, the deceit of Babangida, and the bestiality of the Abacha era, Nigerians turned to the anointed men of God. The crowds that turn up at our mosques and churches, prayer grounds and camps indicate that Nigerians are hungry for leadership and are willing to settle for the sub-optimal sort provided in the enclaves of faith.

The faith gurus of our society, whether they be pentecostal preachers or radical imams possess an enormous appeal because politicians have bungled statecraft. The size and ardency of their following is possible only within the context of the monumental failure of politics and governance. This is precisely what makes Nigerian religiousity spiritually unsound and even dangerous. The country’s shift to religious ecstasy has coincided with a withdrawal from the public square, a dearth of civic responsibility, a rise in social incivility and a collapse of community values. This isn’t coincidental. Nigerian popular theology is hyper-individualistic, narcissistic and insular. It has no agenda for social engagement or capacity for public activism. ‘Prosperity by any means necessary and to hell with society at large’ is as good a summation of this creed as any.

Mr. Handsome is arguing that the entire edifice of Nigerian faith is another fraud. The riches and the power promised by the faith gurus are generally limited to upper levels of the market while the dispossessed masses remain credulous and ever impoverished by the demands of their creed. It is just that of all kinds of deception, the type grounded in religious sentiment is the most difficult to discern. Just as soldiers and politicians have failed us, our current romance with anointed men of God is doomed to fail. The problem is our readiness to heap our expectations, hopes and responsibilities on pseudo-messianic pretenders whether they be charismatic soldiers promising revolution, cherubic politicians advertising reform or anointed religious leaders offering miracles. This tendency renders us incapable of taking responsibility for our destinies in both personal and civic domains. It also leaves us prone to deception.

The notion that our ecclesiastical elite are immaculately conceived messengers from on high is our last illusion. When this illusion is dispelled, we will at last realize that nations progress when their citizens take responsibility for their advancement. It is often said that only God can save Nigeria and that the faithful must keep praying. Bollocks. God doesn’t save nations; people take responsibility and their countries progress as a result. This is otherwise rendered as the durable cliché: Heaven helps those that help themselves. For this to happen prayer must become practice and faith must birth works. It is simple causality. Faith without works is sterile ritual, which however boisterous is of no effect on material reality. The Bible proclaims that “Righteousness exalts a nation.” This is not a referent to the privatized self-righteousness so prevalent in Nigerian theology but to righteousness in terms of ethical conduct – the gold standard of personal and social values. Whether a nation reaps the blessings of the good society or the curses of atrophy depends upon how well it grasps this dynamic.

Raucous lyrics aside, Kelly Handsome may have done us a profound service. He is asking us to wake up and smell the coffee. His song might even be an unintentional prophetic utterance urging us to rethink our theology and to discard the fraudulent catechisms that litter our spiritual landscape. It is a call for us to emancipate ourselves from that most Nigerian of self-deceptive canards, namely, that God is perpetually bound to perform miracles to accomplish tasks that are well within the province of our responsibilities and our powers. He is asking us to snap out of the imbecilic credulity that has left us at the mercy of all kinds of charlatans. Implicit in Mr. Handsome’s anthem is a challenge for people of faith to rediscover authentic spirituality and to interpret their beliefs in ways that are socially redemptive. It is a call to work out our salvation like a moral equation that we must solve everyday in every sphere of life, making the word flesh and translating doctrine into praxis.

Faith can be a fount of hope and fortitude for a beleaguered society but all too often Nigerian spirituality is a vessel of escapism, a portal to an alternate universe that distracts us from the real and earthbound fights of faith namely serving community and saving the society from descent into chaos. Nigeria will not be transformed because of its numbers of prayer-warriors. It will progress when its teeming masses of the faithful convert their creed into transformative acts of creative enterprise, conscience and compassion in the public square and in the marketplace. Many already operate in this vein but their numbers must be swelled to a critical mass.

The imperatives of our day possess a compelling moral simplicity – we must do what is right, observe the golden rule (really, interpersonal ethics for idiots); refuse to cheat, lie, steal or bear false witness. We must build bridges of empathy across divides of ethnicity, class, creed and gender; we must condemn and repair what is wrong, remedy injustice and speak truth to power. We must broaden our horizons beyond our consumptive aspirations and begin to give a damn about the material conditions of the society in which we live. We must rediscover concepts like personal responsibility, contentment, perseverance, delayed gratification, self-discipline and self-knowledge – these are renaissance values of which so little is heard these days from our bully pulpits.

These imperatives seem simple enough. The fact is that we have replaced real faith with labyrinthine ritual. This accounts for the contradictory trends of deepening religiousity and mounting decadence in Nigeria. In short, if the sum of our religious understanding went no further than observing the Ten Commandments, our society would be a markedly different place. And Kelly Handsome’s lyrics would not be such a haunting indictment of our country.

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    Well done on such write up, my hope is that most of generation Q read the book.