Dipo Oyeleye examines African music as pandemic response in PhD research inspired by COVID-19

By Yvonne Kim | The Capital Times | madison.com

If you have been on Instagram or TikTok this year, you have likely heard some rendition of “Bored in the House,” the pandemic anthem for videos documenting people’s cabin fever or stuck-at-home activities. You also may have heard the musical mashup “Coronavirus” by DJ iMarkkeyz, inspired by rapper Cardi B freaking out over the virus in early March. But while there have been some songs here and there, Dipo Oyeleye, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said European and American music have largely been devoid of COVID-19 topics.

Tyga and Curtis Roach might be bored in the house during lockdown, but Oyeleye said “there is no content that relates to why we’re in lockdown or the importance of staying in lockdown.” Unlike the American mashup, which simply repeats the word “Coronavirus,” a viral Nigerian version by Lord Sky is notable, Oyeleye said, for its use of memes to include mentions of hand sanitizer.


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Oyeleye was amazed to see African artists continue a long-standing tradition of music as a public health response, from informational songs about social distancing to themes of love and boredom. Though he has already completed his English dissertation and mainly studies literature and popular culture, Oyele’s recent interest in COVID-19 is more of a passion project.

“The humanities have always played a really crucial role in sensitizing the public about the disease, so it’s not surprising that with COVID-19, there are so many songs,” Oyeleye said. “This project is a very personal one to me, because when the news broke about COVID, I was more worried about folks back home than I am about how it affects me here in the U.S.”


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Oyeleye, who is from Nigeria, first tried to glean context from African musicians’ responses to past epidemics, especially the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014. In some cases, Oyeleye said, governments or non-governmental organizations would commission songs or performances to inform the public about the virus or health and safety measures.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired similar reactions, based on his study of about 70 songs from across the African continent. Musicians, who are generally perceived to be apolitical, can be more helpful than public policies or announcements in spreading information, especially during times of high distrust in government and law enforcement, Oyeleye said.

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“Even though some of these musicians are not thinking of themselves as public intellectuals, their work on COVID-19 significantly becomes a tool in the hands of the government and government agencies to further spread the message,” Oyeleye said.

Oyeleye said COVID-19 tunes — compared to those during past crises, such as Ebola or malaria — are largely created by individual artists stuck at home, without being commissioned by any outside agency. Still, however, he did notice songs from musicians like Cobhams Asuquo, a Nigerian UNICEF ambassador, or a song by the Liberian president himself, who also released a song during the Ebola outbreak.


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He added that the pop culture response to COVID-19 has been more widespread across the continent, while the Ebola outbreak was geographically confined to certain regions.

Oyeleye examines how the lyrical use of indigenous languages or variations of English may affect the music’s themes. Genre also plays a role: Oyeleye said the more traditional genre of Fuji music, for instance, may appeal to listeners who are less interested in contemporary pop music, mainly within the lower socioeconomic classes of Southwestern Nigeria.

“How are they making scientific information relatable to the social, cultural and political landscape of the environment where the artists are living?” Oyeleye said. “We’re able to see how the data from the songs are effective in connecting unfamiliar situations like the coronavirus … with the familiar sociocultural perceptions of the people.”

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Oyeleye’s research is not quantitative, but he said he can see the music is engaging people in ways that reduce fear. The Lord Sky’s remix, which led to a viral dance challenge, uses repetitive words and an upbeat tempo to “effectively engage in perception management about the virus and how to prevent its spread,” Oyeleye said. A song playing on the radio can reach a listener who may not otherwise consume news through the internet, and social media has become a crucial way for musicians to reach larger demographics.

He presented his findings Nov. 21 at the 63rd Annual African Studies Association Conference.

“Looking at ethnomusicologists helps us see the connection between science and the humanities and the ways by which scientific information can be made legible to people who are not in that community,” Oyeleye said. “It reprograms people’s minds in a manner that they can start making decisions to protect themselves and others … without feeling like someone is telling them what to do.”

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