Father of the nation

The funeral of popular Angolan musician Nagrelha underscored his capacity to mobilize people and it reminds us that popular culture offers a kind of Rorschach test for the body politic.

Still from YouTube.

Nagrelha, leader of the famed kuduro group Os Lambas, died on November 18, 2022, at the age of 36. While news of his death circulated, and mourning fans filled the streets of the Luanda musseque (high density urban neighborhood) Sambizanga, the ongoing saga of Isabel dos Santos, daughter of former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, also made the news. Angola’s Attorney General’s Office issued a warrant for her arrest and sent it to Interpol, activating an international system for capture and arrest (subject to numerous technicalities). Dos Santos has also announced that she wants to run for president. Whereas Nagrelha’s early demise has overwhelmed Angolan society, there is little appetite for more news about Isabel dos Santos. The ruling MPLA and opposition UNITA have offered official condolences to Nagrelha’s family. Congolese musician Fally Ipupa visited Weza Mendes, Nagrelha’s widow, to share his in person. And Nagrelha’s funeral involved the backing of the MPLA and the coordination of municipal officials and city police.

Kuduro is upbeat, often frenetic, at 140 bpm, and beats inspire particular dance moves or “toques.” It is a kind of electronic dance music (EDM), but steeped in Angolan aesthetics. Nagrelha (born: Gelson Caio Manuel Mendes) was not the first kuduro artist, but he is certainly the most loved. He was a regular and ardent supporter of the MPLA (performing shows in their campaigns in all of the last four elections) but he is remembered by his fans for being loyal to Sambila, his neighborhood; for having risen from a life of petty crime and drug use (including jail time); for helping his friends and family; for being a dedicated husband and father; and for embodying all the creativity and boldness that life on the margins demands.

To make sense of Nagrelha’s life, the German scholar of popular music studies, Stefanie Alisch’s critique of the “scarcity-resilience” model for understanding EDM in the Global South is helpful. Kuduro is a site of collective creativity and of pleasure. Alisch shows how kuduristas center social relations in their discussions of music production, drawing on and extending local practices like estigas (playing the dozens) and kota or puto (elder or youth) interactions. This is what produces what kuduristas most value—carga—or the over-the-top charge of music and dance.

As tributes, analyses, and diatribes pour out in the Angolan press and on social media, it’s apparent that Nagrelha can mobilize Angolan youth more swiftly than any politician. Estimates put the crowd at his funeral at 20,000. Critics decried the hooliganism that resulted—one young person dead, an infant torn from its mother’s arms, looting at numerous stores near the cemetery, and at least 16 police with injuries. But what I found more interesting was that the baby boy separated from its mother in the tumult was found by a nurse, who took him to a police outpost, and eventually, mother and child were reunited. It was a reminder of what Nagrelha stands for: the self-organization that arises in those places the state ignores, except as a question of security.

Not quite three months after Angolan elections on August 24, this mobilization at Nagrelha’s funeral, and the clip that went viral of a young man wailing with grief as he left the stadium, and the t-shirts with Nagrelha’s bust in his signature mock military uniform, tell us a lot about Angola’s current political situation. The images I saw reminded me of South African townships in the 1980s, where funerals became sites of political speech and recruitment. Many analyses in the Angolan press gesture to this and get at what Angolan sociologist Cláudio Tómas describes as “kuduro the social movement.” Not just music and dance, but a sense of identity and belonging for those the elite disparage and the politicians have left behind. The elections mobilized parts of that constituency. The coalition of opposition parties aligned around UNITA, local NGOs, activists, and UNITA President Aldaberto Costa Júnior contested the election results through judicial means. They exercised enormous discipline. The drawn-out contest eventually ended when UNITA accepted its seats in parliament. The tension dissipated. That is, until November 18 when Nagrelha died unexpectedly and too young.

A meme lit up my phone on the day of Nagrelha’s funeral; a collage of two images:  Luanda’s streets filled with mourners at the funeral of the first President of independent Angola, Agostinho Neto, and above it, Luanda’s streets filled with mourners en route to Nagrelha’s funeral. The comparison is straightforward enough. It underscores Nagrelha’s capacity to mobilize people and it reminds us that popular culture offers a kind of Rorschach test for the body politic. Less apparent, because it is not visible, is the comparison with a more recently departed Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos, who died in July this year. Despite Nagrelha’s relationship with dos Santos (Isabel’s father) and his refusal to engage in critiques of him, the comparison is with Neto, the father of the nation. Dos Santos funeral was a more staid affair, despite the family drama of the MPLA that played out between Dos Santos’s children, his widow, and the current President, João Lourenço. While some market women wailed, by and large the funeral did not see large numbers of musseque residents in the streets on August 28 (a date the MPLA planned strategically).

The newsweekly O País dedicated 20  of its 48 pages to Nagrelha. The economic, political, and cultural sections, two interviews, and two opinion pieces covered his various facets. None discussed the music itself. In a city like Luanda where statues to Angola’s first president dominate, the rumblings about a statue for Nagrelha in Sambizanga express something beyond fandom. Like the South African musician Brenda Fassie, who could fill Ellis Park stadium during the 1980s state-of-emergency in apartheid South Africa, and was dismissed as a bubble gum pop-star, or Fela Kuti, whose funeral drew an estimated one million people to Lagos’s streets in the mid-1990s, Nagrelha too may one day become the inspiration for a different kind of postnationalist politics.

Further Reading