Faster than the ashes of a burning fire

Hausa poetics of compassion and resistance in northern Nigeria in the age of pandemics and neoliberal democracy.

Image credit Jimilee K via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

The song “Hasbi Allah Corona” by popular Hausa musician, Aminu Alan Wak’a, uses the COVID pandemic as a trope to expose how regional hegemonic oligarchs have produced social disability in society through their endorsement of neoliberal democracy without investing in the social welfare of the majority of northern Nigerians.

The people suffer from illiteracy, poverty, and gender marginality in contradiction to Islamic ethical norms of just governance and leadership, and the pioneering historical legacy of Islamic literacy and socioeconomic well-being for all in pre-colonial Hausa society.

Alan Wak’a is a native of Kano, where he was born and schooled. He is currently considered one of the leading stars of the Kannywood arts and film industry in Nigeria. He is also a leading Hausa popular poet and singer whose secular compositions and performances are highly influenced by his training in Islamic studies and his Sufi inclination as a freethinker not tied to any religious and/or power pedigree, as he proclaims. Alan Wak’a developed his Sufi poetic sensibilities through his training in Kano Islamic schools–Islamiyya–in northern Nigeria where he learned to perform Sufi Maulidi poetry, rhyming poetic, and/or prose narrative that commemorates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. (Maulidi is a festival honoring the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.) After secondary school, he enrolled in diploma courses in arts and design at Kano Polytechnic, from which he graduated in 2007.

A creative writer, singer, and performer, he has earned several national and international awards and is revered by other Nigerian musicians, from hip-hop artists to other musical genres with whom he demonstrates his solidarity across religious and ethnic belonging by performing with them, as in the hip hop song “Indan Ka Yarda” (If you agree) where he sings with Fati Nijar, Olumente, Ali Jita, and Elmu’az. This is a protest hip-hop song that features lyrical code-switching in Hausa, Nigerian Pidgin, and Yoruba in which Alan Wak’a sings a classic Hausa song, “Yaron mai ganga sun gode” (The children of the master drummer/entertainer are thankful!), accompanied by his co-singers, each providing his or her own lyrics to underscore the nobility of their profession as songwriters, musicians, and performers and its equal stand to other noble professions.

Alan Wak’a’s prolific and outstanding poetic musical production has been the subject of several scholarly theses at Nigerian and international universities. The efficacy of his public poetic critique lies in its framing within the zikir Sufi tradition followed by wa’azi (a genre of preaching) political interludes, a vernacular communicative mode that resonates with the socially and economically disenfranchised Muslim majority in society. He uses Islamic ethics of compassion and care to console the vulnerable masses about the dangers and effects of the COVID pandemic, for example, while also using Islamic language to underscore the critical importance of following the life-saving precautionary measures recommended by public health workers. His “secular,” yet pious Sufi-inspired message in support of modern biomedical approaches to the pandemic is in sharp contrast to the position of certain Muslim extremists in the region who completely reject such approaches and cling solely to so-called “Islamic healing.”

By the same token, Alan Wak’a examines the psychological, cosmological, and ethical dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic. It calls on the government to responsibly provide much-needed material relief to underprivileged communities by supplying them with food, water, and health supplies during the pandemic lockdown, but also appeals to individuals’ and communities’ pious ethics of compassion and care in contributing to the fight against COVID. The common failure of governments and health authorities to consider pandemics from religious, spiritual, and ethical perspectives as well as from multicultural perspectives resulted in the high price paid in human lives during both the 2014 Ebola pandemic and the HIV pandemic. The song Hasbi Allahuu underscores the notion that religion and spirituality matter for public health.

By foregrounding his authoritative competency in Sufi Islamic rhetorical communication, Alan Wak’a strategically builds trust with his Muslim audiences in northern Nigeria. This is critical in combating religiously-tinged misinformation, rumors, and conspiracies about the COVID pandemic. By signaling his Sufi credentials, Alan Wak’a challenges the religious legitimacy of COVID conspiracy theories, emphasizing the individual and collective virtue of abiding by the medical precaution of hand washing, face-covering, social distancing, and change of cultural behaviors of communal gatherings and focusing on essential needs. He interlaces his singing with wa’azi, a sermonic warning speech in which he calls upon Northern Nigeria’s Hausa Muslims specifically to be cautious by following public health prevention measures. In so doing, Alan Wak’a disassociates wa’azi from the religious sermonic genre commonly associated with ultraconservative Wahabbi-Islamism in northern Nigeria and restores it to its more vernacular  usage in a culturally relevant manner to reach a population of more than 90 million devout Muslims in northern Nigeria and beyond. In the poet’s reasoning, the coronavirus pandemic calls for a spiritual awakening of the consciousness of every Nigerian to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and educational system. Alan Wak’a’s wa’azi agitation builds on Islamic ethics of keeping clean–Istikhāra–which literally means “to seek that which is good” in all human endeavors, including personal and collective bodily hygiene as well as consciousness. Setting his message within the framework of Muslim understanding of istikhāra, he targets northern Nigeria’s Muslim population specifically in his critical warning, given the developmental neglect and the vulnerability resulting from the population’s high rate of illiteracy. Employing Islamic ethics, he calls for the masses to use their moral agency both as individuals and as a collective body to protect the individual and the public good–misallaha–as required by the context of the pandemic.

By invoking both misallaha and istikhāra Alan Wak’a calls for behavioral and social change to fight both illiteracy and the COVID pandemic.

Further Reading