It’s not over

Burna Boy’s ‘Monsters You Made’ takes the debate about the need for material decolonization outside the ivory tower and into the public sphere.

Still from Monsters You Made (2020).

Reverend Otis Moss Jr notes that “the music of the movement is the language of liberation.” In Africa and the diaspora, music has been critical in the struggles for liberation—to express and highlight injustice, inequality, racism, and oppression in ways that politicians, academics, and other social commentators often struggle with.

In “Monsters You Made,” a song on his 2020 album Twice as Tall, Nigerian singer Burna Boy highlights Nigeria’s socio-economic, political, and educational challenges, past and present. The song’s relevance stretches beyond Nigeria, and speaks to the marginalization, injustices, governance failures, and corruption after independence in many countries across the African continent.

We wrote a chapter about “Monsters You Made” in the book Decolonizing African Studies Pedagogies: Knowledge Production, Epistemic Imperialism and Black Agency (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023). Titled “Dem European Teachings in My African School: Unpacking Coloniality and Eurocentric Hegemony in African Education Through Burna Boy’s ‘Monsters You Made,’” the chapter engages with critical takes on post-independence failures, coloniality, and Eurocentricity in African education.

Burna Boy follows in the footsteps of Fela Kuti, another Nigerian musician. Like Fela, Burna Boy sings almost exclusively in Pidgin English to foreground the cultural experience of Nigerian people and critique European-centered notions of language.

Burna Boy grew up in southern Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, in the Niger Delta region, which has seen decades of unrest, human rights abuses, and conflict after the end of colonial rule—in part linked to the environmental degradation and exploitation of the region’s oil reserves for the benefit of foreign oil corporations and Nigeria’s political elites. For decades, the Niger Delta has been a “sacrifice zone”—a place heavily exploited and contaminated by the oil industry, with the permission of successive Nigerian governments.

Burna Boy notes that the song “comes from a lot of anger and pain, and me having to witness firsthand what my people go through and how my people see themselves.” He stresses that the political elites have failed to develop the country and improve people’s lives. Because of this, communities resort to frequent protests and rebellions. This is also highlighted by Ebikabowei “Boyloaf” Victor-Ben, the former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, whose short monologue opens the song: “If the government refuse (sic) to develop the region and continue (sic) the marginalization and injustice, the youth, or the next people coming after us, I think, will be more brutal than what we have done.”

Burna Boy points out that the corruption and nepotism in Nigeria, combined with the marginalization of many regions in the country, leave people no choice but to protest and rebel. Rather than addressing governance failures, post-independence governments have blamed the communities that resist marginalization and neglect for instability. Burna Boy sings: 

It’s like the heads of the state/Ain’t comprehending the hate/That the oppressed generate/When they’ve been working like slaves/To get some minimum wage/You turn around and you blame/Them for their anger and rage/Put them in shackles and chains/Because of what they became/We are the monsters you made.

The neglect of the masses by post-independence elites is not unique to Nigeria and has been a feature of governance across the African continent. Franz Fanon wrote about the “intellectual laziness” among African politicians in The Wretched of the Earth, linking this to the failure to transform oppressive and extractive post-colonial structures and systems. Similarly, in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney highlighted that rather than dismantling the status quo built by the colonial regimes to benefit colonial capitals through the “parasitic exploitation” of the colonized lands and peoples, post-independence elites often only replaced the European colonizers at the helm. 

In “Monsters You Made,” Burna Boy doesn’t only blame Nigeria’s post-independence elites for socio-economic and developmental failures. The song ends with the voice of Ama Ata Aidoo, the late Ghanaian academic, author, and former minister of education, who, in a 1987 interview with a European journalist, pointed out the following: “Since we met you people five hundred years ago/Look at us, we’ve given everything/You are still taking/In exchange for that, we have got nothing/Nothing.”

In response, the journalist asks: “But don’t you think that this is over now?” Here, the journalist seemingly refers to colonialism and its impact on the African continent and suggests that the colonizers cannot be blamed anymore for Africa’s challenges. To this, Aidoo replies: “Over where?/Is it over?” 

Aidoo’s words remind us that the post-independence challenges on the African continent cannot be examined in isolation, without a critical unpacking of the colonial conquest—the looting, oppression, and social and political engineering that the colonizers employed. 

Coloniality is the residual structural and cultural presence of colonization—the mental, emotional, and agential dispositions and states of being. For author and academic Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, coloniality is a global power structure built and entrenched to maintain unjust, unequal, asymmetrical, and exploitative systems, rooted in white supremacist ideas.

By adding Aidoo’s voice to “Monsters You Made,” Burna Boy frames the Nigerian and broader African post-independence experiences and challenges within the concept of coloniality. Most importantly, the song implies that colonial power relations and hegemonic structures and systems did not end when African countries became independent, but have continued in different shapes and forms through coloniality to this day. 

Burna Boy also sings about the Eurocentric hegemony in Nigerian education long after independence, highlighting that despite the political independence from the British colonizers in 1960, Nigerian youth are still taught white teachings and worldviews in African schools and universities:

I bet they thought it was cool/Probably thought we was (sic) fools/When we would break all the rules/And skip them classes in school/Because the teacher dem teaching/What the white man dem teaching/dem European teachings in my African school/So fuck dem classes in school.

He focuses on Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer credited with the “discovery” of the Niger River, and sings: “Fuck Mungo Park and the fool/That said they found river Niger/They’ve been lying to you/Ain’t no denying the truth.” Here, he follows in the footsteps of Walter Rodney, who found it laughable that anyone could take seriously the claims of “discovery” of Africa by European colonizers. Yet, Burna Boy acknowledges this is a problem for his generation; these colonial, racist, and hegemonic tropes continue to be recycled and propagated in Africa by African educators. 

 As highlighted by South African academic Morgan Ndlovu, “coloniality of knowledge is a key lever in the structural system of colonial domination.” Despite the rhetoric about Africanization and epistemic decolonization throughout much of the continent since independence, many African education systems remain trapped in Eurocentric epistemologies, pedagogies, and curricula. Implicitly, Burna Boy highlights that “dem European teachings in my African school” are part of a persistent neo-colonial project. 

The main reason for looking at a bigger historical and contemporary picture when discussing epistemic decolonization is that dismantling Eurocentric hegemony and decolonizing knowledge cannot happen in isolation, without broader global and continental socio-economic and political decolonization. Kenyan-American poet Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ highlights that decolonizing the mind and knowledge must go hand-in-hand with material decolonization and breaking down of political, geopolitical, and economic structures and systems that maintain coloniality.

Coloniality and the decolonial struggle are not only academic and scholarly concerns and priorities. Yet, as Mahmood Mamdani points out, debates and work on decolonization have remained largely removed from public debates on the African continent since independence. 

Burna Boy’s “Monsters You Made” is an important critical contribution to the engagements, debates, and storytelling by decolonial movements, activists, and scholars in Africa and elsewhere. Key to keeping the struggle alive and inclusive of all spheres of formerly colonized societies is to take the debates outside the ivory towers and scholarly circles into the public space.

About the Author

Sakhile Phiri is a lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, South Africa. His main areas of teaching and research are around African economic development, decolonization, higher education, and the labor market.

Savo Heleta is a researcher interested in decolonization of knowledge, international education, international research collaboration and climate justice. He is affiliated with Durban University of Technology, South Africa.

Further Reading

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