The singer was taking a good-time sound to the world – but after his song Fem became the anthem of the EndSars protesters, he joined them on the streets
The buoyant, trumpeting chords of Fem, the opening track on Davido’s fourth album, A Better Time, suggest an artist who is vivacious, free of self-doubt, revelling in the limelight. David Adedeji Adeleke, 28, is part of a generation of Afrobeats artists who have blown the African dance-pop genre on to the global stage over the last decade; his songs have become the feelgood soundtrack of Nigeria’s nightlife, and made him one of his continent’s biggest pop stars.
Yet “Fem”, meaning “shut up” in pidgin, has taken on a different meaning. Last month, Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu pleaded with EndSars protesters, who had taken a stand against police brutality. The largest protest movement in Nigeria for decades had erupted, incensed at the abuses by the infamous and since disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars). As the protesters outside the government secretariat in Lagos grew impatient, a DJ at the demonstration suddenly played Fem, already a hit across the country. Scores began belting out his lyrics, drowning out the governor’s futile pleas. In a culture where reverence for authority figures can be brutally enforced, protesters recast the song into a defiant statement.
“It was crazy watching it,” Davido reflects from his home in Banana Island, a luxury property enclave in Lagos. “I never expected it would turn out as it did, but the song has an energy that spoke to people.” Prizes and plaques line the shelves and walls of his home. His hit songs tend to focus on love, lust and party life; he is the son of one of Nigeria’s richest men, the energy, farming and manufacturing magnate Adedeji Adeleke. Yet in recent years, a fraught period in Nigerian life – with a worsening economy plunging millions into poverty and unrest alongside increasing government repression – has impelled even the more apolitical voices such as Davido to speak out, forcing a breezy, larger-than-life figure into an unfamiliar space.