Musicians in the Ogoniland region of the African country of Nigeria are speaking up. Years of oil drilling in the delta of the Niger River have taken a toll on both the land and the people. “The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken,” concluded a 2011 study by the United Nations Environment Program. Ogoniland is one of the world’s worst environmental disaster areas.
Rapper MC Kay is one of the voices of protest. When MC Kay’s father died, it became his responsibility to support his family by fishing. Unfortunately, a major oil spill had killed many of the fish the Ogoni people relied on for food. This meant that McKay needed to find another way to earn money. Music offered the young musician that opportunity.
“I want to send a message on what is happening in my country that is affecting the poor people and affecting the youth,” MC Kay says. “I cannot go to the government and tell them, but I can say this through the music and people will hear it.”
Oil in Nigeria
Ogoniland is the home of the Ogonis, a group of indigenous people who live in Nigeria. The area is about 400 square miles and is home to 1.5 million people. Scientists have found evidence of the Ogoni in this area as early as 15 BCE. The Ogoni are a culturally-diverse group. The group is made up of six kingdoms with four different languages.
Ogoniland is also home to about 200 species of fish and other wildlife. Along with farming, the traditional Ogoni economy depended on the fish that lived in the Niger River delta. Fishing and the river were so important to people that traditional Ogoni religion worshiped the river as a god.
The Royal Dutch Shell Company, often known simply as Shell, is an oil company headquartered in the Netherlands. Shell discovered oil in Ogoniland and other coastal areas in Nigeria in the late 1950s. Oil transformed Nigeria’s economy, accounting for 90 percent of that country’s exports. However, the benefit to Nigerian business also spelled disaster for the Ogoni way of life.
Between 1970 and 2000, the Nigerian federal government says that there were more than 7,000 oil spills, 2,000 of them major. By 2006, one study showed, up to 1.5 million tons of oil had been spilled in the Niger River delta. Shell Oil admitted to spilling 14,000 tons of oil in 2009 alone. The company said, however, that most of the spilled oil was not the result of faulty pipes, but because of vandalism.
“Safety valves were vandalized; one pipe had 300 illegal taps. We found five explosive devices on one,” said a Shell spokesperson. “Sometimes communities do not give us access to clean up the pollution because they can make more money from compensation.”
Other people accuse Shell of valuing profits from oil over protecting the environment.
“In Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people’s livelihood and environments,” claims Nnimo Bassey, head of Nigeria’s chapter of Friends of the Earth International, an environmental advocacy group. “This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing.”
In the summer of 2008, people starting noticing a light coating of grease on trees in a swamp near the village of Bodo. This grease was the result of an oil leak. Over the comings months, there were more leaks in the Trans Niger Pipeline. In December 2008 the pipeline started leaking again. However, Shell failed to send anyone to inspect or repair it until February 2009.
The spill ruined farmland and water alike. Unable to earn money from farming or fishing, residents wanted compensation because of damage to the land and fish. In 2012 village chief Eric Dooh and others affected by the spill took their case to a Dutch courtroom. In January 2015, Shell reached an agreement with these local residents. The company agreed to pay $83 million in compensation.
At first that sounded like a lot of money. However, once it was divided among those affected by the spill, each fisherman received only about $3,300. Chief Dooh said, “When the money came, it was peanuts.”
MC Kay’s best known song, January Money, is about the 2009 spill and the settlement following it. The word January in the title refers to January 2015, the month in which the settlement money came. After it was recorded, January Money grew in popularity throughout Ogoniland. The song didn’t become popular on the radio or because of an Internet music site. People used their cell phones to send sound files of the song to each other.
Music in the Future
Because of the attention they bring to local issues, Chief Dooh thinks that young musicians like MC Kay have an important role to play in his community’s future.
Ogoniland journalist Alloy Khenom has been working to support MC Kay and other local musicians who are giving voice to the area’s concerns. He says that with the loss of jobs and opportunity for employment, young people often turn to crime, in frustration. He hopes that with the growing popularity of local musicians, young people will see music as a better path.
“Music remains the most powerful instrument to solving situations,” Khenom says. “Through the music you reach anywhere in the world. Ask people to look at those problems that are facing us and highlight them through music.”