Music is not only a popular form of entertainment, it can also teach, pass on information, highlight problems, and motivate people. People produce songs to express messages and meanings about shared experiences through stories, statements, and metaphors in words and music. This lesson will explore the ways that music carries messages and meanings about the unique experiences of African people and cultures.

Lesson Objectives

  • Identify how music and lyrics communicate meanings and emotions
  • Recognize the relationship between music and culture
  • Evaluate the social or cultural significance of a song through lyrical analysis

Music & Culture

Music is a performative expression of culture. From the nature of the sound arrangements, the instruments used to create the sound, to the performers offering the performance; music and song is a cultural arrangement of song and lyrics that reflect the unique histories and experiences of the people from which the arrangement emerges.

Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed. Ethnomusicology draws from a wide range of disciplines. Ethnomusicologists may be trained in music, cultural anthropology, folklore, performance studies, dance, cultural studies, gender studies, race or ethnic studies, area studies, or other fields in the Humanities. Yet all ethnomusicologists share a coherent foundation in the following approaches and methods:

  1. Taking a global approach to music (regardless of area of origin, style, or genre).
  2. Understanding music as social practice (viewing music as a human activity that is shaped by its cultural context).
  3. Engaging in ethnographic fieldwork (participating in and observing the music being studied, frequently gaining facility in another music tradition as a performer or theorist), and historical research.

For more information visit the Society of Ethnomusicologists.

The interconnected relationship between music and culture, the ways that songs reflect unique and shared human experiences, and the universal appreciation of music makes music a cross-cultural window connecting people and humanity. By singing together, humans can participate in sharing a meaningful experiential activity that creates pleasure, social bonding, and connectedness among friends, family, and even strangers.

Digital technologies have made African music and film to widely accessible worldwide. When we address Globalization at the end of this course, we will explore the ways that African music played a key role in American music history, from religious hymnals and rock and roll to contemporary hip hop. The documentary, Fela Kunti: Music is the Weapon, details the role of African revolutionary music during the Nigerian civil war in Nigeria. Today, contemporary music artists in Africa are gaining global recognition and songs by artists such as K’naan (Somalia), Akon (Senegal) and Tinariwen (Mali) express the lived experiences of life in Africa.

The song, Wavin’ Flag by K’naan received worldwide attention and was designated the official song for the 2010 World Cup. Listen to the song and read the lyrics. Consider the ways that the words written by K’naan express the unique circumstances and histories shared by people living in Somalia. 


Wavin’ Flag (album version)

When I get older, I will be stronger, They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back, And then it goes back

Born to a throne, stronger than Rome, but Violent prone, poor people zone,
But it’s my home, all I have known, Where I got grown, streets we would roam.
But out of the darkness, I came the farthest, Among the hardest survival.
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak, Except no defeat, surrender retreat,

So we struggling, fighting to eat and We wondering when we’ll be free,
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day, It’s not far away, so for now we say


So many wars, settling scores, Bringing us promises, leaving us poor,
I heard them say, love is the way, Love is the answer, that’s what they say,
But look how they treat us, Make us believers, We fight their battles, then they deceive us,
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us, Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers.

But we struggling, fighting to eat, And we wondering, when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that faithful day, It’s not far away, but for now we say,

Now that you have learned about early civilization in Africa, you should be able to determine that the line ‘Born to a throne, stronger than Rome’ likely refers to the early Axomite empire that occupied the territory now known as Somalia. After moving through the colonialism lesson, you should be able to determine that the chorus  ‘when I get older, I will be stronger’ likely refers to Somalia as a fledgling country that only recently achieved independence from colonial rule. After reading the Independence and Development lessons, you should be able to determine that the paragraph ‘So many wars, settling scores, bringing us promises, leaving us poor, I heard them say, ‘love is the way’ Love is the answer, that’s what they say …’ (not included in the video version) likely refers to the corruption and hypocrisy of former colonial regimes as well as broken promises by international development  institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. This type of analysis helps situate the musical expressive culture produced by K’naan within its specific social, historical and environmental contexts and lends greater understanding to the cultural meanings and expressions communicated by his song.

In the TedTalk below, world-renown MC Emmanuel Jal explains how his music tells the painful story of his experience as a child soldier in Sudan, and how he used music as a means to raise awareness and speak on behalf of others who cannot. The lyrics in his song, Forced to Sin, provides an insider perspective on the experiences of a child soldier forced to commit acts that are prohibited by his own religion. Visit his website for more information:

Analyze the lyrics in the song ‘Vagina’ by Emmanuel Jal. How does this representation differ from the Orientalist representations discussed in the previous lessons?

Zenzile Miriam Makeba, also known as ‘Mama Africa,’ was born on March 4, 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa to a Xhosa father and Swazi mother. The death of this famous South African singer and human rights activist was mourned the world over on November 10, 2008. Her work as an activist not only sought to empower the political rights of African people, she also educated people worldwide about the rich and diverse cultures of Africa.


At the same time however, the cultural significance of African music demands ethical considerations for singers, composers, and listeners outside of Africa. Music and songs may have sacred or special meaning, purpose, and/or role in the society or culture it comes from. Misappropriation, or cultural appropriation, occurs when a person or group takes something culturally significant from another group in order to perform, modify, or adopt for their own personal, private, or commercial purposes. Misappropriation fails to honor and respect the culture and music of disempowered groups.

One famous example of misappropriation is the song ‘Wimoweh’/’The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in the United States. It was originally composed as ‘Mbube’ in South Africa, and transcribed in 1951 by Pete Seeger, a popular American folksinger. It became a pop hit in the 1960s whenit was performed by ‘The Tokens’ on television, and over the course of a few decades it was appropriated by several artists and eventually became an integral part of Disney’s The Lion King. While the song generated millions of dollars in revenue for American singers and filmmakers, the original South African Zulu producer of the song, Solomon Linda, never received any compensation; he died penniless in South Africa. Watch the documentary trailer below, and visit The Lion’s Trail by Independent Lens.

The Mbube/Wimoweh/Lions Sleeps story is only one of thousands of instances where indigneous culture has been misappropriated. There is a growing movement to reclaim cultural artifacts and restore their cultural significance within the appropriate social and historical context.


For Discussion: Visit the Afropop website listed in the Resources above and research an artist and song from your selected country.  Describe the social and historical context of the song and write a brief (150 word) introduction; Where did it originate and from whom? What unique cultural norms, values, and/or experiences does it communicate? (This can be specific, such as the experience of losing a home during  specific war or as general as losing all motivation after  broken heart.)  After the introduction, post a link to a video or audiofile along with a transcript of the lyrics (if it has any). Interpret the song or music in at least 150 words. How does the song convey the meanings you identified in your introduction?