Rarara’s invective barbs: Innuendoes, body shaming, and Kano politics


By Prof. Abdallah Uba Adamu

For the past 43 years that I have been a researcher, there were two areas I stay clear of: politics and religion. If you see my hand in any of these two, then the entry point is popular or media cultures. For instance, I have recorded a lot of Kano Qadiriyya’s Anfasu zikr, not as a devotee, but as an ethnomusicologist – focusing on the body percussion and movements (after studying the wonderful works of Margaret Kartomi on body percussion while in Morocco). Similarly – and to balance things somewhat – I recorded Tijjaniyya zikr sessions at Chiranci in the city of Kano as part of a larger study on religious performances. All my recordings were uploaded to a dedicated YouTube public channel. I was therefore amused when people try to pigeon-hole me either as Qadri or Tijjani. I am neither.

Politically, I am apolitical, meaning I really don’t care who rules the country. I don’t even vote, having done once long time ago (at the insistence of a dear friend), and promised never to do it again. But performance arts brought my attention to protest songs and the prosecution of singers in Kano. The end product was a paper, “Poetic Barbs: Invective Political Poetry in Kano Popular Culture” which I am sure is floating somewhere in a modified form. And I thought that was it.

In 2014 I came across a song that I found amusing. I was playing it on my laptop when someone exhibited surprise that I was listening to the songs of Dauda Adamu Abdullahi Kahutu, with stage name of Rarara. That was the first time I even heard the name. The song was “Zuwan Maimalafa Kano.” It attracted my attention in two ways. First, its lyrical construction as well as delivery was just amazing. Rapid fire. He should have been a rapper, a genre of music I am totally besotted on (old school DMX, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Queen “The Equalizer” Latifah, y’all). It was clear Rarara was singing off cuff, not reading from a setlist or lyrical sheet. Second, it was the most detailed invective song I have heard in Hausa Afropop music genre. I started digging and latched on him and his songs. So, for the last seven years or so, I have been following every song he released using the invective matrix.

So, what is an invective song? Invective is the literary device in which one attacks or insults a person or thing through the use of abusive language and tone. If you like, “zambo/shaguɓe”. Invective is often accompanied by negative emotion. Invective can be divided into two types: high and low invective. High invective requires the use of formal and creative language, while Low invective, on the other hand, makes use of rude and offensive images. From 2010, Rarara became a master of popular Hausa invective oral poetry. He used his skills to abuse, insult and body shame anyone he was paid to insult. Including former masters and associates.

A pattern evolved. His switchbacks. Chronologically, his earliest non-invective song was “Saraki Sai Allah” (in honor of then Governor Ibrahim Shekarau’s turbaning as Sardaunan Kano in 2010 by the late Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero). In 2011 – barely a year later – when Shekarau failed to anoint Rarara’s ‘master’, Deputy Governor Abdullahi T. Gwarzo to succeed him, Rarara became ballistically invective – and established a career in body shaming, abuses and innuendoes against various previous masters. Shekarau bore the blunt of colorist abuses – often a case of the kettle calling the pot black. No one was spared his invective barbs. Deeply cut. Insulting. Spread over 39 songs, from 2014’s “Malam Ya Yi Rawa Da Alkyabba”, to 2023’s “Tangal-Tangal.”

I have seen social media calling Rarara out on his not being a Kano indigene, getting rich in Kano through his songs, and yet insulting Kano’s leaders. This is all true. However, ‘da ɗan gari a kan ci gari’ (enemy within). Only about three songs in my analytical corpus by Rarara were free-standing (i.e., unsponsored). All the others were commissioned and paid for – by politicians from Kano, to abuse other politicians from Kano. Rarara always acknowledges his sponsors in the opening doxology of his performances.

Rarara was a highly unprincipled and unethical businessman. Show him the money, and he will praise his closest friend and abuse the friend’s enemy. Show him more money, and he will insult the same friend he praised, and heap praises on the enemy he insulted. Does anyone remember that the glorified “Ɗan Ƙaramin Sauro” (irritating mote) was part of the demeaned “Banza Bakwai” (Bastard Seven)? The bromance did not end well, did it? Business unusual.

In any event, Rarara’s invective braggadocio came back to hit him hard on 5th April 2023 when his opponents used his mother’s picture in unflattering terms and splattered it all over social media and gave her a feminine variation of an insulting name he used against one of his targets. Apparently when the shoe is on the other foot, it pinches.

Thus, instead of focusing on political ideology and promises of creating a better life for the electorate, often politicians in Kano (and I think Kano, as usual, is the only state that uniquely does this) would pay more attention to denigrating, shaming, and condemning opposing candidates, creating an unfavorable imagery of the politician to prevent his being voted. Rarara was a perfect malleable puppet in this process. He has the same emotional value to Kano politicians as an alien from Saturn. Despite his lyrical brilliance and acerbic wit, he was expendable. How many singers from Kano can you recall doing the same invective insults as Rarara to Kano politicians? Two? Three? Their corpus is not as extensive as that of Rarara. Conversely, how many politicians from Katsina pay Rarara money to insult other Katsina politicians? I can only remember one.

Wary of possible legal action against direct defamatory speeches, politicians often find it easier to engage what I call ‘political drones’ to communicate their defamatory messages through the popular medium of singing. In this way, when push comes to shove, it is the singer who would face legal – or in some cases, physical – wrath in one way or other. Unethical singers like Rarara – who was arrested, but not charged in 2014 over “Zuwan Maimalafa Kano” – were willing to pay the price in exchange for the stupendous amount of money they will receive. At least they will have enough for medical care when their houses were wrecked, assaulted and incapacitated to continue singing.

And the politician who caused it all? He can’t even remember the song that made him popular, having moved on to greener political pastures. Until the next election cycle when he will latch on another expendable drone to help him heat up the polity through more invective songs using campaign words he does not have the guts to utter himself.

Rarara’s defense of not uttering specific names in his invective taunts and body shaming do not stand up to scrutiny under Nigeria’s defamation laws, and demonstrates that while he was a brilliant lyricist, he needs to understand the law. This is because his invective defamation in the form of his songs is publicly available (indeed, he made them so), created a narrative about individuals that are easily identifiable either by their physical appearance or public behavior, created a negative impression on the person being so targeted, and was not misquoted as Rarara’s utterances (from his songs) were publicly available and subject to an only interpretation as intended. A clever prosecutor would have enough to jail Rarara on listening to any of his invective songs, if someone complained hard enough.

Invective songs can often have their positive sides in the sense of making politicians – or their targets – aware of public perception of their misdemeanors, or at most, errant behaviors. Rarara’s invective narrative in the selected songs I analyzed, however, do not demonstrate their oversight functions in public accountability for politicians. Regardless of whether explicit names were uttered or not, their narrative was focused on kicking them when they are down, and subjecting them to public ridicule. This questions the artistry of Rarara as a purveyor of aesthetic values of the Hausa oral arts.

Academicians ignore Rarara and his art – and I think that’s a mistake. True, some would argue that his songs have no aesthetic, intellectual or ideological value. On the contrary, they do. In their own way. They are beautiful as lyrical discourses. His delivery is truly artistic, even if the content is inelegant. Unlike other songs in the repertoire of political communication, his are not protest songs, and thus lack ideological focus. They neither educate, illuminate or illustrate any aspect of political culture. They only entertain – at the expense of the dignity of the people he attacks. His songs synthesize Hausa rural lexicon overlayered with abusive, often self-constructed urban jargon to enhance general appeal – and act as rabble rousers for politicians who think like him. It is a unique, if unadmirable business model in the performing arts.

Subsequently, Rarara’s songs cannot be compared, by any stretch of imagination, with the classical Hausa protest poets such as Sa’adu Zungur, Mudi Sipikin, Aƙilu Aliyu, Abba Maiƙwaru and Aminu Kano, whose artforms were fueled by educative political ideology, certainly not profit. Mudi Sipikin, for instance. used his poetry to attack the system of colonial rule. Aƙilu Aliyu wrote poems directly attacking the NPC. Abba Maiƙwaru wrote a 10-line NEPU poem for which he and Aminu Kano were arrested in the mid-1950s.

Zungur used his poetry originally to warn the emirs of the north of the necessity for reform, as illustrated in his central work, Jumhuriya ko Mulukiya [Republic or Monarchy]. In this work, he called for political and social problems to be solved on the basis of the existing Islamic institutions, rejecting alien political concepts. He later used his poetry to appeal directly to the common people. In a similar vein, one of the earliest poems written for a northern political party was by Aminu Kano, and called ‘Waƙar Ƴancin NEPU-Sawaba’ [Freedom poem for NEPU-Sawaba], and published in 1953 and put in the final form by Isa Wali. It was one of the earliest statements of Nigerian nationalism.

Despite all these, I argue that as researchers we can’t afford to ignore a current of knowledge flowing right at our feet. But the cold shoulder given to Rarara by our community, opposed to Aminu Ladan Abubakar (ALAN Waƙa) who is a toast to the academic and intellectual community, merely emphasizes the expendable and ephemeral nature of Rarara’s art. Ten years after the release of any ALA song, it will still have relevance. The relevance of Rarara’s songs rarely last to the next song release. Instantly forgettable.

Nevertheless, just as we struggled for the recognition and documentation (if not acceptance) of the Kano Market Literature in the 1990s when everyone was denigrating it, we need to also document the stream of popular culture, including Rarara – warts and all – flowing around us at all times. As far as I could see, only Maikuɗi Zukogi has focused attention on two of Rarara’s songs. More needs to be done.

As soon as I tell myself that I will wrap up the research, he will release a song insulting a former master or associate. Subsequently, I delayed publishing the research until he insults two people, and true to expectations, he did. These were President Muhammadu Buhari (Matsalar Tsaro) and Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje (Lema ta sha ƙwaya). With the ‘Hankaka’ barb against Ganduje in the Lema song, my fieldwork became almost complete. His destruction of “ɗan ƙaramin sauro” leaves only the references to be completed. As I argued, based on his corpus, Rarara sells to the highest bidder, with neither conscience or ideology. The huge profit he makes serve as an insurance against future loss of earnings when Kano politicians become mature enough to stop patronizing him to insult each other (and themselves) and utilize his skills in more constructive ways.

My thanks to a team of eager research assistants, headed by my ever faithful and close companion, Hassan Auwalu Muhammad – a former songwriter and lyricist himself. He was the one who mainly, patiently, transcribed the songs which I wove into a narrative going to almost 40 pages! I plan to upload the lot during my Summer break when the children are all here on holiday! By then the threatened wobbling ‘Tangal-Tangal’ had stopped and probably settled for a four-year legal battle.

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