Adebayo Fayoyin
Sara Nieuwoudt
Publication Date

Regional Communication Adviser, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Johannesburg, South Africa (Fayoyin); and School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (Nieuwoudt)

"Evidence from political and social contexts has shown that music has been used as a channel to persuade, control or advance social causes."

This research article explores the use of music in the struggle for health and development outcomes in Africa. The paper illustrates how songs have been deployed to tackle various development issues by reviewing case studies in three specific thematic areas: chronic poverty, humanitarian crises, and specific health agendas, in this case family planning. The case studies reveal the ambiguous impact of songs on development in all three thematic areas.

The study explores the intentional use of music to convey pro-social messages and leverage support for issues of health and development. Findings from the case studies reveal that development agencies and other stakeholders employ songs for: advocacy; social mobilisation; information dissemination and awareness creation; partnerships with high-profile global, regional, and national artists; and fundraising for humanitarian response. The case studies focusing on African development issues and poverty included initiatives undertaken by Western artists, as well as African artists. These included the Live 8 concerts in 2005 with the tagline “Make Poverty History”, and “We are the Drums”, an initiative by African musicians to spread the message of making poverty history in Africa. Songs related to humanitarian crises, such as famine and disease outbreak, discussed include the “Do they Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, “We are the World” produced by a group of artists called USA for Africa in 1985, and various international and local initiatives in response to the Ebola crisis. Although there is evidence of songs - in the context of both poverty and humanitarian crisis - influencing behaviours at individual as well as systems levels, the paper does raise concerns about the ethnocentric narratives and one-sided views of Africa promoted by the Western initiatives, as well as some of the inaccurate messaging promoted in songs seeking to raise awareness about the Ebola crises.

Examples of songs to promote family planning include an initiative by the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the early 1990s that involved two prominent musicians (King Sunny Ade and Onyeka Onwenu) who were invited to produce two theme songs for family planning interventions called “Wait for Me” and “Choices”. An evaluation of the music project points to significant changes in people’s contraceptive attitudes and behaviour attributed to media promotion of family planning. Also related to family planning, in 2013, ten top artists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) produced a rumba song that promoted the need to plan families, mobilised the public to support child health, and called on government for appropriate actions. The song, complemented with other advocacy activities, contributed to the allocation, for the first time, by the national Government of a budget line for contraceptives in the national budget. However, the paper makes the point that because the songs of these initiatives formed part of broader mobilisation campaigns, attribution claims remain tenuous. The review also points out that although the use of well-known musicians can contribute to the impact of the advocacy goals or health messaging, the choice of artist is key to ensure they are appropriate for the message they are delivering.

Overall, despite the potential of songs to bring about behaviour change, garner support, and raise funds, the authors make the point that “the anticipated magical effect of songs in social life has not been validated within the development context. We do not suggest that songs are completely ineffective in social and behaviour change. Their role in information diffusion, awareness raising and even partnership for resource mobilisation is validated with our case studies. However, their influence in health and development is rather ambiguous and raises questions that require more investigation in order to establish a sound theory of the relationship between music and development.” The paper also questions the effectiveness of songs to influence collective behaviour on structural inequalities as well as the root causes of underdevelopment. On this basis, the authors call for more empirical investigation and robust theorising on the relationship between songs and development. “More insightful analysis of the role of music interventions in development programming is critical in better understanding its strengths and limits in behaviour and social change. Such investigations should also explore the use and misuse of charity songs in health and development.”


Email received from Adebayo Fayoyin on July 20 2017.

Photograph: #AfricaStopEbola