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Speak Or Hush: Should Celebrities Weigh In On Controversial Issues?

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“I can easily sit down and pretend that nothing is wrong and just make money, smile, cheers blah blah, but the thing is, I care too much, if I didn’t give a s**t, I wouldn’t say anything.”

The divergence of interests and values is one of the traits that characterise humanity. And nowhere are opposing interests more pronounced than in Nigeria, a nation made up of about 200 million people from over 300 plus ethnic groups. 

Every day, we are beset with a new challenge, a new debate – the matter on the front burner is still hot, yet we replace it with another which has been simmering in the background; climate change, coronavirus, politics, crime, scandals, rape, feminism, social injustice and a host of other pressing issues.

Many of these conversations are not restricted to the average person on the street or social media, however, they find their way to the platforms of celebrities and famous people, who in many cases, become powerful advocates and the faces of the cause.

The opening quote, for instance, was made by Nigerian pop singer, Simi, in an Instagram post in April 2019. She admonished Nigerian youths to desist from “Yahoo Yahoo”, the Nigerian lingo for advanced fee fraud crime which has cast a bad light on the nation. 

Another celebrity, Naira Marley (who would later be arrested and charged on 11 counts of fraud), unsurprisingly, thought otherwise. The “Am I A Yahoo Boy” crooner wasted no time in defending Nigerian cybercriminals who he said are paying back the colonial masters for enslaving our forefathers.

And so was public opinion divided among two celebrities who instantly became voices for and against an issue that has become a constant cause of embarrassment for the nation on the global scene.

Should Simi have minded her business of music as fans of Naira Marley suggested? Should Naira Marley have ignored her comments and not escalate it? And most importantly, what was it about their opinions that pitched the public one against the other?

Wizkid protesting in London | – Image – Twitter-1_Ajibade

Wait… Why Do We Even Care?

From fashion to entertainment, sports and even social media, celebrities abound in dozens – people who the public have carved out like little idols to be doted on. We watch them religiously and have our hands on the refresh button on our apps just to get the latest, juiciest information about them. We want to know it all; their lifestyle, moments of laughter and tears, many live for their messy scandals. We even go as far as pitting them against each other (ref. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi or Davido vs Wizkid)

Whether you choose to admit it or not, celebrities influence our lives. Their lifestyle and persona are inspiring and admiring. One of their strongest suits is the power to be able to reach and influence a large number of people which is why brands are quick to sign them up to represent them. 

And that, for one major reason – their power to amplify. We don’t just admire celebrities, oftentimes, we yearn to know their opinions on issues.

In September 2019, fresh Xenophobic attacks occurred in South Africa that resulted in several deaths and reprisal attacks. The series of attacks spurred an outcry across Africa, and most especially in Nigeria. 

Consequently, some artists from Nigeria and South Africa took to social media to voice their concerns on the attacks. On the Nigerian front, Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage and others outrightly condemned the attacks.

Reacting to the attacks, Savage cancelled a scheduled performance in South Africa:

“I refuse to watch the barbaric butchering of my people in SA. This is SICK. For this reason, I will NOT be performing at the upcoming DSTV delicious Festival in Johannesburg on the 21st of September. My prayers are with all the victims and families affected by this,” she wrote on Twitter.

Burna Boy took it a notch higher when he announced that owing to the attacks in South Africa, he would never set his foot there again till the government does something about it.

Walking A Tightrope

To be a celebrity is to walk on a tightrope. On one hand, you want to mind your business; performance, you want to live your life as you please or whatever it is you do for yourself while, on the other hand, you are expected to fulfil some expectations, you find obligations thrust upon you, you suddenly become a role model for many “strangers”. No one told you it was going to be like this. 

Speaking on being a role model, Rihanna told Vogue in 2018: “That title was put on me when I was just finding my way, making mistakes in front of the world. I didn’t think it was fair. Now I understand the concept, but at that time I was the same age as the girls who were looking up to me. And that’s a really hard place to be in as a teenager.”

Burna Boy, who is in a seemingly love-hate relationship with Nigerians wrote in 2017: “I Am NOT your Role Model. I am just a 25-year-old who has been through more than any 25 year old should have to, therefore takes life 1 day at a time and tries to make the best of things. This is my REAL LIFE, don’t let your life be determined by how anyone lives theirs.”

Davido speaking to protesters in Abuja | – Fortune – Davido

Social Responsibility Vs Cancel Culture

Do celebrities owe it to us to be socially responsible? Celebrities have influence – the ability to affect thousands or millions of lives, so it is expected that they should be conscious of what they say, what causes they support and perhaps, most importantly, how they relay that message to the public.

“I assume this was not your intention, but it is important that you understand that your words carry a tremendous amount of weight and that your message can be interpreted by some in different ways,” powerful music manager Scooter Braun wrote while addressing Taylor Swift during their dispute over Swift’s music catalogue.

The power or influence that comes with being a celebrity is hotly chased by expectations. After all, “to whom much is given much is expected”.

“Burna Boy Is Cancelled?”

About nine days before Nigerian musicians Falz and Runtown led the October #EndSARS protests on Thursday 8 October 2020, Burna Boy declined an Independence day protest invitation from human rights activist and former presidential candidate, Omoyele Sowore. His reason, to put it summarily, is Sowore is a politician he didn’t trust.

Be that as it may, Burna Boy’s refusal to join Sowore’s protest contradicted the public perception of him. The “African Giant” via his music and several interviews had positioned himself as the champion for Africa’s especially Nigeria’s movement for freedom.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was his absence during the #EndSARS protests which began on October 8 (it was later revealed that he had to stay by his mother who had undergone surgery during that period). 

Although Burna Boy would later join the protest by setting up electronic billboards, social media posts and setting up a fund, the public, however, cancelled him for not “walking the talk”. But he was not the only one to suffer such fate.

A beauty influencer, Ronke Raji was also cancelled for an insensitive post on her social media page while youths were out on the streets protesting. In the same vein, social media users called out actress Toyin Abraham for promoting her film during the ongoing protests (She would later apologise, show support, and take to the streets to join the protest).

Celebrities understand the risk that standing up for a cause poses to their image. While the ordinary man may tweet whatever they want without fear of threat or backlash, celebrities tend to be cautious what they speak out for.

It is for this reason that celebrities are encouraged to speak out on issues, most especially those that border on humanity. While we may all have different opinions on virtually everything, issues that deal with human rights, and justice.

“I am marching for the ones that are not recognised,” Falz said in response to the #EndSARS protests.

Davido, who admitted that he could not claim to have been victimised by SARS wrote: “But as a young Nigerian, there is no way I could be silent on this matter and not help to the best of my ability.”

The Cause Not The Face

“This is not and should not be about me, it is about a fundamental problem that affects us all as Nigerians, as Africans, and as human beings,” Burna Boy said in his defence when the public questioned his absence during the #EndSARS protests.

The challenge with having celebrities speaking on certain issues is that the public might get carried away and see them as the face of the issue. This is why whatever the movement is, the people have to own it, not the celebrity. After all, many would not know that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Nigeria’s Opal Tometi.

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