Testing the cultural pulse – understanding cultural context through music


Music has always been a great way to document the time’s sentiments. It offers emotions best described in under 5 minutes and a life story built into rhythm and vibes. And as a cultural touchpoint, music provides a feeling that stays with people for years beyond a particular moment—the feeling or emotions brought on by music can only be experienced years after listening, bumping or dancing to a specific tune.

For all these feelings and emotions, music also communicates not just the thoughts and perspectives of their artistes but also carries the voice of a people. Amapiano, for all the hype and dance movement it has inspired, has come to symbolise a unique South African feeling that paints its people as fun, exciting and rhythm-driven. What KPop did for Korea, Afrobeats is also doing for West Africa, with artistes across the board connecting with people around the world who may not understand a word of Asake songs or interpret the energies of Burna Boy, but still move to the rhymes and universal feelings these songs bring.

As such, in our growing marketing landscape, marketers need to understand the impact of what music is, how it can be interpreted to understand the sentiments of the time, and how it is used as a pillar in communicating brand campaigns. With culture being a key pillar in the building of strategy, music does offer a solution to understand how people relate to artistes and accept tunes—call them trends or fads, but there’s a truth at the core that goes beyond gimmicks.

The singing to the choir

In late 2020 and early 2021, we experienced a wave of choir-inspired songs from Pheelz Finesse to Davido’s Stand Strong. While these songs got us singing, dancing and intermittently shouting the collective chorus, they also provided an understanding of recovering through reconnection—they tapped into our human need for community and the knowledge that after years of living under restrictions (COVID and its attendant effects), we wanted to find our voices through family, a tribe that understood our sentiments and provided a safe space to shout, let loose and just be ourselves.

As such, brands looking to connect with consumers could look at how they built communities that spoke to these individual quirks and offered room for them to explore and express themselves. These songs offered a relief from the usual consumers being listeners to become participants in the process—since consumers have now moved from just consuming to becoming a core part of the creation process.

These songs also looked into how a behavioural bias like Bandwagon Effect works effectively in most instances. In our influencer-ridden world where people participate in challenges not necessarily because they want to but to feel seen or heard, these songs offered a platform for people to become a part of something beyond themselves and feel that kindred emotion of a family that would sing and dance with you.

Boys cry sometimes

In our hypermasculine world where it is easy for male emotions to be discarded as a second thought, we had some of the most profound expressions of emotions through Kwesi Arthur’s Pray for Me and Blacko’s Soja. While these songs were released years apart, they communicate the delicate world of balancing expectations, finding oneself, and the nagging fear of failure, disappointment, not living to one’s potential, battling dreams, and the potential nightmares of living another person’s life without a clear understanding of how to turn back to the programme.

These songs offered a pleasant look into the thinking of the Ghanaian man who has for years been subjected to everything from family demands to live to take a beating or swipe at them to figuring out what the next weeks would come with.

While the first verse introduces you to the character and his perspective on life, the cry and emotions in his voice bring his experience full circle as he asks himself: “Why I feel like I dey lose my way?” and calls out for help with “Pray for me.” For a Ghanaian man, his cry for help is rare but indicative of the new breed finding the middle ground between openness and vulnerability as cultural nuances like praying for help when in trouble creep in along the way.

“Be like everywhere I go trouble follows me/Pray for me/I no fit do this on my own… Jah make you help me find a way/Hope you forgive me/Menka nneɛma a, I don’t mean/They say you’re with me.”

Culturally, brands can tap into how these songs connected with listeners because they spoke a language that defined the screams for help and the need to be seen. As people go through tough times, nostalgia is a refuge for them—they’re turning to the feelings of comfort, security and love they enjoyed in their past. They seek ways to connect more when things are fun and easy. Regardless of the medium, the common thread in youth nostalgia is that it fosters a sense of belonging. Nostalgia helps us strengthen relationships through shared experiences.

Terminator and the latter-day saints

In today’s world of everything being thrown at us, from life to money to trying to survive in Ghana, people are looking for meaning—we are looking for our voices in the myriad of noise. Social media, for all its banter, has offered some escape; and while fun, music provides a better interpretation like other art forms like poetry. Go on Instagram or TikTok, and it is littered with 1001 clips of people at times pontificating and at times sharing the general conscience of their followers or audience on healing, money, growing, and developing to live your best life.

We’re constantly looking for voices that articulate these feelings, which has led us to relate and own the voices of people who can offer these expressions better than us, and that is where King Promise and his cohorts of artistes come to play. Music provides a refuge and a haven for most people as we turn to familiar and relatable voices during moments of hardship or anxiety.

Terminator, therefore, acts as the best template for most people as we learn to own our narrative and live the lives we’ve always wanted without fear or hindrances. Playing to the sentiments of people across the board, the lines “I’m at a point in life if you understand me or not/Misunderstand me or not/Me I’m okay, I’m okay/And if you think I’m wrong or not/Long as it’s what I want/Me I’m okay, I’m okay” sets the tone for what to expect and how people are feeling.

After years of hearing go to school, do your best, find a job, and save some money for the rainy day, two things disillusion today’s generation; millennials who waited a decade to get pay bumps have all that increment wiped by inflation only for Gen Zs to have their parents return to hardships, they don’t know or recognise. The song aptly interprets the sentiment, ‘If you know what’s good, do it for yourself.’ Culturally, we see people looking for platforms to confirm their thoughts and ideas—Confirmation bias is, therefore, a tool that can be used in communicating brand propositions in today’s climate.

After a hiatus, we’ve also seen ‘Liquor’ pick up as the song of the moment for Kidi. Liquor, like Terminator, is happening into a cultural moment. From millennials looking for partners who turn out emotionally unavailable or getting joy elsewhere to Gen Zs exploring and figuring out things, there’s always that connection between finding peace and escaping stress through the bottle. Music continues to provide an avenue for people to find the words that define their experiences through a jam and a dance routine to complete it.

Hence, music provides a backdrop for brands to communicate with consumers in ways that connect, build relationship beyond transactions, and provide easy brand recall.

>>>the writer is the Lead for Strategy and Innovation at EchoHouse, a 360 creative agency that executes marketing campaigns for both local and multinational companies in 6 West Africa countries; namely Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. Visit theechohouse.com for learn more about EchoHouse

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