For the last three months, I’ve been thankfully starved of generator fumes and the persistent humming of those mechanical beasts of burden. That’s because I’ve been living in New York and reporting from the UN HQ as one of the 2019 Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellows; by day that is.
By night I’ve been dragging myself out of my predominantly white Manhattan neighbourhood once a week or so, to find bars populated mostly by people of colour — and rhythm. In the East Village, I found both The DL and also Miss Lily’s, a cosy little Jamaican affair. There were a few joints in Harlem that I checked out too. On one occasion, a friend took me to the impeccably named Basquiat’s Bottle in Brooklyn.
As I hopped around, I discovered an interesting pattern that made me smile. In many of these places, at least half of the music was Nigerian including old music dating back to P-Square and that one Flavour song that has burrowed its way across continents since 2010. Timaya, Mr Eazi & Wizkid also get decent rotation here. Interestingly, a good number of the DJs don’t even have African roots.
Flavour’s Nwa Baby Remix is still a staple among Caribbean folks almost a decade after.
The most heavily rotated music by far has been that of Burna Boy whose Atlantic/Warner Music deal has changed the game. The label brought the stack(s) and the artist has put his back into it. Ça va sans dire.
So it has become very common to hear Burna blasting in traffic, or out of a random Levi store in Tribeca or on the radio in the DMV states. On at least two different occasions, New York’s Hot97, one of the most influential mediums in global pop culture, was playing Burna and Davido back-to-back as I was in an Uber. Its’ OAPs have interviewed Nigerian music royalty at different times too.
One Harlem DJ gave me his card after I went to say hi — he was playing Ycee’s Dakun only one week after it dropped and I was so impressed — and told me to send him new songs to play.
Naturally, I was happy.
“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…for there our captors requested a song; our tormentors demanded songs of joy: “Sing us a song of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? — Psalms 137: 1–4
Unlike the Israelites who were forced out of their homeland as prisoners of war in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 586BC, Nigerians are willingly fleeing their fatherland and its tanking economy to seek greener pastures abroad. Legally or otherwise.
But like the Jews then, Nigerians are courting nostalgia, reconnecting with the identity of their roots and keeping up with happenings back home via social media. They miss Nigeria but are far more at peace with the situation in their adopted home, to return permanently to the motherland.
TL; DR: The Nigerian Dream is to ‘hammer’ and escape Nigeria.
Without rehashing the ripple effects of overpopulation in a badly governed Nigeria, (let’s just agree to disagree if you’re a Buharideen) that Africa’s largest economy is no longer just a giant with feet of clay.
It is now half man, half clay and 98m people in multidimensional poverty are collateral damage.
The biggest impact of poor governance in Nigeria is that there are a lot of ungoverned spaces across the country. On the one hand, the absence of government has enabled insurgencies and insecurity on a huge scale which is partly why folks are leaving.
On the other hand, its’ failure to promote an enabling environment for the entertainment industry has been a blessing in disguise because any intervention could very well be a Midas touch in reverse. And just as people fled the country during the military eras to avoid repression, citizens are leaving again in droves, especially to Canada.
Many are keeping the culture with them. The music and movies are now digitally distributed; Nigerian food is also becoming more and more available abroad. Even the colonisers are steadily beginning to request and tap into these subcultures, either by genuine appreciation or by appropriation.
Under former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria crafted a campaign to become one of the world’s 20 top economies. It was called Vision 20:2020. As 2020 approaches, the more feasible situation is that Africa’s largest economy with its humongous debt profile could slip into its second recession in four years. If you believe the words of its’ own central bank governor, that is.
Canada’s arms are open to all who decide to run when Jerusalem falls.
Afrobeats is great, make no mistake. The music is good and the talent is undeniable but the sociopolitics of the matter is a key ingredient in the spread of this particular music form.
Caveat: I’m not saying the Nigerian government is the only factor responsible for the spread of Afrobeats. It would be rude to ignore the momentum that market economics and a humongous marketing budget can do when matched with talent in a world that is already a global village. And other factors.
Still, there would be no slope to slide on and no market to target if the Nigerian diaspora wasn’t large enough and other new markets weren’t there to tap into.
Nigeria’s best music will never make it mainstream at home or overseas. When people assume afrobeats and those Instagram comedy skits are the best Nigeria has to offer, this tweet by the writer Ayo Sogunro aptly captures my thoughts.
But afrobeats remains a beautiful genre (or combination of genres) even if it has fundamental flaws including its generic nomenclature. However, beyond its addictive rhythm, it brings cheer and that factor is very key in its spread.
With the return of democracy in 1999 and the ritualistic sustenance of civilian transitions through thick and thin (read as innovative rigging methods), the tone of the music has shifted from socially conscious galala to a host of (mostly) upbeat tempo sounds now collectively classed under Afrobeats.
[See also South Africa and post-apartheid music].
People are enjoying relatively better freedom of speech and the music reflects that, focusing on the themes of love, partying and the art of getting rich.
With democracy and free speech came the elevation of corruption to brazen levels; also ethnoreligious differences have become so pronounced now that the military, an equal-opportunity oppressor is out of the way. Like religion, afrobeats is the opiate of the masses.
Afrobeats serves up nostalgia and happiness spirited away from the distress that our ineffective civilian leaders and their cronies have sprinkled on us all. It is the youngsters fleeing Nigeria’s archaic academic institutions and all the other trappings of the country’s systemic rot have ferried that gospel of cheer to faraway lands.
Three quick anecdotes…
- In 2017, while in Malmo as a visiting lecturer, I heard someone playing Mr Eazi’s Leg Over. The culprits were two Kurdish students and one of them’s elder sister schooling in London had sent her a Naija playlist handed to her by a classmate from Lagos. I too gave them some songs.
- While reporting in Djibouti in January 2018, I kept meeting people who were gushing over the usual suspects but also Maleek Berry interestingly. They had been bumping his music while schooling in Malaysia (which is home to tons of Nigerian students) and eventually gone to see him perform in London.
- A few years ago, Peruzzi was a medical student in Ukraine but also rapping and singing even gospel under the stage name TC Peruzzi. He and other underground acts alongside small-time party promoters permeated the country’s entertainment scene, importing musicians from Lagos to tour Ukraine.
These evangelists and their converts are the people who continue to pay for concerts and stream music.
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These days, my favourite producer is Speroach Beatz who somehow manages to weave in a great deal of subtle romance and emotional flavour in every single beat he produces.
Peruzzi with his unique songwriting that favours short sweet and catchy phrases, has managed to exploit Speroach’s formula the most and both labelmates have forged a telepathic understanding. First on Majesty, then Nana, The Only One and to a lesser extent, Mauriello.
If anyone in Nollywood is listening keenly, then the DMW producer ought to be on speed dial to score those cheesy soaps and movies.
Part II: Distant Relatives & The Allan Quartermain Audition
In the past, there’s been plenty talk about Nigeria having a global hit and Burna Boy’s emergence on the world scene has resurrected the discussion. For decades, the search for that global hit has been like a mathematical sequence, an infinite Geometric Progression that keeps converging to zero but never quite gets there in real-time.
Scroll back to the early ’80s. Island Records signed King Sunny Ade, marketing him as the new Bob Marley. In the ’90s, reggae superstar Majek Fashek came close but never quite scored a hit before drug problems sedated his career.
Wizkid and Davido have fired the most visibly potent shots at that target in the last couple of years with varying levels of success. After 2016’s not-bad-but-not-so-good-either Son of Mercy EP, Davido briefly abandoned his quest for worldwide dominance, released a string of hits so mental that they unwittingly threw him back on the world stage and now he’s back to chasing global hits again.
Eazi and D’banj have had hits on the UK charts but America remains a hard nut to crack. Burna Boy is the current contender auditioning to be the Allan Quartermain with the marksmanship skilful enough to break the jinx and strike gold.
As it is, Africa’s 1.2 billion people make it the world’s second-most populous continent but it also has the unenviable privilege of being the poorest. According to a 2018 Brookings Institute report, 27 of the 28 poorest countries on Earth are in Africa and all have a poverty rate above 30%.
Disposable cash levels are lower in Africa. To add salt to injury, internet data tariffs relative to average monthly income is higher on the continent than elsewhere in the world.
Also, on top of all its regulatory interventions in telecommunications, the Nigerian government is now considering a 9% communication service taxthat will make it more expensive to surf the internet and make calls.
All of this combine to make streaming numbers — subscriptions and revenues – quite interesting, you see. In trying to make an artist crossover, labels everywhere will break and look to favour music with an appeal to areas with higher streams — the African-American community, the African diaspora worldwide, the New World and Latin America. Everywhere else that constitutes the (Third) World Music category really.
Because he who pays the piper dictates the tune.
To decipher the current sequence pattern, let’s look at some of the leading attempts to score that global hit in recent years. There’s Como Un Bebe, Eazi’s collaboration with Latin American superstars J. Balvin and Bad Bunny that was produced by Legendury Beatz. See also Wizkid’s Come Closer (or Brown Skin Girl with Beyonce). Tiwa Savage’s Keys to The City Remix. Yemi Alade’s Bum Bum. Davido’s Gbagbe Oshi. Major Lazer’s Particula and Loyal. Even Flavour’s Nwa Baby Remix — which dissolves Cardinal Rex Lawson’s Sawale in a solution of Chaka Demus & Pliers’s Bam Bam.
Burna for all his Kuti-esque roots, also has strong dancehall and reggae elements in his music. ALL the Patoranking, Skales and Runtown songs I heard in New York have the same unmistakable island twang.
In Risky, Speroach and Popcaan just helped Davido get could be a runaway crossover hit that could far surpass the crazy numbers Fall has been doing in the US. Burna and Wizkid and have songs with Damian Marley.
At the root of the crossover approach is a distinct well-intentioned Caribbean flavour and that’s because Nigerian musicians are targeting that part of the world. It is also worth mentioning that reggaeton, dancehall and reggae are the three foreign genres that have had the most success in cracking Hollywood.
See Timaya. Like the River Nun which bisects his home state of Bayelsa, Timaya’s career has managed to meander around a plethora of controversies and he has reinvented himself so well that it is easy to forget that when he got into the game circa 2004/2005, his sound was vastly different.
Today in 2019, he is easily the biggest Nigerian, if not African star in the New World.
Matter-of-factly speaking, Caribbean riddims are at the root of everything Afrobeats. Every Afrobeats song swings on a pendulum that has Afrobeat at one end and soca, dancehall, reggaeton etc at the other. That is a fundamental principle in understanding the appeal to new audiences, apart from the shared identity of being distant relatives separated by the transatlantic slave trade.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Bob Marley’s music and reggae, in general, became a rallying point for black African struggle and independence in parts of the continent; Zimbabwe was one such example. Marley also had direct personal relationships with Ethiopia and Gabon.
In the aftermath, reggae and dancehall have had a far-reaching influence on Nigerian and Ghanaian music genres including Afropop, galala, hiplife etc. Caribbean ad-libs like “doh you hear mi”/“all who ‘ear mi” have been baptised and now appear as the Yoruba name “Oluyemi” e.g. in Falz’s The Lamba Song, Simi’s Angelina and even in Daddy Showkey’s 90’s hit Fire Fire.
[Even the Zanku flow and Naira Marley’s coarse flow is in bed with grime which in turn borrows ragga influences but that’s for another article.]
And this pattern will continue. Musicians will extend handshakes to people of colour outside Europe and USA to establish themselves in these two continents.
In conclusion, here’s a nifty prediction: unless someone pulls off a mega-disruptive stunt, the first truly global hit of Nigerian origin is likely to come in 2–3 years but it will be more Caribbean or more Latina than Nigerian to appeal to the larger audience for the taking out there.
I’m willing to put a wager on that. Are there any takers?
Eromo Egbejule is an International Journalist from Nigeria.