Theorizing Nigerian Music
Video Playlist
by Fope Ojo

In 2012, before he would disappear for years to reinvent himself, Burna Boy released a song called Like to Party. This was one song amongst others that marked a distinction between what Nigerian music was and what it would come to be. Like to Party was released at the genesis of an incubation period for Nigerian music, a time where Nigerian music and culture was being redefined as an exportable entity that could hold its own space and take center stage on the cultural scene of the world.

In 2012, before he would disappear for years to reinvent himself, Burna Boy released a song called Like to Party. This was one song amongst others that marked a distinction between what Nigerian music was and what it would come to be. Like to Party was released at the genesis of an incubation period for Nigerian music, a time where Nigerian music and culture was being redefined as an exportable entity that could hold its own space and take center stage on the cultural scene of the world.

*Watch Burna Boy - Like to Party*

Nigeria has been an exporter of black culture and music. Language and style have been deeply steeped into the content that is created and exported across the globe. Bobby Benson’s Taxi Driver is itself a story: If she marry taxi driver, I don’t care, If she marry lorry driver I don’t care, if she marry railway driver, I don’t care, because in a country where class matters almost as much as survival, to be a taxi driver or to marry one is to be put to shame. To say you don’t care is to be defiant. In Jim Rex Lawson’s Jolly Papa language is itself a musical instrument. The gentle saunter of Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Joromi is unmatched, and his Guitar Boy / Mammy wata is folklore in the form of music. Meanwhile the seamless riff on his guitar is performance capable only of living, breathing rockstars - which he was.

*Watch Sir Victor Uwaifo - Guitar Boy*

FESTAC ‘77 took place at a time where Nigeria presided over the world as the center for celebration and corroboration of black art and black culture. It became one of the most important events in what John Collins in his book Highlife Giants: West African Dance Band Pioneers calls a transatlantic black musical feedback cycle. A theory which proposes the movement of musical talent, context, and content exported and exchanged back and forth across the atlantic. During ‘FESTAC 77, which took place in Lagos in 1977, black careers were made timeless here in Nigeria, in Africa, on our very own earth. The mystical Sun Ra shares stage with the virtuoso, abami eda, Fela Anikulapo - the deathless one with death in his pocket - Kuti. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an uncommon composer and one of the most sampled musicians in the world, invented a genre of music which Africa and the whole world would come to tout, love, and celebrate. My favorite Fela is the Fela who has eyes for only one person, the Fela in love. Ololufe me, Iwo ni mo fe, he sings. The one who has my love, you are the one I love.  

*Watch Fela Kuti - Ololufe Mi (My Lover)*

Many Nigerian musicians want to wear the crown Fela wore but I am more interested in Nigerian musicians weaving and wearing crowns made of their own material. The musicians creating the kind of music only they themselves can make and at their own pace like Blackmagic, whose deep steady voice croons his singular hit, Repete which was released in 2013.

*Watch Blackmagic - Repete*

Music is enjoyed by anyone, irrespective of age or class, or creed. And this is what music should aim to do. Music should aim to transcend. Transcend borders, which are mostly a thing of the mind, imaginary, whether geographical or otherwise. This is why songs like Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother would be sung and danced to by many generations of Nigerians, and Africans all over the world, who sing and dance to Sweet Mother celebrating the universal feeling of having and loving a mother so sweet, she sacrifices herself for her children. Love as suffering, a universally relatable concept. Or love as deprivation. Someone had to immortalise this kind of love. Sweet mother, I no forget you for this suffer wey you suffer for me, some sing with joy. Others with tears welling in their eyes.

*Watch Prince Nico Mbarga - Sweet Mother*

When I first started to think of music and its effects on the Nigerian psyche, I was largely interested and almost obsessed with class. I experienced everything related to Nigeria through these distorted lenses of class structures and their implications. Growing up in a so - called middle class, though struggling, family in Nigeria became a conduit for me to truly and properly interrogate my place in the cultural and economic ecosystem of Nigeria and by effect, the world. I do not identify with any class anymore or hope to identify with any class. I identify now with my self respect and with my self worth and with the value I can bring to the world and to myself. I think with time and especially at a time like this, where the pandemic is having us actively rethink our values, and what is important, many heavily flawed human contraptions are falling away. Human beings as a race are being confronted with their own limitations, with their own mortality and lack of difference. We are told: here is life, here is death. All that you are is what is between. Wizkid and Burna Boy understood this deeply and went ahead to receive grammys in the time of the pandemic. Some people say Burna Boy gave Wizkid his only hit of 2020. I say two extremely talented hardworking people understood what it meant to put competition aside and truly collaborate. They were rewarded with a grammy but who cares about western standards and recognitions? I say we do. I say there is an exodus. A return to and back from what is rightfully ours, a double exchange.

*Watch Wizkid - Ginger ft. Burna Boy*

Cultural values have always been transmitted through Nigerian music, with Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson’s Baby sawale, or now Falz who always sings about the runs girl or the ashewo, Nigerian lingua for the prostitute. Perhaps in parallel to hip hop culture and its obsession with hoes. Which begs the question why can’t these men stop singing about hoes. Is it a kind of worship?  In an essay about black pussy by Namwali Serpell in the New York Review of Books, she flips the narrative so acutely that black women are now the ones owning their WAPs. After I have bombarded my partner with snippets from the essay he replies with a concession and says “WAP rules OK!” I reply and say, “Is that the point?” Then I realise it is indeed the point but I digress.

*Watch Rex Lawson - Sawale*

I love when a black African woman writer writes about black music created across the atlantic. I love when she creates theories on theories and intellectualises pop culture citing references that go way back to the extent that the reader can only surrender to the process and only beg to be schooled. On a cool, calm Friday evening in a space called Miliki in Lagos, a space which takes the form of a time capsule in architectural form, another time capsule is unraveled, something like a blast from the past. Legacy is activated when the children of the duo Kehinde "Keke" Ogungbe and Dayo "D1" Adeneye, founders of Kennis music, a record label founded in the late 1990’s, who worked incredibly hard to create space for Nigerian musicians to enjoy the worldwide acclaim they are currently enjoying, showcase a documentary they have created of their father’s works and the music created during their fathers’ time.

They are their father’s children. Part of a larger cultural production forcing space open for a new style, to break the hegemony of the kind of Nigerian music that is now easily recreated to be exported for the purposes of capitalism. They are part of a counter culture creating and documenting an alternative scene and style, which feeds the culture itself. One of the musicians I admire from this scene is Tems, who has in a sense come full circle from when she performed one of her earliest songs at the 90’s baby session in 2017 and is now featured on a song with Wizkid and who I heard belting softly from a burger shop on my street in Amsterdam. Welcome to the new school of Nigerian music, which feels very much like the old school of Nigerian music.




ANNOTATIONS
Like to Party
By Burna Boy
Guitar Boy
By Sir Victor Uwaifo
Repete
By Blackmagic
Ololufe Mi (My Lover)
By Fela Kuti
Sweet Mother
By Prince Nico Mbarga
Sawale
By Rex Lawson
Ginger
By Wizkid
Try Me
By Tems
Fope Ojo
Fope Ojo is a writer, artist, and creative technologist.
SUBMIT PLAYLIST
Cruel Poptimism: Ariana Grande’s hit single “No Tears Left to Cry” might be the late-summer cipher for living in a lost future - The New Inquiry
Article
by Charlie Markbreiter