Most criticisms of Nigerian contemporary music are lacking in context. Pundits, from all spheres of life, across age grades, often raise many issues about this music which, on the surface, seem spot-on but a deeper appraisal renders them myopic, biased and, sometimes, laughable.
There is the issue of Fela as “Gold Standard” and the complications of that pretty name, Afrobeats, which stuck to this music six years ago. There is also the issue of comparing every ear-ring-wearing, Yoruba-female-name-calling artiste in sight with King Sunny Ade or Christy Igbokwe or Onyeka Onwenu or Rex Lawson. There is also that outright dismissal of this music, the dismissal of a zeitgeist, has been superficial and lacking in both moral code and lyrical content.
At this point, you will probably hear some anecdote about long-dead musicians who were teetotalers or a narrative about how our generation is upfront with its sexuality. The culprit noun always used on us is decadence: we are an amoral generation.
But let’s examine Fela and his era. Fela began his musical career as a highlife trumpeter and band-leader. His highlife was a defiant one, jazzy in nature; sophisticated while others embraced improvisation; and quite underwhelming in commercial reception. Fela explored music till he rested his oars on Afrobeat that unusual genre of music that combines dance and protest.
Fela was a maverick. He defied comparison with his peers and those who came after him. Not even those who carry his genes can compare to him. His greatness is astounding and, most importantly, post-humous. However Fela’s life, in comparison to his music, is not as desirable. His life in its entirety was a protest against conformity, colonialism, dictatorship and oppression. It is also a cautionary tale about the repercussions of defiance, which every contemporary Nigerian artiste seem to have assimilated.
On the issue of comparison with King Sunny Ade or Christy Igbokwe, it is rewarding to revisit the beginning of Nigeria’s contemporary sound. If memory serves us correctly, Mi O Sakomo by the Remedies trio was indeed a phoenix that rose from the ashes occasioned by military rule at the turn of the Millennium. If the ’50s and ’60s was the Golden highlife era in Nigerian music, the ’70s was a time of Soul and Afrobeat and the ’80s featured the rise of digital music—an age of Reggae and Hip-Hop music. The ‘90s was summarily a time of resounding silence.
The contemporary Nigerian sound was more influenced by American Hip-Hop music; in fact, this music is more appropriately a direct imitation of 90s American music. Less than twenty years down the lane, this music has begun to reconnect with its roots. This should be appreciated, not criticized.
On the matter of poor lyrical content of Nigerian music, it is quite impressive that popular music is often referred to as the perfect example. Do we forget that no one can lay their hands on what exactly makes popular music popular? For every song that hits the mainstream, there are songs hanging on the other side of the divide, aptly christened Alternative music. The likes of Brymo, Darey, Aramide, Timi Dakolo, Bez, Cobhams inhabit this space, a space of amazing music and lyrical content that is not popular but still very much is contemporary Nigerian music.
How does one have a conversation about contemporary Nigerian music without talking about the music on the streets? Fuji music in the South-West; Ogene music in the East. And there is an intervening space occupied by practitioners bringing local sounds, street parlance and Hip-Hop together in unimaginable ways. If Q-dot Alagbe is a far-reaching example, Small Doctor is a quintessential one.
What is most exciting about this resurgence of contemporary Nigerian music is that it is happening de novo. There is no governmental intervention via cultural involvement. No record label supports. There are no meaningful distribution networks; musicians have to sell or distribute their products free on the internet—or how else do they contend with the Alaba boys?
Yet, the music is looked upon with disdain. I don’t think Nigerian music is its best place. I do think there is room for improvement. But I also think these musicians deserve our respect, appreciation tweets and goodwill messages.