Sometimes I question the need for music reviews. In the middle of a nightclub cramped with heaving, sweaty bodies doing complex dance moves, nudged on by heavy thumping music, I ask myself what a music reviewer or someone who styles himself as a critic, is doing with contemporary Nigerian music.
It is irrelevant that Afrobeats artistes do not appreciate reviews except it is glowing and full of praises. If it sings their praises, then they may take to their verified social media accounts to share links. Even those who do this are in the minority. Usually the accomplished musician is insulated from critical backlash or so it seems.
I have had a few instances where, in lucid prose, I gave critical opinion about some artiste and was called to order with expletive-laden dismissals by the artiste’s acolytes. These impassioned acolytes took it personal; they described me as “an unfortunate critic who can neither sing nor write.”
I remain unperturbed by their tactics. I have done my own part, which is to give my honest opinion about any piece of music that filters through my eardrums. I care very deeply about contemporary Nigerian music. In fact, I feel a sense of duty to clarify what these musicians are doing.
Whenever I travel outside Nigeria, I see how well this music has travelled. In Accra, Lome, Douala, Nairobi, Kampala once the club gets into its full swing, Nigerian music erupts from the speakers. The boom of our dancehall-influenced fast-paced rhythms, often delivered in Pidgin English travels across geographical distance, social class and time.
It feels like a miracle: this music did not exist two decades ago. As a teenager at the turn of the millennium, the absence of any meaningful cultural output was the status quo. We only need to travel back in time now to see that only little change occurred in the 80s and 90s.
At the turn of the millennium, the euphoria of our recent civilian rule gave us this music. To draw parallels with the euphoria of the Golden Highlife Era may seem presumptuous, but even if this renaissance was more modest in magnitude, it was a triumph nonetheless.
The music began, from scratch, from babbling. It was an imitation of American music – back then the staple of our radio soundwaves. The earliest popular songs of this era aired on radio and television were covers of songs by popular American musicians like MC Lyte, Nas, Aaliyah and Timbaland. At the height of this imitation, there was even a Celine Dion cover rendered entirely in Yoruba!
The exact moment when Nigerian Contemporary music began to find its own voice is quite arbitrary. We should all remember that diss track Ehen, by Ruggedman and the late NoMoreLoss, which, in retrospect, was self-serving. We should remember the JJC & 419 Squad foiled attempt at UK Invasion, which culminated in two members of that squad returning to Nigeria to start what became Mo Hits records – our first vibrant musical collective to achieve resounding and sustained success (apologies to Boulevard, Plantashun Boiz, Remedies, Def O’Clan, Triple B and Styl Plus). We should remember the octave rise of that black chubby boy called Wande Coal and that decisive moment D’Banj rested his harmonica to give us his most iconic album, The Entertainer.
The return of America-based Banky Wellington and his famous cover of Rihanna’s Umbrella must have seemed harmless at the time but the establishment of EME Records was quite crucial to the music, in retrospect. There is Mode Nine, an ageless rap legend who moved his underground squad to Lagos from Abuja and this was about the time that the Jos-based Loopy Boys also came to Lagos.
There was the song Crowd Mentality and the short black dude Mr Incredible, whose first album, Let’s Talk About It, gave us the first sound bite of another short dude residing around Ojuelegba; Wizkid. To not dwell on the Loopy Crew, will be to move past Jesse Jagz, the avant-garde singer/song-writer, producer and rapper; Ice Prince Zamani, the Niger-state rapper whose first hit, Oleku, had a Yoruba chorus sung by the best new vocalist of the time, Brymo.
The history of this music is intertwined. Before 2Face dropped the Kennis Music or vice versa, they released the most iconic sophomore album of an era, Grass to Grace. The minor rift occasioned by the break of 2Face’s former group, Plantashun Boys reverbs till date. There is Black Face, the hyperactive rapper-cum-ragga-act who continually attacks 2Face (now known as 2Baba), unarguably the most successful solo artiste of that crew, and there is Faze, the hypersensitive singer with an amazing falsetto, period.
Fast Forward to 2017 and we have seen three phases of Wizkid, watched Skales struggle, listened to Shaydee sing his way to a Headies effigy, watched Wande Coal flounder like his predecessor D’Banj, out of Mo Hits Records which has been restructured as Mavin Records with Don Jazzy as head honcho and Di’Ja, Reekado Banks, Dr Sid and Korede Bello on the roaster. We have seen M.I become frustrated at the reign of the local rappers; heard P-Square struggle to keep things the same; we have even seen Mode Nine parley with Malawian rappers.
There has been a rise of new voices: the Teknos, the Mr Eazis, the Burna Boys and the Kiss Daniels. An alternative sound to the robust popular music led by Omawumi, Darey, Brymo and so on. There is a flurry of activity going on, but still very little in terms of structure.
I still ask myself what the duties of the music reviewer are. Perhaps what I have done here is one of such duties.