/ 24 March 2009

Spinning it Lagos style

Lola Adesioye charts the evolution of Nigerian music.

It’s Saturday night outside a club in Brooklyn, New York. The queue of stylish men and women, many of whom wouldn’t be out of place in a music video, snakes around the block. It looks like a typical crowd for a New York hip-hop club, come to dance to Jay-Z or Lil Wayne. But it’s not, and they haven’t.

In fact, inside the club there’s barely an American track to be heard because this crowd isn’t particularly interested in listening to American music. Instead, the majority of the tunes the DJ spins are the latest urban hits from Nigeria and the punters, mainly young Africans, are hooked on every one. It’s all part of the biggest boom in Nigerian music since the 1970s, with clubs from New York to Paris to London to Nairobi playing club hits from Lagos.

This new wave of Nigerian music, which has really only begun to take hold in the last five years, is a world away from the sounds of the pioneers of that first wave of exports — the likes of Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade — who helped spur the growth of world music as a marketable niche product in Europe and North America.

Listen to music by contemporary Nigerian artists — 2Face Idibia, D’Banj, P-Square, Naeto C, Ikechukwu or eLDee the Don — and you’ll hear the smooth synthesised sounds of the latest US productions. Beats are no longer provided just by talking drums, but by 808s and sequenced kick snares.

Vocals may have been processed with vocoders and other studio tools to give them that commercial, MTV urban edge. “It’s untraditional,” says Alex Okosi, the senior vice-president and general manager of MTV Networks Africa. “It’s not your middle-aged African artist [making music for] your middle-aged European audience.”

Leaning more towards hip-hop than high life, the latest breed of Nigerian artists fuse American urban sounds with Nigerian influences to great effect. “Hip-Hop and R&B — that’s the foundation of my sound,” says Nigerian rapper Naeto C, who was recently named best new act at the MTV Africa awards. But even though this music uses the urban sounds of America as a launch pad, it is marked with a distinctly Nigerian stamp.

In the 1980s and 1990s, American hip-hop became the staple musical diet for an entire generation of Nigerians. American rappers flooded the air waves and young music-makers around the country began shaping their music to sound like what they heard from the likes of Biggie, Tupac or Puffy.

Many tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic the lyrics, beats and sounds of American hip-hop. Some would rap in English, not necessarily the language they were most at ease with. Others would adopt fake American accents and use slang that originated from America’s inner cities but bore little semblance to the reality of modern Nigerian life.

The hyper-sexualised and materialistic nature of hip-hop was also seen to be at odds with conservative Nigerian culture and was rejected outright in the northern part of the country, which is Muslim. It is not surprising that Nigerian urban artists found themselves ridiculed as poor imitators of American hip-hop.

But that has changed. Having been part of the Nigerian music scene since 1998, starting out in a group called Trybesmen, rapper and label owner eLDee the Don has seen at first hand how things have changed.

“Most artists tend to make music that is similar to what they grew up listening to. For most of our new artists, hip-hop and R&B was big for their generation so most influences are taken from those genres. But I believe we have since successfully created genres of our own with Nigerian urban music. You can’t listen to Nigerian music and mistake it for anything else — we have created our own identity and sound,” he says proudly.

Nigerian musicians are no longer trying to ape the lifestyle, culture and language of American urban artists. Switching between English, pidgin English, Yoruba and Nigerian slang as they rhyme and sing, they have realised that success depends on ensuring that their music reflects its place of origin and that it resonates, in as authentic a way as possible, with their audience.

“I made a conscious effort to use a chorus that used Nigerian slang,” says Naeto C about his hit song Kini Big Deal, which was one of the most popular Nigerian songs of 2008. The Yoruba phrase, which means “What’s the big deal?” is common in everyday Nigerian speech. Complaints that he sounded too American led Naeto to develop a more authentic style. Even though he was raised in the UK and America, he realised that “I’ve had just as much of a Nigerian experience as anybody. The only difference is that, at the point when I was transitioning from a boy to a man, I was exposed to American culture.”

So how popular is the new Nigerian music? No one really knows. Firstly, music piracy is rife in Nigeria and secondly, accurate sales figures are hard to come by. However, a distributor recently told Naeto C that his sales in 2008 hit at least three million — and that’s just in Nigeria. Those figures do not take into account the fact that Nigerian urban music is well established in the rest of Africa and has a growing fan base internationally. ElDee, meanwhile, claims to have sold 10-million records during the course of his career.

Naeto C is a perfect model of the new Nigerian music scene. Firstly, he grew up listening to American music. Secondly, he lived abroad. Thirdly, he returned home. That “brain gain” of returning Nigerians has been crucial to the revitalisation of the country’s music, reckons Dayo Ogunyemi, an entertainment attorney and media consultant who returned to Lagos from New York five years ago.

On a creative level, Ogunyemi explains, this has “contributed towards the talent pool both behind the mic and behind the mixing board. Some of the producers were overseas in the United Kingdom and United States for a while and have honed their production chops there.

“The same goes for a number of artists. You’re definitely seeing a cross-pollination from across the Atlantic with people taking what they have seen in the hip-hop scene in New York or in London and bringing that back to the Nigerian scene, saying ‘Hey, we have to do better. We have to improve all aspects of our game; we have to improve our song-writing and our music videos.'”

“When I was living in the United States, I was down with the whole New York thing and street hip-hop,” says Naeto C. “I still remember songs from when I was growing up in London in the early 1980s. Then there are my influences from being in Nigeria. I think the diversity I have from being in all of these places is what I’ve used in my music and is what has shaped my own sound.”

Indeed Naeto C isn’t alone in having lived outside Nigeria — so have eLDee the Don and singer/songwriter Asa, who released an album in the United Kingdom last year on Mike Batt’s Dramtico label. Asa, who has been called a Nigerian Tracy Chapman and sings in English and Yoruba, acknowledges this mixture of influences is what defines her as an artist: “I listen to a lot of people and have been influenced by Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Fela Kuti. I had the opportunity to come to Paris as an artist and I saw all this freedom of expression, colours and music everywhere — on the metro, on the street — stuff I didn’t have back home.”

But none of that would matter without some means of getting the music to its audience, which was provided when MTV Base launched in Africa in February 2005. Although it wasn’t the first major music TV channel on the continent — the influential South African music channel Channel O has been broadcasting since the early 1990s — the introduction of MTV’s glossy aesthetic had a significant impact on audio and video production standards.

Its arrival, says Ogunyemi, “has made Nigerians say, ‘We need to make better videos; we need to up the ante.’ It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you put into it the more you get out of it and that’s really what’s happening.”

Industry observers think the Nigerian music scene could become as successful as Nollywood — Nigeria’s film industry, which is now rated as the third largest in the world. As with Nollywood, there’s a ready-made global audience in the Nigerian diaspora (Nigerians make up one-fifth of all Africans in the world), as well as other Africans, and with better production values there is the increasing likelihood that some of these acts will cross over to a non-African audience. The internet, naturally, helps.

“Even if you are just targeting Nigerians [with your music], you’re not just looking at Nigerians in Nigeria, you’re looking at Nigerians everywhere because you can put a video up on Facebook or you can put it on YouTube,” says Ogunyemi. “In the mid-1990s I used to produce an African hip-hop group based in New York and you couldn’t reach people elsewhere because there weren’t that many multimedia-friendly ways of reaching people.”

Nowadays websites such as radiopalmwine.com and Nigerianhiphop.net are helping Nigerian music’s march towards global recognition.

And elDee is hopeful the march will continue. “Nigerian music already has its uniqueness and I believe people from all sectors of the world will accept it because it is great entertainment, period.” —