Inside the evolution of drill music in Nigeria’s capital city
"My brothers drilling in Abuja and I are the blueprint for drill music in Nigeria"
"My brothers drilling in Abuja and I are the blueprint for drill music in Nigeria"
In a corner of Sheraton Hotels Abuja, the typically quiet Club Indigo bubbles. Inside, a young crowd feverously sings along as artist after artist comes on stage. Drill, the style of music inspiring this rapturous reaction, is different, heavy and loud, several sonic steps removed from the Afropop sound that rules the Nigerian airwaves.
It is an interesting crowd: Faces hidden behind balaclavas, baggy jeans with chains hanging from them, silk scarves covering neatly shaved heads, and metal jewellery glistening in the barely lit club. As the tempo picks up, shaking the room to its core, the crowd goes wild, lunging forward from the corners of the barely lit club as “Agbalagba,” the unofficial drill anthem, comes on. It is clear that this sound has found another home and is here to stay.
An offshoot of trap music and originally from the South Side of Chicago, drill has continued to gain popularity as one of the most prominent forms of rap music. Dating back to 2010, drill was popularised by key players such as Chief Keef and Lil Durk, who used the rap form to speak their truths with a stark honesty. In no time, drill music rose to prominence in Chicago, becoming the voice of the streets and making its way to the UK in mid-2012. It was here, in the slums of Brixton, that drill music was honed by rap groups like 67 (pronounced six, seven), 150 (now known as GBG) and 86, picking up a faster tempo, receiving a fundamental musical reupholstering, and ditching auto-tune to embrace a more loquacious style and rapid-fire yet malleable delivery, giving it the identity we are familiar with today. Rooted in the struggle-filled streets of inner city London, drill rap appeals to a demographic raised in deprived, crime-riddled areas. Its purpose? A form of expression for downtrodden neighbourhoods.
In 2017, when comedian-turned-rapper Michael Dapaah released his catchy, global hit single “Mans Not Hot,” under the alter ego Big Shaq, the internet caught on pretty quickly. Big Shaq had sampled a beat made by UK drill producers GottiOnEm and Mazza, which was first used by the drill group 86 on “Lurk,” and later by 67 on the track “Let’s Lurk.” With the official music video viewed over 400 million times on YouTube, Big Shaq’s record played a fundamental role in announcing the subgenre to the rest of the world, spreading this updated form of drill music beyond the UK, and catalysing its inventive adoption across the world, from the U.S.—via Brooklyn—to Africa.
In Ghana currently, rappers from Kumasi are putting their own spin on drill music, in a collective locally known as Asaaka boys. The underlying theme of their movement is survival and the want for a better life, which they continuously rap about in a mixture of Twi, Akan, deeply parochial slang and sprinkles of English. Ghana’s Asaaka boys connect with their audience by telling stories that are authentic and paint vivid pictures of their pain and struggles. Over in East Africa, Kenya’s drill scene is leading the pack, with groups like Buruklyn Boyz holding the streets of Nairobi hostage with their chilly and infectious interpretation of the sound. Their breakout song, “Nairobi,” managed to garner over a million views, with little to no promotion, a mere nine months after its release.
Currently the centre of the pop-oriented side of African music, Nigeria is home to a variety of fusion sounds and drill is finding its flavour amidst the potpourri. In the capital city of Abuja, drill rap is quickly becoming a soundtrack for the streets, with artistes personifying the sound and painting a vivid picture of their community via their lyrics. The primary appeal of this somewhat new sound is the relatable storytelling modified to suit a Nigerian audience while maintaining the original soul and feel of drill music. In addition to being an ideal medium for unbridled personal expression, drillers in the capital city rap about socio-economic issues like police brutality and corruption.
“My music is inspired by everyday life,” says rapper and NATIVE Fresh Meat alum Tomi Obanure, who describes his style as honest, brutal, gritty, witty and wicked. “I rap about the struggles I face where I come from. I talk about my wins as well as my losses. My music is like a diary for me; I rap about the things I’m influenced by, the things I want to achieve—I speak things into existence with my music.”
Nigerian music has always been versatile, but the impact of social media and streaming, as well as the profound effect of the alternative renaissance towards the end of the 2010s, has heightened that level of adaptability, allowing artists to create fusions of various genres. This feature enables drill rappers in Abuja to own the sound, despite its distinct sequence and imported origins, making it as Nigerian as possible without losing its essence. “As Burna Boy said, there is a kick and a base. This base—my base, is who I am. I am Nigerian so whatever influence I have from the outside culture is what I put on this base to create a kick,” says Eeskay.
In 2020, Eeskay released his signature hit song, “Agbalagba,” featuring fellow Abuja-based rap stalwart Odumodu Blvck. Today, the track still holds Abuja audiences spellbound, with fans singing along word for word at every live show. “Most times, people do not know what they like until you give it to them, so you have to make sure that when you deliver, you do it with your chest,” declares Odumodu who, interestingly, dreams of becoming a football coach. Like many other rappers, he considers drill a reflective tool, touching on real life experiences across the board. “We are on the streets, in the trenches, so it’s what we see that we say. I’m inspired by everyday life, so I rap about my reality. I just got out of jail, I spent the whole of last week in jail, and now I’m out. Obviously, I’m going to rap about it,” Odumodu explains.
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As with every nascent and burgeoning genre, there is an apparent intersection between drill music, fashion and the lifestyle which comes together to define the music scene. Rapper KVV explains that drill demands authenticity. “What we have going is beyond just the music, it extends into a culture that is carefully characterised by certain features such as the lingo and the fashion,” he says. Truly, for a subgenre such as drill to secure increased visibility in the Nigerian music terrain, an accompanying culture is required.
“Today, I’m wearing blue,” Odumodu Blvck tells me as he begins to make a point. The dynamic rap artist, who goes by the alias “Big Gun” and dabbles in grime, drill, and Afropop-inflected rap, is dressed in a white singlet, black jacket and blue tracksuit trousers. “Typically, I’d wear black, maybe wear a hoodie inside my jacket. If you see me on the streets, you see the way I move, you go sef go tench, say who be this guy?” It exemplifies the sense of identity that’s needed for a scene to become undeniably impactful, especially in a country where rap is consistently pressed to the margins.
From Legendary Styles’ “Looseguard (I See, I Saw)” to King Perryy and Psycho YP’s “YKTFV,” drill music has had spare moments of nationwide popularity. Beyond the virality of these songs, there needs to be sustainability and a ground game that keeps drill from being just a fad, and that’s the refreshing nature of the capital city’s drill unit. “My brothers drilling in Abuja and I are the blueprint for drill music in Nigeria,” Esskay boldly declares. It is clear that the music they make comes from a place of passion and a desire to tell their stories exactly the way it is, without mincing words. “My music is organic. I’ve never been forced or felt pressure to make music before. I just go ahead and do it. Most days, I’m sitting in my room for hours just making music,” KVV says.
Moving in a loose but tight-knit manner, there’s a strong sense of brotherhood among the drill rappers in Abuja, especially as drill music is still largely uncharted territory in Nigeria and as such, the growth is collective. Many songs are recorded from makeshift studios in their houses, but this does not affect the quality of music they put out in any way. Perhaps, this DIY trait is part of what’s attracting more listeners. Even with the growing fanbase, drill music still has some ways to go in captivating more Nigerian ears, with the expected pushback from ears attuned to and favouring local pop music formats, but that’s not detering Abuja drillers.
KVV believes that drill music has the range to beat the initial resistance and go on to become mainstream. “I feel like our collective cuts across a very big demographic,” he explains. “We have the ability to reach out to a large spectrum of people because drill music has different representatives. There’s drillers rapping about things Nigerians in the diaspora can relate to, there’s drillers making music for people who have lived in Nigeria all their lives,” KVV says. Clearly, drill rappers in the capital city believe strongly in the gospel of their music and are convinced that the future of drill heavily depends on how far the artists in the scene are prepared to go. “I see how drill can become a mainstay in Nigeria depending on the quality of the art we put out—the visuals, production—I think it can go as far as we want to take it,” says Tomi.
If you are new to the Abuja drill scene, here are five tracks from the capital city to bring you up to speed: