Silencing Nigerian rappers is not the answer to cybercrime

'Yahoo Yahoo' songs offer us an opportunity to assess the socio-economic conditions that help proliferate fraud

Nigerian Criminal Code Act, Section 419:

Obtaining goods by false pretences

Since its October 9 release, Bella Shmurda’s inescapable “Cash App” has amassed as much controversy as it has plays – quite a feat, as it currently has over 25 million stream across YouTube, Audiomack and Spotify. Referencing his dubious mode of income, back when he was still hustling tirelessly to reach this point of success, Bella Shmurda has continued to receive backlash for his casual lyrics which explicitly mention the practice of ‘Yahoo Yahoo’, the ubiquitous term used to describe internet fraud in Nigeria.

In the past four months since the song has been released, internet users have continued to lambast Bella Shmurda for his ambivalent criminality, and the lack of remorse or accountability he shows when putting it on wax for thousands of impressionable “youths” to hear. Alongside comparisons to violence in Hip-Hop, petitions advocating that the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission ban “Cash App” off the airwaves emerged, indicating the double standards many Nigerians employ in praising one genre of music whilst deriding the other for being guilty of the same thing.

Having spent sleepless nights taking risks, he sings on “Cash App”, Bella Shmurda is not afraid to flaunt his newly acquired commas, regardless of the illegal ways in which they are gained. Like Davido on “Dami Duro”, Bella Shmurda is singing about his life experiences with wealth, bragging about the money he’s earned in his lifetime. The difference is, Bella Shmurda wasn’t born to a Baba Olowo, as Davido was; his concerns weren’t spilling Belvedere in the club, getting girls, or trying to fend off money hungry leeches. Featuring Olamide of YBNL (Yahoo Boy No Laptop), Bella Shmurda’s 2019 breakout hit, “Vision2020” provides a lens through which we can investigate the rough road that he has travelled, with no end in sight, that led Shmurda, and many other young Nigerians like him, to allegedly take a left into a life of crime. Singing from his mother’s words, “better get that money, son/we are starving,” Bella Shmurda raises the gender imbalance that places the family’s need at the feet of the “man of the house” and his finances. Telling us he “hustled for six months, [I] no get money,” Bella Shmurda continues into his verse finishing, “I’ve been thinking o, I’ve been thinking o,” illustrating the long-lasting, hopeless desperation that led him into scamming.

Whilst Bella Shmurda’s circumstances do evoke pity, at the end of the day, poverty is not an excuse to defraud innocent people who have their own – financial or otherwise – struggles to face every day. Many Nigerians in his position would continue to work honestly, one can’t condone cybercrime simply because it is a symptom of the government’s failings, as Bella Shmurda is quick to remind us of “Vision2020”. Still, by understanding his motivations, “Vision2020”, “Cash App” and music detailing and inextricably glorifying cybercrime in general, offer us an opportunity to assess the socio-economic conditions in which Yahoo Yahoo proliferates in Nigeria.

Like knife crime is to Drill music, or gun crime was to Gangsta Rap, cybercrime has been the illegal vice attached to the Zanku music trend, right from its onset. Zlatan, who features on “Cash App”, who was arrested alongside Naira Marley as part of an EFCC investigation, and has long since been affiliated with this infamy in Nigerian society, broke out with a verse on “Able God” which outrightly encouraged struggling young Nigerians like him to invest in a laptop and get online (“kuro n’be ‘to ye ko lo ra lappy/ tete connect ki wan na le collect”) – a euphemism understood by all Nigerians to basically mean, “get into fraud.” If we listen to Bobby Shmurda who says, “Run up on that nigga, get to squeezing, hoe,” or UK Drill rapper, A.M whose lyrics narrate, “3-2 shots make man disappear/Bare bluss tings all over the gaff/Leave man’s face all open and that,” it is clear that music not only glorifies crime, but also, in some parts, actively encourages it as a response to one’s own circumstances – be it poverty or disrespect. However, as British Journalist Andre Montgomery-Johnson says in his documentary of Drill and knife crime, titled Terms and Conditions, “there’s so many things that you can look at. The lack of father figures, the lack of economic structure, the lack of activities, the lack of opportunities.”

Montgomery-Johnson might be speaking specifically in reference to Drill music, but the same can be said about Zanku music. To understand the link between Zanku music and cybercrime in Nigeria is to realise it’s an effect not a cause, existing only because Yahoo boys exist. By simply denigrating Zanku music and focusing on its hardly proven effects on youngsters, we are ignoring the symptom and avoiding the disease that is cybercrime. In our hyper-religious society, with its moral superiority complex, this is of course the easy way out, to make ourselves feel better about condemning yahoo without actually doing anything about the fraudulent practices that characterise Nigerian culture, such as the victim blaming that occurs when prices are unfairly hiked due to client profiling, or the virtue ascribed to those who are able to evade customs officers both home and abroad. Fundamentally, our society has been desensitised to fraudulent behaviour over the years, so there is a hypocrisy in criticising artists singing about their own reality (and, this writer would argue, a sense of problematic culture tourism in consuming a culture which we are not a part of, to which we cannot relate, with judgemental intentions).

Globally renowned for our scams, it is understandable why publicising our prevalent fraud problem is a particular trigger to Nigerians. But it is incorrect to ascribe the blame of our cybercrime notoriety to musicians; fraud has been brewing on our shores far before Olu Maintain put a dance to it on “Yahooze”. For at least a century, Nigerians have been running their scams abroad, with one of the earliest 419 documents dating back to 1920, according to Stephen Ellis’ This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime. P.Crentsil – “Professor of Wonders” as he signed himself – was a fraudster who would write to foreign countries, including Ghana, describing how his supernatural powers could be used to the benefit of his mark, for a fee of course. Dubbed the “advance-fee scam” Crentsil’s M.O. is a confidence trick, described by the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation as a scheme which “occurs when the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value – such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift –and then receives little or nothing in return.” On the Wikipedia page for “advance-fee scam” it takes only three paragraphs before Nigeria is highlighted as one of the countries in which this type of fraud is most prominent, given as the first and most detailed example.

The “Nigerian Prince” scam is the most notorious iteration of advance-fee fraud, dating as far back as the mid 1900s, with notorious Nigerian conmen, Prince Eket Inyang Udo, Prince Orizu (aka Dr Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu), Prince Bill Morrison (who was actually a 14-year-old boy) and Prince Modupe coming up as some of the earliest Nigerian Princes. In the mid ‘40s Wayo Tricksters emerged alongside these highly successful “princes” – they were financial scammers who sold victims boxes of blank paper, promising that, with the application of a particular chemical, these sheets would turn into valid currency. However, in the ‘80s, during President Shehu Shagari’s regime, was when Nigerians really settled into our deplorable stereotype.

The Shagari Administration of 1979-83 led by poor example; their corruption and overspending not only brought about economic downturn but also bred a culture of greed, entitlement and crime, naturally resulting in the increasing prevalence of fraud in Nigeria. As ever, during the Buhari administration that followed, things only got worse, and our “whether na legal or illegal” attitude deepened. Coinciding with the growth of the internet, which brought about tools such as translators and voice modifiers (that have only improved over time), and gave out criminals even more  access to countries all over the world. Cybercrime boomed throughout the ‘90s, damaging our international reputation and resulting in the formation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003, by President Olusegun Obasanjo.

With a history such as this, it becomes almost laughable to suggest Zlatan or Bella Shmurda are responsible for the cybercrime epidemic in Nigeria. For many years, fraud has been a lucrative mode of income and a well-practiced method of poverty alleviation. With our corrupt politicians looting from innocent people too – albeit for largely different reasons than to the disenfranchised youth – Nigeria’s problems do not begin nor end with “Cash App”, and pretending that shutting out the experiences of an entire demographic will somehow erase the problem, will only insulate the cancer of fraud from real and proper scrutiny.

Ultimately in the “Cash App” music video – where Bella Shmurda, Zlatan, Lincon and Dre Spencer (Mr Loader) rob the Bank of America – the criminal quartet end up trading their ice for prison stripes. Yahoo boys come and go, but unless Nigeria fully evaluates our values, customs and priorities, we’re going to be known as 419ers forever.

Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted his heel against me.

Psalms (41:9)

Featured Image Credits: Audiomack