How afropop has influenced pop culture language

From 2face's "nothing dey happen" to Olamide's "sneh" and Davido's "E Choke"

While making one of his exuberant home videos that make a fleeting presence on the Internet via Instagram stories in December 2020, Davido seems angry. Staring into the camera, the singer is shouting a word over and over. “Tule! Tule jare!” No one watching is quite sure what is happening in real-time, but very soon the singer breaks into a full-throated laugh and it is clear that he’s just having some fun with his audience. Less than an hour later, the video had gone viral on Twitter, and a few hours later, Davido announced a challenge to reward the best rendition of “Tule by any Internet denizen, giving birth to a new slang in Afropop’s rapidly-expanding canon.

As tempting as it is to question the etymology of Tule, there’s no questioning the slang’s reach and efficacy. In fact, this has always been the case with afropop slangs. From Wizkid’s “Wad Up” to Davido’s “E Choke”, the history of popular Nigerian music is very much a panoramic examination of the wonders of language; how slangs pass diverse cultural pipelines, receiving slight tweaks along the way until they become an unavoidable part of the cultural language and become markers of our specific moments in history. 

From Mad Melon owning the Danfo Drivers tag – a slang used to refer to drivers of Lagos’ instantly recognisable yellow and black buses – to Zule Zoo using “kerewa” to disguise the sexual suggestiveness of their smash hit of the same name, and DaGrin subverting the intended meaning of kondo on his song of the same name, Afropop has had a unique relationship with slangs as living archives of our lived experiences, and a provider of terms to viscerally convey previously unexpressed thoughts and ideas in resonant monosyllabic or disyllabic capsules. 

Most of the rise of afropop to global popularity has been explained through its iconic drums and searing rhythmicity that has won it a ton of fans across the world, however, as with most works of art, it’s the culture that provides a wider narrative for what the music sounds like and morphs into. While music is largely cathartic, it’s also a scene-setting, engendering cultural mood board into the popular zeitgeist. On “No Shaking”, off his sophomore album, Grass To Grace, 2Baba weaved a narrative of self-dependency and relentlessness into the four-minute anthem and made the slang, Nothing Dey Happen”, a thing. Eedris Abdulkareem’s iconic “Mr. Lecturer” also turned the word into an axiom for sexual harassment in Nigeria’s higher institutions.

As the years have passed, the thematic underpinning of these slangs has undergone marked changes from the core socio-economic charges of the early 2000s to mirror the pomp and Instagrammable hedonism of the 2010s, and Afropop has played a role in heralding these changes. While in the 00s, D’Banj’s “Koko” got spawned into various variations of itself, finding a way into the telecommunication, food, and lifestyle industries, it was the arrival of Wizkid and his intuitive ability to conjure hit singles and inspire cultural frenzy that set the ball rolling. “Pakurumo”, one of Wizkid’s earliest singles, was a marker of his potentiality for transcending music-making to impact the body of popular language as the term, Pakurumo, took on a bigger urgency in the day-to-day lives of people across the federation and beyond. 

The 2010s largely gave way to buzzing slangs – preferably with buzzing dance styles – as a form of cultural apotheosis, and nobody quite owned the intersection of popular slangs and pop music like Olamide. Upon leaving the ID Cabasa-led Coded Tunes, the Bariga native’s first album was titled Yahoo Boy  No Laptop (YBNL), a clever play on the fraud allegations that dogged him, and one that attained mass appeal and critical attention. At that time, Olamide began to piece together the beginning of the insane run that made him one of the 2010’s most defining Afropop acts, and throughout the decade, Olamide coloured his often-visceral hooks and bars with inventive slangs and colloquialisms that would have an outsized effect on the culture and language (Sneh, Duro Soke, and Shakiti Bobo). 

The evolving success of Nigerian music and its decamping to areas of relative wealth juxtaposed with the rise of indigenous rhymers like DaGrin, Reminisce, and Olamide as the 2010s thrummed on, which set the pace for a fresh glut of slangs to rise from the places that birthed these artistes. As the epicenter of popular music converged on the island and other tangential locations, it necessitated the existence of an other to accommodate the dreams and aspirations of musicians from other locations in the city, birthing the ‘streets’ terminology that is now one of Afropop’s most enduring totems. With time, the music coming out from that part of town, chronicling the weird, oft-fatalistic realities of young people, took new meaning and sprouted newer cant like the previously derisory “local rapper” quip that was reclaimed powerfully on Reminisce’s “Local Rapper”.

Phyno, a guest on that song, benefitted from the micro-triggers of the streets’ influence, dropping his classic single, “Alobam”, to widespread positive reception; as a mark of how successful “Alobam” became, it became a slang to express affection among loved ones. Just a year after “Alobam,” a song by Festac rapper, YCee, took the word Jagaban into the pop argot, transforming it from its previously political connotation to have mainstream meaning as any person of influence.

A series of middling slangs made 2018 one of Afropop’s more interesting years: Wizkid’s “everything stew”, a holdover from the “Fever” video promo was trifling if not unremarkable, while Duncan Mighty’s comeback link-up with Davido and Peruzzi resulted in the entrenchment of “aza” as a substitute for bank account details. By the late 2010s, music from the streets of Lagos had permeated almost every part of popular Nigerian culture and the Shaku Shaku, a novel mutation of streets music built around the guttural arrangement of Gqom, South Africa’s traditional electronic dance subgenre, was crafting a path to the mainstream. Songs like DJ Sidez’s “Oshozondi”, Mr. Real’s “Legbegbe”, and Idowest’s “Shepeteri” introduced the Nigerian public to their bombastic music as well as the sprightly slangs that made their songs addictive. Oshozondi/Saint Sami Ganja was envisioned to mean a life of the party who spent heavily and Shepeteri referred to the ghetto culture that inspired their music. Another slang, “Ji Masun”, popularized by Idowest became the spur-of-the-moment for much of 2018. 

In the last quarter of 2018, a young rapper named Zlatan took to shouting the ad-lib “Gbe body e” over zesty beats that marked the birth of his signature zanku music, often interchanging it with “Gbe soul e” for maximal effect. Much like Ji Masun, Gbe body e was an invocation to work hard and not give up, and paired with the Zanku culture and Zlatan’s work ethic the ad-libs became slangs that became an inescapable presence after an electrifying showing on Burna Boy’s “Killin Dem”. Zlatan’s success and his dalliance with Naira Marley set off one of the most inspired years in Afropop history, with Marley going on to release a canon of singles that elevated him to stardom despite spending considerable time incarcerated. His collaboration with Young Jonn, “Mafo”, a defiant pop anthem became another successful drop turning the single’s title into an exhortation and ubiquitous slang.

Through this all, the next frontier of Afropop slang is being decided by the up-and-coming generation of street popstars. Taking inspiration from street pop’s ever-changing pulse and Marley’s Opor, MohBad and Rexxie came up with the minimalist hit, KPK, an abbreviation of “Ko Po Ke”, a Yoruba phrase expressing delight at bountifulness. Straddling the intersection of mainstream music and street sensibilities, Mayorkun has established himself as a veritable slang machine, birthing the crisp but pure “of Lagos” tag and following it up with “this bread no be Agege”.

As Nigerian pop’s greatest synthesiser, Davido has demonstrated a knack for taking parts of the culture and reconfiguring them in new and exciting ways that increase reach. After a video of the “Jowo” singer working in the studio with Bad Boy Timz captioned “Hit Choke” went viral in January, the latest viral slang, “E Choke”, started to gain momentum, leading to its present position in pop vocabulary. With Nigerian music ascending to global fame, the results of our slangs are more decidedly global as the video of Drake admirably trying to say “e choke” when he linked with Davido in March proved. 

For the conceivable future, slangs will be a fixture of our music because the heterogeneity of Nigeria does not make it feasible that we have a central language. What that means is that, through the creolization of our languages into a hybrid communication system, we will find ways to convey our most urgent desires and feelings in wide-ranging slangs that the Internet will help proliferate. And because the work of pop music often comes down to reflecting the times it exists in, musicians will seek out the words that move the masses or attempt to come up with the words that will define our daily lives.

@walenchi Is A Lagos-Based Writer Interested In The Intersection Of Popular Culture, Music, And Youth Lifestyle.