Ajegunle played a huge role in Nigerian pop but it’s becoming a static footnote

There's a gentrification going on and it's affecting the music

The vestiges of true culture never truly fade away. Over time it may dampen, but the shades are visible for those who pay attention. In the case of Ajegunle, a bustling neighbourhood located in Lagos, its hyper-charged Ragga feel and the attendant culture has continued to trickle into visible spots of contemporary popular culture. These days, Jonzing World musician Ruger channels that era and has an eyepatch that would remind many of Baba Fryo; and not long ago, the pop star Tekno was sued by the group Danfo Drivers for his uncleared usage of their iconic Kpolongo record. It’s not that the culture has vanished, it’s more of how its cultural relevance has not translated to homegrown development for Ajegunle itself. 

It’s perhaps useful to know I’ve lived in the neighbourhood. My family moved to Ajegunle sometime before 2010, a time when its golden era had, quite honestly, passed. Back then, you could hear African China blaring from a local DVD shop but you couldn’t look around, and say the environment had remained the same. With an increasingly globalised world, modernity was fast creeping up, and even though our street was connected by a wooden bridge to the infamous Orege, its temperament was more middle-class than revolutionary. 

For those who have lived in the area or frequented its lively streets, the “real” Ajegunle—the area surrounding Boundary Market, where houses crashed against shops and violence was always possible. When my family moved there, the culture we’d so fallen in love with wasn’t quite visible. It took a while for me to recognise that what was once fondly called “AJ Music” by its residents had split into two; on one hand, was the colourful and didactic songs that had dominated Nigeria in the late nineties and into the 2000s; on the other hand, AJ Music had evolved, not to be found in traditional channels but within select hotspots, in places where you really had to live the culture you admired so much. 

Youth culture was (and remains) the driving force of the new AJ Music. It would be impossible to discuss the blossoming of the scene’s music from the early 2010s till the decade’s end without giving due credit to teenagers and young adults in secondary schools who bore its flag high. This was the peak era of former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola’s reign, a period marked by the mass commissioning of school projects. In Ajegunle, places such as the Ajeromi Ifelodun, the Tolu Complex and Awodi-Ora had many government-owned schools, which were usually surrounded by those owned by private individuals.

If you know anything about class tensions, it’s that culture plays a huge role in them. I belonged among private school students, and from across our fences, we would see the flamboyance of our public school counterparts. While we were strictly monitored, they could jump past low fences and adventure into the streets, create music and freely indulge in the vices which fuelled the music. Their expression translated into beautiful music, and if you lived in AJ at that time you’d be familiar with its intricacies. Frenetic loops and minimal percussion usually formed the crux of the sound, sometimes devoid of a musician’s vocals. This was perhaps part of the bigger wave of lo-fi inspired EDM music that was sweeping through hoods in mainland Lagos, but there were also unmissable vocals. If anything, many artists had resplendent vocals just as impressive as the song’s production, dialling in the praise-singing tradition of Fuji. Those songs served as love letters to the place which birthed them, and also included names of familiar students being shouted out. As a young boy witnessing the rise of this ascendant culture, it was all so intimate and current, folding to the ebbs of daily activities and newly constructed lores. 

School class parties were the more positive spaces for interacting with the music. Private schools tended to deem the fast-paced sound as local and substandard, and would instead play more mainstream songs of the day. We were however inclined to go outside, to the hotels situated unassumingly within quiet streets where the public schools had their own parties. From the sight of youngsters pouring from the hotel to sellers of alcoholic drinks, ice-cream and whatever else was desired on the day, the music was most likely to be playing from within the dancefloor. Even though these parties often erupted into fights, by then the fun was already had, and even then a little panicky run was considered a checkmark on one’s street credibility. 

The negative perception of AJ Music (also known as Awala music) among older people was stoked by these fights. Everyone knew the culture supplied the music, but it was the freewheeling nature of its purveyors which upset them off the most. Every young person did what they did, and sometimes it wasn’t always “acceptable.” Sprawling streets would be packed full of rioting students from different schools facing each other, with stones, knives, machetes and at rare times, guns being the weapons of combat. 

Raised up and forged on these nearby experiences, the lore of Ajegunle music was extended in the way the musicians knew how best to: swapping militancy for exuberance, the communal made way for the individual. And truly, some made their mark on the scene in the fashion of local superstars. The DJ’s were the creative directors of the scene with prominent names like Solo B, DJ Webo and DJ C3; of the musicians, Kosere Master was arguably the most popular, with Designer L’omo penetrating some parts of the mainstream. He would later feature Timaya on a record titled “Ghetto Lover” after signing on to TDM Records.

Kosere was the last we’ve heard from that movement in a long time. His record “Kwete Dance” spawned the eponymous dance which was hugely popular in the environs. So far, as I and many others have recounted, the scene hasn’t produced a star as widely accepted, while the music is slowly phasing out of the spaces it once dominated. The interest in creating from the tradition has waned. Where its culture was once rebellion in the style of Naira Marley’s Marlians, it’s now generally considered uncool.

The reasons for this are many, but we’ll start with the most obvious: time. In the time that has passed, the purveyors of that era of AJ music have grown up and moved out of the neighbourhood. Their concerns have evolved as well, with music not being considered a surefire way to success. A major reason for this is the widely turbulent Nigerian economy, which has left very little space for creativity. Everyone’s plotting their escape from the shackles of poverty and where music once formed the crux of that escapism, now the path leads unmistakably towards money. 

Capitalism has also towered over culture, as hotels and residential spots continue to erect all over Ajegunle. You would think this creates space for local talent, but the direction is quite tailored towards the cosmopolitan tastes of their customers. Because the people thronging into these spaces are the same people growing into the streaming era and its own direction, the music changes. Drive through Kirikiri Road or within the streets of Boundary, and you’ll likely hear a song by Fireboy DML or Lil Durk before the upbeat pomp of AJ music. 

In the schools, the money-making culture is also prevalent. Fewer students are hosting parties and even fewer event centres are willing to accommodate their relatively inexpensive frenzy. You also have to consider the dearth of working structures around Ajegunle; of course, there are studios, but who are the professionals working in them? Are they working with standard tools and knowledge? Are figures from mainstream pop leaving their Island base and coming to sign and collaborate with them? Are the talented artists even creating music? The simple answer is No, but there’s a larger conversation that’s opened by this stagnancy of Ajegunle music, and it’s not a conversation we’ve had very often. 

Nigerian pop music left the streets to sustain itself. However, we also have to consider the relative lack of street credibility that’s been spawned off that choice and whether it even matters. In the case of Ajegunle music, there’s been a slow dredging of its culture from the consciousness of the present and coming generations. In larger music spaces, it’s spoken of with a sort of odd nostalgia and will sometimes get played in a sudden burst of throwback emotions. There is every indication that it has become a footnote in Nigerian music history, just as places like Festac and Surulere have been. Ajegunle’s grace lies in the distinction of its birthed subgenre, but even more qualities you would find in its superstars. 

The likes of Daddy Showkey, Marvellous Benji, African China, Professor Linkin had their local experiences going for them, and the music bore that unique stamp as well. Given the multifaceted nature of the hood, from its rich southern representation to the swirling of Pidgin slang, the music was a cultural document as much as it was just a song. Now, it seems we’re witnessing fewer Pop songs pulling these textures of shared living into the composition and writing. So rare has the natural sweet-talk become, that it’s now hailed as lamba and is possessed by very few. For example, not many lyrics have had the potency of Oritse Femi’s “Opolo eye, e no be open eye,” on his “Double Wahala” hit song. When the creators who truly immerse themselves in the bustling streets sing, it’s almost always obvious. 

For stark representation we’ve often turned to the streets, to the likes of Bella Shmurda, Zinoleesky, T.I Blaze and Seyi Vibes, who aren’t as separated from the culture as their neatly-cut counterparts. Even pop superstars are coating their vocabulary in street lingo, from Rema’s “Are You There” to the many times Burna Boy has hit the Zanku on stages across the globe, and you can tell their compositions pay attention to local flavour. The streaming era has divorced the need for street credibility, as you can directly vaunt yourself into those important meetings with the right networking and sufficient ability. The term “area champion” has never been so avoided as it is in the present generation of Nigerian music. 

For those who can still afford to, it’s always a rich experience to connect with the traditions of your resident neighbourhood. Today’s music may well be considered an economic product but at the heart of it, is the connectivity of art. Generations stretch from the past to bring you endless possibilities, and culture exists to enrich your own individuality. As Afropop continues to carry itself across continents and stars continue to pass the baton to a new generation, it is important that we don’t divorce ourselves from that rich relationship with our local neighbourhood as the relationship is essential and ought to be harnessed.