What is Alté: How Nigeria’s most prominent alternative community continues to thrive
"I think the alté scene is at a crucial juncture."
"I think the alté scene is at a crucial juncture."
If you were an even mildly internet-savvy and culturally-aware teen or twenty-something growing up in Lagos back in 2016-17, then you more than likely remember the advent of the alté scene. Through the colourful words of frontrunners such as Cruel Santino, Odunsi (The Engine), DRB, and more, a vibrant and exciting cultural movement quickly captured the minds of young people across Nigeria. The subculture represented left-field styles of thinking through music, fashion, politics, tech and the arts. Alté started as a rebellious response to a traditional way of thinking, but it was most popularised by its genreless sound. And although now a globally-acknowledged movement, its origins are more multi-layered than many would assume.
There was the first coming between 2009 and 2014, heralded by the likes of DRB LasGidi, L.O.S, Ajebutter22, Show Dem Camp (SDC), and Blackmagic. These artists—many of whom were still secondary school students—emerged placing an uncommon emphasis on creativity, individuality and authenticity, while merging Western and local influences to produce music that was unlike anything coming out of Africa at the time. At first, the music was mainly shared through closed circuits—house parties, BlackBerry Messenger group chats, peer-to-peer Bluetooth sharing—but the internet and MP3 blogs made the music more accessible to anyone who happened to be curious enough. The creators had power in their hands and the ability to capture audiences attention with each daring choice.
The term ‘alté’ wasn’t coined until around the subculture’s second coming in 2016—a creative renaissance led by likes of Odunsi [The Engine], Santi (now known as Cruel Santino), Lady Donli, Amaarae, Tay Iwar, Fasina and Nonso Amadi. This new crop of young mavericks were even more united by their desire for experimentation, tapping into the deepest parts of their psyche to produce otherworldly music and crafting immersive worlds around experiencing it. As a subculture, the ethos remained the same, but the only difference was the increased avenues for connection and community-building. Technology advancements saw platforms like SoundCloud become the nexus point for them to share their music and build a community of ardent listeners and supporters both at home and abroad. Community-driven events like 90s Baby, NATIVELAND, The Basement Gig, and The Lemon Curd also offered a safe space for these artists to showcase their abilities and connect with their fans as well as like-minded creatives, in a way that mainstream platforms had failed to.
Soon enough, the alté scene expanded its terrain, spreading wider across fashion, film, and photography. Drawing inspiration from nostalgic early aughts media, the alté aesthetic quickly became a distinct marker for creatives who were dedicated to bucking traditions and living their truth. Meanwhile, on the music front, the scene grew richer and even more diverse with acts like Tems, Yinka Bernie, Prettyboy-DO, AYLØ, WurlD, WANI and Wavy the Creator catering to various types of listeners all searching for fresh sounds within Afropop. “Alté artists, at the time, represented something bigger than music,” says culture journalist Adaobi Ajegbo. “They represented a whole new generation of talent, adopting elements from pre-existing culture to create their own. Their newness was very fresh and it was very much like a rebellion against the norm, and doing something that had never been done before.”
But with rebellion came opposition, as the mainstream struggled to accept the alté scene’s desire for individualistic expression, criticising their experimental sounds and style choices, and ostracising them from industry events. Despite efforts at cultural advancement, Nigeria remains a deeply conservative society, and any attempts at going against the grain are often met with scepticism and derision. It’s no surprise then that alté—a culture that champions individuality and a sense of notoriety—was met with pushback from cultural gatekeepers and the wider public looking to maintain the status quo. “It was just a lack of understanding,” Ajegbo says, further explaining the mainstream’s initial rejection of the scene. “People always have an issue with something new, until they see the vision. They just didn’t see the vision at the time, especially when it was so different from what was common in Nigerian music.”
Yet, despite these obstacles, the defiance and determination of the movement have set a precedent for radical individualism among younger artists. Luminaries like Cruel Santino, Odunsi [The Engine], BOJ and Lady Donli have inspired a new vanguard of alternative artists while creating a playing field where they are confidently accepting the ‘alte’ tag—something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.
From acts like Somadina, SGaWD, brazy, Oshunda, VNTAGEPARADISE and Forevatired (now defunct), this crop of fresh talent are looking back to the near-past, and ahead to the future, while crafting sounds that are unique to them. Sonically, we could draw parallels between this new generation and their predecessors—the tight-pocketed bounce and groovy cadence on Oshunda’s “Dine” and “Battle Angel” harken back to Cruel Santino, while Somadina’s new-found psychedelic aesthetic is highly reminiscent of Odunsi [The Engine]. Still, what has inspired them the most is the courage their predecessors showed in chasing the freedom to create.
“I feel like they were the kids who really hacked Soundcloud,” explains culture journalist Chinonso Ihekire of Cruel Santino and Odunsi [The Engine]’s impact. “They understood its international significance, or maybe not, but they soared on that leverage. They rebelled consistently against the norm in fashion, music, [and] music marketing, especially with their unique style of making music videos and promoting themselves on social media. That sense of audacity was alluring.”
Even while passing along the baton, the older generations of alté artists aren’t slowing down anytime soon. Tems has gone from performing for a niche audience to winning a Grammy award, bagging an Oscar nomination and collaborating with the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna and Drake; Cruel Santino and Odunsi [The Engine] are scoring slots at international festivals and touring the world, Amaarae’s music has travelled a long way from the storied halls of SoundCloud to the top of Billboard charts, and Show Dem Camp has remained generationally relevant while also incubating new talent. And in many ways, their sense of individuality has equally inspired the mainstream, breathing new life into its cultural landscape.
Landmark collaborations like Odunsi [The Engine] and Davido’s “divine,” Wizkid and Tay Iwar’s “True Love” (and Iwar’s songwriting credit on Wizkid’s “Steady”) as well as Tems and Wizkid’s global smash “Essence” are just a few examples of how the genre has expanded the sonic scope of Afropop. And with emerging and established acts like Ayra Starr, Asake, Fireboy DML and Adekunle Gold adopting video aesthetics and fashion choices from altéculture, the movement’s impact on the mainstream can no longer be denied. “Everyone is comfortable enough to be vulnerable and abstract with their music, because of these pioneers,” explains Ihejirika. Still, there’s something to be said about the mainstream co-opting altécultural codes and sounds but not embracing the scene as a whole.
“I think the alté scene is at a crucial juncture in terms of where the sonics and aesthetics can go and what the goal for the scene and its stars is,” suggests culture journalist Wale Oloworekende. “There’s criticism that the Nigerian music industry has not embraced them wholeheartedly but I think there needs to be reflection on both sides. Alte music has gone hyper-specific as Afropop is entering its mass-market era and that speaks to the foundational ethos of individuality that propelled the scene to global fame. Still, it would be nice to see projects that mix that free-wheeling sense of experimentation with a stylistic nod to Afropop elements like Amaarae’s debut did and songs like Odunsi’s ‘Fuji 5000.’”
One factor that played a critical role in the rise to prominence of the alté community is the progressive work put in by each successive generation of the community. Starting from the pioneering work of collectives like L.O.S and DRB LasGidi, who largely laid down the alternative ethos and founded the precept of tight-knit camaraderie within the community. Others like Odunsi, Cruel Santino and Lady Donli set the stage for what the alté sound could aspire towards, taking creative risks that paid off and stamping a defined sonic identity for the community. Newer generations are now building on the work of their predecessors, with artists like brazy, Somadina and Azanti taking the sonics and creative aesthetics to a whole new level.
Yet, as the scene has progressed, many worry it may be losing its communal essence. Born in the cultural fringes, the alté scene has historically touted a sense of solidarity and collaboration among its members. But these days, there’s a visible lack of camaraderie within the community that has translated to a gradual dearth of prominent cultural institutions to celebrate their sound. Perhaps this might be one reason alté music hasn’t been able to solidify its place in the Nigerian music scene after all this time.
Critics of the alté movement argue that it didn’t “scale as well as it could have when it needed to” while rallying for more cross-industrial collaborations with the mainstream. “We already exist in an industry that doesn’t have structure. So when you are trying to develop a subgenre in such a space, it’s difficult,” explains Simi Badiru, Head of Artist Services & Relationships, Trace West Africa. “I just feel the alté community needs to try as much as possible to plug themselves more into more mainstream conversations, because at the end of the day, you can’t do everything yourself.” In some ways, this is already happening: just recently, Cruel Santino released the full version of his TikTok viral number, “Showmetheway !!,” which featured street pop culture icon Poco Lee.
Unanimous mainstream acceptance – sans co-opting – may still be far off, but the impact of acts like Cruel Santino, SDC and Odunsi will only continue to be evident in future generations to come, inspiring them to reinvent the genre’s sonic wheels. “Are we going to see more artists like Santi?” questions Badiru. “Probably, but then again, I feel like there’s going to be somebody else that comes to completely change [the] game. It’s been done before, it can be done again.”