Big Brother Naija is reaching into the music industry

As Big Brother Nigeria returns to our screens Wale Oloworekende investigates how this series differs from past ones. 

As Big Brother Nigeria returns to our screens, populating pop culture conversation, freelancer, Wale Oloworekende investigates how this latest iteration of the religiously-viewed reality TV show differs from past seasons. 

Earlier in July when Big Brother Naija rolled back into town after its one-year hiatus, powered by a lavish budget and turbocharged by its ever-willing phalanx of viewers and on-the-go commentators, it felt inevitable that the 24-hour reality TV show would slowly but surely alter the nature and scope of leading conversations across social platforms in the coming months. Throwing up a mix of viral memes, funny pictures, media heartthrobs, pantomime villains, and enough contentious moments to last a lifetime per season, the ubiquitous TV show over the years has morphed into the sort of well-oiled pop-culture machine. The show is dually established in online circles and on the wider Nigerian consciousness to much the same extent as any previous television fixtures from the yesteryears.

Big Brother Naija, however, stands apart from those other reality shows because of its roving roster. Apart from the immutable cameras of the widely-watched show that satiates Internet curiosity, one of the most important factors that have helped build traction is the sheer diversity of the contestant pool that makes their way into the house every year. Sans criticism of stereotypical character casting, there have been business owners, fitness enthusiasts, aspiring actors, pilots, musicians, and models who have sought to use the Big Brother platform as a launching pad for their lofty aspirations.

Nollywood has, perhaps, been the biggest beneficiary of those dreams; with the high premium placed on publicly-recognisable faces in Nigeria’s movie industry, ex-BBNaija housemates like Alex, Tobi, and Bisola have navigated the path from reality TV characters to movie stars with relative ease, appearing in a number of high-profile productions since their time in the house. The link with the movie industry has also been engendered by the showrunners on multiple occasions across previous seasons, with a number of Nollywood icons visiting the house to discuss and socialise with housemates. And the benefits for the brand’s visibility have been clear: Nollywood’s leading lights are co-opted into the emotional whirring of the show, and bring their sizeable followings into the mix also, thereby amplifying the drama and intrigue that BBN thrives on.

Curiously, for all its masterful understanding of the buttons that push the cultural plain and the Nigerian psyche, the Big Brother Naija brand has, perhaps unconsciously, relegated music to the backburner of the show. In a country revered for its innovative music community, iconic acts, and devoted fandoms it inspires, music has never been conspicuously written into the multi-layered, plot-shifting grand story of the show; instead, the art form had always been limited to a form of aesthetic and used, at other times, as content filler.

Belatedly, as the early weeks have shown, the music industry is colliding with Big Brother Naija. In the time since the reality show has returned to screens all over the country, and as subtle subplots are being planted, it is not hard to pick up on the fact that some of the biggest conversations to come out of the house have been predicated on music, the characters around it, and their intersection with the wider ecosystem. On opening night, music fans, journalists, and artists were pleasantly surprised to see some representation from their industry as a number of music personalities got introduced to the public as part of the “Lockdown” class.

This is not to suggest that Big Brother Naija has never had a dalliance with music culture in the past, alumni like Efe Ejeba, K.Brule, and Debbie Rise have used visibility from the show to build music careers of some note, the only *key* difference is that the parameters of the relationship between the music industry and reality TV is moving beyond the ideation of a need to deliver unheralded talent from the fringes to the thick of national conversations. Big Brother Naija is freeing itself of the responsibility of spotting the remotest talents and casting a wider net on music industry hotspots like Lagos and Port Harcourt to present stars that more closely fit into the industry’s scale of preference.  

A natural consequence of that is the inclusion of Laycon and Tolanibaj as contestants this year. Both participants are fairly known in the Lagos music ecosystem and that drives up conversations around them and, by extension, the show in the city that moonlights as Nigeria’s cultural capital. To be clear, this recognition is the key difference between a Laycon and an Efe Ejeba. Where one came on the show as a gifted but unrefined outsider with dreams of music glory, the other is seasoned in the inner theatrics of the industry and has a slew of partnerships to offer up as proof of artistic legitimacy and cultural currency.

It is that startling understanding of those halfway portents-making culture tick, that allows Big Brother Naija to be the premier brand positioner and ad seller in these parts. In proving of its power, mere hours after being introduced as a housemate, Laycon’s album, ironically (or perhaps strategically) titled Who is Laycon, was on the trending list of all major music stores in Nigeria and has continued to chart. In the weeks after, his profile has been bolstered as has his social media following in ways that no other form of targeted marketing or PR gimmicking could have mustered. Just last night as his “Hiphop” song featuring Deshinor raved through this week’s House party, online viewers were as full of support as the housemates in reaction to hearing one of Laycon’s tracks. 

Regardless of whatever he goes on to do, Laycon’s character module is a direct progeny of Efe Ejeba. The ‘original’ BBNaija musician, Efe’s post-house career is proof that, come what may, people will always identify with you even if the music doesn’t connect because the clout already exists. However, unlike Efe, who didn’t have a project before she starred in the house, Laycon’s album was strategically released in advance, ensuring that he comes home to a fan base that wants more of him and enough clout to push further work out to significant public frenzy. For Big Brother Naija, syncing Laycon’s publicly-backed come-up into the narrative of the show ensures that the show is tethered to the music community and the larger machinery that is invested in Laycon’s success.

Similarly, there are benefits to aligning with the brand even for established acts. For the entire course of its seasonal run, there is no stage that will command more attention and potential for virality than Big Brother Naija’s and the reasons are abundant: Millions tune in enviously to the weekly Saturday parties to follow the never-ending carousel of high-octane drama the event provides. Furthermore, as we saw with the rampant excitement around Oxlade’s performance yesterday, any musician who shows up to the Big Brother House is likely to get a significant boost as well as centering in the most heated discourses of that day off that appearance. From last weekend’s eventful party, public reaction to the inability of Omah Lay to perform due to technical hitches dominated the Twitter landscape, as did sarcastic reactions to Sarz’s disc-jockeying which didn’t quite match up to what they were expectating from the premier beat-maker. Watching these creators become a part of intense cross-platform conversations off the back of (non) appearances provides an indication of how Big Brother Naija can affect the ebb and flow of culture in all directions. 

Aisosa Okundaye, former head of public relations at Chocolate City, believes that getting a placement on the show is a huge landmark for any artiste. “There is almost a celebratory feel that just saysoh, I’m making the right move,” he says. “The housemates know your songs, the DJs know your songs, you can count that as a success.” Artists are also self-aware enough to recognise the import of the platform. In discussion with one artist, who remains anonymous, days before the inaugural party of the current season, he elucidated his plan to release his sophomore album in the thick of the show in hopes of getting a placement on the show that can be piggybacked off to help the album’s reach.

Of course, this symbiotic relationship does not only provide benefits to the music industry. Music content is central to the logic of sequestering people away for over 90 days. To combat the ennui of being separated from loved ones and sources of enjoyment, avenues like the weekly party, which is heavily dependant on music for entertainment, are central to the show. In turn, the weekly parties continue to provide newsworthy moments that feed into the omnivorous appetite of social media, especially now when the social realities of our time mean that people are forced to seek entertainment online.

As mentioned earlier, Big Brother Naija has found a way to co-opt movie industry practitioners into the doldrums of now-iconic fandoms and stanships in previous years, but the music industry remains an unconquered frontier. Beyond scatterings of support for specific contestants in seasons past, music stars, bar exceptions like Don Jazzy, have not immersed themselves into day-to-day details of what plays out on their TV screens and as such those in their spheres of influence may also be further out of the Big Brother Naija loop. Now though, with musicians showing support for Laycon, and some from the wider industry rooting for Tolanibaj, there is traceable interest from people who might have only been casual observers in the past. Music personalities drive up engagement, their music soundtracks activities in the house – both show and personalities benefit from the arrangement.

Indeed, for much of Big Brother Naija’s run, the approach to music’s potentiality on the shows has often appeared as a mere byproduct of other strategies for engagements. This season is displaying the full power of the reality TV show as an arbiter of sorts and a nexus for conversations around popular music like never before. But what if the alignment of music and reality TV right now is just the tip of the iceberg? What if there’s more to come as the season goes by and more viewers get put on to Laycon? Are we ready for the implication of what it would mean to have a potential music superstar broken in by the pop culture reach of Big Brother Naija?

For Aisosa, something about 2020 means the possibility of a Big Brother Naija music superstar is not to be scoffed at. 

“Anything is possible, the end goal is about presenting the (musical) talents of a person and Big Brother Naija is one of those platforms where you get to show yourself and get heard. There’s that opportunity to get seen, so, of course, it is definitely possible to break through and become established based on that hype because talent is talent at the end of the day.” 

Already, whisperers suggest that record labels want to make a play for Laycon post-Big Brother Naija, hinting at a future where many more up-and-comers and/or rising stars might see the route as a plausible option for career advancement.

What cannot be in doubt is that we are only beginning to see the full scale of Big Brother Naija’s potential in relation to music. The medium has always been a locus of popular culture’s interjection with human psychology, and now it is maximally showing how both relate to music – established and budding. What plays out on TV screens soon enough seeps into the larger society and Big Brother Naija may just be in the process of changing all our conceptions of music breakthroughs, and what is worth paying attention to. 

It’s worth paying attention to.

Wale Oloworekende is a Lagos-based freelance writer interested in the intersection of popular culture, music, and youth lifestyle.