Where were you: The irony & showmanship at the Blaqbonez anti-love crusade
A night with several highlights
A night with several highlights
As Blaqbonez scurried about the stage at 2am in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day, something spectacularly ironic caught my eye. While the rapper/singer was passionately singing “Never Been in Love,” perhaps the most symbolic track of his debut album, two concert-goers were in the warmest embrace you’ll ever see, even going as far as exchanging pecks and playful kisses. “Never been in love, so fuck that shit!” Blaqbonez bellowed, and what seemed like deep romantic affection was happening barely fifteen yards away from the stage.
Last year, Blaqbonez released his debut album, ‘Sex > Love’, a consistently impassioned expression of his preference for carnal relations over the confines of romantic love. What that album lacked in nuance, it made up for in conviction and craft, combining forthright songwriting, Blaq’s oscillation between bright melodic croons and vivid rap flows, his delightfully badgering persona, and the innate eclecticism of Nigerian pop music. The 14-song set—19 on the deluxe—was a collection of the varying forms Blaqbonez has been experimenting with in the last few years of his career, from trap inclinations to the D-O-inspired dancehall explorations, adding his own obsession with Nigerian pop melodies to create his own version of a Rap/Pop fusion artist.
With “Bling” as its runaway hit song, and the considerable successes of other singles such as “Fendi” and “Okwaraji,” ‘Sex > Love’ is a career-defining feat for Blaqbonez. To gauge that definitiveness, you had to have witnessed his headlining concert at Lagos’ Muri Okunlola Park. At 10:30pm, well over 90 minutes after the event was scheduled to start and with opening acts warming the crowd up, a line of attendees stretched out from the entrance gate to the venue’s other side, all waiting to get tickets since regular early bird tickets were all sold out digitally. I’m not that great at estimates but, excluding those still trying to get in, I can confidently say there were over 2,000 concertgoers already inside the confines of the open air venue.
That turnout was pretty much expected. In the days leading up to the live show, Blaqbonez had gone on an inventive, humorous social media-driven campaign that amplified the candour of its headline material. Titled ‘Breaking the Yoke of Love’ and billed as a crusade, the rap artist added the familiar hysterics of Christianity to his anti-love stance, building up an intrigue that thousands clearly wanted to experience. One look at the stage set-up, and you could tell Blaq, his production crew and his supporting cast (of strictly male artists) didn’t want to disappoint.
14 seconds of beauty 🖤 pic.twitter.com/gVlZYdcXTa
— Emeka The Stallion 🐎 (@BlaqBonez) February 14, 2022
There was signage at the top that reminded attendees that this was a Blaqbonez crusade ministry presentation, a pulpit stood at the centre of the stage until Blaq asked his ushers to move it, and I lost count of how many times the headliner, his guest acts and hosts openly rebuked love. To the latter point, I also lost count of how many times I saw what I assume were couples, different set of duos linking arms, holding hands, petting one another heavily, and playfully singing along in each other’s faces. Of course, they were those who came with friends, and maybe I might be overstating the romantic element in the crowd, but I saw enough to be slightly amused and generally intrigued by the irony on display.
The thing is, concerts are widely known to be great avenues for dates, so couples would inevitably find their way into an anti-love concert. After all, these are the same people that harass our timelines with ‘me & mine’ pictures. In another moment that caught my eye, Mavin’s latest signee Magixx dropped by to perform his biggest song yet, “Love Don’t Cost a Dime,” and not too far from the food vendor stand where I was, a guy and a girl were doing their own karaoke rendition of the song, with the intimate energy of those “our song” couple moments.
Even Blaqbonez might have been complicit in these situations with certain line-up inclusions, like bringing CKay on to perform a 3-song set of hugely popular, romantic cuts. In my mind, that playful friction between the concert’s non-committal, hedonistic theme and the small but significant displays is symbolic of the common trope about how Lagos people—and many in this generation of youth, in fact—approach romantic relationships with ambiguity, wavering between the idea of wholesome devotion to a person and the pleasure-seeking thrill of the streets. Breaking the Yoke of Love celebrated that ambiguity, with an emphasis on the hedonistic pole.
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Commandeered by a consistently vivacious Blaqbonez, Breaking the Yoke of Love used the same showmanship of its campaign as its foundational element. Minutes before midnight, Blaq emerged in the same white suit he’d been spotted in throughout the promo run for the concert, setting a searing tone with the one-two punch of “Novacane” and “Heartbreaker.” The air of anticipation had, by the second song, fully given way to the excitement that had been brewing since the handful of highlights from the preceding hour: Kayode performing his melodic drill slapper “Live Forever,” Josh2Funny’s humorous music parody act, and the slapstick comedy of Arole and Yhemolee.
For much of the 3-hour-plus set, Blaqbonez intertwined performances of songs from his debut LP with cameo appearances from his guest ‘ministers’, some much longer than the others. He set a reasonably high bar for the entirety of the night, rapping with vim, singing with poise, and prancing around the stage with controlled mania. Mixing the live elements from his backing band with TV tracks spun by the DJ, there was enough technical composure to signify that he matched the visibility of his online gimmicks with offline rehearsals. The preparedness was amplified by remarkable sound engineering, ensuring that the Blaqbonez and his supporting act—most of who used the DJ-backed tracks—were loud and clear.
A very common critique of live shows in Nigerian music is the propensity many artists have for lip-syncing and generally being offbeat. Thankfully, that’s not a critique that can be applied to Breaking the Yoke of Love. Both seasoned and rising artists did a good job at actually singing and rapping their words for the sake of clarity. When Blaqbonez brought out the rising singer Maxee to perform “National Cake,” his breakout song which was also fitting for the concert’s theme, his buttery tenor rang out to the very back of the venue where I was at the time. PsychoYP came on to perform a couple of songs off last year’s Euphoria, closing out with King Perryy’s “YKTFV,” and his sleek cadence was robust enough to get those at the front jumping.
The crowd at Muri Okunlola on that night was packed with young people, many of them seemed like undergrads—which makes sense because Blaqbonez took his promotion to the University of Lagos days before. These were guys and ladies who were engaged during M.I’s nostalgia-infused set, and were also actively interacting while younger pop stars like Buju and MohBad performed their hit songs. For each recognisable song, there were shouts of approval and singalongs. The level of engagement barely waned, whether it was Jaido P briefly popping by for “Tesinapot” or the euphoria that took hold when Mayorkun surprisingly appeared to perform “The Best” and “Holy Father.”
A significant portion of the higher peaks of the show were powered by gimmicks. Many of the supporting acts indulged Blaq’s theme, performing in their Sunday best suits, but it was Falz and Bella Shmurda that completely obliterated the assignment. Falz came in with a complete pastor’s set, including a roman collar to round out his fit. The songs he performed, like “Bop Daddy” and “Alakori,” were hits but the crowd seemed more into his cameo for that outfit choice. Bella Shmurda comically trudged on stage with a book that resembled the Bible, and engaged the crowd with bawdy humour: “Tell your neighbour, ‘you are a fuck, fucker, fuckest.’”
All through it—except the brief interlude that included sets by LadiPoe, Skales and more guests, as well as an outfit change to a blood-red suit—Blaqbonez was on stage, performing hypeman duties for his supporting acts in between his own songs, and sometimes seeming genuinely amused that he was actually pulling all of this off. For his final gimmick, Blaq faked the crowd out on another guest, before casually announcing that the show was over. The crowd, which had barely dwindled in numbers, weren’t buying it even though we had already clocked the joke. “They are still waiting sha,” he said from the exit side of the stage, disappearing into the night with no encore.