CKay, Omah Lay & The Rise of Emo-Influenced Nigerian Pop

An offshoot of rock, a fairly recent wave of rap, and now a prominent sensibility in Nigerian pop.

The relationship between modern Nigerian music and foreign influences is well charted. Since the foundational period of the nineties, the received sounds of the diaspora have been beautifully translated by our musicians. It is rather indisputable that Hip-Hop and R&B partially formed the sonic bedrock of Nigerian pop. As the Afropop genre has mutated and carried our artists voices across continents, propelling urban Nigerian music towards global dominance, the role of musical quality has been unwavering in constructing a cohesive vision.

There hasn’t been any generation more equipped than the present one, rife with technological advancements which enable record-fast sound transmission. The last decade has seen Afropop superstars shift the needle of global pop music as much as their Western counterparts have, even though we’re now more like partners tapping from the same sonic material. Of them all, the most influential has arguably been Hip-Hop, and its once-controversial and now-accepted subgenre of Trap, which had spurned off the wave of emo-rap in the mid 2010s, a sonic touchstone for some of Nigerian pop’s brightest superstars operating today. 


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How did this genre which began in eighties America as a subgenre of rock become something to be adapted into the perspectives of Nigerian musicians? The trend is now overtly in our faces that CKay, one of the biggest artists in the continent, describes his sound as “emo afrobeats.” The Nigerian musician’s journey, over the past few years, has been inspiration to say the least. Even though his earliest work grasped unremarkably at mainstream sounds, his artistic vision began to emerge with his ‘CKay The First’ EP which was heavy on sci-fi symbolism while embracing a moody undertone in the records. For relatability, he grasped tenderly at stories of toxic love and damning exuberance. 

By the time his sophomore project ‘Boyfriend’ was released in 2021, CKay began describing his music as “emo afrobeats,” giving a distinct allusion to the emotional leanings in his music which drew on his loverboy anguish. In a scene where many artists have claimed ownership of their sound and rushed to define it in certain terms, CKay’s preferred title didn’t raise much hairs at the time. However, the more CKay rises to prominence, the more he is been pulled into the necessary discussion of sonic inspiration, investigating where, how and what it comes from. In the run-up to his latest single “you,” the Anambra-born musician laid claim to a sound that he and Dice Ailes created during their time in Chocolate City, proclaiming that in no way ,is he a copycat as detractors have said. 

However, what really is that sound? Is it emo as CKay claims? Looking at the history of the genre, quite possibly, no. CKay is not entirely wrong either, because some of the associative themes of emo music can be gleaned everywhere in contemporary music. More less than the culture, it’s the ripple effects of emo’s influence on the global pop space circa 2017 that has been noteworthy, via Lil Uzi Vert’s classic smash “XO TOUR LIF3” and the ascendance of beloved emo-rap figures like Lil Peep, XXXTENTACION and Trippie Redd. But emo comes with a larger history, a soundtrack of a generation so far away. Music is bound to travel, and the peculiarities of that movement is influencing a generation of Nigerian musicians. Surely, there’s resonance; a reason why this is happening now and why. 

Emo was one of the many genres which was cut off the tapestry of rock, following its own vision. In the mid eighties to the decade’s end, bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring and Dag Nasty represented the subgenre’s probing of existence by diving deep into chaos. Such revered purveyors were poets of the personal doom, making homes in the very rooms conventionality describes as forbidden. With grungy, rock-heavy guitars and devastated, admitting lyricism their songs characterised the feeling of disassociation increasingly becoming common in America.  

My Chemical Romance’s 2001 debut album ‘The Black Parade’ is acclaimed as one of the genre’s most iconic albums and was directly inspired by the 9/11 tragedy on America’s  Twin Towers. In a piece published on The Ringer during their emo week, it was argued that the band was the last great rock band, also the biggest catalysts of emo’s third wave in the 2000s. As far as history goes, theirs was an influential presence, and soon became a musical sensibility that couldn’t just go away.

And why would it? Melancholy is widely believed to be a great spark for artful inspiration, reason being that some of the most transcendental creators the world has seen share an edge for the dark, a lingering dance with demons and the knowledge and thrills they possess. People are genuinely sad. And with Hip-Hop, perhaps being the most verbally expressive genre, the alliance with emo was very likely to happen. Jay-Z had even made the joint album ‘Collision Course’ with alt-rock band Linkin Park in 2004, the ‘Reasonable Doubt’ rapper being a name usually considered an outlier in such discussions. 

The emo rap era blossomed just after 2015, an experiment by rappers who existed outside the fringes of traditional rap. Though their image and lifestyle was heavily criticised, the sensitivity of emo allowed them to present an artsy image. They could truly be profound too: the lyrics had an unlikely-yet-piercing investigation into one’s pain, heartbreak conjured in as much angst as losing family. This was also the era of Soundcloud, the ground-breaking platform which gave musicians creative power. The platform became a favoured spot for emo-leaning musicians like Lil Peep, Trippie Redd, Juice Wrld and XXXTentacion to build their respective fanbases, and it was not long  after the entire platform became known for such nihilistic, cutting themes. Emerging from that scene and into global dominance, their figures readily available to internet-savvy teenagers and young adults all over the world, Nigeria included. 

When the children of emo emerged into the radiant spotlight, their demons were visible for all to see. At times, the lyrics weren’t just words; they were indeed abusive to the women in their lives and abused drugs and engaged in gang activity. There was pushback, of course. Conservative America heard no qualities in the music, only the romance with death and all things dark. Critics pushed against it, especially those who lumped into the divisive mumble rap conversations; statistics reported a growing number in deaths; its credibility as emo was swatted away, another fly on the juicy skin of musical greatness. Even an ominous headline on Reddit reads, “Your sad Soundcloud rap is not emo.” 

Around that same period, Nigerian artists were using Soundcloud to great effect. They built cult followings and released some of the most creative music Nigerians have ever heard and due to their age and relatable themes, young people were their largest audience demographic. Some of the artists described themselves as Alte, the movement that was fast rising among West African creatives orbiting the worlds of music, fashion, film, visual art and photography. 

In 2016, Cruel Santino who is often viewed as the de-facto leader of the Alte scene created the cult classic ‘Suzie’s Funeral’, a robust, colourful, and almost delirious depiction of his world. Concepts of sojourn and unrequited love were woven into the songs, while the album’s soundscape was often psychedelic. Among Santino’s many sonic touchstones, rock obviously supplies a gritty edge to his sound and aesthetic, though he didn’t directly claim the influence. A number of artists within that fold were curating similar experiences, but it took a while for the radiant children of Nigerian emo to enter the mainstream.

When they did, the sound’s origin was barely recognised. Perhaps we can chalk this to a lack of interest in the intricacies, which was why CKay was sometimes referred to as Alte. Even though he didn’t claim the tag, it was maybe easy to see why that was. For many, being viewed as alte was the African representation of being emo, though its creatives did more than just being sad. Rema and Victony were some of the earliest mainstream-circuiting artists who had traceable influences from emo rap. Rema’s debut eponymous EP had “Why” as a symbolic hit, a Trap-leaning song that was a chilling query into a relationship’s dissolution, with the Benin-born artist yelling as much as he sang, belting the words with youthful, almost child-like refusal.  

That project showcases an essential part of Rema’s artistry, which fortunately seems to be a generational ability. From Benin to Lagos, Awka and Ibadan, young artists are increasingly able to document their pains and recognise it as such, advancing a trope few Nigerian musicians in the past did sparingly. “Peace Of Mind” ranks high among Rema’s catalogue owing to its affecting quality, which provided ample space for the young citizen’s consideration of his country’s ills and how they related to him. 

Victony’s interpretation is visually enriched with representations of colours, crosses and tattoos—entries into dark spaces where one must contend with ambitions and nightmares. ‘The Outlaw King’, his 2017 mixtape, flexed his rapping skills, while he carried into his pop excursions the vulnerable lyricism and vocal dynamism. 2020’s ‘Saturn’ EP swirled with those qualities, the production often moody even when the singing was alert. “More” was a knees-down plea for a lover’s tenderness, and “Pray”, the song he recorded after surviving a car crash, was dark and hopeful. This year’s “Kolomental” was the second single before the release of his ‘Outlaw’ EP, and was released on the one-year anniversary of that incident. Its lyrics are resonating especially the stoic-leaning assurance in its chorus, “I no fit reason am, e go kpai me”. 

In some way, you could argue that the post-2018 generation of Nigerian superstars are the children of emo. In most projects, there are records created solely on the subject of loneliness and feeling misunderstood. Our collective memory is no doubt shaped by the angst of being Nigerian, the continued economic struggle and deprivation of human rights, especially those of young people in metropolitan cities. 

Even within popularly acclaimed albums like Fireboy DML’s ‘Apollo’ and Ayra Starr’s ‘19 & Dangerous’, songs like “Airplane Mode” and “Lonely” are revealing of that sensibility. The former’s introspection is presented as a related epiphany of a famous and young artist, one whose debut album was positively received and earned the tag of a classic. That rising profile usually comes with a lot of wanna-be friends and groupies, and Adedamola wants to sidestep all that attention. “I just wanna be alone, I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he sings on the hook, “Nothing dey do me you should know; I just feel like I should do this on my own.” 

Ayra’s record emerges from a more feminine perspective, detailed with pained longing. Her verses are delivered in a spritzy style but the words are themselves cutting, and when the bawling chorus of “I’m lonely, baby boy I am sorry, I be human being o,” comes on, you’re almost inclined to throw your hands in shameless admittance, too. 

Perhaps the biggest indicator of these themes’ relevance is its filtering onto the plane of Street pop, a subgenre that is usually inclined towards the aspiration of financial gains and a better lifestyle. In recent times, its creators seem to have realised that the other side is not always greener. Images of opulence are still conveyed, but often they’re paired with stark reminders of their own vanity. It’s a trait often turned inside out by Zinoleesky, presenting hope within party bops while always watchful of the complexities of coming from his specific background. 

“Sometimes” by T.I Blaze is perhaps the most penetrating street pop record of the past year, its popularity helped along by an Olamide-assisted remix, and everywhere one went you’d hear the instantly memorable poetry of its chorus: “Sometimes food no give man joy, but Canadian loud the feeling is different.” The artist is one the NATIVE columnist Wale Oloworekende believes is one of the most important Street pop artists operating today. The reasons for that are vast, but asides the obvious technical skills his emotive lyricism is very key, how he sings the persistent angst of a generation. That record also highlights the tendency of young people to cope using familiar vices like weed and drugs and alcohol.

‘Boy Alone’, the debut album from Omah Lay has frequently elicited the ‘album of the year’ acclaim, and for good reason. Young people relate with stories like his, everything from the insane sexual experiences to the creeping loneliness, the sudden urge to scream at everything and nothing. On songs like “i’m a mess” and “temptations”, he’s very open about his journey from relative obscurity to fame, and how that still hasn’t brought him the peace he’s craved for much of his adult life.

Vices are strewn here and there, but the lyricism doesn’t glorify the pain as much as it admits it; there’s still some Nigerian reserve. On a podcast interview he told music journalist Joey Akan that “never forget” was an ode to his departed father, while reminiscing on his days working at mining factories in Port Harcourt. When he sings, “everybody will die, die like ants and rot like millipedes,” that sense of annihilation doesn’t sound as fatal as it usually would, because it’s true and has clearly been experienced by the singer. 

Alliance with the zeitgeist is a sure way to be relatable, and emo offers Nigerian artists the template within which they can fit their distinct narratives. As critics rightly argue, it’s not so much a genre as it is a sensibility, and so far only CKay has “owned” the tag. The singer now has the benefit of being global now, but lesser known artists would be more comfortable with the Afrobeats classification. Pulling closer into the movement, channelling its fashion and guitar affiliation, the title of his forthcoming debut album‘Sad Romance’—hints at the overarching theme of the body of work he’s presenting. 

What is obvious is that Nigerian artists will continue to chart the turbulent seas of their emotion, whether it is called emo or some other variation of the term. What cannot be disregarded though, are the absence of mental health and anxiety consultation services across Nigeria. Even when they’re available, these services are often unaffordable and sometimes unprofessional, adapting religion as a standpoint to investigate mental illnesses. After all the records have been created and listened to and discussed, this should be a reminder that we spend our nights with ourselves, and ourselves alone.