Legacy: The late Da Grin, a beacon of hope to the hopeless

Ayomide O. Tayo reflects on watching the rise of Da Grin and his towering legacy in the aftermath of his passing

Today marks a decade since Barack O’ Grin passed away. After a nasty car accident and a tough battle for his life, Da Grin died while he was at the cusp of greatness and at the brink of mainstream success. As hundreds of people marched from his former home in Surulere to the National Stadium during his candlelight service, Da Grin had endeared himself with the poor and  downtrodden – the lost generation.

He became the illustrator of the streets, who told stories about life in the slums and ghettos of Lagos. Similarly to the way rappers like Notorious B.I.G, Eazy E, Fredo Santana, Nipsey Hussle, Pop Smoke & others did before their untimely deaths, Da Grin composed vignettes about parts of Lagos lacking enough tarred roads for flashy cars to roam. 

He put a spotlight on the neglected, and became a source of hope for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. A street general to the core, Da Grin had amassed a legion of followers before he died, and even after his death, is still celebrated as a hero.

Less than a year before he passed, Dagrin released his sophomore album, ‘C.E.O’ (Chief Executive Omo’ta) to both critical and commercial acclaim. While his debut album, ‘Still On The Matter’, was a muted affair, his second LP was a work of art that shifted culture and moved the needle. It’s perhaps the most influential album of this generation after Wande Coal’s ‘Mushin 2 Mo ‘Hits’.

Dagrin’s sophomore smashed the glass ceiling and listening to the album in 2009, you knew you were listening to a work of art that was about to change history, you could feel it in your bones, you could taste it in the air – it was that real. C.E.O shifted the trajectory of Nigerian rap music.

In late 2008, M.I dropped his debut album ‘Talk About It’, a blistering album which was equal parts swag, mainstream appeal, cool rhymes and lifestyle engineering. It was a momentous LP that sold rap as a lifestyle and a culture, rather than a geeky art-form. M.I wasn’t alone in selling rap music to the mainstream; straight from Nigeria’s elite, Naeto C arrived with so much swag you’d think he invented it. His debut album ‘You Know My P’ was another great cultural moment for Nigerian hip-hop, where he managed to influence lingo, fashion and pop culture like none other.

With Naeto C and M.I peddling this brand of rap music, it was difficult to imagine someone succeeding with a different, more gritty style of hip-hop. During this period of glossy rap music, in the dark alleys of inner city Lagos, a street singer by the name of YQ released a single titled “Efimile” featuring Da Grin, which became a hit where many applauded ‘Grin’s input. Regardless, he wasn’t dominating the rap headlines.

M.I still reigned supreme, and at the 2009 Headies in Abuja, he took home the award for Best Rap Album, whilst Dagrin merely attended the show. For his second album, Dagrin primarily worked with Sossick whose work with his brother Gino a few years before on his debut album had earned him a reputation as a sick producer.

The first release from the project was “Pon Pon Pon”, a track hard as nails, which made you want to beat your chest with your fist and swoon in Naija pride. Dagrin’s opening lines on the song kick off with pro-Naija sentiments, but quickly settles into poignant bars about what life is like in the ghetto – dark, cunning, brutish, bullish and tough.

The gunshot at the beginning of the song was the bullet that killed swag. From then on, Dagrin captivated the soul of the economically disenfranchised, and a hero was born. When C.E.O finally dropped, it moved faster than hand sanitisers during the current pandemic, thanks to emotional songs like “Ghetto Dream” which was the soundtrack of a generation who was yet to see the benefits of Nigerian democracy one whole decade after the evacuation of military powers. You can hear Dagrin’s despair, pain, sorrow on many of the cornerstone tracks on the LP.

It wasn’t all pain, though. C.E.O is a story of hope, which tells the story of an impoverished young man who was born into the bowels of poverty; one who made it out of the hood through undeniable talent, sheer will and some serendipity. The last official track on the album, the Omawumi-assisted “Thank God”, ends with his success story—one which would have created a dynasty if he were still here with us.

A decade after, the legacy of this honest album is that, it was made for a generation who was promised everything but given nothing. It effectively and immediately changed the face of Nigerian rap music. After the death of Dagrin, there was a noticeable increase in the number of indigenous rappers. Just like Dagrin, they too would tell the stories that Nigeria’s political and rich elite would sneer at. A rapper like Naira Marley who has gone on to offend Nigeria’s ultra-conservative society has offered comical commentary on everything from Internet fraud and cosmetic surgery, to drug abuse and police brutality. He might have not been directly inspired by Dagrin but the template he works with was created by the late rapper.

C.E.O took rap music to a class of Nigerians previously neglected by its rappers. M.I, Trybesmen and Naeto C sold rap music to the cool kids. Wordy lyricists like Modenine made music for the hip-hop heads. For the impoverished and young, Fuji was the music of choice—that is, until Dagrin kicked the door down and sold them hope. He consecrated the land on which immediate and future successors like Reminisce, Kida Kudz and Zlatan now triumphantly march.

For that, we might as well call him the Hood Pope. Rest In Peace.

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Ayomide O. Tayo is an award-winning Nigerian music and pop culture journalist. Get at him on Twitter @AOT2