The complimentary touch of the music in ‘Gangs of Lagos’

Song selections and a magnificent score enhance the film's viewing experience

As has become customary in the last few years, there’s always something new to celebrate and discuss in Nigerian film. A week ago, Jade Osiberu’s latest directorial feature ‘Gangs of Lagos’ was both the toast and topic of social media timelines during the long Easter weekend. Even now, it remains a topic for a controversial, if unnecessarily contrived, reason. Osiberu is one of Nollywood’s most exciting filmmakers working today, and the mainstream attention her work consistently garners has reached another peak with her latest film.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Prime Video Naija (@primevideonaija)

Co-written with Kay I. Jegede, ‘Gangs of Lagos’ landed with the preceding hype of being the first African film originally commissioned by Prime Video, the streaming platform owned by tech giant Amazon. Inspired by the gritty streets of Lagos Island, colloquially referred to as Isale Eko by locals, the film delves into betrayal, friendship, grief, revenge, deferred dreams, and the connections between street politics and actual politics. Working through the lens of lead character Obalola (Tobi Bakre), the script prioritises nuance in establishing its characters, from Oba’s lifelong friends Ify (Chike Ezekpeazu Osebuka) and Gift (Adesua Etomi), to the street kingpin Kazeem (Olarotimi Fakunle) and his daughter Teni (Bimbo Ademoye).

In early conversations about ‘Gangs of Lagos’, many were quick to point out the film’s place within the recent pile of gritty dramas with underground crime elements in Nollywood. For Osiberu, it’s a realm she’s been part of since her breakout with ‘Sugar Rush’, which she produced. Her last two films, the cinema blockbuster ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘The Trade’ from earlier this year, fall within this same scope but it would be unjust to not gauge Osiberu’s latest film on its own merits, even if there’s external context to consider.

Let’s be clear: ‘Gangs of Lagos’ isn’t a perfect film. Whether it’s a great one depends on who you ask and what they value when experiencing a film. The characters and their set-ups are impressive, while the story development could’ve been better. To the latter, it’s telling that two relatively minor characters fill in tension-generating information in the third act using flashbacks. Perhaps a longer run time or even expanding it into a mini-series could’ve helped. Technically, it’s well-shot and there are sequences that bring to mind the 2002 classic Brazilian crime film, ‘City of God’. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, while the scenes involving guns could’ve been much better.

If there’s one part of ‘Gangs of Lagos’ that’s absolutely stellar: it’s the music. Nollywood has had an uneven relationship with music since its emergence in the early ‘90s. Musicians have taken on acting roles, actors have delved into music, and the excellence of music selection and composition in Nigerian film has undulated between great and tepid.

When paired successfully, theme songs and scores have the power to enhance the film viewing experience. As NATIVE’s senior writer Uzoma Ihejirika recently pointed out, “Original Gangster” by Sess, Reminisce and Adekunle Gold is one of the finest examples in recent memory of a theme song working in tandem with its film—in this case, Kemi Adetiba’s ‘King of Boys’. Even now, it’s impossible to think of Eniola Salami’s imperial form and not instantly recall the rumbling Bata drums that enliven Adebayo Adepetun’s score in that film and its mini-series sequel.

Right from its trailer, ‘Gangs of Lagos’ makes music selection and composition a big part of its experience. In the trailer, packed with slow-motion shots from the film, a chopped version of Ladipoe’s drill slapper, “Man Already,” booms underneath. Parts of the song’s vibrant hook are tethered to a dismantled, guttural version of its original beat, adding to the trailer’s foreboding feel that ups the stakes for expectation.

As the film begins, composer Tolu Obanro quickly makes his hand seen with sinister keys that score the film’s first killing. That quickly morphs into an orchestral folk arrangement with chanted spiritual vocals as the opening credits roll in. The music composition choices in the early going resurfaces throughout the film, from the rumble of broody strings that accompany a weapons acquisition scene to the dirge-like piano lines that run alongside Obalola walking over to his best friend’s corpse. Similar to the intro, orchestral folk compositions are worked into integral scenes in the third act.

In one of the film’s glossier moments, the character Teni is re-introduced to viewers in a manner akin to that spotlighting a vixen in a music video. In that slow-motion shot, the score is a radiant acoustic folk interpretation of King Sunny Ade’s “Ma Jaiye Oni.” In addition to its aesthetic value, it’s also a call-back to an earlier scene where a much younger Obalola (Maleek Sanni) eats dinner at the home of his adopted father and street kingpin, Ninalowo (Tayo Faniran). There, KSA’s 1982 classic rings out in all its evergreen glory as Oba tears into a piece of chicken thigh while Nino watches him between wide smiles.

For much of the first act in ‘Gangs of Lagos’, the period isn’t strongly defined. It isn’t until we see Nino’s headstone that we know those early years of Oba and his friends are portrayed circa 2007. That gives credence to young Ify’s (Pamilerin Ayodeji) dream of becoming a big musician like 2Baba, then known as 2Face Idibia. There’s also “Funky Fuji,” the 2005 hit by Fuji immortal Dr Wasiu Ayinde Marshall—aka K1 De Ultimate—which plays as Nino’s regally trudges the streets of Isale Eko behind Oba, Ify and Gift (Small Mummy).

As opposed the more urban choice in its trailer, the music selection in ‘Gangs of Lagos’ is a representation of the music that buzzes out of speakers in inner parts of Lagos like the setting of this film. Before the now older Obalola, Ify and Gift brutally flushes out a person suspected of scalping Kazeem’s money, Naira Marley’s street smash “Koleyewon” serves as an ominous scene-setter. It’s one of the two contemporary songs in the film, the other being “On Fire,” a pop song with Amapiano influences performed by Chike and written for the character Ify, who’s also actively chasing dreams of music stardom.

Like a lot of its technical details, great attention was clearly paid to the music in ‘Gangs of Lagos’. Whether that’s in the songs licensed for scenes in the film, or in a score that’s as stirring as it is majestic. To the latter especially, the end credits feature the names of session musicians and vocalists who contributed to the score. It might be a minor detail that many viewers won’t pay that much attention to on first view, but the music in ‘Gangs of Lagos’ is a complimentary positive that deserves to be appreciated.