Hip-Hop Saved My Life: A Love Letter To The Genre At 50

A celebration of its entire essence & the numerous joys it has given us.

Looking around the music world today, no other art form has been as influential as Hip-Hop. When people discuss the genre now, it’s as an extension of capitalism, a thorny growth on the skin of Black music heritage. The American scene, being the central location of the movement for obvious reasons, has not given its lovers a lot to love outside of the music. Brazen deaths, the coolness with which drug and gang culture is depicted, the consistent slipping onto debauchery—all these have edged popular conversation over the brilliance of Hip-Hop acts, who’ve turned our shared experiences as Black people into impeccable raps and striking visual moments. 

My instincts tend to be optimistic, however. As the culture which began in the Bronx area of New York clocks fifty this year, it’s a blossoming period to assess one’s immersion into this most particular expression. Nowadays, I’m knowledgeable a bit on the African origins of rapping. How our ancestors who crossed the Atlantic curved Soul from their hearts, which came through their mouths in spellbinding rhythms. With R&B being a direct descendant of that yearning, Hip-Hop emerged from that consciousness through proximity to the former’s sound and cultures. 

This consistent search for the narrative behind my favourite genre is sparked, no doubt, by my present occupation as a writer, but before all this was captured in my mind’s eye, connection was the sole motivation. Born in the late nineties, my baby’s ears must have picked up on songs like Sisqo’s “Unleash The Dragon” and “I Can,” as those saccharine-infused records were the Hip-Hop music I recognised, one which was close to the crowd and approached technique with that maximalist perspective. 

That era belonged to mixtape CDs and disc jockeys reigning supreme. The areas where I grew up in mainland Lagos were culturally vibrant, hosting street jams and random parties at any given chance. Perhaps nostalgia clouds my memory, but if I remember correctly, that was a happier period for Nigeria. Most people might say the same; our fortunes have so drastically changed, that it has affected communal life, in a very profound manner to say. When I encountered music, and Hip-Hop particularly, it was outside and the wind splashing on our faces made the music much more beautiful

Hip-Hop belonged in the centre of our cultural life. You could hear it in the breezy cadences of Jay-Z and Missy Elliott, the glitz-packed records of T.I much later, 2Pac Shakur’s angsty songs which the country’s provocated youth immediately resonated with. From the mid-nineties to mid 2005, the sounds which proliferated the mainstream were rinsed from across the Atlantic, the culmination of cultural exchanges which began in the 16th Century. This wasn’t to say that Nigerians were sole recipients of that thrilling tradition—far from it. I wasn’t too keen on categorisation then, but I knew we eagerly created from those established examples, holding our output against theirs in the contest and context of interrogating identity.

The African needn’t be bound to geographical inspirations, especially since every art form that’s emerged since the so-called modernisation has been the creation of many peoples and cultures, the result of continued interaction. You could feel R&B in the most searing way through the songs of P-Square. Theirs was a brilliance captured in sound and picture, as their inspired records drew ostensibly from what was pouring in from America. Still they managed a certain Nigerianness in their ethos, the consistent infusions of Igbo and experiences grounded in familiar locales. 

Thinking about it now, it seems R&B has always carried the weight of homebound expectations. Its sound, considerably grander than Hip-Hop and viewed through plush, upscale imagery, would have been considered too gritty for the mainstream 2000s. So, its artists, from Plantashun Boyz to Styl Plus, had to prove that they were indeed Nigerians, creating those colourful lyrics taken from their native lingua. Which isn’t to say the music sounded forced; if anything, the success of that fusion would come to be a model for rappers in subsequent years, the likes of Ruggedman and M.I Abaga who sought to champion homebound experiences through raps.

From its entry into Nigeria, Hip-Hop operated on very different terms. I’ve sat with Obi Asika who narrated his historic suggestion to Junior & Pretty when he saw them rap for the first time; that instead of forcing the then-popular Americanised expression, they should rap in Pidgin-English, which is the de-facto common language in most urban areas across Nigeria. Creating “Bolanle” and other iconic songs, the Storm Records duo revolutionised Hip-Hop in Nigeria, but for the most part rappers had only themselves to listen to. Rap is perhaps the only genre where having an outsized ego happens to be an important requirement to reach elite status, and for better or worse that has reflected in the music. 

In the 2000s, the biggest discussion within Nigerian Hip-Hop was language. Given that identity was so closely linked to our language, the medium of passing across such an important message became similarly important. The haughty lyricism spawned by English-speaking rappers—Mode 9 most popularly—was implicitly challenged in the raps of street-influenced purveyors, who believed our local identities were striking enough to be carried into the traditional essence of Hip-Hop. 

Discussions on identity are seldom new within art circles. 1962’s seminal Makerere Conference on African Literature spawned such debates, as writers like the Kenyan great Ngugi Wa Thiong’o expressed the strong opinion that our writing wasn’t doing much against erasing colonial identities if it wasn’t steeped in the intricacies of our local languages. It’s an idea he later expounded on the groundbreaking essay, ‘Decolonising The Mind’, and carried into his own work by changing from his erstwhile name of James Nguigi and writing all of his books ever since in his native language of Gikuyu, although he later translated the majority of them into English. The Nigerian Chinua Achebe stood on the counterview, his own books imbibing much of Igbo culture and spiritualism without losing its native soulfulness. It was he who said, quite profoundly: “Do not be deceived that we have chosen to write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

During the ’00s, I was behind on the divisive lingual conversation in Nigerian. I couldn’t gauge the real-time reaction to “Elbow Room” or “Peace or War,” but later I would find and hear the stories, mostly through the internet. And it’s a bit ironic that for the depth of Hip-Hop culture I’m now immersed in, my first attentive moment was “Coming Home,” a comeback record of some sorts for Diddy and his label Dirty Money. Before then, the nineties-dominant mogul had barely scored a hit record, but with its massive promotional chest and that searing hook from Skylar Grey, the song came home, quite literally to me. I liked its progression so much that I wrote its lyrics, word for word, on a book and through that learnt to rap the song. 

Even though I came up in the era of mobile phones, for a time, we didn’t know the possibilities of Al Gore’s Internet. We didn’t know that you could punch a set of words onto Google and its entire lyrics would come up. If we knew, the music books whose paperbacks bore the glossy images of superstars wouldn’t be such a dominant force in youth culture. For me, I went through the painstaking but rewarding process of playing the song on my sister’s phone and writing the lyrics. I couldn’t have known it then, but that was an essential formation of the sense of rhythm, which is important for every artist, whether a writer, painter or pianist. Intuitively, I began to develop an affinity for knowing the creative process behind these songs. 

For a while though, I continued to write along to rap songs which I liked. One poignant and humorous memory returns: how I’d hidden in the backyard of a compound on a school day, delaying myself because I was writing the lyrics to M.I’s “Undisputed Champion”. The Jos-bred rapper was the first idealised rap superstar I witnessed in full consciousness, the Short Black Boy seized the public imagination by impressing a vivid image of rap on teenagers like myself. 

His first two albums, ‘Talk About It’ and ‘MI 2: The Movie’ are unarguably classics, but at the moment of release, they were larger-than-life portraits of a cosmopolitan existence. For we still had an eye on America and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the world, and like rappers before, we subconsciously pitted our mental abilities against theirs. We wanted the assurance that we were performing at global levels and M.I was the perfect embodiment of that. A returnee from the US, his music bore the sleek poetry of our shared spoken word and his sonic choices amplified by his production skills. 

When the young people began using the Internet more frquently, M.I Abaga was a touchstone for that contact. Seeking communion with like minds, I frequented Hip-Hop groups on the then-popular 2go app. We called each other wack and wrote even wacker bars, but that was an introduction to the depth of knowledge that can be obtained from falling in love with something someone else is in love with. From there, I struck off with a group of friends (we were texting, rather than rapping) and joined a rap collective known as Diabolic Emcees (DMC in abbreviation) which we took to Facebook where it blossomed. At the height of its powers, the group had thousands of members who regularly shared their written tracks, complete with hooks, verses, and feature verses, in some cases. Few of us had any intent to record the lyrics; just writing them and getting plaudits was enough for us. 

DMC became more than an online community for me. Favouring an austere style which was influenced by poets, I would put out written track after written track, earning the respect of my peers. I never thought about it then, but how many of us had Hip-Hop offered an alternate reality? In our personal lives, we probably weren’t paid much attention but through raps we learnt to take life seriously, to get in touch with transcontinental conversations when our mates were fussing over Mathematics. Art has that ability to transcend age, and so we were wiser than our years, as evidenced in the level of lyricism teenagers were showcasing.

There was Mark Enkrypt, who had the incisive metre of Nas; there was Moorpen, influenced by the niche rappers who spawned timeless rhymes about science, afro spiritualism, conspiracy theories, and still flexed their own abilities. There was Rxbel, who I’m still friends with today, carrying the torch of poetic rap but with more edginess than myself, who fancied abstractness over solid shots. 

One would be surprised by the number of persons across different spheres of life who share a similar history. One thing about Africans is that regardless of our position on the continent, Hip-Hop is never far from our origin story. For us, the genre allowed the formation of interests which went beyond ourselves, and we took great pride in sharpening that knowledge. Finding such communal spaces as DMC was one way of doing so; another way was watching more skilled practitioners edge it out or explain concepts in songs. For the former, Nairaland was my preferred channel. Figures like Ibime, AirForce, and later Blaqbonez (yes, the famed Preacher of Sex over Love) were battling each other in the platform’s celebrated rap groups, and in real time I learnt how seemingly far-off elements can be brought into rap, and that only contributed to my conviction that rap was the most intelligent genre ever. 

Unfurling the concept in rap songs was catered to by Genius, which back then went as Rap Genius. As my elder siblings bought me mobile phones, seeing I was quite the curious one, I became a bonafide user of the platform. Seldom did I contribute to the discussions; I observed from a distance, seeing rap enthusiasts like myself share their opinions on what the lyrics meant, and I sifted them through logical eyes, reaching my own conclusion after days and weeks of listening to the songs. That was the height of the blog era, though for purist reasons, we weren’t interested in the annointed purveyors of the period, the Kendrick Lamars and Drakes; rather we found out artists like Mos Def, Common, the Wu Tang Clan, and Eyedea, whose illuminating perspective made me a fan for many years. 

That blog era offered the Nigerian Hip-Hop community its last true form of having a vibrant online presence. No one could have forgotten the reaction to M.I’s ‘Illegal Music 2’. So many of us went through each song wanting to know who had the best feature verse among the many rising MCs who were on the mixtape. The unanimous choice was Boogey, whose silver-tongued flow on “Ridiculous” had us jumping on our seats, his approach quite similar to the hair-raising lyricism of Eminem. Within underground circles, we championed him along with the likes of Kahli Abdu, Rukus, Lord V, A-Q, and many others, who stirred that imaginative sense by taking shots at each other as eagerly as they collaborated, the culture bubbling with online conversations which brought so many people together. 

As a Nigerian Hip-Hop fan, that was my favourite era. The easy perspective would be longing—for those supposedly glory days, for their activity and brilliance, for the blessing of a community that cared. I won’t do that, especially since Hip-Hop in the country has been consistently viewed through a one-dimensional lens. Not many people have recognised the stirring power of Afrobeats, and its risk of running a single story, and rap being on the periphery of the popular consciousness. 

If anything, the scene’s problem has not been the absence of exciting rappers as much as it is of depreciating range among the popular demographics. With playlisting and algorithm technologies, fewer people are checking out the music that lies beneath the rubble of the warfare that is capitalist-informed industry. There’s a host of electric female rappers on the scene, from the Mavin Records-signed Lifesize Teddy and sGawd to Deto Black and mildly viral sensation Brazy, all of whom have different aesthetics to match their distinct sounds. On the male side, the vastly different presentation in someone like Psycho YP and someone like PayBac iBoro, proves the variance of contemporary Nigerian rap. There’s Show Dem Camp whose sociopolitical awareness have been broadened with their infusions of palmwine music, which has resulted in one of the most legendary catalogues across Nigerian Hip-Hop history. Ladipoe is not so far off, a true auteur yet immersed in contemporary life. 

The reason why ODUMODUBLVCK is so important to rap culture, and why he has been championed by most of the greats, is because he throws it back to the aforementioned period, when rap was pristine and fitted into any and every shape of our everyday existence. With his branding he’s more Nigga Raw than Phyno, embracing colourful aspects of the Igbo identity, and harkening to the visual template laid by luminaries like The Trybesmen and Eedris Abdulkareem. His lyricism also accounts for the middle class Nigerian life, beneath the focus of the mainstream, poignantly relaying young and dangerous experiences with skill level no rapper has managed since Erigga, who’s featured him tellingly on the excavating “PTSD”. With his ‘EZIOKWU’ project expected later this month, and with Olamide mostly returning to his rap roots on ‘Unruly’, there’s been a lot of bars going around.

In recent times I have found myself moving with a bounce that is recognisably Hip-Hop, basking in the everglow of the music that has most influenced me. These words become then a letter to this lover who’s turned fifty, a celebration of its entire essence, the numerous joys it has given us, even now, amidst the devastating consequences of its exponential growth. May this lover live, and may we continue to find new ways of loving her.