Kah-Lo, Brazy & the women inventively fusing rap and dance in Nigerian music

A niche corner where the creative bonafides are being furthered by women.

“You ask what it is I’m doing/Hip-Hop house, hip-hop jazz/with a little pizzazz,” the great Queen Latifah rapped on her cult classic slapper, “Come into My House.” Off her 1989 debut album, ‘All Hail the Queen’, the song’s make-up—giddy raps over the four-on-the-floor bassline of House Music—wasn’t exactly novel, but it’s undeniably a seminal entry in a then-nascent, hybrid musical style. As a member of the Native Tongues collective, Queen Latifah was in close proximity to the Jungle Brothers, whose 1988 hit song, “I’ll House You,” is widely heralded as a marquee point in the early symbiosis between rap and House music.

Also comprising the critically acclaimed, influential groups De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the Native Tongues collective was best known for turning out personal and socially introspective raps, with an emphasis on spiritual black consciousness. Their musical choices were just as outré, mainly influenced by Jazz from a couple of decades before the ‘80s and ‘90s. They also opened up their music to inspirations from across styles pioneered by black artists before them, evidenced by the occasional but enduring foray into House.

Native Tongues affiliate Monie Love dropped “Grandpa’s Party” in 1990, another classic example of a rapper taking to House Music production. On the song, she pays homage to Afrika Bambaataa, the Hip-Hop pioneer who sampled German electronic group Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” on his 1981 hit song, “Planet Rock,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Dance charts. Following the RIAA Gold-certified success of Afrika Bambaataa’s single, more than a handful of rap artists in the ‘80s tried their voice at house, electronic and varying forms of dance music. With Monie Love and Queen Latifah, alongside Salt-N-Pepa with their 1987 smash hit, “Push It,” women in Hip-Hop firmly entered this side of fusion in rap.

In 2014, Harlem-raised rapper Azealia Banks dropped ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’, her kickass debut album where her silver-tongued flow and sleek melodies elegantly strutted over a wide range of production choices, from the shimmery thump of House and UK Garage to the exotic swing of Caribbean pop, Merengue and more. Even though ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’ was often labelled ‘Hip House’, it felt like an antithesis to most of the music lumped within the same category. Compared to uber-popular songs from artists like Flo Rida and Pitbull, Azealia embraced a grittier, panoramic approach, rather than co-opt the now overly mainstream (read: white) tilt of EDM, Tropical House and other related genres.

House music originated as the term for the music that was played at underground parties in the ‘70s and ‘80s by inventive, pioneering DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan and more. Before House, Disco dominated mainstream music in the mid to late ‘70s, but its roots in the ballroom culture of marginalised LGBTQ+ communities wasn’t embraced. Its decline was swift, driven partly by racist, homophobic and misogynistic pushback. House music rose from the ashes of Disco. While it has splintered into many subgenres and is a foundational part of many hugely popular dance music styles, its core as a black-originated, queer-championed genre remains central—even if widely overshadowed by how much it’s been co-opted.

Explicitly paying homage to the roots of disco and house is part of what gave the iconic singer Beyoncé’s 2022 album, ‘Renaissance’, its curatorial excellence. Without any hint of hyperbole, “Alien Superstar” and “Thique” are some of the most galvanising rap-dance fusion songs, this side of Queen Latifah’s classic song. Released shortly after Drake, unarguably the biggest rap artist of the last decade and counting, surprise-released his frictionless, house-indebted ‘Honestly, Nevermind’, Beyoncé’s epochal effort is further proof that women—black women—are constantly setting the bar for excellence in rap-dance crossovers.

That much is true in Nigerian music. Take Kah-Lo, who scored a global hit with “Rinse & Repeat,” a collaboration with British producer Riton. The song reached No. 13 on the UK Singles Chart and snagged a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording in 2017. On ‘Foreign Ororo’, the 2018 joint project with Riton, Nigerian pop superstars Davido and Mr Eazi (twice) are the marquee features, pulling them into previously uncharted territory. (You could make a case that working with Kah-Lo partly influenced Eazi’s decision to make a dance album—as Chop Life Soundsystem with DJ Edu—where he mostly raps over Amapiano beats.) Swerving between rapping and singing, Kah-Lo’s bubbly energy is gilded by a very Nigerian identity in her cadence, delivering Pidgin-laced quips over Riton’s UK Funky and Techno-driven beats.

A few months back, she released her debut album, ‘Pain/Pleasure’, a 14-track tour through self-affirming experiences and a showcase of curatorial growth. Given the width to work with multiple producers, she toys around with Disco-Funk (“Unbothered”), Afrobeat (“Psycho”) and Amapiano (TMXO-produced “Runaway”), in addition to her affinity for uptempo house bangers. While ‘Pain/Pleasure’ features significantly more singing, Kah-Lo often dips into rapping not just as a variety gambit, but also when she’s making statements. On “Play,” the bridge is the only part that is rapped: “If you like and I like you/Why waste time, what you wanna do?…A bitch like me didn’t come to play.”  It’s fun and assertive, same qualifiers that extend to the money-obsessed “fund$” and the hubris-packed “GD Woman.”

From a quality standpoint, Kah-Lo has it all covered. Internationally, there’s a proof of concept commercially; locally, acceptance is relatively low and slow. “I went from people not knowing or considering that I was Nigerian or that I was making really great music, to being on the cover of three national newspapers,” she told The NATIVE shortly before the release of her album. Often, Nigerians are known for embracing other Nigerians achieving notable feats outside the country. Kah-Lo’s Grammy nod and the success of her work with Riton turned some heads, especially in music media and amongst curious listeners. For the casual listeners, it has yet to hit.

Part of that obviously comes down to the uniqueness of Kah-Lo’s music, in comparison to the dominant, mid-tempo styles ruling Nigerian pop at the moment. At that, conforming for a chance at immediate wider success isn’t on mind. “You know when Western artists try to make Afrobeats and it sounds just off. That’s what it sounds like when I try to make Afrobeats,” she says. It’s an incredibly candid admission. In it, you can also glean her understanding of the Nigerian mainstream’s aloofness to dance-fusion efforts. As she relays in the interview, authenticity matters most to her; insistently rapping and singing over varying types of dance production proves that.

While the acceptance for rap-dance fusions, especially from women, is still niche, there’s a proven potential for virality. About a year ago, Nigerian-raised, UK-based Brazy grew in popularity for her breakout song, “Attends,” a streaking banger defined by the rapper’s intoxicating exuberance. As with most things that go viral these days, the catalyst was TikTok. Already buzzing pre-release, with Brazy performing the song on a couple of stages as a preview for familiar fans and new listeners, it didn’t take long for fun, User-generated content to drive its hype.

Prior to “Attends,” Brazy was best as the introductory voice on Cruel Santino’s ‘Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN’. Before that, she had a modest output of singles which, taken together, show her as a curious experimenter who’s unrelenting at flexing. The rudiments of her dance fixations trails back to “SELECTA,” a bubbly UK Funky cut. With “Attends,” her music is more complex, full-bodied and partly taps into Nigerian culture. Prior to the song’s creation, she told The NATIVE that she had been “listening to a lot of Brazilian Funk, French Buoyon Rap, Reggaeton, Dancehall, Trenches Music and so many more random selections.”

The ‘Trenches Music’ Brazy is referring to is the hyper-popular style of Electronic Music originated from the hoods in Lagos. Also referred to as ‘Cruise’, it is guttural and chaotic, thumping drums meets synth melodies meets loud snares meets street lingo and popular catchphrases culled from social media. Pioneered by DJ/producers like Ajimovoix Drums and Tobzy Imole Giwa, the style is distinct—you know it immediately you hear. Cruise is the du jour sound of street raves in hoods around Lagos and surrounding southwestern Nigerian states.

Cruise evolved from the ‘Shaku Shaku’ wave, kick-started circa 2017 with the viral popularity of song’s Slimcase’s “Legbegbe,” DJ Sidez’s “Oshozondi” and Idowest’s “Shepeteri.” Around the same time, the latest mainstream incursion of street-hop and street-pop began to take shape. As admitted by Slimcase to The NATIVE, his early efforts were inspired by Gqom, the South African dance music variant that grew in popularity over the mid-2010s. The floor-shaking bass thump and scuzzy melodies of Gqom was the foundation for those Shaku Shaku hits and, over time, the template was remodelled by top producers like Rexxie and Kel-P (“Killin’ Dem”) to give it a distinctly Nigerian feel and an accessible touch.

The raw, unpolished trademark of Cruise music holds the essence of Shaku Shaku before it went mainstream and its edges were filed out, but ratcheted up a few more degrees. Even though it may feel voyeuristic and extractive, its gritty appeal as a source of inspiration for a curious artist like Brazy, who purely enjoys the music without being entrenched in the culture, is understandable. On her new self-assured and sexy single, “OMG,” the influence of Cruise is apparent, as polished as the sheen is.

Brazy has christened her sound ‘Afro Future’ and/or ‘Afro Sexy’. It continues the controversial attempts of Nigerian artists to differentiate themselves by naming their style with a word and the prerequisite ‘Afro’ prefix. To be fair, Cruise Pop-rap doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as good as Afro Sexy. If you really think about it, as wildly different as they are, there’s a shared musical basis between Brazy and an artist like Shalipopi, who recently named his style ‘Afro Pluto’. Obviously, Shali’s affinity for production streaked by Amapiano’s log drums is a distinct trait, but his melodic talk-rap style is a pop-rap take on dance music, albeit a style that’s overly pervasive in Nigerian pop at the moment.

Anyways, we’re talking about women doing unique things here.

A few weeks ago, rap artist SGaWD shared a tweet with an accompanying video, featuring an unreleased song, stating that she might have just founded a new genre. She called it ‘Alté Mara’, which “sounds like R&B, Pop, Mara, and Makossa.” For further description, Mara is “a Nigerian style of EDM.” Asides the fact that Mara is basically another word for Cruise music, the hybridisation does warrant excitement. The snippet slaps. To be a little cynical, the music still falls within the Cruise-inspired spectrum. Back to the excitement, though, SGaWD’s relationship with dance music as a rapper and singer is well-worn.

In August, she released “Dump All Your Worries on the Dancefloor,” a GMK-produced House thumper that immediately evokes a neon-bathed space. “Brace yourselves, I’m the hottest in the room,” she says right at the top, her impeccably smooth, fast-paced flow very Azealia Banks-like. More specifically, it’s reminiscent of “212.” A year before this fairly recent single, she collaborated with producer Ronehi for “Telfar,” effortlessly oozing charisma and sex appeal over a jumpy yet utterly cool beat.

Of consequence also is “Shayo Galore” with Wavy the Creator, a speaker rattler that celebrates alcohol-assisted good times. It seems like there will be more dance-rap fusion releases from SGaWD and while, like Kah-Lo, wide acceptance isn’t guaranteed, a string of songs or maybe projects might make ‘Alte Mara’ an actual thing.

For Aunty Rayzor, her worries aren’t a nominal definition of her sound; the Lagos-raised rapper just wants to bruise her way through beats. For the oblivious, Rayzor raised eyebrows after appearing on a viral freestyle session hosted by Slimcase. Paired with NATIVE uNder alum Daisy in an indigenous female rap tag team, every bar Rayzor spat landed like an explosive Molotov cocktail, creating an inferno of lyricism where the heat threatens to melt your face off through your screen. The best part is that she’s clearly having so much fun barring her heart out.

In September, Aunty Rayzor dropped her debut album, ‘Viral Wreckage’, definitely one of the hardest rap albums in African rap this year. Released through Hakuna Kulala, the Kampala-based record label best known for being affiliated with Nyege Nyege festival and dropping experimental, ultra-left field electronic projects, Rayzor’s jabbing raps are mainly supported by a buzzsaw framework of icy synth melodies and floor-creaking bass. The cast of producers are Hakuna Kulala mainstays, including Scotch Rolex and Debmaster—both primary producers for fellow Kulala rap label mate, MC Yallah.

Inventive Congolese folk-pop artist Titi Bakorta and Kenyan avant-garde pop singer KABEUSHE—both also label-affiliated—assist on the album’s softer moment, giving it some needed dynamism. ‘Viral Wreckage’ is an introduction to Aunty Rayzor, as curated by her label. It turns out to be a beneficial partnership. Considering how straight-down-the-line she is as lyricist, the unconventionality of the production heightens the thrill of listening to her rap with blazing authority. It’s far more positively dizzying than bludgeoning your ears. Think the late, great Dagrin’s iconic verse on Konga’s “Kabakaba,” turned into a singular style and ratcheted up a couple of degrees.

Asides the uber-raunchy Slimcase collab, “Doko,” there’s no song on ‘Viral Wreckage’ with a catchy groove, but it’s still an album with an unambiguously dance/electronic pulse. In fact, Aunty Rayzor adds a different dimension to the rap-dance fusion corner; you might not dance a lot but the music is visceral enough to soundtrack a rave. Also, Rayzor is an indicator that there are more places to creatively explore within a niche sound. In this moment, Rayzor and the multiple women mentioned in this piece are furthering the agenda of doing “Hip-Hop house, hip-hop jazz/with a little pizzazz.”