Nigerian Artists & Music Labels: A Love-Hate Relationship

Bound by music & emotions

Although art is its primary commodity, the music industry is intrinsically a business. It is a marketplace where both the producers and the distributors of the art hope to make an income from the interest of the consumers—whether they are paying attention through the TV or the radio, through their smartphones, or in a physical space in a gathering of like-minded people. The situation is no different in any place around the world, much in Nigeria.

Nigerian music, as it is today, is no small fry. The artists have become renowned superstars across the world, recognised for their sounds—collectively termed Afrobeats—of joy, pain,  excitement and frustration. From the earlier times of Fela Kuti to King Sunny Adé to Oliver De Coque to William Onyeabor to Onyeka Onwenu to Ras Kimono to Trybesmen to 2Baba to D’banj to present times of Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Flavour, Tiwa Savage, Rema, Fireboy DML, Tems, Ayra Starr and Omah Lay, Nigerian music has taken on different complexions but what is constant is that the music has crossed the country’s borders into other parts of the world.

In this conveyor belt of art-consumer, artists and music labels are two peas in a pod. The Times of India notes that “labels have a major role in terms of funding; they assist budding and young artists, and singers by facilitating funds at the time of creation, distribution, and marketing of the releases. This gives a strong hold to artists and those who want to go ahead in their music careers.” In the Nigerian music scene, whether the labels are based in Nigeria or outside the country, they are a fundamental part of the careers of many artists. Think King Sunny Adé and Island Records, or Afrodisia and The Lijadu Sisters and Christy Essien-Igbokwe, or Kennis Music and The Remedies and 2Baba, or Chocolate City and M.I Abaga and Ice Prince, or YBNL and Fireboy DML and Asake, or Mavin Records and Rema and Ayra Starr.

In 2004, the three-man group of 2Baba, Faze and Blackface (Plantashun Boiz) disbanded with 2Baba choosing the solo route. In an interview, he spoke about why he joined Kennis Music, the Nigerian music label led by Kehinde “Kenny” Ogungbe and  Dayo “D1” Adeneye. “There were a couple of labels then, but I went with Kennis Music. Because Kennis Music was the biggest in terms of everything,” he said. “So I went with Kennis music and I spoke with Mr Kenny Ogungbe, we came to an agreement and you know, the album came out and it was a huge success…” 2Baba’s two albums under Kennis Music—2004’s ‘Face 2 Face’ and 2006’s ‘Grace 2 Grace’—transformed him into a sensation, and he lent credit to the label, saying, “…Kennis Music had done the work of promoting the music properly, like taking it across the whole corners of Nigeria and Ghana and South Africa.”

M.I Abaga’s 13-year stay in Chocolate City Music is also an example of the impact that a record label has on the career of an artist. From his studio albums to his mixtapes and collaborative projects, Chocolate City Music had been the home of M.I, guiding his entrance into the music scene with 2008’s ‘Talk About It,’  firing up Nigerian Hip-Hop with his ‘Illegal Music’ series and signposting his evolution as an entertainer. So woven was M.I into Chocolate City Music that he, Ice Prince and Jesse Jagz were fondly known as Choc Boiz. M.I also served as the label’s CEO between 2015 and 2019, overseeing a joint partnership deal with Warner Music Group. After leaving Chocolate City Music in 2020, M.I still respects his time at the label, saying, “We are family for life.”

While Nigerian artists and record labels have mostly mutually beneficial relationships, there is a part of the conversation that spills anguish and courtroom drama. In 1974, King Sunny Adé was sued by Chief Bolarinwa Abioro, owner of African Songs Limited and Take Your Choice Records Stores Limited. Adé had signed a five-year contract with Abioro and trouble began when the former demanded improved royalties for his music, which the latter firmly turned down. Adé went on to release new music under his outfit Sigma Disc Records and it annoyed Abioro who considered it a breach of contract. In 1975, a court ruled in Adé’s favour, stating that his contract with Abioro expired and ordered Abioro to return Adé’s master tapes but that didn’t happen. In 1997, one year after Abioro’s death, Adé sued both companies for his master tapes in a federal high court in Lagos; it wasn’t until 2015 that he won the case—with 500 million naira as damages. 

The cases have tripled since then—from Kiss Daniel (now Kizz Daniel) and G-Worldwide Entertainment to Runtown and Eric Manny Entertainment to Cynthia Morgan (now Madrina) and Northside Music to Iyanya and Made Men Music Group. These situations, in most cases, wrought life out of the artists, damaging their enthusiasm to make music; for the labels, it gave them a bad reputation, ultimately tainting their credibility. In a three-part special investigation for the NATIVE, Nigerian journalist Joey Akan reported the situations that sullied the relationships between Made Men Music Group’s CEO Ubi Franklin and the label’s artists, including Iyanya and Emma Nyra. The report offered the perspectives of Iyanya and Ubi Franklin, on a case of contractual violations.  See ehn, instead make I work with Ubi again ehn, I’d go and start farming. That one na suicide wey you just go carry,” Iyanya had said. In 2021, Iyanya and Ubi Franklin reconciled, trashing their differences, with Iyanya releasing his latest projects under Made Men Music Group.

The matter of artist-label feuds is not a Nigerian phenomenon. In South Africa, there’s the Kgosi Mahumapelo-owned Ambitiouz Entertainment whose disputes with several acts are public knowledge. The exits of Amanda Black, A-Reece, Fifi Cooper, B3nchMarQ, Emtee and Priddy Ugly from the label sparked controversy in the SA music scene over disagreements over finance and other contractual obligations. In June, Ambitiouz Entertainment was barred from taking down Blaq Diamond’s YouTube channel and music from all other digital streaming platforms over copyright/ownership disputes. In 2018, rapper Gigi Lamayne left Ambitiouz Entertainment, and in an interview, she cited financial disparities as one of the reasons she left. 

“So, 50% went to the label and 50% went to me. And I only found out that it wasn’t even 50 afterwards when I was talking to promoters,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, you got paid [this much]?’ ‘How much did you get paid?’ [and I’m like,] ‘I got [that much].’ That means they kind of chopped the rest. So, it wasn’t really even a 50. But, you know, those are questions you can’t even really ask now when you’re in the record label and you’re stuck.”

In the US alone, countless stories abound of artists and their music labels being at loggerheads over the contracts, sometimes going to court or settling for out-of-court settlements. There’s the story of Prince who, due to his contractual dispute with Warner Bros. Records, wrote ‘SLAVE’ on the side of his face during performances and changed his name to a symbol and often went by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. There’s Dr. Dre whose legal battle against Death Row Records for the rights to his 1992 debut album ‘The Chronic’ ended in 2015 when the court ruled in his favour. Most recently, Taylor Swift, after failing to secure the rights to her music from Scooter Braun’s Big Machine Records, has vowed to re-record all her old songs dating back to her 2006 self-titled debut album.

In recent weeks, the death of MohBad has engulfed the media in Nigeria, with tributes pouring in and calls being made to unravel the circumstances of his death. MohBad signed to the Naira Marley-owned Marlian Music in 2019 alongside Zinoleesky, C Blvck and Fabian Blu. MohBad’s time with the label birthed the well-received tracks “KPK (Ko Por Ke)” with Rexxie, “Feel Good,” “Peace” and the 2020 EP ‘Light.’  In October 2022, MohBad took to social media to call out the victimisation he suffered at the hands of his label boss Naira Marley and his associates. MohBad went on to sever ties with Marlian Music and float his outfit Imolenization. After the passing of MohBad on September 12,  stories have emerged—with video evidence—of MohBad being physically assaulted and bullied by entities associated with Naira Marley. The Lagos State Police Command has also set up a 13-man committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of MohBad.

MohBad’s situation is an extreme case that highlights the tensions that arise between artists and their labels. Many Nigerian artists have countered unpleasant situations of this kind by launching their labels as independent artists or signing distribution deals with other outfits. EMPIRE, an American distribution corporation and record label, has been pivotal in assisting artists like BNXN, Wande Coal and Kizz Daniel with the wherewithal to play major roles in steering their careers in their preferred directions. Beyond artists, EMPIRE also ensured that other professionals in the industry get proper representation, with Titilope Adesanya, Director Of Operations EMPIRE Africa, saying, “We’re in a place where people understand the importance of producers and instrumentalists for the studio session. You have producers being listed—not only for split sheets or somebody’s computer, but they’re also been listed on the DSPs [digital service providers]. There is a similar thing happening with photographers.”

Nigerian Hip-Hop duo Show Dem Camp is also another example of independent artists who have curated their music themselves and built an organic following, resulting in their annual Palmwine Festival. “We started the Palmwine Festival. I think that has been the quickest thing to help us get our brand global,” Tec, one-half of the duo explained.  The festival takes the duo to Lagos, Abuja, Accra, London and New York, where they connect directly with their fans as well as boost their financial earnings. “We were able to activate our followers and have them pay money and support what we were doing. They bought into the music and us as artists. Your core following holds you to the standards you have set. I always say it is more important to have fans than followers,” Tec added.

A marriage of artists and record labels, in whatever form, will remain a constant. Artists will always seek the outfits that can empower them with the right opportunities to create and amplify their music, and labels will always be on the lookout for musical talents to spotlight and invest in with the hope that the support yields financial dividends. What must change is for the parties involved to ensure that they play their roles adequately for the marriage to not turn sour. In the Nigerian music scene, as in every other music industry in the world, artists and music labels owe it to themselves not to ruin a good thing.

[Featured image credits/NATIVE]