Nigerian pop is global, but it isn’t exempt from the corrupting effects of home

An environment that can’t properly sustain its music is a net negative

To live in Nigeria is to consistently deal with underwhelming circumstances. Electricity supply is erratic, the roads aren’t all great, horrible economic policies and inflation continues to plunge more people into poverty and drive the cost of living sky high. Not to mention that insecurity is at an-all time high, police and state-sanctioned brutality continues unchecked and I could go on and on. In face of these systemic issues, it probably would just be an added travesty if the quality of music being made within the country followed this sour trend.

If there’s anything the overwhelming majority of Nigerians can agree on, it’s that our music—especially pop music—is closer to first-rate than the calamitous social situation surrounding it. In the two-plus decades since the unofficial commencement of modern Nigerian pop, our music has evolved, morphed and expanded into a multi-faceted space that still continues to grow and rub shoulders with other cultures. What initially started as a parody of external inspirations has become a boundless terrain with deeper connections to home and a broader palette of influences from within Africa and across the world.

In the 1990’s, following the mass exodus of major labels, and deep in the throes of political turmoil effected by the aftershock of the oil boom, botched elections, and brutal military rule, attention for Nigerian music dwindled on the mainstream level. American Hip-Hop held the ears of the urban youth, and Reggae—along with its offshoot Ragga—was a fixture on radio airwaves. In that period of relative parochial drought, those external influences helped form the foundation of the renaissance that coincided with the beginnings of the Fourth Republic and the return to a democratic system.

Pioneering acts like the Remedies, Trybesmen, Plantashun Boiz, and more, with their Hip-Hop and R&B affinity, jumpstarted the urban side of Nigerian pop. Setting street-pop in motion, Daddy Showkey, Jungulist Boys, Professor Linkin, and many more parlayed Ragga inspirations and proximity to inner suburbs into the varying but somewhat united musical (and dance) styles known as Konto, Galala and Suo. As the 2000s wore on, the alternative side of Nigerian pop was working its way into mainstream conversations, with Asa, Jeremiah Gyang, Silver Saddih, Sound Sultan (to an extent), and several others artists drawing influence from both local and external—sometimes decades old—folk and soul music.

Even in its earliest formative years, modern Nigerian Pop was never homogeneous. That precedent set the tone for the unbridled inventiveness and consistent experimentation that now permeates Nigerian Pop and its frontrunners. Interestingly, on the home front, the contemporary forms of music being made by Nigerians had to earn its stripes. As recent as a decade ago, there were overblown reservations on the quality of Nigerian Pop music, relative to Western standards. These days, the acceptance is unanimous.

What is perhaps even more staggering is the global ascendance of modern Nigerian Pop, from its incubation to its first bouts of complete local domination. 25 years is a pretty short time to go from baby steps to global recognition. Obviously, there’s the usually apt narrative of streaming, social media and increased diasporan pride playing key roles in the acceleration of worldwide acceptance, but it still does not dull the incredulity of the jump from Alaba to Billboard charts and plaques all over the world.

These days, Nigerian artists are creating music for a global audience. The borders drawn on maps no longer matter, songs and albums now travel with no visa. The ceiling is no longer based on local aspirations only, as there is now continental popularity to long after and international ambitions to fan. We live in times where dozens of Nigerian artists can tour the world to sold-out venues, from amphitheatres to prestigious arenas. I remember back in the early to mid-2010’s when blogs treated club tours across Europe and in the U.S. as big deals.

They were big deals—they probably still are because they set a tone, but I don’t think many people foresaw a Nigerian Pop artist selling out the Madison Square Garden, another occupying the O2 arena for three straight days, one commanding tens of thousands of bodies in different counties, and several others generally treating mini to medium-sized venues in other continents like their playground. Even if you want to claim to believe our music would do great on a global scale, many of us could not have predicted it would be this early. As recent as five years ago, people were clowning 9ice and Skales for declaring Grammy ambitions—well, look at us now.

History is happening right now, in front of our very eyes. You can say that at every point in modern Nigerian Pop, but what is happening with global prominence is truly spectacular. I would imagine this is (sort of) what it was like in the abundant 1970’s and ‘80s, with veritable, globally active Nigerian musicians like King Sunny Ade, the Lijadu Sisters, and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. As a student of Nigerian music history, I do know that the global interest at those times isn’t as rabid as it is now. The technological advancements of a globalised world have definitely helped. There’s nothing new under the sun, the iterations are only slightly modified.

Within this framework of boundless ambitions, there’s a palpable tussle in balancing global appeal with sating home. No matter how much they crossover, Nigerian artists never want to neglect home, not just because it’s bad optics, but for the simple fact that Nigerians are the primary audience for Nigerian pop music. The conflict, though, is in the factors that involve crossing over on the highest level—and remaining there.

In 2017, amidst his blistering Back to Basics run, Davido called his 2016 EP, Son of Mercy.’ Having signed an international recording deal with Sony Music, the Nigerian Pop superstar cobbled together a project that his new label believed would further his reach. It didn’t, and even worse, it dulled the connection OBO had with a Nigerian audience that already revered his hit-making powers. Realigning his Nigerian acceptance proved to be the most pivotal decision in his career, and it even propelled his global superstardom way better than the more contrived music his label guided him in putting together.

In the same 2017, Wizkid put out his third album, ‘Sounds from the Other Side’, the summer after auto-tuned vocal contributions helped push Drake’s “One Dance” into astounding global ubiquity. Taking clear cues from Caribbean Pop and inflections from R&B, the project proved divisive, mainly because the sound of the album didn’t have enough of the streaking anthems from his previous projects, nor did it mirror the mainstream. Subsequent smash hits like “Manya,” “Soco” and “Joro” were moves to reclaim dominance at home.

Big Wiz continued to refine the fusion he presented on SFTOS’, presenting it on his critically acclaimed fourth LP, ‘Made in Lagos’, which skyrocketed his value as a global superstar. Even with its undeniable international success, I’ve heard enough gripes with its title, especially in relation to its somewhat laidback charm. Most Nigerians associate Lagos with chaos and bustle, which MIL’ does not quite convey, so the groans are understandable. It’s not that the music isn’t enjoyable to these people, it’s about expectations.

Even Wizkid seemed to acknowledge the mild controversy, opting to perform some of his earlier, more propulsive jams at a few live show dates during the detty December festivities in Nigeria. This is an artist who, a few weeks prior, had held the attention of about 60,000 people, across three days at the O2 Arena, and touring the world, now slyly acquiescing to the pressures of home.

We live in times when Nigerian Pop stars spend more time outside Nigeria than within it, performing to more white faces and Black people in the diaspora. Last year, amidst one of his infamous digital rants, Burna Boy plainly stated that there was way more money being made off touring foreign continents, adding that it’s all “cruise” in Nigeria as far him and his pockets are concerned. Say what you will, but Burna’s statement is an earnest and honest declaration of the financial motivations to go global and remain global.

These days, most—if not all—successful Nigerian Pop stars will tour a new project across foreign countries within months of release, then wait till December to perform the perfunctory headline show in Lagos and, if they can or want to, one or two more major Nigerian cities. To pull that home-based show off, they have to have one or more hits in circulation, and be insanely ubiquitous or have a dedicated audience. To a very large extent, that frames the seeming disregard fans feel at this local live shows, from incessant lateness to the sometimes lethargic stage pyrotechnics.

Like they say, money makes the world go round, so it makes sense that our Nigerian superstars will be significantly more diligent outside the continent, even though they don’t want to lose that connection with home. This is where the underwhelming circumstances play a huge role. It’s easy—and apt, even—to demand Nigerian Pop stars do a better job in this facet of their obligations to the Nigerian audience. What’s more complicated, though, is the factors holding Nigerian music from truly flourishing on a local scale.

Last December, the standard prices of live shows went up. In many cases, they doubled. General tickets at many shows that went for 5,000 Naira in 2019 sold for 10,000 Naira or more, mirroring the inflation in Nigeria’s economy in those two years. Most of the shows happened in Lagos, the commercial capital of the country, so they were duly packed. At the same time, the concentration of these live events on a particular period and in a single city is telling of the economic circumstances in Nigeria.

December is now firmly regarded as the period of maximum fun, where many people splurge their savings on stuff like live shows, but that is a luxury in a country with multi-dimensional poverty and over 40% of the population live below the poverty line. For context, the poverty line is based on an income line of less than two dollars (about 1,000 Naira) per day. With economic stats like that, it’s no wonder artists are unable to properly tour their own country beyond the occasional show invites and bookings. Add in Nigeria’s current raging insecurity woes, you get the perfect recipe for single shows in Lagos, and the focus on abroad touring. Not only is the income extremely attractive, your safety is also better guaranteed.

Nigeria’s current socioeconomic situation is also not doing our music any favours. It is making the global play seem like the best, and maybe only, option for Nigerian pop artists, which isn’t exactly ideal. There is the obvious reason that not every artist will crossover on the same magnitude of Wizkid, Yemi Alade, Tems, and the like. There is also the less obvious reason that the crossover boom will very likely not last forever. Even if it does last forever, an environment that can’t properly sustain its music is a net negative, for its continued growth and even narrative purposes.

There’s also the matter of the Nigerian music industry is still in development, expanding to include capable professionals and better practices. A lot of the structure that has accompanied modern Nigerian music has been created through bootstrapping and creative problem solving, largely because Nigeria doesn’t make things easy. Earlier this year, the most prominent Nigerian music award show announced its relocation to the U.S., with the founder generally stating that it would be a lot easier to produce over there. This is happening amidst the wave of discussions on the issues with foreign awards validating our music.

As much as Nigerians take pride in our music, it’s obvious that the Nigerian effect is doing as much harm, if not more than, our collective good. The answers to these issues are not straightforward, because the factors behind them are from forces beyond our immediate control. Nigeria corrupts everything and, sadly, our music is not exempt.