Why Nigerian pop music left the streets

And will the streets ever get their flowers?

Wale Oloworekende believes Nigerian pop music left the slums in order to sustain itself, at the risk of never getting the flowers they deserve. In the following chapter by chapter breakdown, he makes a good case why. 


Many times I cast my mind back to that brief conflagration between Olamide and Don Jazzy on the first day of 2016. I ponder about the hotness of Olamide’s rage at the establishment and the thinly-veiled venom of Don Jazzy’s retort; of how Nigeria’s then-evolving online community responded to it all, the jokes, memes, and overwhelming predictions being made in real-time; the fleeting feeling of there being an observable discord between two of the most bustling labels of that time. But mostly, what I think about are the specific words Olamide used on stage that day – “Lil Kesh is our own Next Rated artist. F**k that sh*t! Streets ti take over” – and how, by voicing a salient point of the streets’ resurgence, he inversely capitulated that the streets had not been in true control for a hot minute – and sadly, perhaps never again.

From mid-2014 to December 2015, there was barely any rapper hotter than Lil Kesh anywhere in the span of this country, and many felt that with each of his hit songs delivered in a defiant mass of Yoruba-inflected lingo, the streets were inching closer to the epicentre of popular culture – within touching distance of being feted as the origin of all the sauce, once again.

So, for Olamide to have been outraged by Kesh’s snub in the Next Rated Category hinted perhaps more than anything, at a deeper frustration – chagrin at a more systemic hiccup that seemed to say, ‘we thank you for what you have done but you are not vetted enough for our awards because you are the street and we have passed your epoch.’ This is what I think was the biggest frustration: to be denied a hero’s welcome to that other Nigeria, despite soundtracking all their darkest perversions and hidden desires for months and months on end. To be seen but not acknowledged.


When Dagrin, rapped, “Omo Naija ni mi, Naija no bi mi si,” on his seminal track “Pon Pon Pon”, he was talking about a specific kind of Nigeria that is not readily discernible by everybody, despite months of the song ruling everywhere from street bacchanals to posh raves. With his verse, Dagrin was giving a conspiratorial wink to the Nigeria of his childhood, the Nigeria that would rather not be seen. The Nigeria of a bus conductor whose bed is a chair in a park, or the struggling petty trader who is also a widow with four children. There is enough proximity to that specific kind of Nigeria in the video for “Pon Pon Pon”, which almost makes it a fitting dirge for Nigerian pop’s abandonment of the slums,  even if it was imagined as a coronation of sorts for the streets.  

No one people can claim to own pop music, but there can be no doubt that the places known to us as the streets – a colloquialism used to refer to areas like Orile, Mile 2, Maza Maza, Surulere, Bariga and, more recently, Agege – have had a foundational influence on the ebb of our music; on what can be said, how they can be stylistically altered and what cadence they can be said in. For decades, the streets ran contemporary Nigerian pop music.

These days, Ajegunle is almost a fountain of mythological exegeses, however, from the mid-90s to the early noughties, the community pummpled by violence, lack and abandonment was the hotbed of musical talent in the country, overrun with talents such as the effervescent Daddy Showkey; noted troubadour, African China; counterculture icons, Danfo Drivers; and a host of other eminent singers of their day, whose songs were a reflective mirror of lived experiences and injustices. In essence, the music from that period was a communal product, heavily indented by self-ownership and identity. Growing up in the places that inspire these sort of music, you understand that music is a tool used to make lives that have been pushed to the far edges of public consciousness visible. And that’s how contemporary Nigerian pop starts to filter out of concrete layered over the lives of ordinary people. From songs like “Danfo Driver”, “Dyna”, and “Denge Pose”, music becomes the identity of an idea of different places, an idea that evolves into popular perception to become known as the streets. Dusty feet kicking footballs grew up into wary mouths that saw the studio as a means to escape economic deprivation.

For an all-too-tantalising moment, the status quo held. The biggest stars of the Ajegunle moment stayed in their hoods, venerated as kings holding sway with their galala and reggae-infusions. But one day, predictably, the sound started to transmute to neighbouring estates and one after another, musicians and influential figures like Daddy Showkey and Nelson Brown started to leave in search for something resembling a calmer life. In the same way rappers make the move from Crenshaw to 90210, the disheartening conditions that fueled their art also made them leave what was once home, however, they didn’t go too far. They moved to Festac, Orile, Amuwo Odofin, Okokomaiko, and Satellite Town, stretching the elasticity of their music by a bit but not entirely shutting off the tap that watered their influences.


When 2Face released “African Queen” all those years ago, establishing it as the new plus ultra of Nigerian pop, Ajegunle was being edged away from the centre of conversations by Festac, another offshoot of its influence. And all the popular names from just a few years ago were being quietly displaced by the likes of Tony Tetuila, Eedris Adbulkareem, Faze, and 2Face himself.  

On his critically acclaimed debut album, ‘Face2Face’, with the bulk of its production handled by OJB Jezreel, 2Face is a multitude of things: charmer, superstar, and pop general. The biggest takeaway, however, is his ability to slip into the sort of personality that can cross over into the other Nigeria without misgivings about his credibility and aura, no doubt helped by his easy smile, warm personality, and sprightly gait. Yet for all its aspirational hue, ‘Face2Face’ confronts the pervading fears that are per se for the streets and its constituents. “Police (Skit)”, following directly after the tropical warmth of “African Queen”, is a taut imagination of running into a police team while still being, at least for a few more months, from the slums where bodies can mortally yield to a policeman’s bullet and life continues like nothing ever happened. 

Back then in 2004, when the Trybesmen were dishing amazing fusions of hip-hop and pidgin, when D’Banj and Don Jazzy were navigating a path to the top echelons of superstardom, when OJB’s fantastical alchemical sound was rewriting the DNA of Nigerian pop from gruffly groaning to computer-generated softer-sounding melange of hip-hop and r&b, the music still (at least in soul) belonged to the streets. Even as the money came in and behemoths like Kennis Music and Storm Records became emblematic of Nigerian pop’s promised proliferation, the stars of that era still maintained a proximity to the unheralded places where music was stitched into the tapestry of regular life.  Yet, as the years passed, the music started to be weaned off those overt influences and the streets’ influence on the music that would play from mischievous end of the year parties to wedding parties became fragile. 

According to Osagie Alonge, Nigerian pop basically blew up into different places after being reverse-engineered at OJB’s musical mecca – most notably on Face2Face. “From Surulere everybody just took the sound and did their own thing with it,” he tells me one night in October 2019. By doing their “own thing,” I wonder if he’s talking about Nigerian pop’s state of euphoric placelessness for much of the 2010s, as popular music evolved into a stripped, frictionless mix of file transfers, nouveau riche anthems, and perpetual horniness. But, really, what you and I know happened is that pop stars realised that love sells and being a civil watchdog can be a thankless task – if you doubt me listen to Sound Sultan’s “2010” – and by becoming wizards of love, they moved out of the spaces where risks could come to their person and had insulation from all of that turmoil.

In 2020, the problems that sparked the deluge of conscious-adjunct songs from Ajegunle in the mid-90s still persist, perhaps even more luminous now. Slum schools are still perennially underfunded, health infrastructure is on the verge of collapse in those areas, crime is soaring, and parents who were kids in the ’90s are watching their own kids search for a way out that appears non-existent. But the music now – still an incredulously politicised insistence on prosperity and romantic bliss in a country that wants anything but that for its citizenry – plays different; the edginess of those previous years a foregone reality.

Many times in the last decade the streets spoke back without giving away any part of itself. Dagrin’s sun-soaked lyricism and playful wits went mainstream, Olamide’s hedonism became the tale of a generation, and Reminisce morphed into a cultural icon but, on occasion, their successes still felt half-way, a kind of success that had to wear gatekeeping down with its inevitability, that said ‘this is who I am and you can’t do anything about it, so accept me as I am.’ Maybe Olamide was right when he said, “Street ti take over,” atop the Headies stage all those years ago because “Local Rapper” his acerbic collaboration with Phyno and Reminisce led to turned up noses and belly-aching and muted acquiesce. But to take over and to hold fort are two different things. To not disappear from eyes that never wanted to see you in the first place, but even then, the streets taking over was at best, a rote rehashing of what had come before – singers singing out to the void for opportunities to leave the places where life was crumbling around them.


Everywhere Burna Boy went in 2019 he took the Zanku with him. From Oslo to London to Toronto, the move was an important part of his sets, delighting eyes all over the world with his spirited improvisation of this dance whose place of origin is Agege, another of those hoods that now mostly serve as tributaries for Nigerian pop’s omnivorous appetite. When I see the audience squeal in delight as Burna sweatily does the dance, I wonder if they know the birthplace of this move they revel in. I wonder whether they know that it’s not strictly “Nigerian”, that it germinated from a community that may, or may not, be lost in the harvest of it all; that an entire squadron of streets artists have built a movement around it in the perhaps misguided belief that it will, again, fleetingly, make them pop culture’s toast despite all evidence to the contrary. 

In one scene in her latest visual album, Black is King, Beyoncé, too, zankus. She does it with the sublime grace of a water dancer. Head spinning, hands swirling, and legs in perfect synchronization for that almighty air kick. I close my eyes, half-scared she’ll fall, but, of course, she doesn’t, she’s Beyoncé. In that moment I don’t know what to feel. Seeing a dance from a place where life is pressed against the edges of a city that would rather they are not there is a whole new trip. But, really, what I think is: Nigerian pop may have left the slums, but when we rise with our hands crossed, legs poised to prance, and voices undeterred, they will always have to see us because we have the sauce.

Featured Image Credits: NATIVE

Wale Oloworekende Is A Lagos-Based Freelance Writer Interested In The Intersection Of Popular Culture, Music, And Youth Lifestyle.