For many Nigerians born in the late 80’s to the mid 90’s, music became synonymous with two cigarette brands; Rothmans and Benson & Hedges. Rothmans used to sponsor a global pop music video chart on NTA in the 90’s that was widely watched and introduced a preteen me to the Macarena, Natalie Imbruglia and Nigerian fronted band Lighthouse Family. It expanded my musical palates and showed me there was a more diverse world out there and artists who were pushing boundaries in their music and their search for relevance in the sea of music upstarts. For my elder sisters, the revolution was a little closer to home.
The Benson and Hedges concerts had started in 1993 and by 1997, they were the biggest and most anticipated concert series in the country. Plantashun Boiz and the Remedies, Daddy Showkey and Baba Fryo, Edna Eva Ogoli and King Sunny Ade; they all found a home on the Golden Tones stage, before the 2000’s and the federal government sanctions on tobacco companies saw the British American Tobacco company (the parent company of Rothmans and Benson & Hedges) fall out of favour.
By then however, B.A.T had made an important statement; there was good money in bringing local artists to a live audience and anyone who could capitalize on that would remain in good stead with Nigeria’s music-loving community. Kennis Music, then the biggest Nigerian label of the 2000’s stepped up with its much loved annual Easter Fiesta and Christmas concerts. Nigerian Breweries wanted in, after running a handful of talent competitions that launched the careers of KCPresh and Marvellous Benjy, established its inaugural Star Mega Jam in 2000, a concert series that morphed some in the intervening years, but is still going strong 17 years later.
But insiders and music lovers know something happened between 2000 and now. for several reasons, including but not restricted to the violent conflicts that had flared up in the Niger Delta and North East and North Central, it became unsafe and economically unviable to invest in proper concert spaces outside of Lagos. By the mid-2000’s, the Nigerian music industry began to constrict, withdrawing its influence from across the country and centring it all in Lagos. The industry constricted so thoroughly that it simply became the Lagos music scene, and anyone who wanted to make a name for themselves in Nigeria had to pack up shop from where ever they started their careers. Who can forget Styl Plus who moved from Abuja after the success of “Olufunmi”, and M.I Abaga after “Crowd Mentality” became one of Naija’s first legitimate viral sensations. By 2010, the music migration cycle was normalized and all the ‘big’ artists from across the country began hustling for a spot in one of Lagos’s many end of year concerts.
The problem with this centralization was that there simply weren’t enough people in Lagos (with the economic liquidity) to truly support all the artists who came here looking to ‘blow’. It became a lottery of sorts, with artists gambling with singles looking for a big break. The handful who scored a hit, found themselves bumped to the top of list of desired acts and tossed back and forth between concerts, while everyone else scrounged for smaller venues. As the competition got tougher, more and more middling artists were squeezed out of rotation and emerging artists entirely crowded out. Concerts in Lagos have become such a farce that, there are currently two venues that matter, The Eko Hotel Convention Center and Hard Rock Cafe.
Monopolies have always inspired rebellion, and the Lagos Music Scene is no different. Empowered by the democratic nature of the internet and the access to formerly exclusive music making tools, dozens of artists are emerging who are cultivating audiences that span the globe and sounds that are influenced by everything from Irish Shetland rock to Australian Aboriginal chants. Their diverse audiences is bypassing our traditional music gatekeepers and giving them much needed economic bargaining power to create their own music experiences. Dusten Truce and Jamal Swiss organized the stellar five venue Young Kulture tour, the Tomisin Akinwumi led Lucid Lemons has its own annual concert, The Lemon Curd, and the Idris King led 90’s Baby has curated an entire concert/culture experience around its obsession with 90’s nostalgia. These independently organized concerts have found niche but loyal audiences and proven yet, that perhaps the age of the ensemble concert is done, and we are ready to return to intimate, artist-driven concert experiences.
This December, we will have what is arguably the most diverse offerings of concerts Lagos has ever seen. Simi is headlining her first independent Lagos concert, as is Mayorkun, Maleek Berry, Nonso Amadi, Eri Ife and Burna Boy. These concerts are a gamble that these artists have such a unique point of view, that an audience will immerse itself in that point of view and leave sated. It is a gamble we know will pay off for some of them and make a point for all emerging artists, that craft matters, as does the audience.
Edwin eats his rice and cabbages. Tweet at him@edgothboy