Religion In Street-Pop: The soundtrack of the Nigerian dream

Street pop artists are leading a spiritual awakening

Over the past decade and half, street pop has evolved, leaving its origins of outlier music to become the epicentre of Nigeria’ pop music, ruling music charts and achieving nationwide acceptance.  No one can boldly claim ownership of Nigerian pop music but there can be no doubt that the places known to us as the streets have had a great influence on the music coming out of this country.

The streets, often characterised by the lacklustre ambience and guttural realities of Lagos living have produced pop stars such as Daddy Showkey, Dagrin and Olamide and laid a solid foundation for many of the new school street pop artists today. In popular Nigerian culture today, most of the slangs and lingos we use stem from the streets, but another important factor which stems out of street music is its close relationship with religion.

For example, a record such as “Oba” sees T.I Blaze singing “Oluwa sha lon shomi, ko kin sh’eniyan/Oba l’Oba o ma je koni tan l’ara omo oba, k’oma ku dansaki” which directly interprets as “It’s still God protecting me/God will be God and it won’t finish on the body of God’s child,” an affirmation that would typically be expected in gospel music and not between the lines of a street-pop record. This continues on records such as Barry Jhay’s “Whine My God” where he solemnly sings “Igba ti mon jeun l’alai l’eran eni kankan o ri mi, eni kankan o ran mi/Only God fit make me smile” which translates to “When I was eating without meat, nobody saw me and nobody cared/Only God was able to make me smile.” While these artists may have different circumstances they are navigating, it’s clear that they have come to illustrate their pain by calling on a higher being to intercede on their behalf.

In the earlier days, young people in the Bronx borough of New York City, USA used their pain, and the unspeakable violence and tragedy that they experienced to create Hip-Hop, an art that appeals to the world. This sound has been refined over the years and more artists have weighed in with their own pains. The realities of many of those who initially started Hip-hop involved gun violence, drugs and  jail sentences. Hip-hop has now grown into a vibrant culture that allows rappers to express and sell their pain, and for listeners to relate and buy into this pain, similar to Nigerian street pop. The home of Nigerian street pop music is Lagos, Nigeria. Street pop music is easily made up of vernacular and Yoruba, the latter being the most relatable and popular language in Lagos. Similar to Hip-Hop, most Nigerian street pop artists are selling their pain and their reality as hope to people who come from where they’re from and we as listeners buy into their pain because it is relatable. 

When I initially came across Barry Jhay’s music in 2020 at the time when there was no certainty of what the world would look like in a few years, I remember listening to the record “Muje” and the lyrics “nkan to olorun mi ba fowo si e le baje/Adura wa gan gan ni tiwa ma se baje” instantly stuck with me. I finally found hope; in the midst of all the darkness, I found hope in the music. These lyrics simply translate to “Whatever God puts his hands in will never spoil/And our own major prayer is ours should never spoil.” Many times over, I’ve come across listeners and fans that have referred to Barry Jhay’s music as spiritual music. This is because like many artists of the same ilk, Barry Jhay is making affirming music that has earmarked him as a poster boy for representing the pain of the average Nigerian. Barry Jhay is in great company, among many other artists such as T.I Blaze and Seyi Vibez, who music that gives hope to the streets.

T.I Blaze is one of artist who never shies away from singing about his reality on the streets, using his music as a tool to communicate with God. When he shared his debut EP ‘The Fresh Prince Of Lagos,’ with listeners, he beefed the project up with affirming records such as “Try” and “Oba” with Barry Jhay, both of which he used to give thanks to God for his growth from adversity to riches. On “Try,” he sings the standout lyrics, “I no fit to run from God, I came from the streets no joy o,” sharing with listeners his actual reality and selling hope to those who may be in need of aural healing.

In the same light, when you listen to Bella Shmurda’s music, he is fervent in his prayer and firm in reminding listeners of his past and how God has come through for him. On “Fade,” a standout off Davido’s third studio LP ‘A Better Time,’ Bella Shmurda arrives as a mouthpiece for the streets. Over the catchy track, he constantly chants lyrics such as “I no fit to run away from God, if not I go fade away,” reminding listeners of his deep affection and respect for God, the one who guides his tumultuous days. On the Masterkraft-produced record “Hallelu” with Zlatan and Bella Shmurda, he turns inwards and orchestrates intimate conversations with his maker as he sings, “Hallelu, Hallelujah oh, Oluwa gbemileke/Maa gawuu, leyin Adura oh, ati awe fojo meje,” which translates as “Hallelu, Hallelujah oh, God has raised me over my enemies/don’t worry, if not for prayers and days of fasting, I won’t be here.” 

Due to this close relationship it has nurtured with religion, I’ve always been a fan of street pop. At times, when my mind is very occupied and I need a bit of hope, I turn to Barry Jhay’s music and find God between his lyrics. His music instantly lifts my spirit and gives me hope when there seems to be none. On his most recent EP ‘Son Of God,’ tracks such as “Bless Me,” call upon a higher being to watch over him and see him through life, a prayer that most listeners can relate to in their own personal intercessions. When Superwozzy and Barry Jhay came together for the record “Gratitude,” they both allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of their creator as they delivered lyrics such as “God I want to thank you for the blessings, for the ups and downs, for the lessons,” displaying nothing but genuine gratitude to a more supreme being. 

Afropop has always managed to incorporate messages to God, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist who hasn’t dedicated at least a few songs to thank God for how far they’ve come. Street pop music is no different in this regard, and I’ve found a way to speak to God directly and commune with him through the music. Whether that’s through Barry Jhay, Candy Bleakz or Bella Shmurda, the soundtrack of the Nigerian dream is never wavering and now, there’s a new generation of street-pop artists laying the groundwork for a spiritual awakening.

Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE