The Rise Of A New Big Three In Nigerian Pop

A new vanguard of hitmakers are poised to cement into further stardom

The walls of Nigerian Pop music have expanded over the past decade well beyond what many could have imagined. Armed with a slew of artists poised to cement global stardom and a series of hits back to back, the industry has witnessed a remarkable evolution led by recurrent players who seem to meet the criteria year in, year out. As much as the works of main acts are backed up by several supporting players making major impact in various ways, these flag bearers of Nigerian Pop have been awarded the title of Big 3 with good reason.

They have not only threaded a path down mainstream success in the country, but have given a voice to artists alike across the continent, stretching their impact far beyond preconceived notions. It is now commonplace in today’s world for African artists, veteran and new, to snag features or collaborations across international projects or receive grammy nominations across several categories. And we have Davido, Burna Boy and Wizkid, as reached by a consensus of listeners and connoisseurs across the country, to thank for this. 

In recent times however, the Big 3 have had to make room for new entrants bursting through the seams with a gradual yet resounding impact on the fabric of Afropop. As expected, various music heads, fans and stakeholders in the industry are so eagerly in search of the next big thing that we fall short in recognising an Afropop renaissance until it is in almost full effect. When the likes of Davido’s Tekno-produced “If” were garnering unfathomable levels of attention and formally reintroducing the international audience to the world of Afropop, Rema’s “Dumebi” was getting ready to take the country by storm.

Then, 18-year old Jonzing World signee debuted into the mainstream with what many would now consider a Rema classic, after a series of freestyle videos circulated the internet. A young man on a mission to venture away from the one-hit wonder route, Rema tuned out the voices of various naysayers with a 4-track eponymous extended play alongside befitting follow ups, ‘Rema Freestyle EP’ and ‘Bad Commando.’ These hit-stacked offerings earned him the ears of many fans within and outside the country for his varying influences and refreshing takes on Afropop. 

It still seems surreal that the Benin-born crooner has just recently taken on one of the largest world stages, London’s 02 Arena in a remarkable sold out show. While bracing  himself to deliver a once in a lifetime performance to 20,000 ravers, Rema takes a moment to recognise one the greats who brought him out on the same stage two years ago. For any fortunate attendees or online streamers like the rest of the world, we witnessed an almost eye-watering moment when an enthusiastic Rema joined Burna Boy on stage to sing to a zestful crowd, already chanting the lyrics of his biggest song at the time, “Dumebi.”

Only two years have passed and Rema now takes the stage solo to deliver memorable performances stacked with back to back hits from his robust discography, reiterating the famed phrase at the start of all his tracks, “another banger.” Prior to this, Rema had not only released a glorious debut album armed with unrivalled hits of far reaching impact and replay value, he had also performed several sold out shows and taken on stadium tours across the world including India. All the while, snagging the record as the longest standing African song topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts, after the multi-platinum Selena Gomez-assisted “Calm Down (Remix)” dominated our soundwaves for 35 consecutive weeks since peaking at No.3. So when the 23 year old star accurately anoints himself the Prince of Afrobeats and the Jay-Z of our generation on “HOV,” who are we to say otherwise? 

In a sense, predicting which prodigies or as Davido cheekily described, “new cat,” will live up to the expectations set before them has become a focal touchpoint on its own. It seems like every other day that one music head or X user with minimal knowledge in music or its steep history, comes out to crown the recipient of any noteworthy achievement “The next [insert veteran here].” Oftentimes, it is based on tried and true similarities in creative approach and other times, it is simply because both acts are from the region, create within the same genre or downright breathe the same air. As much as the earlier is the preferred basis for comparisons, such conversations still prove to be a double edged sword where some listeners fail to draw a line between inspiration and flat out imitation. Fortunately, the likes of Rema have wholeheartedly embraced inspiration from their forerunners, all the while exploring innovative ways to build on the groundwork laid before them.

Alongside Rema but somehow on the other end of the spectrum, Tems is steadily building a cult following within the soulful soundscape with her enchanting vocals and inimitable star qualities. While her instantly recognisable vocals strike a chord within listeners from across the globe, her charm and impact beyond what the larger audience can perceive has earned her the acclaim she receives today. Since her formal introduction with “Mr Rebel,” Tems’ ethos remains staying true to herself. Back in 2018, the youth-led underground scene built a fan base off morphing together sounds that strayed away from the mainstream airwaves at the time. Given the pressure that comes with giving into what’s hot at the moment, Tems seemingly cracked the code and prioritised longevity above all else, using her time to sharpen her vocal as well as writing and production skills.

As we eagerly anticipate her debut album, following the hit of faith-led crowd favourite, “Me & U,” Tems remains one of the most sought after collaborators of our time. Her vocals on Wizkid’s monster single “Essence” earned her the global ears she had long been preparing for, and as quickly as the records were broken and she graced various world stages, it was clear that Tems is more than ready to bask in the limelight of her tenacious efforts. Having recognised her superpower—her voice—Tems’ persistent journey down the path of truth led her to writing for Rihanna after over half a decade away from the music industry and becoming a Grammy award winner for a sample lent to Future off her debut EP, ‘For Broken Ears,’ to name a few.

Perhaps the biggest draw of this newer big three is in how distinct and musically disparate they are from each other. The older big three were unique, too, each differing in their imagination and how they used their skills in making music, but you can see the intersections without squinting too hard. Think Rema and Tems operate on different poles? It almost feels like Asake is an antithesis. He’s a pop savant whose strongest affiliation is with the deeper suburban parts of Lagos, a man who primarily sings—or sing-raps if you will—in Yoruba, sometimes stacking aphorisms breathlessly, to the point speakers of the language might be dizzied.

Asake’s time started at the dawn of 2022. Before that, he was a cult superstar in Uni, then an up-and-coming artist who scored a street hit but couldn’t convert that attention into any real momentum. Now signed to the label founded by the greatest indigenous rap artist in Nigerian music, Ololade Asake has vaulted into the uppermost echelon of Nigerian pop. The recipe: Stupendous hit-making prowess. If you conduct a 10v10 battle of the hits for artists who broke out in the last five years, very few of them are leaving without being utterly embarrassed. Asake hasn’t just caught up with the new vanguard of Nigerian pop stars; he’s leading the pack by more than a few paces.

No motion is being wasted on this prolific streak, evidenced by two albums and an EP in 18 months. Both albums are classics-in-the-waiting, tightly-crafted endeavours packed to the ears with hits. And it’s not just at home: Within nine months, he went from the O2 Brixton to the O2 Arena. Within weeks, he was at the Barclays Centre. Just the other day he became a first-time Grammy nominee, and his label boss is with him for the ride. That he’s operating at the speed of a blur doesn’t make it seem like any of this is unsustainable. It would be foolish to doubt that there are dozens more hits to follow and more than a couple more great albums, setting the runway for one of the greatest careers Afropop has ever seen.

That’s the beauty of it all. These stellar acts all at varying points in their career with ranging years of experience are using their voice to tell the stories that really matter all in their own ways. One song, feature, collaboration, production or writing cred at a time, these newcomers—and I use this term loosely—are expanding the scope of sounds emanating from these parts while representing Afropop’s embryonic yet promising future. And that isn’t to say the OG’s are still leading the game and stacking over the building blocks they once cemented, but the new class of Afropop geniuses have shown they are willing and able to take over if they decide to hang their boots.

Additional words by Dennis Ade Peter.