Saving the ‘New Age’ from The Sins of its Predecessors

If the young must grow, the young must put in work

In Greek mythology there is the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax, and fell to his death in the most brutal way. Its message is simple: whatever goes up will come down. It explains the nature of things; how trends come and go and how people rise and fall.

On the rise of an outward demand for African music and other sibling sounds, a class of ultra-aesthetic experimental artists have come under spotlight. This is against the age-long belief that beyond the mainstream jollof sound, fringe sounds with complex arrangements and abstract ideas will never pop. But as social media would prove, there is always a little corner on the internet for anyone to self-publish and become a sensation.

The emergence of seemingly broad-thinking younger artists has come in part, because of a latent generation of culturally literate and cyber-aware 90s babies influenced by multiple genres music and wired to create on their own. These artists have come of age in the years of wave-based mood music often aliased (and refuted) as ‘tumblr music’. Think of it as inward music that comes with its own aesthetic and narrative (See Drake, Frank OceanLana Del Rey et-al). Because the dearth of good Nigerian content is exemplified in how often concepts are recycled, standing out can take as little as having a different creative approach to having distinct visuals. All you need is an artist with a little confidence and privilege for relative consistency. This is how you get a metrosexual Odunsi, a broken-hearted Nonso Amadi or a romantic Tay Iwar—artists who cleverly push an African narrative while riding the post-Drake neo-R&B wave.

But like young Icarus’ discovery of flight, we’re reminded that taking off the ground is possible for anyone who leaps high enough. The hard part is staying airborne.

Interesting as the future prospects for Nigerian music may seem, history would also make it appear that we have been here before. Nearly ten years ago, renewed interest for production, imagery and costumes paved the way for a slew of returnee artists including Sauce Kid, Banky W, Eldee, Olu Maintain, M.I, Don Jazzy et-al. MTV Base and Channel O launched a few years earlier and both terrestrial broadcasts were major influences on the continental urban culture. The radical shift to improved quality is still evident in picturesque art and lush chrome filtered videos today, the sounds, however, have become staid and uninspiring. Because the same so-called innovators got too comfortable with being just Africa-famous, to worry about being good artists.

For ‘new age’ artists, the tendency for validation bias is even higher. The information age obsesses over numbers, most of which are directly availed by social media and streaming platforms. The high of unexpected celebrity can become a mental trap for artists, insulating them from the rest of the world with a blind assumption that their music is not and cannot be universally accepted because it is ‘not for everyone’. This is already evidenced in the repeated themes and low replay value of many ‘new age’ artists who consistently manage to be above average but not great; conceptual but not focused; potential talent but not especially distinct.

As the legend goes, Icarus’ only sin was getting too caught up in flight to remember he’d been going somewhere. Beyond its mastery of aesthetics and flowery language, the ‘new age’ will have to look inward for authenticity and outward for possibilities. The respective successes of Davido, Burna Boy and Wizkid has turned mainstream attention to African music like we haven’t seen in a long time, its fruits should not be wasted on the self-facing ephemeral experiments.

Featured Image: Instagram/@odunsithengine, @tayiwar, @nonsoamadi

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