For Its Next Lap, Nigeria’s Street Pop Is Pushing Into Experimental Fields

With Street Pop now packaged in colourful, ready-to-dance wrapping, it has sauntered into its most commercial lap.

Street Pop offers a small confusion with its name. The definition of “street” is by no means dogmatic, but its intended meaning couldn’t be clearer. In between our nations cracks and crevices are the streets–a place where there are only a few positives other than the music made by those craving an escape; the slums that don’t make it to sweeping drone shots of Nollywood movies. What brings the confusion is the overlapping of the literal definition of “street,” which refers to the inner-city hood, and “Street Pop,” as in the music genre, which is employed as the catch-all term for all hood-fueled music–a similar problem faced with Afrobeats

Recently, this has become less of an issue, as Lagos has pulled ahead and established itself as the choice location from which this music is created. When the term “Street Pop” is used now, it readily calls to mind acts like Naira Marley, Zlatan, T. I. Blaze and legions more, around whom, admittedly diverse as they are, a clear circle can be drawn within which all occupants can find common ground. The commonalities these artists share also serve as a rough list of modern Street Pop’s characteristics—a theme of hustle that knows no moral bounds, a delivery composed chiefly of Yoruba and Pidgin, and a keen beckoning to God, via any religion, as the ultimate source of blessing. 

Today’s Street Pop stars possess, in addition to these fundamentals, a keenness to experiment and cut bits and pieces from Nigeria’s rich soundscapes to insert into their music. Evolution and adaptation are core concepts of Street Pop and acts like Asake, Seyi Vibez, and Zinoleesky are able to pull off cross-cultural interactions of sound—high-risk, high-reward adjustments that have set them apart from the abundant competition. 

One view on Street Pop’s origin is as a direct continuation of the Street music that once crowned Daddy Showkey, Danfo Drivers and Baba Fryo kings in locations like Alaba, Surulere, Mile 2, Mushin, Ajegunle and Orege, the places name-dropped by Mountain Black and Mad Melon (Danfo Drivers) in the iconic song. These parts of Lagos were a potpourri of cultures, mostly originating from Delta State, and it explains why Pidgin, Nigeria’s unofficial lingua franca favoured by South-South indigenes, was the language iconic songs like “Jogodo,” “Denge Pose,” and “Kpolongo” were delivered in. 

With time, Street music moved into more Yoruba-dominated spaces like Bariga and Agege, and there it got interwoven with long-standing indigenous Yoruba genres, especially Fuji, as they flowed into the Street Pop of today. An easy case study of Street Pop’s tribal spread can be found in Danfo Drivers’ “Kpolongo.” Street Pop star Zlatan sampled the 2006 smash for a song on his most recent album and named the new song “Polongo,” with the spelling change subtly conveying that the song has shifted cultures: the Yoruba language has no ‘kp’ in its alphabet. A quartet of Street Pop figures—Zlatan and Bella Shmurda as recording artists, Rexxie as producer and Poco Lee as, well, Poco Lee—were at the helm of this remake and they recreated the track in modern Street Pop terrain while preserving its original Ragga bounce. 

Another school of thought downplays the spatial connections between modern Street Pop and its Ajegunle prologue and instead focuses more on the temporal link between it and ancient genres like Fuji and Apala. Fuji’s most popular days are assumedly behind it now, but it would be a fallacy to assume it has run its course. Live instrumentation in music may have been largely replaced by electronic sound effects, but the melodies of the tuneful singing style adopted from Wéré are replicated fairly faithfully by artists like Asake, Qdot and Portable, among others. 

Pre-colonial Western Nigeria had a strong Islamic base, and with the yearly occasion of Ramadan came the Wéré (or Ajisari) singers who serenaded villagers with early morning music that kept them awake for Sahur. As the music grew in popularity it came to dissociate from Ramadan, and Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister conferred on it a new name and identity – Fuji, after drawing inspiration from Japan’s famed mountain. As Wéré was a vocals-driven genre with only the most modest percussion, the Sakara drums and Goje violins were adopted from Sakara music and fused into Wéré at the creation of Fuji.

At the time, the older but lesser-known Apala was also gaining momentum, relying on the Apala talking drum that had originated when men would beat match boxes in celebration of the birth of a new child. It had its pioneers in Ayinla Omoruwa and Haruna Ishola, but their deaths in 1980 and 1983 respectively inevitably hampered the growth of the genre, robbing it of the continued influence Fuji enjoyed. 

The Yoruba language is intonation heavy; the subtlest of tone changes can make the difference between complimenting a person’s beans (Èwà) or their beauty (Ewà). Wéré, then Fuji, drew heavily from this, and the earliest pioneers had the dexterity of vocals to flutter between vowels even at high notes, resulting in the signature technique of Fuji artists in drawing out the last vowel of each sentence to fill the gaps between lines. 

Wasiu Ayinde Marshal (or King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal or KWAM 1 or K1 De Ultimate, depending on what decade you’re looking at) was particularly adept at this singing style, and with it, he headlined Fuji’s next generation after graduating Ayinde Barrister’s tutelage. By incorporating more Westernised instruments, he pulled in the younger generation and upper-class citizens, ultimately giving Fuji its most mainstream push. This attracted a host of other artists towards the turn of the century, as Adewale Ayuba, Akande Obesere, Saheed Osupa and more entered the scene and went on to write their names in Nigerian music history. 

Pasuma deserves a special mention in the context of Street Pop. A student of KWAM 1 alongside Saheed Osupa, his keenness for innovation drove him to fuse Hip-hop and Pop. For Fuji to bleed into Street Pop, it needed to get embedded into the streets, and that was helped in no small measure by the efforts of Pasuma, who drew in younger people with his more eccentric version of Fuji, which would influence artists to adapt his cadences into modern pop beats. For his efforts, Pasuma is rewarded with references and nods from new-school artists, like Bella Shmurda (on Rush) and Zinoleesky (on “Rocking,” referencing his evergreen ‘Orobokiboalbum). 

The Street Pop-Fuji pipeline, however, wasn’t always as open as it is today; the earliest renditions of modern Street Pop positioned it closer to Hip-Hop, and for a while, it was Nigeria’s authentic answer to the American rap scene. Dagrin’s music career ended prematurely with his tragic passing in 2010 but he was such a force that any Street Pop literature without him carries a gaping hole. His take on the genre was heavy on rap, and his portrayal of the streets warned you to expect abrasion rather than camaraderie. One of the songs he got to stamp his footprint on was a remix of Oritse Femi’s “Mercies Of The Lord,” a prime cut from a stock now affectionately known as Afro-adura (an inormal term picked up by lovers of the genre), and he brought his signature Yoruba Hip-Hop, adding another dimension to the Ragga-Gospel soundscape the original was set in. 

Oritse Femi’s contribution to Street Pop extends beyond this chance mention, which is already more credit than most mainstream media gives him. His experiences in Ajegunle pushed him, as they did to others before him, into the studio, and in 2007 he emerged with songs like “Flog Politicians” and “Elewon,” leaving no doubt about his intentions for the political class. As Ajegunle’s influence in Nigerian music continued to shrivel, he left his hometown, physically and in spirit, and in 2014 delivered the Fela-inspired “Double Wahala”—his biggest commercial single at the time. Collaborations with modern Street Pop acts Reminisce (“Tomorrow”) and Olamide (Sossi’s “Sebee Remix”) helped sever any ties he had left to Ajegunle and ensured his rebirth as a Yoruba Street Pop star. 

Olamide, Dagrin’s spiritual successor, started in a similarly combative way and debuted “Eni Duro” in 2010 to exaggerate his toughness and draw a mark around his territory. With time, Olamide would come to make his music more accessible to outsiders, and anthems like “Bobo,” “Wo,” “Lagos Boys” and more could be enjoyed by even those who had no connection to the backwater areas of his upbringing. With catchy slang and easy dance routines, he extends a hand to the rest of the world, taking you on a tour around his hood while sparing you the ugly corners.

With Street Pop now packaged in colourful, ready-to-dance wrapping under which its material was kept thematically light and universally accessible, it sauntered into its most commercial lap. Soon the industry would be sieged with a glut of new artists, but they were not without their own intricate demarcations. Mr. Real, Idowest, Slimcase and CDQ propagated “Legbegbe” and its many spawns, which finely interwove South African gqom into slang-driven Street Pop, and it was complete with its own dance, the Shaku Shaku; Zlatan ushered in the Zanku era, and with the help of Burna Boy and Naira Marley, brought his dance to international fame; Naira Marley went on to make headlines after his much-revered 2019 run, and after publicity was so readily provided by the EFCC, he coasted on lyrics that should rattle Nigeria’s conservative sensibilities but instead earned him a cult following.

Street Pop has become a lot more decentralised since 2019, and it is nigh-impossible to place it in any particular space at each time, given that its hundreds of creatives work without a synchronised direction. As Street Pop gains a solid footing in Nigeria and takes flight beyond its borders, today’s creatives face a competitive environment that is always a welcome precursor for innovation, and some have responded particularly brilliantly. Nigerian music is no stranger to fusions and reinventions, but more important is its quality of staying true to itself and retaining ownership of its core. We danced to Yemi Alade’s takes on Coupé-décalé as she made her claim for the ‘Mama Africa’ title, we drowned in the soulful Hiplife rhythms Mr. Eazi brought with him from Ghana and the multitude of slow burners it inspired in Nigerian music, and now we have accepted that every other Pop song will carry log drums borrowed from South Africa’s Amapiano

At no time through multiple eras did we ever feel that the music was any less Nigerian, and now Street Pop has taken the baton to be at the forefront of Nigerian music’s quest for innovation while preserving its core elements. The inclusion of Amapiano can no longer be granted the blanket description of “inventive,” but there are musicians who go the extra mile in creating their own fusions with it, taking parts of two known elements to create something so different, it is almost an entirely new genre. Asake is one of those musicians. 

2022 was Asake’s time, but while his persistent spirit and Olamide’s influence are readily credited with his success, there remains no factor more significant than the quality and novelty of the music he produced. The large log drums are unmissable, but underneath them lies subtle craftsmanship, like in the Europop-esque beats at the base of “Sungba” and “Palazzo” that give it a feel of Dance music. His use of backup choristers and anthemic choruses is another well-documented side to him, but more interestingly is the way he works them into multi-religious concepts. On “Omo Ope,” he aims for a Christian choir, depicting this with robes in the video and sectioning voices into vocal ranges. “Dull” has backup vocals chant words of prayer to ancestors in a manner common to the African Traditional Religion. On “Peace Be Unto You,” they chorus “Asalam Alaykun/ I get many many disciples,” a reference to Islam, which he reiterates in the video. His use of the Islamic religion plays a secondary role as an ode to Wéré, Fuji’s Islam-influenced precursor, and assures that his inventions will never take him too far from home – not while he possesses a hold on the historical roots of his music. 

It is after delving into intricacies like this that comparisons with Seyi Vibez dissipate and don’t survive on closer inspection. Seyi Vibez’s take on Amapiano is decidedly more stripped, in that it features all of its bells and whistles (quite literally), but the biggest log drums are only sparingly applied, resulting in stretches of a song where Seyi Vibez’s signature guttural vocals float in incantation without a beat to guide them. As expected, a few have put this phenomenon down to an inability to follow a beat rather than a creative choice—as forging unconventional styles into music will always polarise listeners. 

Seyi Vibez’s discography carries multiple nods to Yoruba culture and music, such as when he mutters money-seeking incantations to himself on “Chance” like an Ifa priest would: “Omo Anifowose, omo Abule sowo/ Aje wami ri, money no dull me“; or a more overt reference like sampling Apala legend Fatai Olowonyo’s “Elewure Wole” on “G.O.A.T.”

Interestingly, Fatai Olowonyo’s original track was released at a time in Apala and Fuji genres where rivalries reigned, enough to go around that many artists were embroiled in more than one. Ayinde Barrister and Ayinla Kollington turned a childhood friendship into an adult battle, flinging entire albums like weapons at each other. Ayinde Barrister was also involved in a cross-genre war with Ayinla Omoruwa, who elsewhere was tied in conflict with Haruna Ishola, a rivalry that only ended when Omoruwa conceded superiority to Ishola. Olowonyo and Omoruwa were drawn against each other though the latter was considered the more popular artist.

Seyi Vibez finds himself in similar shoes as Olowonyo today,  paired against the established Asake. These comparisons, spurred by fans who cannot watch two artists succeed in a field without forcing arguments over who is greater, may provide a context to the choice of this particular sample for a song that was titled “G.O.A.T.” Asake, for his part, has wisely kept mum on the matter, but his latest single “Yoga” conveys subtle messages in its lyrics (“I dey maya/ Make nobody kill my Yoga Yoga“) and more importantly in his choice to expand the purveys of his chosen genre to prove he can flex his creative prowess anywhere. 

No other Street Pop artist currently contorts the genre as much as these two, but several other acts have put together machinations to own their private spaces in Street Pop. Zinoleesky stumbled on his mellow formulation of Amapiano and Street Pop on “Kilofeshe” and owned it until just before the release of his EP Grit And Lust,’ where he wandered from his comfort zone in search of fresh inspiration. Rexxie, Naira Marley’s much-preferred producer, wields chaotic Afro-house production to consistently excellent results, most recently on “Abracadabra.” 

As Street Pop continues its global tour on the backs of today’s stars, it is left to be seen what new formulations tomorrow’s acts will employ to distinguish themselves. Darwin’s theory of natural selection may hold no overt connections with Nigerian Street music, but his words on adaptation as the key to survival apply to Nigeria’s rapidly populating Street Pop industry. And while many acts will not see much room for ingenuity beyond the incorporation of a log drum or two, opportunities abound for those who are willing to break the mould and take sonic risks for the culture. Nigeria’s Street Pop is coasting on its success, but a lot more innovation and ingenuity will still be needed if it is to close the gap on Afropop, its more successful cousin. 

Featured image credits/NATIVE

Patrick Ezema is a music and culture journalist. Send him links to your favourite Nigerian songs @EzemaPatrick

ICYMI: ‘Crime and Justice Lagos’ tackles societal ills through the police and legal procedure