The increasing allure of non-conformity in Nigerian music

Brought to you by artistic convictions and the post-digital era

In the infant stages of their careers, artists are all about proving they’re worth the attention. For the ones who come in instantly seeking huge fortunes and fame, they have to prove market readiness from the jump; while those who start off using music as an innocent mode for expression, have to prove their artistic chops, or potential at the very least, to the people who are tapped in early. Irrespective of the motive behind choosing to make music for public consumption, no new artist wants to envision their music landing on deaf ears in the long run, and it’s within this spectrum that the initial idea of success starts to form.

Varying from one artist to the next, success is a relative concept in music, but more often than not, it’s tied to commercial gain. On a purely ideological level, there’s something special about music as an art form, however, in reality, everything is subject to the forces of capitalism, and music is not excluded. Adhering to the laws of supply and demand or cost and profit, music is a commodity subject to several factors beyond sheer creativity.

Within this complicated framework, artists have to match their music with commercial strategies in order to be successful, or have a sustainable career at least. For example, homogeneity was largely the name of the game in Nigerian music from the late ‘90s to a significant portion of the last decade, especially in terms of the audience artists can and are expected to appeal to. In that period, where physical copies were the primary mode of music consumption, media outlets such as radio and TV stations not only indicated, but actually dictated who and what was hot. As a result, artists were always vying for the attention of the same wide audience, which inevitably affected how they approached making music.

In its ongoing 20-plus year run, modern Nigerian pop music has been driven forward by a long list of unique and inventive creatives who put out truly outstanding and definitive albums/songs. At the same time, it has also been defined by a constant proliferation of whatever sound is prevalent at any given time, a recurring practice in pop music that is not inherently bad, necessarily, but merely reflective of how the space works (or perhaps, now, worked).

Back in the CD days, and most of the blogging/online piracy era, it wasn’t impossible for artists who were making extra-mainstream music to build a niche, dedicated audience, but it was quite difficult since everyone went through the same promotional channels, seeking the same ears. Because of this, it was almost always either go big or go bust for “alternative” artists, and the proportion wasn’t exactly even. For every enigmatic success like Asa, there were several artists like, say, Silver Saddih and Jeremiah Gyang, who didn’t get close to hitting those heights. To help their chances, some ended up co-opting or downright switching up to more “marketable” styles (Skales, Iyanya, Chuddy K, to name a few), a reactionary move which was – and some ways still is- representative of how artists swapped uniqueness for conformity in order to attain success, or sustainability.

In the last few years, however, the post-digital era has merged the double effect of social media and music streaming, which has resulted in diversity increasingly replacing homogeneity as the name of the game. It may now be a trite narrative that social media and streaming greatly improved access on both sides of the aisles – for artists, who are looking to build an organic core of reliable supporters, and for listeners, who want more than what mass media dictates – but it will forever be refreshing and noteworthy that these two forces have played such a huge role in emphasising creative autonomy.

It would be disingenuous to insinuate that these developments have made it entirely easy though, but the fact still remains that artists now have more malleable tools at their disposal. Using these tools, they can start proving themselves to the audience they hope to attract, while delivering exactly the kind of music they want to make.

The breakout trajectories of Tiwa Savage and Tems, for example, perfectly illustrate the shift in attitude arising from the confluence of social media and music streaming. Tiwa Savage broke out early last decade with smash hits, “Kele Kele Love” and “Love Me 3X”, both power-pop songs which had instant mainstream appeal and went on to become club hits and local radio rotation favourites. Off the back of those, Savage bagged a signing to Don Jazzy’s Mavin records, scoring a succession of mainstream hits on her way to becoming one of the biggest Nigerian artists around.

This is stark contrast to Tems’ breakout. The magnanimous singer came into widespread popularity last summer with “Try Me”, an emotionally charged and resonant song which wouldn’t immediately be considered a mainstream hit, by most standards. At the moment, Tems’ undeniable talent already forecasts a career on the way to the highest pinnacle possible, but she’s made it clear that she won’t ever be looking to re-make “Try Me”; while that doesn’t rule out making music that co-opts more popular sounds, it certainly does mean she’ll be sticking with her creative guns.

I can never make a song like “Try Me” again,” Tems proclaimed in her issue 004 cover story with us. “I’m not worried, this is a positive thing for me. Now I know that my message will be heard by all the people who liked “Try Me” no matter what I’m saying.” Tems’ conviction shows that she’s not willing to pander or conform – and in the current climate, she doesn’t have to in the same way she might have had to 10 years ago.

Tems’ mindset isn’t entirely alien to Nigerian music. Looking at it wholesomely, Tems is playing her part in a period where the amorphous nature of contemporary Afropop is being expanded and emphasised by its fast-rising superstars. Last year, for example, saw the explosion of Rema, an artist whose multitudinal musical appetite embodies the industry’s growing diversity, and who has made it a point to note that, despite adjusting some of his output for the wider market, he’s expressing himself exactly how he wants. Continuing to show himself as an artist who will not be pigeonholed, this year, Rema has put three disparately sounding songs: the slow and sultry “Ginger Me”, the zoinked out “Alien”, and he even explored Amapiano on one of the biggest songs of the year so far, “Woman”.

This same flair for exhibiting uniqueness is part of what has made Omah Lay Nigeria’s breakout success of this year. The Port Harcourt-raised singer/producer broke into the mainstream with “You” and quickly began to garner attention, however, his debut EP, ‘Get LayD’, forced everyone to sit up and take notice of his superstar potential, and is currently a streaming behemoth. Within the 5-song project (four in the top 20 of Apple Music Nigeria’s 100 most played songs and all five in Audiomack’s equivalent), Omah Lay displays varying dimensions of his abilities as an artists, from inflecting the damaged, bad boy tropes of contemporary r&b into “Damn” to spinning catchy, repetitive hooks on the party ready “Lo Lo”.

As integral as musical diversity and being unique is to their trajectory, it is important to note that Rema and Omah Lay have been positioned to maximise their reach through label support and strong promotions across traditional and streaming channels. While they are proof that Nigerian artists now exist within a space that affords both uniqueness and success at the same time – artists can thrive without conforming – Omah Lay and Rema are also examples of the cost-intensive nature of wanting to reach a massive audience.

The truth is, every artist would like to turn their life into “a nice first week release date,” healthy streaming numbers and sold-out shows, but blowing up is increasingly becoming a relative concept, especially to those who put a premium on making music how they want and don’t necessarily have a deep chest of resources. Years ago, artists would conform in order to adapt to the unpredictable tastes of the general audience; now, artists can play to the diversity of those tastes without sacrificing what makes them unique, scaling their ambition and profitability according to their core audience and its continued growth.

It’s already been established that we’re experiencing the dominance of a new vanguard in Nigerian music, and a defining element of this set is the dedication to a ground game that involves a core base of listeners. Unlike previous generations where artists aiming for prominence and profitability had to try and appeal to everyone, this new set of acts start by finding listeners who identify with them and their music, and go on to build from there. This ideal has given artists more leeway to work their way into their own definition of success and expanded the scope of what it means to be a star.

In May, Odunsi (The Engine) surprise released his latest project, ‘EVERYTHING YOU HEARD IS TRUE’, and for a hot minute, it commanded a high level of attention on the timeline. While it’s an indicator of the artist’s growing yet undeniable star power, the enthusiastic reception is truly remarkable because Odunsi delivered a project that isn’t beholden to any of his previous works. Mashing psychedelic pop and trap with an experimental edge, the 7-song set doesn’t typify the modish sound of Nigerian pop music, yet the impact is undeniable – it’s avant-garde but it’s not averse to commercial success.

In the Nigerian context, Odunsi isn’t really as ubiquitous as the likes of Rema and Omah Lay, whose music dominates mainstream plays, but the immediate aftermath of the release of ‘EYHIT’ reinforces that more artists can finagle success while following the coordinates of their creative compass. Sure, there will always be a prevalent sound that holds sway over large sections of the public, and artists who make those kinds of music will hold command of a larger audience. However, those who operate on the more outré side of the spectrum can also command their own dedicated audience which will likely grow as the artist evolves and develops a reputation for making music that’s not bound to what’s hot.

Another perfect example of playing and wining by your rules is Show Dem Camp, the veteran rap duo who have become the epitome of finding continued success without pandering to mainstream. On the back of their ‘Palmwine Music’ series, SDC have hosted mid-size headlining concerts in Lagos (roughly averaging 2,000 attendees each time) for three years in a row, and they’ve continued to maintain their rap credibility as premium lyricists through their ‘Clone Wars’ projects. In their own way, Tec and Ghost are in the best of both worlds, holding commercial appeal and critical acclaim without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity.

SDC’s model is not the stock type that can simply be replicated by any and every artist, but it speaks to the myriad of possibilities for artists who want to do things their own way without the immediate pressure of being the biggest out. In far more developed spaces where more listeners and concerned stakeholders recognise the full scope of music being put out, artists who don’t fully operate in the mainstream have the ability to command a sizeable following on which they can build illustrious and respected careers.

With artists like Tems, Odunsi, Show Dem Camp, and more proving that being full-on mainstream isn’t the only viable means towards success and sustainability, it seems inevitable that the combination of artistic autonomy and organic profitability will no longer be novel—it will be the norm. And with their growing successes the allure of non-conformity is only getting stronger.

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Dennis is not an interesting person. Tweet Your Favourite Playboi Carti Songs at him @dennisadepeter