Wale in the Wild: Zinoleesky, Lagos & street-pop’s gospel of hope
An artist for Lagos' streets, made by Lagos' streets.
An artist for Lagos' streets, made by Lagos' streets.
In his new column for The NATIVE, ‘Wale in the Wild’, culture writer Wale Oloworekende digs into the boisterous tapestry of Nigerian pop, offering a series of contextualised and personalised essays on the relationship between the music, its points of origin and how it all ties together into the Nigerian experience. This inaugural essay takes a personal look at the rise and rise of Zinoleesky, through the lens of society, genius lyricism and personal experiences.
The truth is that there are very few things that I hold as sacred as the court of music I keep with my friends these days. I think that what this means more than anything is that, on the most bleary days, one by one, from places that are most unlike each other, we emerge at each other’s houses and, sometimes, we speak on the troubles that keep us awake at night; other times these conversations are had over a glass of wine or whatever can numb the pain enough to allow the words to form in our throats. But most importantly, on the days when talking is too strenuous or the weight of words threatens to break our backs, we play music.
One thing I have noticed about the music that we spin is its consistent ability to leave us enthralled. I have yet to see a problem, with the notable exception of death and its many variants, that music hasn’t seen us through or at least started us on a path to feeling better. Even with death, all we ask is that the music goes high enough, the liquor stays flowing longer than usual, and we can start to imagine a way out of any painful labyrinth.
In discussion, my friends and I have often playfully tried to localise where things started–or at least appear–to go awry in our generation, and, being frank, many of us point to the gloom of 2020 as a portent of sorts. 2020 was a wild and anxious year in many respects. Almost as soon as we attuned ourselves to the social distancing and stay-at-home regimen of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were being forced to pour ourselves out into the streets to protest a rogue institution that seemed fixated with the forcible neutering of young black bodies. Many times in 2020, it was hard to take a look over your shoulder and not feel a hovering sense of sadness.
That said, here is another fact about 2020 that I think you should know: In the first two weeks of that year, I compiled a scatter-brained list of artists to watch out for in the year for a nice outlet I used to work for and I put Zinoleesky on the list.
By the time 2020 was biding its final farewell, Zinoleesky was on his way to music superstardom, off the bank of a string of hit songs that distilled his brand of cool, brooding music into a clarion call for a generation facing its toughest moment, while sneaking in tidbits of his ghetto gospel. From “Ma Pariwo” to “Kilofese,” Zinoleesky seemed to be presciently aware of what the zeitgeist needed to be saying at any particular time he released new music.
Since then, Zinoleesky has become an immutable part of the Afropop galaxy, as he has moved from songs like “Naira Marley” to “Gone Far” to “Blessings.” I think it is impossible to talk about the narrative of Zinoleesky’s career without turning our gaze on who he is and where he came from. Many times in the last 18 months or so, I have wondered about the specific anecdotes that line his music and the all-too-casual elegance with which he has leaned into his role as the de-facto voice of a generation of ghetto kids. I imagine that it is a hard task to be Zinoleesky, to make the crux of your art inspiring people that many others would rather not see. But by any estimation, there are roles that become you and there are roles that you become when there are no outlets to tell the specific stories that you want to tell.
At this specific moment, there is no sub-genre that waters Nigerian pop’s ever-evolving cast of slangs, lingo, and euphemisms with the regularity that street-pop does. What this means is that you can barely walk down any road in this country and not hear Mohbad tell you of how he wakes up at 4:30am to get to whatever activity might put some food on his table for the day, or see Bella Shmurda perform “Cash App,” with all the controversy that the track invites, to 20,000 people who are screaming it back word-for-word at the 02, while lost in the madcap delirium that I must imagine follows the performance of such a track in a huge sea of people coming together to bathe in the glow of music.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that street-pop is here to stay and I know this because it has crossed over into the places that I would never have seen it going into even five years ago. But if you were paying attention as far back as 2019, it might have been easy to at least not be surprised by this current trajectory of street pop. Every other week in the third quarter of 2019, we’d wake up to a new viral video from a bunch of street rappers domiciled in Agege, rapping about the survivalist conditions of life in the place that they call home.
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The responses to these videos broadly fell into two categories: first, there were those whose direct lived experiences were referenced in those freestyles whose fire emoji comments littered the comment sections of those rising rappers, egging them on with every fibre of their being; then there were those who looked upon this rising tide with bemusement, unsure what to make of these rappers who were really Fuji-inspired singers at heart.
Of all the rappers we saw on our phone screens from Agege in 2019, Zinoleesky was the one who seemed most uncomfortable with the strictures of rap as a medium, the one more likely to break into an intuitive spurt of melody to bookend his raps that resembled the readings of a poet in residence. I think that the dominant thought about Zinoleesky, about Agege, about street-pop in general at that point, was that this too shall pass. That whatever was being done on that side of town would eventually tide over and Nigerian pop would continue its unstoppable rise to international ubiquity with street pop as nothing but a side note of that trajectory. The point I’m trying to make is that Zinoleesky is of people that are dreamers, eternally optimistic, forever building, and ready to burst at the seams, regardless of whatever institutional barrier is stacked against them.
I have spent countless hours over the last two years considering what might be Zinoleesky’s greatest skill, and I have come to the conclusion that it is in how he put his own distinct interpretation on feelings of hopelessness while finding a way to localize joy in the midst of all that despair. There is something to be said about someone that gives a voice to this instinct of the oppressed, but it is another thing to urge the same people to find a way to look past all the worries in their life and keep at their life with any sort of joy.
One time last year, I was in Computer Village and I must assume that my audience knows that Computer Village, functioning as a microcosm of Lagos, is not the most optimistic of places, but late in the afternoon “Gone Far” came on in the section of the market where I was hiding away from a heavy downpour and men who may or may not be looking to pick pockets stopped for a second to acknowledge the genius of Zino while doing their best impression of smiles while singing the line “more money, more respect” heartily. And I suppose this says something about the origin of the music that originally inspired Zinoleesky and his incredible ability to propel its aura forward. Last year during a conversation in an almost empty car lot in Ikoyi, the singer sheepishly admitted to me that the music of icons like Pasuma and Saheed Osupa were some of the biggest inspiration on his life. If truth be told, in a moment when Nigerian pop is moving beyond the physical locale of its origin to touch an almost unquantifiable audience, Zinoleesky’s voice is more important than ever. It’s the voice of Lagos, singing the music that keeps us alive and vitalizes us.
One time in between smoking whatever remained of a blunt and sipping some bacardi, one of my friends described Zinoleesky’s “Naira Marley” as a breathtaking work of poetry. He’s right. There’s something achingly expressive about the breath, cadence, and lines that Zinoleesky employed in that song. Even the most cynical of us must admit that there’s something redemptive about a mother’s love. I know this because many times my mother’s love has pulled me back from whatever gapping abyss has threatened to swallow me whole. Half of the time when we’re listening to Zinoleesky play, I must admit to you that we’re high as shit. I must also tell you that Nigeria is after our lives in many ways that we cannot often describe, but the truth is that we remain present, alive, warm bodies fighting for each other as best as we can because all we have is the music and one another.
I have grown to be accustomed to the Nigerian institution being a supreme bully that will come after anybody that doesn’t fit their linear narratives about how one should present themselves so I was not mighty surprised when officers of the NDLEA invaded the living space of Zinoleesky and members of Marlian music. Most of that night, while doing whatever it is to numb the pain of the previous day, all I can feel is an abiding sense of disconsolation. I would be a hypocrite if I say there’s anything revolutionary about Zinoleesky being thrown in jail by the Nigerian institution, but there is a silent message I assume in who was invaded and how overwhelmingly quiet the Internet space appeared; how there was a very strong possibility that we could just move on as though nothing happened.
It is a humid March night and Zinoleesky is bantering on stage at Obafemi Awolowo University’s amphitheater. For those who don’t know, there is defiance baked into the very fiber of OAU, and it seemed almost like an act of divinity that Zinoleesky’s first public performance post-NDLEA drama should come there. Performing to an overly-euphoric set of listeners, Zinoleesky instructs the DJ to play “Blessings,” his smash hit with producer, Niphkeys, and the words, “Don’t know why I’m always thinking about tomorrow,” float perfectly into the air against the cascading backdrop of more than six thousand people shouting the words back.
If truth be told, me and my niggas are not perfect, we make mistakes upon mistakes, till we happen on whatever decisions and results we can live with. But we live in the essence of music, we pray at the altar of Zinoleesky and all the other radiant children of Nigerian pop. I want to believe that music is the weapon now more than anything, music is the weapon for our continued existence, especially when we are high and need something to line our mouths.