In anticipation of the return of live music

After a long year of restrictive measures, it’s about time to go outside and experience the music

Pandemonium is the appropriate word to describe Naira Marley’s cameo at Wizkid’s 2019 Starboy Fest in London’s O2 Arena. In the midst of a phenomenal run of hits, one of the greatest runs in contemporary Afropop, Naira ran unto the hoisted platform with the unbound energy of a bull who had just seen red, pulling off improvised variations of the Zanku with the erratic energy of a toddler hooked on way too much sugar. It was a chaotic sight to behold, a live representation of what Terry G really meant when he sang “Free Madness” all those years ago.

You didn’t have to be in the O2 Arena that night to witness and properly comprehend the wildness of the “Soapy” rapper’s frenzied set. In a world with cameras readily attached to our hands, outtakes from those performances flooded social media timelines within hours, offering several different glimpses of the experience. After a night which featured dozens of artists on stage, many of them being top tier Nigerian pop acts, it was Naira who dominated pop culture discussion in the coming days for this showcase and the palpable riotous reaction it generated from concertgoers.

The truth is, Naira’s unforgettable cameo definitely needed the reciprocal madness and upward screams from the fans beneath him. There’s no efficacy in his dancing if he doesn’t get on stage to fans yelling at his initial presence, shouting his lyrics back at him, and raging all through —(re)watch any of those videos and tell me I’m lying. It exemplifies the visceral essence of super-sized live shows, the push and pull between performer and audience, where energies are exchanged in favour of a memorable moment that can echo beyond those present on those grounds.

In the last year, the world has been largely robbed of these special live moments where music inspires those spontaneous, raucous reactions. During that time, artists have graced stages to perform their songs but the instances involving pandemonium have been somewhere between non-existent and extremely rare. (In fact, pandemonium has mainly been used as one of the sarcastic colloquial substitutes used in referring to the deadly Coronavirus pandemic.) Much like every other facet of life, Covid-19 greatly devastated live shows as the virus became a rapid worldwide concern, significantly altering the established format that included physical crowds.

Artists were—and still are to some extent—limited to virtual live performances, and while they have definitely been enjoyable, there’s no adequate alternative to having that physical presence and energy exchange. Before the pandemic, digital live performance platforms existed as avenues for artists to entertain audiences and prospective fans. In the context of an open world, live sets made for virtual viewership were supplementary showcases with mainly promotional purposes. As the pandemic set in, virtual shows became a viable, but ultimately inadequate, a placeholder for physical experiences, which we should have seen coming.

In 2019, during the ‘African Giant’ arc of his ongoing otherworldly run, Burna Boy made his much anticipated appearance on Tiny Desk, NPR’s popular, intimate live performance web series. Performing a medley of songs from his fourth studio album, the singer cut a sombre gait and was significantly less energetic than he’s proven to be on stage. Technically, Burna and his band hit the expected notes, his singing was clear and generally remarkable, their playing was tight and appropriately funky; they were in-sync and professional…maybe a little too professional because the set, even though enjoyable, wasn’t nearly as exciting as what a live Burna set is like.

If you’ve seen Burna live and direct, there’s a high chance are you’ve been awestruck by his towering presence and animated verve. He sings, raps, dances, hops, and pulls off everything in between to ensure he’s in command of the stage. With that in mind, he’s still essentially a showman who feeds off his audience’s reaction. In early 2020, Burna came under deserved criticism for singling out a fan during one of his live shows, ejecting him out of the venue and refunding his ticket money for seemingly not having a good time at the show. While some see it as an unnecessarily harsh gesture from Burna, it also symbolises how important that trade in trust between the artist on stage and the concertgoer, where the latter seeks to be wholly entertained and the former wants to feel the gratification of meeting that demand.

Without that real-time tension and interaction between both parties, live performances in the past year took on a slight but significant meaning. Perhaps, what makes the difference sting more, like many other “normal” things that were taken away because of the pandemic, is the casually violent removal of the audience from these physical spaces, with respect to the way many of us treated these concerts as quotidian occurrences rather than special avenues to commune with friends and strangers in service of the music we love. Virtual live shows became the new normal during the pandemic, but there’s a world of a difference between screaming back lyrics in an audience under the night sky and peering at your favourite artist from a screen.

As artists and the music industry began settling into the temporary normal, virtual live shows tried to get more inventive. Travis Scott famously hosted a spectacular live event on the gaming platform Fortnite, Burna Boy performed at a show that allowed viewers watch in virtual reality mode, and Wizkid’s first post-Made in Lagos concert was made momentous by an intimate preamble offering a glimpse into his daily life. These examples pushed the boundaries of the norms with virtual performances, giving digital attendees an experience they can hold on to, as opposed to the straightforward stage exhibition.

“That Wizkid live show will stay with me forever,” Oyinlolu, a self-confessed impulse concertgoer, tells me in a conversation about virtual live performances. “People would obviously have tuned in because it’s Wiz, but seeing him in his element before, during and shortly after he hit the stage made it feel special. That’s why the entire timeline was dedicated to the show that night.” While Wizkid was on stage exuding the magnetic charisma that makes him a beloved and hugely popular superstar, most of us were gabbing in awe of the man, emblematic of the ephemeral but powerful community live performances should ideally engender. The common belief is that live shows present an avenue to engaging with the music on a rawer level, but it takes special methods for it to feel fulfilling under the restrictive measures of a viral pandemic.

One of my fondest concert memories happened at the 2019 Palmwine Festival, the annual concert headlined by Nigerian Rap duo Show Dem Camp. Sometime that night, NATIVE Trybe alum, MOJO joined Prettyboy D-O on stage for their collaborative hit song “Chop Life Crew”. I was at a vendor’s stand with a friend at the time the performance started, however, I found myself close to the stage a few moments later, yelling the song’s infectious hook in the faces of a few strangers who were yelling back at me in similar ecstasy. Palmwine Fest didn’t return the next December, and even if it did, I can’t imagine having that sort of carefree moment because I’d be a little too busy trying to guard my life.

In comparison to other types of public, camaraderie-based gatherings—birthdays, weddings, club outings etc.—live shows haven’t fully resumed, but they’re happening to varying degrees in Nigeria and across the continent. At almost every turn, though, there’s a visible consequence of what it means to host and/or perform at a concert with physical attendees under the dark cloud of Covid-19. Last year, Nigerian singers Tems and Omah Lay were arrested in Uganda for gracing a two-day festival that featured dozens of artists. Their remands in jail and subsequent arraignment in court was seemingly spurred by political and xenophobic reasons, which were scarcely veiled under the guise of breaking health and safety measures.

Last December, Ghanaian Rap phenomenon Sarkodie hosted the latest edition of his annual Rapperholic concert, and it pulled in a massive turn out in spite of the pandemic. Watching footage of the concert, however, showed that it was a little statelier than it should’ve been for a Rap concert. For a bill that featured rappers performing up-tempo Trap bangers and raucous Drill slappers, the crowd’s reaction was far from rowdy, especially in the front row with V.I.P tables occupied by concertgoers who had nose masks on their faces or affixed to their chins.

In the coming months, live shows are bound to make a full return to their usual format. Effective Covid-19 vaccines are all the rage the moment, and even with a shortage in the amount of doses required to fully immunise African countries, outside is primed to open up fully and so is the frequency of live shows of varying crowd sizes. As exciting as that potential development seems, it begs the question of how audiences will react when they’re able to convene in large numbers in front of their favourite artists. “I’ll probably cry when I get to finally see Nasty C live again,” Lerato, a 24-year old Durban, South Africa resident tells me via text. “I saw him during his last tour, but I just really want to see him perform slaps off that new album and pay attention to him at every second.”

I, too, would love to see Nasty C again. In 2017, he made a cameo at Davido’s headlining concert at Lagos’ Eko Hotels, and for the most part of his set I was texting and doing other stuff on my phone. This was pre-Strings & Blings, the sophomore album that made me (and many other non-South Africans) really lock in and pay rapt attention to the then-budding superstar. From the little I saw that night, and footage of him on stage, Nasty C is the real-life representation of the energizer bunny when he’s performing with a crowd in front of him, a far cry from the composed performer he’s presented himself as during Late Night TV appearances and virtual showcases in the last few months. Seeing the rapper again, at a new height of fame no less, would provide a redemptive avenue to fully embrace the experience of seeing him on stage.

Over the last year, I’ve seen tweets from people promising to maximise the first live concerts they’ll be attending, a sign that many are heavily anticipating the opportunity to scream, dance, rage, and more at post-Covid shows. Even artists are looking forward to performing away from the guiding frame of restrictive measures. It’s an anticipation that might spell a positive uptick in concert culture around these parts, which might mean shows don’t start extremely later than they’re billed, artists don’t threaten the members of audience, and concertgoers live in the moment rather than hold their phones up the entire time.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled into a seemingly impromptu street rap battle in my Lagos neighbourhood, with two rappers trading bars while veins popped out of their necks as they strained their vocal cord to ensure their jabs landed better than the other. In the crowd of about 70 to 100 people that had gathered, I only saw one person with a camera phone out, the rest of us were riveted to the raps as they unfolded, yelling sounds of (dis)approval at each furious or tame lyrical jab. In that moment, I realised how much I’d missed witnessing live music events in the company of an enthusiastic audience, and I’m assuming it was the same for many of these people.

As I walked home, Naira Marley’s O2 Arena cameo popped into my head. I wasn’t there, what I’d witnessed wasn’t anywhere near the magnitude of that frenzied set, but it highlighted to me the memorable thrill of making yourself available to relish the pandemonium, whether big or small, induced by a live event. These new memories will be made right in front our eyes in the near future, we just need to be present because it’s been way too long since many of us truly engaged with music beyond digital channels. It’s about time to go outside and experience the music.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.