The life & times of Nigerian dance royalty, Zanku

How the Zanku survived a dominant 2-year run

Zlatan has never been one to shy away from spewing potentially polarising diatribes. His career has in part, been built on his proclivity to say the darndest things, and coast along on the chaos that ensues. But, in the foggy harmattan of 2018, one of his usual grandiose assertions was squarely on the money. Swapping verses with Burna Boy on the December-released club banger, “Killin Dem,” he rapped, “Mo gbe Zanku wole, mo ni kon fade Shaku Shaku”, loosely translating to “I introduced Zanku and dealt the death knell to Shaku Shaku.” Zlatan’s brag, on the most quintessentially visible song from the Zanku canon, was a crystallisation of the dance’s prominence as evinced by his collaboration with the biggest Nigerian act of 2018 — and the undeniable ascent of the snappy jam in the months to come.

This was all coming less than two years after the Shaku wave had ushered in a number of new street pop acts — Mr. Real, Slimcase, and Idowest — to the limelight via songs like “Legbegbe”, “Shepeteri”, and “Oshozondi”. One of the first streets-centric dance style/sound to permeate the Nigerian mainstream in a while, the Shaku was a glut of fresh influences, and after its predictable assimilation into Nigerian pop music’s industrial complex, it was reverse-engineered for stylistic offshoots like “Diet”, “Issa Banger”, and “Issa Goal”. Additionally, the Shaku received co-signs from all over the world thanks to Nigerian footballers playing across the globe as well as making an appearance at the 2018 World Cup courtesy of the French national team’s majority-black contingent. Perhaps ironically, the dance and all the hysteria around it shone its light tangentially on Zlatan — who had been grafting in the underground for a while — and his career, fast-tracking his come-up due to the visibility afforded street pop acts at that moment. 

But, in the space of 18 months, due of a combination of savvy and an unbeatable work ethic, Zlatan went from playing a supplementary role in entrenching one dance craze to watching it fade into the ether, while leading the charge for another dance routine that, crucially, had his name imprinted on it. By deftly swapping the Shaku with the Zanku, Zlatan began a chain of events that would further laser Nigerian music, dance, lifestyle, and popular culture unavoidably into the world’s collective consciousness.

It is impossible to chart the history of contemporary Nigerian pop music without reference to the dances that have lined its path to global ubiquity. The alternate history of popular music from Nigeria is memorialised in the dance styles that have served as lodestars for the sound at different times in history. Nigerian pop of the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s owes an eternal depth of thanks to the galala dance that originated from Ajegunle and its environs; the explosion in hypervisibility for Nigerian and Ghanaian culture at the turn of the previous decade stemmed from the popularity of the Azonto dance home and abraod; while the multi-cultural south of Nigeria blessed the culture with Kukere and Sekem circa 2012/2013. Nonetheless, the last decade of dance innovation in Nigeria has largely been defined by improvisations anchored on life in Lagos’ many gritty hoods (with perhaps, the sole exception of Davido’s Skelewu). 

For so long, Olamide had been the primary exporter of catchy dance steps from communities at the fringe of Lagos, but Zlatan assumed that position with Zanku, teasing out the viral dance from its original roots in Agege, on the northern frontier of Lagos, to the big lights of music industry events on the Island and beyond. Zanku’s first appearance came on the video for Chinko Ekun’s “Able God”. Released early in the third quarter of 2018, the song seemed to sound like a staple of the Shaku sound which had slightly passed its peak at that point. But, the video for “Able God”, featuring Zlatan and Lil Kesh, debuted a more vigorous form of overlapped hand shuffling and an upgrade in the guise of bouncy leg stomping, complete with the now-iconic air kick that made it an instant attraction. In the video, which has gotten over five million YouTube views, Chinko Ekun alongside his collaborators work their way through beta renditions of the dance move. While that early rendition, in hindsight, feels amateurish, it set a framework for what the dance encompassed.

Viral dances have always proven useful as marketing tools to elevate musicians to a higher career stratosphere, and sensing an opportunity to create a viral dance in his image, Zlatan made another play with his next solo release. If “Killin Dem” is regarded as the most visible of the Zanku-influenced singles, “Zanku (Leg Work)” is, undoubtedly, the most elemental, carrying the spontaneous spirit of the dance in its 2:58 length. Importantly, Zlatan paid homage to the spiritual home of the dance, shouting out Agege in the opening moments of the Rexxie-produced single. Primarily a rapper, Zlatan forwent a typical rap verse delivery for a more slanted rhyme-like flow that plateaued into addictive lines like “Gbe body e” or “Gbe soul e”. Calling on members of his crew, including a then-ascendant Poco Lee, to put their own spins on the dance in the video, “Leg Work” effectively set the stage for Zlatan to own a viral dance like few in Nigerian pop history had.

In one interview with vlogger, Moni, he said that no one could displace him as the progenitor of the dance despite admitting that he had first seen the move during occasional trips to the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja. “You know anybody that comes out to sing about it, or does anything about it, automatically owns the dance,” he explained. “I brought it to people and they accepted it.” When asked if he feared anybody challenging his ownership claim, he laughed and replied that the dance bore his name. 

Such a personal relationship with the dance meant that he never really faced a fight to maintain ownership of a movement he had popularised with his friends. And by the time “Killin Dem” dropped, with the intense public attention that Burna stepping unto the wave brought, the Zanku had, in a sense, evolved into an extension of Zlatan’s outsized personality. From holding the key to the movement, he had become the movement. This meant that Zlatan’s presence had the potential to arbitrarily determine what songs were Zanku songs. Street rappers had often chosen to use indigenous language as their means of expression and Zlatan largely stuck by this but the key difference of the Zanku from the Shaku was the pace of the music. While Shaku leaned on the guttural arrangement of gqom, South Africa’s traditional electronic dance music, Zanku was less frenzied, subsuming the formulaic yet rhythmical drumming patterns of typical Nigerian music into its core. Zlatan’s collaboration with Davido, “Osanle,” was a good example of this. 

With Zanku taking over social media and club scenes, the dance became a must learn for anyone who wanted to rock the latest wave; and other musicians started making music primed to tap into the full-blown demand for songs that encouraged  Zanku dancing. Remarkably, a good number of the songs that truly tunneled into the Zanku sound were by musicians from the streets, birthing music that mirrored the perverse, hedonistic, or survivalist realities of life around them. Danny S released his call-and-response earworm, “Oh My God” accessorising the video with variants of the Zanku; Rahman Jago assembled Zlatan, Chinko Ekun, and Junior Boy for “Ijo Ope,” one of 2018’s biggest posse cuts, which thematically presented itself as a dedication to the Zanku movement, however, the messaging hinted at something more unethical; and the mystique of “Ijo Ope” was abandoned for less nuanced soundbites on Rexxie’s “Foti Foyin” featuring Teni, Zlatan, and Naira Marley.

Olamide, Nigerian pop’s grand synthesiser, led the wave’s incursion into the top echelon with “Woske” and “Oil and Gas,” two smartly engineered records that rode the Zanku wave while maintaining its pop accessibility. And Davido fully stepped into Zlatan’s world on “Bum Bum.” As important as the Zanku dance was to the movement, it could not have enjoyed such a viral reach without the adequate music to set a pace for it to follow, and Rexxie’s scuzzy, chaotic beats were the right fit. The nexus of his work with Zlatan and Naira Marley would form a bulk of the dizzying highs of the Zanku and define much of 2019’s soundscape.

Still, for much of the early period of its reign, the dance had enlivened Nigerian audiences without crossing over outside the continent and still lagged behind the Shaku in terms of global visibility, but that was soon to change due to fortuitous circumstances. Burna Boy’s now-infamous Coachella rant and “Killin’ Dem” being the single that officially set the African Giant epoch on the roll put a global spotlight on Burna Boy, “Killin’ Dem,” and the joyfully innovative dancing that was taking place in the video, providing a narrative for the Zanku as the newest example of fresh impetus from Lagos, already regarded as one of the world’s most culturally-significant cities. Relishing his role as a cultural ambassador, by the time Burna made it to the Empire Polo Club in California in the second week of April 2019, he brought the Zanku on stage with him, looping his own little innovations into the mix memorably. 

From California, the dance became a key component of Burna’s energy-sapping sets as he performed in venues all over the world for his African Giant tour — playing an interlocutory role as a visible disciple for the dance. At home though, a dark cloud had risen over the Zanku movement due to its seeming proximity with fraud culture, the nation woke up, in May, to news that Rahman Jago, Zlatan, and Naira Marley had been among a group arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on allegations of Internet fraud among a number of things; their arrest spawned a number of memes, pontificating, and viral material which perhaps unwittingly further entrenched Zanku’s hold on the zeitgeist.

Naira Marley’s involvement in the case, due to his pioneering role in afro-swing, was a trigger for global inquisition into what the Zanku was all about and what made it vitriolic. However, as the months went by, the cynicism many felt for what they perceived the movement as, started melting away due to a number of inspired drops by Naira Marley that pushed him unto a new stage as a frontline star of the Zanku movement. Naira Marley’s arch came full circle at Wizkid’s London-held StarboyFest when his frenetic on-stage improvisation of the Zanku dance was remade into gifs and video loops that went viral. 

Nobody can really predict what makes a dance spread afield beyond its home base. Some of the most iconic dance moves of the last decade were to a large extent, products of communities with an unprecedented capability to shape culture in their image. Dance tropes like Gangnam Style, Dougie Jerk, and Harlem Shake grew out of powerful nations like America and South Korea that possessed that soft power. Their dances were also relatively easier to mimic. In contrast, the Zanku is a more complex proposition comprising of sound style and dance: primarily delivered in a back-and-forth blend of pidgin, English, and Yoruba; and involving body-jerking levels of motion.

So, by the very nature of its aspiration, instead of trying to be hyperspecific about its sonic origin, the Zanku lent itself to globalism: ever so slightly letting interpretations of the dance be fluid from place to place in a bid achieve ubiquity as is observable in videos of non-Nigerians — and some Nigerians! — rocking to it. The video of Ludacris learning the dance is charming for the American rapper’s effort —  and what it meant for a dance from Nigeria —  if not the rigour of him actually getting the dance moves.

Described as “love letter to Africa, Beyoncé’s ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ gets some of its most sonically lush moments from its Nigerian pop-featured artists. “Ja Ara E,” the project’s sole no-feature song benefits from the Zanku movement as it finds Burna Boy reflecting on purpose and betrayal, with Zlatan’s signature adlibs forming a spartan base for Burna’s thoughts to reverb off. One year later, Beyoncé returned with her latest undertaking, ‘Black is King’, a grand, cinematic afro-fusionist visual album that needles threads of the past and the present to form a tapestry of African nobility and self-determination. Amid all the overt homage to African tradition and Beyoncé’s leaning into arcana to anchor this boundless universe of black joy, the Zanku provided some of the vibrant imagery of contemporary popular culture in Nigeria and Africa, being regularly returned to in between synchronised dances to lift the mood and add some randomity to the mix. 

Perhaps, more than anything, this dalliance is what sets the Zanku apart from any other type of viral dance that has broken out of Nigeria – and even, West Africa. Galala laid the block for contemporary Nigerian pop; Azonto set the flight of west African culture’s popularity in motion; the Shaku inched us closer to global attention, but Zanku is the dance for when the most astute curator in the music business made her African-American rapprochement body of work. Pertinently, it is the dance of when Nigeria’s biggest popstars intersected with the royalty of general popular culture. 

Already, many are predicting the banishment of Zanku to the same ether where Zlatan sentenced the Shaku. The shuttering effect of COVID-19 has robbed the wave of what could have been its peak months, and in that time Nigerian music has undergone tweaks to mirror the ambiance of lockdown. It’s been a bit over two years since we first heard Zlatan croon “Zlatan abeg no kill us” on “Jogor,” but in that time-frame, the dance has already pushed beyond its humble origins to the kind of phenomenon that has touched all parts of the globe and inspired one of the most swashbuckling runs of singles Nigerian pop has ever seen in a calendar year (Naira Marley). 

The future always felt like it was going to be a fight for re-invention and Zlatan seems up to it; one of the hottest songs in Nigeria presently is Jamopyper’s Mayorkun-assisted “If No Be You,” a more expansive, rambunctious take on the Zanku sound. Jamopyper, a Zanku Records signee, also had a star turn on “Of La La,” a collaboration with Zlatan and Rahman Jago that hinted that he might be the custodian of whatever Zanku morphs into next. What is sure is that as the Zanku ascends to the pantheon of iconic Nigerian dances/movements, something else is bursting at the edge, ready to come to our attention. We can only watch on with curious eyes.

Wale Oloworekende Is A Lagos-Based Freelance Writer Interested In The Intersection Of Popular Culture, Music, And Youth Lifestyle.