Nigerian Hip hop isn't dead, we're just blind
Our hip hop lives and thrives in plain sight. We are all denying reality.
I don’t hate Nigerian hip hop. I can’t think of a world without the beauty of rap, all the joy it provides, and the dynamism of thought rappers bring to our collective cultural centre. Rap is a beautiful genre, slick poetry in motion, made alive in the stories of our time, with pictures painted from our collective human experience. Take a moment and visualise the gritty brilliance of the late Dagrin, the lyrical expansivity of Mode 9, the suaveness of Naeto C, and the dexterity of M.I Abaga. Imagine a world where the catalogue of these rappers was never created and didn’t pass through our history. We might never miss what we’re unaware of, but the genre’s advancement of hip hop in Nigeria would have taken a different shape. Perhaps, a lesser form than we currently possess.
Nigerian hip hop isn’t dying. Oh, it’s very much alive. Every day, it lives and thrives in plain sight, climbs the chart, edifies fans and enthusiasts, and attracts all the benefits a dominant genre deserves in a rapidly expanding market. Nigerian hip hop packs out venues, poses on glossy magazine covers, has streaming in a chokehold, and wins on radio and TV. Nigerian hip hop services the people every day, to this day, ruling with each release and new project. Nigerian hip hop is alive. Just not in the way you expect it to be.
Of all the rappers to have ever walked the face of this country, M.I Abaga stays supreme for one reason: he democratized the Nigerian rap game and made it accessible to the mainstream market. After years of existing as a niche art, M.I Abaga’s entrance in 2008 with the modernist creativity of Talk About It meant Nigerians finally had hip hop in a manner that speaks to them. Some pidgin here and there, local languages and contextual storytelling made him an instant hit. At that time, everyone loved M.I. His style was new, the industry hadn’t seen anything like it, and it felt original. M.I Abaga became the blueprint for a generation of rappers who were angling for a shot at the top. Here’s someone who was inspired by JAY-Z and Kanye, but could also mix that Americana with local swag. We ate it. With gusto. These were the glory days, the good days, where the genre produced a fine line of pop MCs including Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince.
But as time progressed and our industry and music took new meaning, what it meant to be a hip hop artist changed. As Nigerians gained more depth and understanding of the culture and how to blend it into our music, our subconscious weaned ourselves of Americana in our sound, inching the culture further towards a new breed of creators, who could sound more and more like us. Our market turned immensely nationalistic. It wasn’t enough for you to blend America and Nigeria anymore as an imitation of foreign culture. You needed to sound wholly Nigerian, but with American swag, of course. Hip hop culture quickly sped from the originally imported lookalike to a more localised genre, optimised to communicate in the people’s language. Cue in the local rappers. Olamide, Reminisce, and Phyno… took the baton, and reinvented Nigerian hip hop. Slowly, they picked up steam, galvanized fringe fanbases, made a case on the streets, and the industry caved.
I remember seating in my office at Pulse Nigeria in 2015 when the full switch was realized. Nigerian hip hop was forever changed the day Reminisce, Olamide, and Phyno formed the axis of resistance on the explosive single ‘Local rapper.’ Prior to that union, the rap trio had individually made mainstream inroads, realized that they were the new power block, and sought a statement to reflect that transition. That statement continues to guide our engagement with the culture. “Street ti take over, punchline o jawo mo,” wasn’t a diss. It was prophesied.
Yes, our American counterparts trap in Atlanta. Selling dope, and pulling rackets. It’s all in the music. Everyone in Nigeria traps, in our trenches, finding the most innovative ways to make money in Mushin, Ikorodu, Lagos Island, Surulere, FESTAC and more. And it’s all recorded in our pop music. We kept hip hop alive in our image. Infusing it with choice parts of our local sound and lingo. Today, the dominance of Olamide, Phyno and Reminisce has produced a conveyor belt of rappers. From Lil Kesh to Zlatan, Naira Marley, Chinko Ekun, Zoro, and more, you can trace progression in the hip hop of the streets. The family tree continues to expand, with fruits falling on us with every winding turn. Olamide is currently on the charts. So is Falz, Zlatan, and Naira Marley. Two generations of street rap, still living, breathing and holding down the genre even in this pop-dominated landscape.
The simultaneous explosion of Nigerian pop music created a fine balance in our culture. While Nigerian hip hop and pop have always formed a potent alliance, their paths have never been so different. Nigerian pop, currently reinvented and living its 9th life as Afrobeats holds unprecedented dominance. From the dingy studios in Lagos where experimental producers craft new sounds, to the bustle of Los Angeles and Paris where they just can’t have enough of it, the genre takes no prisoners. Including hip hop.
Nigeria is a hard country to live in. We are citizens of the world’s poverty capital, where the day is filled with the desperate rush for survival, and many nights never progress into mornings. Music was once a way to complain and rail against the ills of the government and our neighbours. It once offered itself as a tool to share our displeasure against the unfairness of the military state machinery. But the music wasn’t enough. Fela Kuti died with fire in his eyes against Nigeria’s military. But we’ve elected two government officials —Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari—that victimized him for being a voice.
Music serves us different now. Frustrated Nigerians are seeking escapism now in the art. Much like Burna Boy’s favourite coping mechanism on new release, ‘Last last,’ (weed and booze), pop music is also how we process the day, and survive the night. It grants us unlimited pleasure, providing bright spots to celebrate our humanity and the warmth of living. As a country, we might be in the dumps. But we also want to forget. To aspire. To feel beyond the shackles of our reality. Pop music supplies us with that drug. Winning the people via its relentlessness, marching through every music center, on its way to becoming the one true sound of Nigeria. There’s a universe of reasons why Afrobeats is dominant, but the most crucial is its possession of escapist value. If you consistentky make a man smile, he’ll develop emotions for you. The people asked for a balm to soothe their reality. Afrobeats stuck its hand up, and delivered. That’s it.
Pop music is our cultural driver. Every bit of progress achieved by the Nigerian music industry has come from pop music. It’s represents the pulse of the people, carries stories, connections. Our ongoing global campaign, nicknamed ‘Afrobeats to the world,’ was crafted and executed by largely pop music and pop artists. Pop artists in Nigeria have the highest percentage of breaking even, becoming local stars, and exporting their gifts to the ends of the earth. That’s the reality of Afrobeats. Burna Boy packed out MSG singing Nigerian pop music. The 02 Arena in London has become Eko Convention Centre annex, after back to back sold out shows by Wizkid and Davido. Pop music did that. As a culture, we laying our claim on the Billboard Hot 100. Pop music did that.
The smartest hip hop artists in Nigeria already know the flavour of the people. And they’ve altered and improved their artistry to speak that language. LadiPoe’s rennaissance bears testimony to what works. The cultural scoreboard has Blaqbonez winning. Falz might dally into purist rap on occassion, but when he means business, he seeks solace in pop. Olamide, Zlatan and Naira Marley are minting a new generation of stars via their record labels, because they blended street raps with the melodies and kicks of pop music.
These successful hip hop stars all share one potent one formula for success: finding the sweet intersection between pop music and hip hop. For purists, this is a nightmare. These rappers are looked with disdain and denial, because for them, the financial benefits of winning in your career isn’t worth the ‘sellout.’ But these rappers are living the realist’s dream. Win the way you can.
The technique of blending hip hop and pop music is an art as old as modern Nigerian music. Rappers have always moved closer to the populace via pop. Once upon a time, we all danced to M.I Abaga and Flavour’s braggadocio on ‘African rapper number 1.” Naeto C is etched in our hearts, long after his prime, partly because he birthed a record with D’banj - ‘Tony Montana.’ And the closer you get to today’s crop, you breeze through M.I Abaga winning again in 2014 with ‘Bullion Van,’ a hit song fashioned out of Igbo Highlife. And then in recent memory, the list rusn deep. LadiPoe and Simi on ‘Know you.’ Blaqbonez, BNXN, Amaarae on ‘Bling.’ Falz and BNXN on ‘Ice Cream.’ Zlatan and BNXN on ‘Alubarika.’ It’s all well-trodden and simple.
This ancient fusion of genres is now considered special due to the demise of American-flavoured Nigerian rap. Never in the history of the modern Nigerian music industry has the balance of success been so tilted. With recent events, pop music and hip hop can enjoy a healthy run, but it’s scoffed upon. Nothing is valid unless ‘pure’ hip hop also gets some shine. But the purists aren’t winning. They haven’t been winning for a while. They lack crazy streaming numbers to justify all that bragging. No packed concerts to weaponize in diss tracks. Nothing of note to encourage participation. The US-influenced rappers in Nigeria stay stuck in the underground. That section of the genre has been sorely frozen out by an organic lack of attention, and so they’ve found new and inferior ways to simulate wins.
‘Real’ Nigerian hip artists and their fans love to buy stocks in ‘End of Year’ editorial lists. They bicker over vanity metrics, like who has the best punchlines. They utilise those misfiring bars for needless beefs. Nobody really cares if you are the best rapper alive. Just make money via the art, feed your fans regularly, and take care of your family. Nobody invests in a musician to make them top internet lists every year. Nothing can impersonate material success in music. The loudest, angriest shouts of “that’s how it’s done in the USA,” can’t stand in for cold, hard cash. You are not in the USA. You’re in Abule Egba. Also, they make money from that culture. Yours doesn’t. Fix up your life.
I have been in the music industry for nearly a decade. Chaos is the order of the day, and no one truly knows everything. In Lagos, the Nigerian music industry moves at lightening speed, switching forms as it advances to full actualization. But as you navigate the space year after year, patterns offer themselves up to you. Money is always king. Pop music always provides money. And everything pales in comparison to getting that money. Failure in music is rarely documented in this industry due to our natural inclination to hug and platform success. But, away from the lights, artists who never fully self-actualize and make money will eventually have to stop making that art. As life marches on, and the world begins to ask survivalist questions of them, they’ll inevitably drop that art, and get a job. That’s another consistent pattern. Think of this, all the older artists who never happened, who never tasted success, or came close to it, are no longer making music. They are chasing money from other sources. A musician in Lagos is more likely to fail than succeed. But why compound the odds against you by looking behind?
Afrobeats to the world is the best thing to ever happen to Nigerian music. Winning in Lagos, whether as a sellout or not, gives you access to the rest of the world. We’re going global, it’s still day one. You have a window of opportunity to avail yourself of. Whoever tells you that the old ways of rapping are the best, is your enemy. Why stick to the past to stay ‘true to the art’ and lose in the present? Carpe Diem. Stand up!
Jude M.I Abaga says I am excommunicated from Hip hop. What does that even mean? In this age of decentralisation and the democratisation via the internet, it's impossible for a an artist in the twilight of his career to banish someone from a culture. Hip hop is bigger than you in Nigeria. You played a role. And we are grateful for it. But you can’t excommunicate anyone. You’re just a part it. Same way music journalism is apart of it. All the cards do not align for the outcome your desired outcome. You don't have that juice, the influence and the facilities to enforce a ban on a music journalist in 2022. It's materially impossible to excommunicate a journalist from hip hop, a space where you are propped by nostalgia. You excommunicate me from hip hop? Well I hereby declare your excommunication from music journalism coverage.
You see how empty those words sound? And how powerless they are.
M.I Abaga lives in the past. Where such impossible pronouncements might have held any sting. He’s been able to do this. Wield his influence to hurt artists and professionals. Even the ones who call him father. Before the internet decentralized Nigerian music, and streaming platforms took power away from radio and TV, the music ran like a cabal in Lagos. You’re either in, kowtowing to gatekeepers, grovelling at their feet for some access. Label execs and powerful artists played gods with people’s lives, limiting the growth and inclusion of many. All you needed was asking radio stations, OAPS and DJs to limit your exposure. It was that easy
The internet changed the game. It broke down these barriers, reshuffled the power structure of the industry, and stripped away these diabolical powers. Increased avenues of exposure, more channels of monetization, social media communities and the DIY craze took away the ability of a single player to take out another player. The Nigerian music industry has progressed beyond thjose dark days. Tech has saved us, and connected us all to the world. We’re all connected to the light, and the sun is the best sanitiser.
I think we're watching the last gasp of a man on his way out. Nigerian music has come in leaps and bounds, but it's our eternal failing that we don't have a defined career progression for stars whose powers inevitably succumb to natural dictates of time. When their grip on the public square loosens, and their words begin to sound ordinary again. When their best days firmly reside behind them and they panic, paranoia sets in, and they go on an futile banning spree. What happens when passage of time makes a legend, yesterday’s man? Can this be fixed? The answer is currently beyond me.
But what's certain is the absence of retirement homes for former stars. No place to retire gracefully to, as the curtain begins to get drawn on an illustrious outing. Today’s practice forces everyone to seeks their own hole of senescence, whether in heaven or hell. Banky W’s pivot to creative agencies, Nollywood and politics is worthy of emulation. 2baba's carriage and hit-making powers continues to extend a legendary run spanning many years. D'banj's sheer force of celebrity, his zest for life and natural entertaining mien still moves the needle for him.
M.I Abaga has publicly tried his hands at managing talents and came up short. Released from Chocolate City, his focus lies in the intersection between culture and politics. He's found new life by aligning with people who appear to mean well for the country, pulling off a number of events and policy discussions via thse partnerships. And he’s done this for a long time. I once attended an M.I Abaga exhibition event for King James in 2014, but it was a ruse to gather creatives to listen to a campaign by then-gubernatorial aspirant, Akinwumi Ambode. Ambode would later win at the polls, becoming a patron for Nigerian music.
The most accurate indicator of an artist who still has the ears of the people is in the performance of their art. When they release a new record, what happens? Does it make an appearance at the centre of the music square? Are people seeking out this new art, adopting and finding joyous utility in it? Does the earth shake for it? With M.I Abaga’s rcent release, it’s none of the above. But there’s a new album album coming and this contributes to his hype. I love Abaga’s art. I’m waiting on this one.
There’s a place for candid conversations about art. I believe in the right of musicians to respond to perceived slights. But cancel culture isn’t one of those options. The answer to a flawed argument is a better argument unfurled via debate. Sunlight is the best sanitiser. Excommunication is an impossibility. You don’t have that power. Same way my decision to publish this piece is beyond your reach. We all have our limitations.
Nigerian hip hop purist fandom direly needs a reeducation. Progression is staring them in the face. Hip hop continues to march on in new forms, stuffing the masses fat. Pop music isn’t the enemy. It’s a blessing, an opportunity for growth. Hip hop deserves to grow too.