Zanku's Dying Breath Is Problematic
Zanku is experiencing a natural decline. But it's most famous sons are refusing to let it die. They are waging a war that is already lost.
Zanku is dying, but it isn’t going down without a fight. All of its chief proponents from the ‘street end’ of the industry are trying to do the impossible: make a genre out of a fad. Even though such an effort is admirable, heroic even, ultimately it's futile. Zanku has neither the range, the melody, nor the malleability to be expanded to birth a music culture. At most, what will remain is the momentary aftertaste of cultural adrenaline.
You can see the toll of Zanku’s war on Nigeria. It’s not on the dance floor where it was designed to flourish and do damage. Yes, it’s done that. But now the battle has been moved to personal spaces. Journalists are being threatened, musicians are being derided by their colleagues for personal conversations, and even Funke Akindele has been dragged into it. All courtesy of one of it’s most illustrious and polarizing sons, Zlatan Ibile.
Rappers Zlatan Ibile and Naira Marley, two of the genre’s biggest benefactors, rose to prominence on the back of the Znku. Ibile, most especially, owned the genre, even interpreting the ‘Zanku’ moniker to mean “Zlatan Abeg No Kill Us.” While Naira Marley built a cult-like following after his clash with Nigeria’s economic watchdog, FCC. That, coupled with his high-octane club bangers. Meanwhile, Zlatan lived heavy off of collaborations, before establishing himself with songs including ‘Bolanle’ and ‘Yeye Boyfriend.’
Zanku had a great run. Rising from the slums of Agege and backed by its electrifying dance, the crude sound quickly unseated its more raucous progenitor, Shaku Shaku. It brought with it, all the elements of a pop culture takeover. New musicians rose to public consciousness and became instant stars. Dancers like Poco Lee sprung from obscurity to the limelight. A corner of the city filled with innovators, each new record further entrenching their dominance. And the rest of the industry? Mainstream musicians fought each other on the charts, looking for ways to advance their careers by cashing in on the trend. Burna Boy was successful with ‘Killing Dem.’ Tiwa Savage tasted some of that shine on ‘Shotan,’ and Olamide chipped some gold on ‘Woske.’
Now, Nigerians have had enough, and contrary to what Zlatan thinks, haters aren’t making Zanku lose its flavour. The cosmos have decided the end is here. Just like everything else in life, music and pop culture operate on a cycle. It starts, it grows, it expands, its hits a peak, it declines, and it dies. That’s the cycle of life.
Unlike what most people think, music isn’t just vibes and endless nights of ‘turn up.’ Music is a product, which obeys all the laws of life. The same way Dangote makes cement, and Otedola made his fortune from oil, Zlatan is selling music as his product. They obey all the laws of business, life and more.
Economists will point to the Law of Marginal Utility as an explanation for Zanku’s demise. ‘Utility’ is an economic term used to represent satisfaction or happiness. Marginal utility is the incremental increase in utility that results from the consumption of one additional unit. The Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility states that all else equal, as consumption increases the marginal utility derived from each additional unit declines.
Listening to Zanku is like drinking a bottle of soda to slake your thirst. The more soda you consume, the less satisfaction you will get from further consumption. Zanku was fresh when it arrived, and for a while, it slaked our thirst for new content. But the more we consumed, the less we wanted it. Right now, Nigerians rarely want a Zanku song. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility has set in, and Zanku has to obey.
In the business of demand and supply, Zanku’s saturation of Nigeria’s market has resulted in a decline of demand for it. Market saturation happens when the volume of a product or service in a marketplace has been maximized. At the point of saturation, a company can only achieve further growth through new product improvements, by taking existing market share from competitors, or through a rise in overall consumer demand. Zanku artists need to improve their product. Demand for Zanku will not rise again.
Zanku has saturated the mainstream market, and has no room for growth left. While the sound failed to evolve, the dance did the opposite. The dancing held it down for longer. The first Zanku dance we ever did, looks way different from the one that is in vogue. The full body workout. People created intricate combinations and improved on it to keep the moves fresh. But the music? It stopped growing long ago.
Also, Zanku proponents can continue to console themselves with the praise of a niche fanbase that will almost never go away. Saturation is relative in pop culture due to the existence of niche and mainstream spaces. The niche spaces—which in this case, is the ‘streets’—will take a longer time to achieve saturation because that’s what niche fanbases are made for. They are designed and built to hang on to fringe sounds. Zlatan and Naira Marley have had this for a while. They still have it in Agege. Saturation will take its time, but if the sound doesn’t evolve it will die there as well.
The mainstream market is rarely ever loyal to any musician. It exists mostly for mindless pleasure. It’s designed to include the niche and other members of the public who just want a good time with the art. A good time to the Nigerian mainstream means just connecting with the art, and the artist for as long as the musician continues to hit the sweet spot on that day. Zanku’s day is done, and the public is reacting to it.
Zlatan’s fight for the continuity of Zanku is an admirable one. While it shows a noble commitment to a formula that has worked, it’s time for the singer to open himself up and adapt to what’s happening. He isn’t the first street artist with a taste of mainstream success. Recent history will show us Small Doctor, Slimcase, Mr Real, Idowest and more who made a push with other street-grown sounds, but failed to maintain a run. The leaders of Shaku Shaku barely got anything of their own. They were tied up making collaborations with mainstream artists. By the time the market had become saturated, and their personal singles were flooding the market, the wave had hit the shores and dissipated. They didn’t get anywhere near the level of success currently being enjoyed by the Zanku nation.
Zanku has blessed us with many highlights, many moments to cherish, and its exit should be looked upon with gratitude and collective happiness. Fans, artists, dancers, and everyone else who profited off of it, ought to wave it away. Change comes with the fear of moving on. The last taste of a good time can leave residual sadness in its wake. But we should never hold on to a losing horse. It’s ran it’s course. Its race is done. And the final lap should be gracious and noble.
Zanku is taking it’s last breath. And with it comes a chance for change. Already, the public has begun to move away from it. Check every chart, the trend wave shows newer sounds surging ahead. You cannot stop the rainfall, but you can stay dry with an umbrella. Smart artists know that it’s hard to pivot from a good thing. But staying alive means a lifetime of self-improvement, and change.
It’s time for them to get new vibes in. Change producers, or ask yours to upgrade. Nigerians need more than Zanku can offer, and they will head to the people who offer that. Zanku artists need to go find that new thing, and push it with the same aggression and marketing power. They have numbers now. The present is spent. Sell them the future. Give them your new self.
And finally, as Zanku is dying, I don’t want to join it. Zlatan, Abeg No Kill Us.