The cultural iconoclasm of Lady Donli

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Toronto, Get Ready, Lady Donli Is In Town This Weekend

There is a pivotal, but easy to miss, moment at the beginning of the Nollywood-themed video-film for Lady Donli’s Corner when the scope of her understanding of the sociological importance of ownership comes to fore. “I heard that they called you a prostitute,” Chuuzus asks a protester during a protest at the Enjoy Your Life campus. “Yes,” she responds – not denying that she is, in fact, a prostitute. But the protestor does go on to add, “I am a woman and I have every right to be here.” It is such an innocuous assertion that can be easily glossed over if careful attention is not paid in that moment, but in the grand context of the video’s message, and imagery, it is a useful snapshot into Donli’s appreciation of visual imagery and its potential use in the reconfiguration of societal norms – slut-shaming norms amongst many other things.

Such infusions of political statements – mostly gender-based and indicative of a desire to thrive despite Nigeria – are regular features of Lady Donli’s music. Her grasp, and appreciation, of the country’s aesthetic culture, is on a higher level to her contemporaries; that is saying a lot because she has often been categorized as a part of Nigeria’s alté community who have put fresh spins on the prevalent fashion, music, film, and diverse cultural exports coming out of the country. The alté community is particularly fascinated with Old Nollywood and its acerbic interpretations of love, women, community, family, and belief – Odunsi (the Engine), Santi and Zamir LOS particularly, stir up Nollywood nostalgia, using the effects of these movies from an olden era.

Alté, as a matter of necessity, is rooted in difference and experimentation; and Lady Donli has thrived at the latter. Her debut album, Enjoy Your Life, released in April 2019 is a potpourri of influences that cut across decades, time, and sonic references: alt-pop, high life, neo-soul, classic afrobeat, and funk. As the name suggests, Enjoy Your Life is a fierce manifesto in favor of connecting one’s self with the finest pleasure that life can offer but what doesn’t get said is why there has to be a manifesto in the first place for young people to thrive, those spaces left unfilled – or briefly espoused – are what speak loudest on the project; like the urgent need on Cash and the surreal depth to Corner. Donli’s use of Afrobeat on Suffer Suffer is as much rooted in the present as it is in the sounds and icons of the past, she confesses that much in an interview with The Fader. “I used and I was like lots of older Nigerian early-2000 music definitely. But now, more so I’ve noticed music out of the ’90s, ’80s; The Funkees, Mad Man Jaga, Angelique Kidjo.”

Still, Lady Donli, 22, is very much a product of her time. The idiosyncrasies and the unique challenges of being a woman in the 21st century do not escape her glare. In a world where a number of female Nigerian music personalities have shunned feminism, gender politics, and other topics that need urgent discussion for reasons best known to them, Donli has never looked away. When Teni Makanaki stirred up a public discourse about gender roles/ feminism with a Twitter post recently, Lady Donli used her platform to stir the conversation in a wholesome contextual light that was worthy of consideration. Where Odunsi (the Engine) and Santi mine Nollywood’s nostalgia for mainly creative – impressively so – purpose in esoteric formats, Lady Donli has elevated the archiving of those film clips, influences, and style to the political. In From Glamour Babes to Nolly Babes, an essay about the transformative role of Old Nollywood in reimagining modern women’s place published in The Republic, Merlin Uwalaka writes that: “There was always a moral lesson and punishment attached to the stories of non-conforming women. Nollywood was clear which of these women Nigerian girls should aspire to be. There was a push for conformity and uniformity of expression in style, ideals, and behaviour.” But, as the years have gone by, women have seen those movies, despite the frankly ridiculous punishments, as reference points for an existing feminist class that dates back to the 90s, despite their erroneous tagging as bad girls.

Donli, who studied at the University of Surrey, is – consciously or unconsciously – a student of history and understands the role of visual content in informing human existence about non-conformity ultimately becoming conformity; Donli also gets that all art is political. In the video for Corner, she revels in the upending – or at least confronting head-on– the issues affecting womanhood and endangered communities. There is an overt reference to all these major issues flawlessly; we see it on the cardboards of the protesters and feel it in the terseness of their displeasure with the Base Boys. A reference is made to the 2019 rape allegations brought by Busola Dakolo against Abuja-based pastor, Biodun Fatoyinbo (Women say “Me Too,” Critics say “Prove It”); there is solidarity with the queer community; and there is a reminder of a generational wrong, sex for grades, that seems to continue unabated in our universities and higher institutions.

Of all the sugary pop earworms that Nigerian music blesses us with, very few ever reflect the true face of society – except, perhaps, our penchant for divine grace, love, and financial gratification – or are conscious of self in a way that redirects those lenses of introspection at the larger community. From 2019, we have Falz’s largely self-absolving but nuanced Moral Instruction, Burna Boy’s politically disjointed but culturally significant African Giant, and Naira Marley’s lasciviously opportunistic canon of singles; then we have Lady Donli’s magnificent music of youthful angst, which positions her as perhaps the first post-alté entertainer who delicately but superbly mixes the artistic with the political – without being off-putting.

Art should aim to a better community, and when I see posters saying “the glass ceiling won’t shatter itself,” “awareness is victory,” in the video for Corner, I think of Lady Donli as one of the most important acts in our ecosystem currently. I have not come across any interview where she has discussed feminism or women issues but there have been fewer things this year that sounded as interesting as when the female protester answered in the affirmative when asked if she was a prostitute. “I heard that they called you a prostitute,” Chuuzus asks a protester during a protest at the Enjoy Your Life campus. “Yes,” she responds – not denying that she is, in fact, a prostitute. “I am a woman and I have every right to be here.” And what do you intend to do, or say, as I have confirmed that I am a prostitute? And many more things, long may Lady Donli disrupt culture!

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