Over the weekend, two distinct but important parts of Nigerian pop culture took place in the two cities most identifiable with Nigerian music and afro-beats all over the world: Lagos and London. One continent away, Wizkid curated a masterful mix of Nigerian/African artistes to perform at his Starboyfest in the O2 Arena, London as he sold out the iconic arena for the second year in a row.
In Lagos, the 13th edition of legacy award show, The Headies, took place at the Eko Convention Centre in Victoria Island; the event was marked by the missing faces of several nominees who were not only absent but conspicuously so as they performed at Wiz’s O2 gig. Starboyfest was, without doubt, a resounding success both commercially and in terms of visibility for Nigerian acts but for the Headies doubts persist over the functionality and prestige of the awards ceremony that was once a trailblazer, begging the question: how did the Headies award fall this far off?
What is now known as the Headies started as the Hip Hop World Awards in March 2006 to celebrate outstanding achievements in Nigeria’s music industry and experienced steady growth in the years following its establishment. The creation of the awards by Ayo Animashaun was an important moment for Nigeria’s maturing music industry and created a platform for awarding deserving local music and its creators. Artistes such as D’banj, 2face, Paul Play, Neato C, Banky W, and M.I were some of the awardees in the early years and the award seemed to be on an upward curve for most of the early years as modifications and tweaks were made to the awarding process.
Beneath the shadow trouble seemed to be brewing, Burna Boy stormed out of the show after Sean Tizzle was awarded the Next Rated award in 2013, and then the 2015 edition came and nothing was the same. If there is a need to pinpoint a moment when the veneer was torn and the rift between artistes and award organisers was laid bare for the watching public, that edition was the moment. When Olamide took the microphone on January 1, 2016, at the Landmark Events Centre and launched into his infamous tirade in defense of his then artiste, Lil Kesh, being snubbed for the Next Rated award in favor of Reekado Banks it felt like a rant that had been long coming. Don Jazzy, awarded the special recognition award that night, gave a riposte to Olamide’s accusation of an unfair award process that sparked a lengthy Twitter thread by Badoo, the feud between the two label bosses was later settled away from the glare of the cameras, by Nigeria’s richest man.
However, the public show of dissent by Olamide had set a precedent that reflected the dissatisfaction of artistes with the award ceremony and its selection process, Tekno publicly questioned being nominated in the Next Rated category in 2016 – despite having never released an album – and was subsequently disqualified for failing to honour the nomination. The ceremony passed without controversy in 2018 after taking a break in 2017.
Due to the widespread appeal of music in Nigeria, conversation was inevitable when nominations for the 2019 edition was announced on October 1, 2019, and sore thumbs immediately stuck out. The first was that the period under review was from January 2018 to June 2019, this unusual timeline for consideration has a lot of scheduling problems as records released early in 2018 such as Burna Boy’s 2018 project, Outside, became eligible for awards very late in 2019; the omission of Naira Marley – who had enjoyed a dominant run in late 2018 and 2019 – from all categories raised questions about what criteria were used to arrive at nominations.
Not too long after the nation settled to watch the ceremony tagged The Power of A Dream on Saturday, social media went into overdrive over the poor planning and aesthetic of what is marketed as Nigeria’s biggest music award show, the camera quality was abysmal and not of the standard required for an event of such magnitude and there were several moments when technical issues threatened to overshadow the ceremony. The synergy between the show hosts, Reminisce and Nancy Isime, and the backroom team seemed to be off while some award presenters appeared to be lost while trying to make presentations to winners.
Another of the biggest criticisms of the awards show is that it has gradually descended into a farce and basically exists to seek sponsorship opportunities for the organisers. The feeling is that elite-level planning and execution are sacrificed for profitmaking and a balancing act is used for who gets what making the overall quality and acceptability of the awards suffer. There is also the conflation of genres and the nominations for certain award categories that felt like the organisers just wanted to shoehorn as many artistes as possible into any available space.
Perhaps the most important factor that accounts for the Headies’ rot is that artistes just don’t seem interested any longer. The biggest stars in Nigerian music were not present for the country’s biggest music award: Davido was having a baby, Wizkid was playing at the O2 and he had Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage with him. Naira Marley does not care at all about the awards ceremony, fresh off his conversation-starting set at Wizkid’s concert, he tweeted, “Legwork bigger than headies2019” in his characteristic deadpan manner and it is hard to find an argument to the contrary.
To attract the biggest sponsors and brand, the Headies needs the biggest Nigerian musicians and not a line-up of social media influencers who are not active music personalities and to attract the biggest stars and artistes, the Headies desperately needs to get its credibility once more; it can start by hosting a technical glitch-free edition next time and making its nomination and selection process as transparent as possible. In 2006, the awards ceremony launched as a trailblazer and pioneer by being firmly result-oriented and ahead of the curve, the organisers must now reinvent themselves to ensure they don’t become a relic of a past age of Nigerian music.