Since General Buhari became President Buhari, it’s fair to say that the times have been tough on the average Nigerian. The exchange rate ballooned making it difficult for people to embark on holidays even when well deserved. Paying school fees for those who have kids abroad has been difficult and there’s been an all round spike in the price of goods and services (Hello! 16.5% inflation). The precarious oil situation has resulted in constant fuel queues and elongated trips as a result of the queues spilling on to already overburdened roads. Against this backdrop, there has been a new found appreciation from the western world for Nigerian music. Buoyed by Wizkid’s Ojuelegba reaching Drake, an act like Davido has inked a deal with Sony, been on the cover of Fader and performed at SXSW. Drake’s second collaboration with Wizkid, One Dance reached #1 on the Bllboard charts while Kah-Lo’s appearance on Rinse and Repeat was a win in the Electro- Dance direction. Ayo Jay who had Fetty Wap on the remix to Your Number last year also signed a deal with RCA Records – home to Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Usher and Alicia Keys.
It’s mind boggling that with the stimulus package the Nigerian music scene is currently enjoying and the precarious economic situation, there’s still a distinct lack of social commentary. Burna Boy’s 2015 hit Soke was the last record I recall that even attempted to articulate the plight of the masses. Nigerian music culture is rich with top acts using their music as a protest mechanism. Fela’s discography took on so many cadres of the establishment. His son, Femi proved himself to be the true son of his father, particularly with his 2000 smash hit Sorry Sorry. In the early to mid noughties, Eedris Abdulkareem satirized the grades for sex culture prevalent in tertiary institutions with Mr Lecturer. The same artist later went for then President Obasanjo’s head with Jaga Jaga. 2face Idibia’s For Instance was a rallying cry that captured the heart of the streets.
At present, a list of the biggest acts in the country will include Olamide, Wizkid and Davido- all three have fallen short in this regard. It’s more galling considering the fact that if asked, all three would probably riff about how inspirational they find Fela. Wizkid has courted comparisons by dressing like Abami Eda, featuring Femi on Jaiye Jaiye and using the alias FelaBack on Snapchat. When I interviewed Davido in 2014, he had pictures of Fela and Michael Jackson on the walls of his home studio. Perhaps, this is an instance of me projecting an ideal I expect them to conform to but I find it hard to believe that despite every mainstream Nigerian artist holding Fela as a form of inspiration, they have opted to neglect one of the core tenets that made him the finest maker of Nigerian music opting instead to serenade the champagne campaign.
My reading is that the lack of protest and dissent in contemporary Nigerian popular culture is rooted in the need for commercial desirability. As a result of the complete car crash that is the label system, there’s pressure on Nigerian acts to find alternative ways to make money. This tends to come through endorsement deals and touring. The high ticket endorsement deals tend to come from the telecommunications companies and soda manufacturers. I have it on good authority that MTN make about 1.5 billion naira every month off CallerTunes. My basic understanding of Intellectual Property Law would suggest that Caller Tunes should be licensed and the artists should get paid from that anyway. Interestingly, the Copyright Society of Nigeria is suing MTN. Then again, because of the structural issues I reference- paying Iyanya 60 million a year is a drop in the sea to effectively buy his music, shoot a couple of adverts and compel some public appearances. That 60 million is a big deal to Iyanya so he’s not really going to do anything to mess it up. This mindset gets to acts who whilst lower in the food chain are dependent on music as their bread and butter who then view making pop music or as we derisively say pangolo music as the goal and thus the cycle of weak and unchallenging music is set into motion. Effectively, the price we pay for the deplorable structure of our music scene is crap music.
There’s an obvious question as to what is gained from artists getting political. Music is perhaps one of the most engaging forms of mass culture. We listen to it while studying. We listen to it in the clubs. We listen to it when sat in Lagos traffic. To ask that the music we listen to reflect the reality of the people is not unreasonable. Music is supposed to speak to/of the times. There’s beauty in admiring the skills employed by an artist in depicting the harsh realities being faced by a listener. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly being one of the more memorable efforts in that regard. It’s what separates the great from the ordinary. Think of the fact that a man now known as the King of Pop made a song like Black and White or that a Beatle coordinated We Are The World. Nina Simone used her music to challenge the social injustice of her age. The full stop that precedes this sentence was where this article stopped for a 14 day period. It’s a feeling every writer knows. Just as you feel you’re getting somewhere, you realize you don’t even have an idea of the route you need. Then Muhammed Ali died and in reflecting upon the great man I knew I had stumbled onto a sense of the direction I was seeking. Ali has been feted as the type of once in a lifetime figure who transcended his day job as a sportsman to become an influential civil rights figure. By opting to take a stance against the dominant rhetoric on race, religion and politics of his day, he inspired a generation and enhanced his legacy. In choosing to speak and live a truth that paid no mind to commercial desirability, Ali toed the path not often taken and laid the gauntlet down for future generations. It’ll work wonders if our favorite musicians picked up on that.