Nigerians are boisterous people typically living as loudly and unapologetically as possible while confining themselves to the rules of religion, tradition, and culture that they dare not cross. But for cool kids, rules exist to be broken and what is more fun than existing outside of boxes? With the rise of internet use among Nigerian teens and youths in the late 2000s, as well as the increase in exposure to transcontinental media, a movement – subsequently a genre of music was born.
The alté category has gained a considerable amount of popularity in the Nigerian entertainment scene. Characterized by vivid colours, distinct sounds, and bold imagery, young people have continued to defy unspoken boundaries and blur the lines with this new genre-bending wave. Santi, who is one of the artists at the forefront of the movement explains that “Style goes hand in hand with the music, it’s very essential and gives you the full form of expressing yourself.” In reality, alternative music is a reinvention of a genre of music from the ’60s and has since been used to define experimental subgenres of already existing sound. Some alté artists have traced their inspiration to the 90s music scene in Nigeria, featuring artists such as Lagbaja and Baba Fryo.
Spearheaded by DRB members Teezee Fresh L and Boj, Alté — Nigerian parlance for alternative — has transcended from a definition of an art form to a movement and lifestyle for a lot of kids on the block, both old and new. With music that combines a range of styles such as RnB, soul, pop, and even indie, the alternative sound is challenging the narrative of Nigerian music being undifferentiated and inflexible. But what really is the alté genre? How does one define what fits in and what does not? In 2019, for Dazed, Tanya Akintola wrote, “In the same way that the term ‘Afrobeats’ is often used to summarise an artistic sensibility more than a specific sound, Alté comprises a diverse range of styles, sometimes drawing on dancehall, indie, R&B, and more.”
At the core of the alté movement is an artistic concept that is heavily cloaked in rebellion and only interested in severely contrasting with Nigeria’s faux conservatism. Identifying as alté means being in touch with a deep sense of self-expression, using mediums such as music and fashion to deviate from the typical expectations of Nigerian music consumers, while speaking with a voice that affords it global recognition. The concept represents stepping outside the norm making it the first go-to when categorizing music that does not sound designed for the typical Nigerian audience. What this means for artists is that they are categorized under the same genre, despite having very distinct sounding music. Like Lady Donli says “In Nigeria, the way we define music now, is that if you’re not making Afropop, then it’s alternative music.” Most times, when carefully examined, the only similarity that can be identified is the other road taken, clearly distinguishing them from their mainstream counterparts.
With the integration of predominantly African style and western influences, alté music is carried by manifestations of rather unusual artistic visions which make it clear that this scene is limitless and no respecter of social constructs. Playing on nostalgia, alté kids elevate a certain DIY aesthetic while basking in diverse expressions of their identity. Alté fashion draws inspiration from old Nollywood and y2k, reinstating its retro qualities as a blend of both the old and the new. From daring hairstyles, heavy jewellery, and bold makeup to abstract accessories and gender-fluid fashion, they manage to infuse personality while making whatever point there is to be made in a way that resonates with their orientation and individuality. There is a “come as you are” feel to the alte scene, making space for whatever doesn’t fit into the mainstream and creating a loosely defined music movement which is the hyper genre that is alté. In the words of Lady Donli: “If you’re about expressing yourself and not conforming to the norm, no one [in the scene] is going to be like, you’re not alté enough.”
Prior to alté’s current presence in mainstream entertainment which is honestly long overdue, the movement was met with pushbacks and resistance. According to journalist Edwin Okolo, “Every subculture is eventually co-opted by the mainstream when it starts to show profitability, the Alté movement has not escaped this commodification of ideas.” Weird, elitist, and even dark are just a few qualifiers that have been used to describe the direction of alternative art. Nigeria, which remains the first consumer, has a reputation of hating what is not understood or easy to demystify. Streaming platforms such as Soundcloud, from where artists like Odunsi, Santi, and Lady Donli rose to stardom cannot be overlooked, affording alté kids the luxury of not conforming to the stereotypical celebrity lifestyle. For many, this means the ability to retain authenticity and prioritize passion while doing what they love – sharing art in its most raw form.
But apart from being a nonconformist expression of art, the impact of alté culture and its message of nonconformity cannot be overemphasized. Odunsi believes it’ll usher in an “evolution of expression” With the grip, it has on mainstream entertainment, alté has normalized difference and individuality. Beyond the aesthetics and the iconic pictures, alté subculture carries a message of defiance. Very loudly, it is proclaiming that you cannot dictate the manner in which art should be made, or play respectability politics with self-expression.
Naomi Overo is a cultural writer, avid reader and a part time musichead. She lives in Abuja where she enjoys hiding out in cafes and documenting the lives of young Nigerians.