Nigerians love talking. Brought up in the context of the country’s status as an underperforming giant, this sometimes can be viewed as an exercise in escapism. How do you take your mind off an ineffective government? Go on Twitter and contribute to whatever the latest trending topic is. In the last couple of years, not many people have fed into this habit like Damini “Burna Boy” Ogulu. 3rd January, 2019 marked prime example. Goldenvoice, promoters of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival announced its bill and while he was happy to gain exposure to a new audience, something rankled- the size of the font in which his name was written. And thus, the terms “big font energy” and “African Giant” entered our lexicon. Coachella sought two Nigerian artists outside the traditional Wizkid/ Davido duopoly: Burna Boy and Mr Eazi – two acts united by their importance to the future of Nigeria’s music scene.
Burna Boy is probably the most original and independent-minded artist in the Nigerian mainstream. It’s almost innate. The combination of being born to a family with ties to the great Fela Kuti and growing up in the oil-rich Port Harcourt, away from the Lagos bubble inform this originality. For one, the musical education received from Benson Idonije, his grandfather and one of the greatest critics of the arts this country has seen renders him different to most of his contemporaries and this has been reflected in his musical evolution. Although he started out as a rapper, he can deliver a hook for the ages like he did on Dave’s Location, go the Zanku path like he did on the Zlatan collab Killin Dem, or channel the best of London and the Caribbean like he did on Heaven’s Gate and Rock Your Body. For a long time, he threatened to block himself from greatness- a result of a troubled past and making questionable decisions outside of the studio, as best encapsulated by Osagie Alonge’s Facts Only segment which would inspire the intro to his 2015 sophomore album-On A Spaceship. However, in the last 2 years, he’s found a gear that has propelled him to the height of his powers. Key to this has been taking traditional Pop elements and building them around a strain of social consciousness. Case in point- Ye, arguably, the biggest Nigerian song of 2018 has a repetitive chorus that essentially makes it earworm material. The lyrics though are essentially a treatise on the woes of these Buhari times and the language used was simple enough to cut across. This formula was also channeled on the 2019 single, Dangote. After spending the larger part of the year touring and getting support from tech behemoths like YouTube and Apple, the African Giant album can be viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, Mr Eazi’s path to success is more mechanical and the result of a brain hardwired for problem-solving. If Burna is a product of nature, Eazi is nurture. As a budding entrepreneur studying in Accra, an interest in cracking the music industry developed. The list of businesses he’s experimented with include: an e-commerce platform, soft drinks import, gold mining, food distribution and club promoting. It makes sense that an artist with a strong background researching markets would find success in music. The first clue to this comes from Segun Demuren via Feyi Fawehinmi. Mr. Demuren, a sometime music executive makes the point that one of the key reasons why Afrobeats became as exportable as it did in the last couple of years was that as Nigeria’s economy contracted, the speed of the music mirroring the times also slowed. Who was symbolic of this slow down? Mr. Eazi. Being primarily based in Ghana also allowed Eazi to work his way into Nigeria from the outside in, offering a vantage point different to most. His willingness to play both sides of the Ghana v. Nigeria rivalry was essential to maximize his audience by accentuating shared experiences with both sides of the divide. This also played into his breaking into the UK market. The UK market is probably the most open market in the West to Afrobeats as a result of the ubiquity of its West African population. Being significantly smaller than the U.S. also makes it a more straight forward venture. It’s no mistake that the evolution in his discography has seen him go from Accra to Lagos and then, Lagos to London. It’s essentially the blueprint of his path to world domination. Associations with J Balvin and Diplo acted as rocket fuel.
Both acts were born in the same month of the same year in the same city. The more significant explainer for their more recent success lies simply in strategy. No two acts in the Nigerian music industry have put as much thought into the presentation of their music over the last 18 months. By inking a deal with Bad Habit via Atlantic, Burna Boy ceded responsibility for his foreign business to a label with the infrastructural heft and knowledge to manage his crossover. There has also been a more formulaic approach in the roll out of music. Davido’s 2017 showed us the power and discipline in seeking domination on a quarterly basis. Burna’s 2018 could be broken into 1st Quarter- release of Outside. 2nd-Ye the biggest song in the country. 3rd Quarter- Gbona. 4th Quarter- On the Low. 2019 began with Killin Dem and just as the song was on its last legs came Dangote at the end of that quarter. Three months later- Anybody. By providing a stream of music that has connected with fans, momentum has been built over the last 18 months. The selection as Apple Music’s Up Next artist for July and the composite benefits- a Julie Adenuga interview, an Apple Music documentary and a late-night show appearance (Jimmy Kimmel) has set the African Giant roll out apart. In a nutshell, Burna Boy went from getting arrested and having to cancel his December 2017 concert to the hottest December 2018 ticket.
In Mr. Eazi’s case, his habit of immersing himself in studying and understanding the market has informed affiliations with Major Lazer and J Balvin. His recent U.S press run where he told the humbling tale of opening for Balvin and having to find ways of communicating to a primarily Latin audience draws parallels to Kanye West touring with U2 to get an insight into making “stadium music” and highlights a willingness to learn, uncommon with his contemporaries. Combining that with one of the most impactful platforms for young African talent will provide another lease of life. The emPawa progamme which has just announced a partnership with YouTube/Google for its second cohort has served and will continue to serve as an accelerator program for upcoming artists across the continent and the breakout of the programme’s star pupil, Joeboy is an indicator that beyond his artistry, Mr Eazi will be key in shaping the next generation.
The last decade of Nigerian music has largely been dominated by Wizkid and Davido-essentially two prodigies who have grown in front of our eyes. While their consistency has been exceptional, is it possible both have reached saturation point as reflected by their use of gimmicky tactics in some of their latest releases? Wizkid set the country into overdrive by frolicking with Tiwa Savage on the beach for the visual treatment of the forgettable Fever while Davido sought feminist brownie points with the video for the also forgettable Wonder Woman. In fairness to the duo, while they’re currently in album cycles, they do have a lot of miles on the clock. Can they still connect to an audience that’s constantly seeking new voices? Do they have it in them to go another gear while contemporaries like Burna Boy and Mr Eazi ramp it up? As Nigerian music continues to travel further and faster than it ever has, those two will perhaps be the most crucial players in making it bankable.