Da Grin Made It Okay To Rap In Yoruba – And Other Indigenous Languages

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Yoruba – indigenous – rap became ubiquitous in the 2010s, but it wasn’t always that way. Nigerian hip-hop has constantly been at unrest with its identity from the start point, flitting and flapping, unsure of what linguistical medium best represents the ideal of its collective expression. The parameters of what constitutes puritan hip-hop, the ghosts of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., and American hip-hop have always loomed gloomily over the genre in the West African country. But the late 2000s were pretty straightforward, Western influences – a sportive mishmash of American and British word structures, cadence, and flow – seeped through the Nigerian rap circuits. Popular rap songs were delivered in this markedly synthetic flow and spiced with token Nigerian-isms from time to time as rap maintained a foothold in the pop scene, but the fundamental underpinning of what rap looked like was not to be mistaken: ‘Quality’ rap was delivered in English, preferably with an improvised Brooklyn or Queens accent.

Going into the 2010s, the status quo seemed likely to be maintained as M.I. dropped his 2008 classic debut, Talk About It, and Naeto C remained at the forefront of the commercial rap train. Both rappers were the foremost symbols of the undisputed formulaic identity of Nigerian rap at that time – with its aspirational themes of upward mobility and English-delivery modus. Yet, that style of rapping was rote for certain Nigerians – and creators – who craved adequate indigenous expressionism in rap. In the midst of this incertitude is where the most important thing that will change the face of Nigerian rap forever would emerge from. The symbolic line that will divide these two distinct eras of rapping – from American/British mannerism and blanket influence to a wave of indigenous rappers taking over – in Nigeria is not necessarily a year. It is one person. One man with the heart of a lion and the slinky voice of a hardened warrior. Oladapo Olaitan Olaonipekun – professionally known as Da Grin – was the line in time.

Da Grin’s anthemic Pon Pon Pon released in 2009 was a jarring experience. A totemic, undisputed rap banger delivered in Yoruba that quixotically mixed the vernacular of the ghetto with the mindset of a street hustler to produce bare reflections on the state of mind of a struggling, tortured virtuoso. Pon Pon Pon mined in Sossick’s studio, heralded the arrival of a new way of doing things: Yoruba as rap, rap as Yoruba, all delivered in the unflinching image of 2009 Lagos, with a side dish of pidgin and some scattering of English. That was to be Da Grin’s leitmotif, to critically underwrite an assurance of alternatives for indigenous rappers whose voices were not heard in the mainstream by spitting the hardest bars anywhere in Nigeria in Yoruba. If you feel inclined to crunch the data or analyze the numbers, there is barely a full-length year in the late 2000s or early 2010s that can be called the Year of Da Grin. It’s weird, he just crept up on us and forced us to rethink how we consumed music. We had no choice but to pay him attention and watch him talk/ rap/ sing or do whatever the fuck he wanted to do for as long as his mortal body functioned because he could do it all. Da Grin was not the first, nor was he the last rapper, to spit his bars in his native dialect. Before he came, Lord of Ajasa and 2Phat released rap gems in Yoruba that bubbled under – even Ruggedman wholeheartedly embraced the Nigerian-isms that other mainstream rappers of his time dexterously avoided –  but Da Grin took the ball and ran with it; releasing songs after songs that wore the poverty, violence, uncertainty, and fear of his economic demography on his heart – weaving them into an ethereal yet visceral representative thread of life in the ghettos – and wielding his Yoruba raps like a weapon against all the injustices of life, rap, gatekeepers, and mortal rivals.

With Da Grin, the words were an extension of where he came from, the things he heard, and the life he lived, and there were no quarters given. “Pon Pon Pon is a song that is dedicated to people that can speak for the streets, people that have got the street credibility,” he said during a taped edition of an interview on the Teju Babyface show filmed weeks before his death. His street credibility, and acceptance, shot through the roof with every track that came from him. Da Grin claimed to prefer mixtapes to rap album because the former showed the unfiltered lyrical capability of the creator. The appreciation for lyricism showed in his work, he was a rap demagogue, a brilliant student of his culture that inundated his immaculate, dense offerings. And he had the gift of an album to give.

Da Grin walked the face of the earth less than 120 days in 2010 but in that time his sophomore album, C.E.O. (Chief Executive Omo-Ita), released late in 2009, marched defiantly to the top, receiving critical acclaim and achieving commercial success. C.E.O. foreshadowed a radical change in the conceptual make-up of populist rap and a rejigging of everything that was considered a ‘norm.’ By the time C.E.O. had dropped, Da Grin was already a generational voice in waiting, the poet laureate of a generation of street kids who were effectively robbed of a voice by the circumstance of their birth. Consequent of Da Grin’s popularity, an entire sub-culture was hoisted to the frontlines of popular appreciation. Olamide’s smashing mainstream debut track, Eni Duro dropped in 2010, marking the beginning of his ascendancy to the high realms of the music industry for the best part of an entire decade; Reminisce was morphing into the lyrical – and critically-acclaimed – behemoth that he emerged into – “Da Grin gave it a new meaning,” Reminisce told SoundCity in 2015. “It wasn’t cool to do Yoruba rap at all”; the kids – Lil Kesh, Chinko Ekun – were watching from afar and taking note; and the Eastern invasion was underway.

Then Da Grin died on April 22, 2010, at 6 p.m., from injuries sustained in a car accident. The nation’s silent vigil was over. And the world lost a star.

There is a lot that can be said about the death of Da Grin but the public reaction to his passing was proof of his life’s work. The grief was raw, red, and unfiltered as people adjusted to a Da Grin-less world. Tribute songs poured in from everywhere, by everyone: Banky W, Lord of Ajasa, K.S.B, and Ruggedman. There’s a grimy hood-focused Olamide/ CodedTunes Da Grin tribute video floating around on the internet with the distinct tagline Pon Pon Pon; all proof of how endemic Da Grin – and his music – had become to pop culture in Nigeria. Like all things in this world, death deepened the myth of Da Grin. His death was the pop star’s life come full circle, much too early. It was the tragic axiom, die young, live forever, in full action. His music was on regular rotation, his videos were constantly being played, and, in the months after, the search for the next Da Grin commenced surreptitiously. In a curious manner, the life and times of Da Grin were inescapably linked with that of indigenous rap: his life was dedicated to establishing it, and his death sealed its permanence in Nigerian consciousness. The wholly human, yet flawed, search for the next Da Grin has served indigenous rap well, introducing Olamide, Reminisce, and others to listeners’ ears. And making these listeners ready to hear, hopeful, perhaps praying even, that they might be listening to the next Da Grin. But it’s a fool’s chase, there’ll never be another like him.

In 2010, indigenous rap was the exception to the rule – ready to burst at the seams. In 2020, it is very much the rule. The most impactful rappers of the 2010s – Phyno and Olamide – rap almost exclusively in their local dialect. Almost every year since Da Grin’s passing, a new major indigenous-rapping star has broken through. The DNA of rap, as a genre itself, are changing as it segues into saccharic lyricism, syrupy trap-sungs, and the full-blown interpolation of diverse genres into its core, and indigenous artists in Nigeria are the heart of these ingenious explorations. Terry Apala, Zlatan Ibile, Slimcase, Naira Marley, and many more are examples of the growing profile of indigenous rapping, all thanks to Da Grin’s magnificent run at the turn of the century. Even more imperiously, the availability of tools of globalization – streaming and social media – means that more indigenous stars are ready to break through – think Zinoleesky and Lil Frosh – because of that visibility.

When the Eastern rap invasion finally hit Lagos, led by Phyno, the city was finally ready to live up to its multi-ethnic ethos, courtesy of the micro hip-hop evolution that Da Grin triggered. The wave of regional centering of hip-hop expression has hit the north and more hubs are expected to emerge as access to technology improves across the country with Lagos eternally receptive of new trends and sub-cultures that can move the audience. Most likely, Da Grin will not be remembered for all this; most fans only care for the music, living for the nostalgic moment when the first verse goes off on Ghetto Dreams or Kondo.  And that’s fine. Even Da Grin himself seemed mindless to what he was doing in real-time. What existed, unabashedly, at the core of his music, as he battled lack, doubt, and sorrow, was the need to make money and win the acclaim and adoration of the hood. He did it all in the space of 18 months – just don’t forget that he casually challenged all conceptions of what was possible in Nigerian rap while at it.