Yorubas own Afrobeats. That claim, or a variation of it, has often surfaced on social media, and while it is incorrect and possibly flecked with ethnic bias, it points to the dominance of artists from Nigeria’s south-western regions in the country’s contemporary popular music. This dominance is largely possible because the market square of Nigerian pop music is Lagos, a city in south-west Nigeria. However, artists based in south-east and south-south Nigeria, or songs steeped in the musical traditions of those regions, have also often captured the popular imagination. Such artists include rappers Illbliss and Phyno, and singers Flavour, Timaya, and Duncan Mighty. Likewise, Kcee’s Ojapiano, which centers the oja—a musical instrument from south-east Nigeria—also enjoys a mainstream appeal. Worthy, a newly released twelve-track album by a collective called Gen Uru, showcases even more music talents from south-east and south-south Nigeria. The project is sponsored by Hero Lager Beer, an alcohol brand famous in those two regions.
As part of its Uru Dia (There is real worth within) campaign, which it launched earlier this year, the beer company organized a music boot camp to discover talents from south-east and south-south Nigeria. Participants include up-and-coming artists Zanivibes, AceTune, KodoPearl, Ifé Music, Ikpa Udo, Ifex G, Jeriq, and Sparkle Tee (Hustle Dot Com), all of whom feature in this album. Rudeboy, of the veteran music duo PSquare, features in Oshimmiri, a quasi-religious tune which riffs on both a popular children song and one associated with Nigerian campus tradition. For production, the album relies on Major Bangz, Barmy, Kezyklef, and Skitter. Released under Empire Mates Entertainment, and with Illbliss as its creative director, Worthy was made in line with Hero Lager’s theme of self-worth. The theme climaxes in the eleventh track—it has the same title as the album—with its fusillade of self-affirmations, as in lines like “in this world, I’m worthy” and “nobody to somebody.”
“I always wished to take it back to my home soil,” said Illbliss, thus revealing the album’s intention to draw from indigenous musical traditions, particularly from those of Nigeria’s south-eastern region. This cultural advocacy is prominent in the Barmy-produced Chop Chop, as it channels Flavour’s Nwa Baby (2011), and is set against Highlife guitars, jazzy horns, and a low knock-knock of an ogene. The song promulgates a vision where hard work only has meaning when it finds material reward, and it does this with some humor, as in the line, “who die for hunger no be hero.” The line sneers at the common tendency to romanticize hardship and make saints out of victims of poverty, and the pidgin rendering lends the critique a comic cadence.
Skitter likewise creates a Highlife-y vibe in Uru Dia, a song which also brings material success into sharp relief. Though the album is primarily a sermon about the importance of recognizing one’s self-worth, Uru Dia also stresses the importance of recognizing one’s limitations. The line “no go dey do pass yourself” recalls a similar one by singer Kizz Daniel, while suggesting the wisdom in sincere self-estimation.
Its flirtations with Highlife aside, the album stays close to home by way of its Igbo lyrics, which are paired with smatterings of pidgin and English. It does not, however, draw exclusively from Nigeria’s music culture, as it opens itself to influences from beyond, as in Worthy, where Jeriq’s raspy, war-cry-like rapping is emplotted in a Drill beat. Meanwhile, a Ragga-style vocal delivery steals the show in Wait, a song which doubles as a picture of one-upmanship and a lecture on the virtues of patience.
Sometimes, though, this album contradicts itself. Its central premise is that true strength springs from within, rather than without, an idea expressed in 5 & 6, in the line “value no dey body, e dey within.” However, in Amapiano-capped Sure Banker, and in some other songs, value doesn’t issue forth from within, but is tied to financial might. “Wetin dey make man fit dey happy na alert,” is one such line which shows that bank credit alerts, rather than an alertness to one’s inner virtues, is the source of self-confidence, happiness even.
Yet, its contradictions scarcely detract from its enjoyability. With its good humor and upbeat optimism, and its mesh of Highlife, Rap, Drill, and Afropop, Worthy makes for a pleasurable listen. Perhaps more admirable is the project’s overarching mission to spotlight up-and-coming artists who, otherwise, may not have the chance to showcase themselves to a wide audience. Besides this album, Hero Lager’s boot camp has yielded other dividends: AceTune, one of the boot camp’s benefactors, was signed three weeks ago by Rudeboy, a Hero Lager Beer ambassador. Real worth is within, says the album’s patrons. Real worth can also be found in south-east and south-south Nigeria.