A lot has happened with the South African music genre in the time it has spent in Nigerian music. It was welcomed as a breath of fresh air, a new addition to Nigeria’s sonic template that creatives did not hesitate to explore. ‘Piano entered into a congenial marriage with Fuji under Asake and Seyi Vibez’s stewardship, reinvigorated a culturally relevant flute (and a musician’s fading career) when Kcee released Ojapiano, helped establish Niniola as Nigeria’s queen of Afro-house, and generally became the lifewire of Nigeria’s commercial music scene and its boisterous nightlife. But four years later, the genre is being utilized with a lot less thoughtfulness or effort, as artists and producers have come to see it as the quickest, least challenging route to making sellable music ready for the dance floor.
Carter Efe, the Nigerian comedian-turned-artist, recently caught fire for one of the most brazen attempts at ‘fast-food’ music, even by our current standards. He previewed an upcoming track, Babypiano, which worked in nursery rhymes into a song that was supposedly for adult consumption. His background in comedy initially suggested it might have been a humorous stunt, but any hope of that faded when he debuted the track today. A cursory look at some of the songs that have appeared on and even topped Nigerian charts in the last two years shows that it is not an outlier. With an increased reliance on Amapiano’s spazzy drums to produce and not just supplement the magic in music, it’s time to ask Nigerian creatives if its use has not crossed into the territory of diminishing marginal utility.
Originating out of Deep House, South African Jazz and Kwaito sometime between 2015 and 2017, the instrument-reliant genre has come to outgrow its South African home, and is shaping to become one of the foundations of global pop in the Post-Covid world. Before the world danced to its heavy basslines and feisty drums, it first spread its tentacles across Africa. Nigeria, being the sonically welcoming country it is, was an early adopter. In the beginning, these cross-cultural interchanges to explore the genre were often on invitations handed out by South African creators: Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa recruited Wizkid and Burna Boy for Sponono, off Kabza’s 2020 studio album, I Am The King Of Amapiano: Sweet And Dust. Then came the remixes. The South African duo of Focalistic and Virgo Deep recruited Davido for the remix of Ke Star. DJ Tarico, Preck and Nelson, of Mozambique, brought Burna Boy on board for the remix of Yaba Buluku. This also worked in reverse as well, as Nigerian artists like Tiwa Savage called up South African producers for Amapiano remixes of their songs.
Perhaps a sustenance of this model, where Nigerian artists’ entry into the genre was in partnership with South African creators, would have resulted in consistently higher standards of quality. It certainly did for the artists who practiced it. Singer Niniola has always been at the forefront of Nigerian experimentation with South African House and Dance genres, although her contributions—dating back to Maradona in 2017—are sometimes missed in both mainstream music literature and Twitter discussions alike. But even she needed guidance for her first foray into Amapiano, so for the tracks Look Like Me and and Oh Sharp off her Colors And Sounds album, South African producer Shuffle Muzik helped set her in the new soundscape. More recently, Mr. Eazi has found success recruiting Major League DJz and DJ Tarico for Patek, while Lojay crafted Canada with DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small; they brought on board some of Amapiano’s most foremost protagonists to excellent sonic rewards.
Nigerian music owes its present renown to prior decades of evolution and our long-running history of internalizing new music styles without losing hold of our identity. For some time, and with some creators, this was the rule too with Amapiano. Fuji music, the genre pioneered by legends like Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and popularized by KWAM 1 decades ago, was an important beneficiary of Amapiano’s entry into Nigeria. The music style famously relies on the percussive zest of instruments like the Sakara and Bata drums, and Nigerian producers found that they could swap out these local instruments, replace them with ‘Piano’s high energy log drums, and combine spectacularly with singers with Fuji-leaning deliveries. These ingenious creations powered Asake, Seyi Vibez, Mohbad, Zinoleesky and more to success in recent years, and it is a testament to the width of the mutant genre (that many call ‘Fujipiano’) that these artists are still able to occupy unique niches within it.
Across the Niger, South Eastern artistes were somewhat late to the party. Phyno and DJ Kaywise’s High Way is admittedly one of the very first of these ‘Piano-Afropop intertwinings in all of Nigeria, but save for the rapper’s slang-laced flow delivered in Igbo language, Amapiano’s fast-spinning cadence was merely borrowed, not adopted or indigenized. Last year, Kcee’s incorporation of the Oja flute music into Ojapiano united the South African genre with one of Igboland’s most iconic music instruments and triggered a mini-revolution as other artists fashioned their own meals with these ingredients. It hasn’t quite been the genre-creating force that the Fuji scene has witnessed, but these creations would fall firmly in the ‘good’ section on any ‘how to combine Amapiano with Nigerian music’ list.
Sadly, not all creatives have the patience or skill to advance the borders of Amapiano’s potential. Shallipopi’s Obapluto, the eclectic cocktail that swirled ‘Piano, ’90s Benin music, and Shallipopi’s street gusto, was praised equally for honoring the past and charting the future. Not every item in his Amapiano-laden discography, however, pays this much attention to the cultural use of log drums, so other tracks can come across as generic and repetitive. Yemi Alade’s new Mamapiano EP, too, did not deliver much on originality, as do many other tracks that we see released every Friday. With the way the genre is often deployed in Nigerian music, stripped of its soul and reduced to a pulsation of party-kindling log drums, perhaps a better name for the Nigerian iteration would be ‘Amadrums’.
Nigeria, unwittingly or deliberately, ends up appropriating to itself the music genres that it only adopted, perhaps because we often execute it so well and to a much larger listener base. As South Africa is not the most friendly ally, every undue allocation of Amapiano to Nigeria by Nigerians and outsiders triggers a social media reaction. Last year, Swae Lee’s post about Amapiano, to which he attached the Nigerian flag, met the ire of South Africans. Most recently Smada, a Lagos-based artist, came under fire for the uncanny similarity that his latest single, Smada Eh, shared with Hamba Wena, Deep London, and Boohle’s song. The creators threatened legal action, and the track has been taken off streaming platforms. Already, South African Amapiano artists had taken to social media in the wake of Asake’s brilliant, Amapiano-fueled debut album—not accusing him of any sort of plagiarism—but reiterating the need for their artists to exert greater control over the genre lest they lose its ownership to Nigeria. These bouts of ownership tussles will never end for as long as Nigerian artists continue to borrow from their genre, especially if done without appropriately stamping our culture on it.
Ultimately, the genre that has most recently reiterated the ingenuity and creativity of our music now threatens it. Babypiano was finally released today, and while we contend with it, there are other similar songs (see: Igbopiano, Edopiano, Egopiano and the ilk) floating in our sound verse, songs with creators that give less priority to originality than danceability. Nigerian music’s inherent capacity to evolve quickly through sonic eras means it will not be long until a bigger, perhaps even better, sound trend comes along, but we may never discover it until we step outside the box of Amapiano.