Long Live The Contrarians, We Will Never Forget Them

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Starting an article in 2019, I wrote: “Where is the rebel music of the day? What Nigerian music/musician wants to make you pull out your hair in a fit of annoyance and mumble their lyrics in another breath?” These are questions that I am passionate about because I believe that more than any other form of artistic expression, music, often, breathes the unfiltered dialectics of the day, all that is arcane and lively about culture as it moves and turns on its head: the musician bears witness and is our scribe in it all, parsing through the creative process to inform us about the urgencies of their period. The musicians who delve as deeply as humanly possible into this process, often adopting the vernacular of the masses – the streets, the disenfranchised, or the cast-offs – and mine it for their art tend to win our hearts; the short end of the bargain is that they are branded enfant terribles, problematic, and anti-establishment – but that’s okay.

In the last few weeks, our generation, through social media’s irrepressible appetite for virality, has turned its eyes to one of such contrarians. The object of Nigerian social media’s attention of recent has been Abass Akande, popularly known as Obesere, the polarizing Fuji singer whose career hit stunning heights in the late 90s and early aughties. A number of his clips have gone viral for the humorous messaging behind his lyrics, his bold and edgy fashion sense, and the frantic energy of his music videos. However, at the zenith of his career Obesere wasn’t understood, or widely appreciated like he is today. His work, a reckless, uninhibited distortion of Fuji music, shook the core of the genre. It was vulgar, uncouth, and distinctly everything Fuji didn’t want to become in its early days. Per Jide Taiwo of Boombuzz, Fuji “started it as a call-to-prayer type of music during the Muslim month of Ramadan.” But Obesere effectively changed the face of the genre, incorporating a faster tempo, and risqué lyricism that was alien to the consideration at the time.

Obesere was vilified by the Fuji powers that be. Even in homes around the country, Obesere was censored by worrying parents concerned about the spiritual grounding of their children perhaps. But he pushed on with his no-frills brand of music. Yet, even then, he was celebrated by the masses who recognized themselves in his lyrics: every pervasive line, every suggestive innuendo. Albeit fraught with contextual differences, the attempt to mute Obesere at the height of his power based on suppositions of moral decadence has similarity to what has been said about Fela Kuti. It has been inferred that preachers, social leaders criticized and lambasted the work of the Afrobeat pioneer urging congregants and adherents to ignore his novel brand of music that brilliantly melded jazz with funk and peppered it with African invectives that mocked these institutions – Fela Kuti’s communal manner of living and love of marijuana drawing more criticism.

The one thing about contrarians is that even with fierce competition and the odds against them they find a way to thrive. “Obesere noticed the effect he had on the public,” Jide Taiwo writes about Omo Rapala. “It didn’t matter that a bulk of it was not positive, at least they were paying attention to him. In his follow up album Asakasa, he doubled down on the slang and raunchy lyrics that marked his introduction. The establishment hated it – and him.” This is criticism that has been aimed at the latest iteration of contrarians, Naira Marley and Zlatan, who have the heart and ears of youth around the country, but are accused of peddling crude lyrics for cheap popularity.

Like Fela before him, Obesere was no saint. He didn’t make politically acceptable music for his time; he certainly was not going to have his music played at a church gathering or have it on heavy rotation across radio channels but he deserved to be heard as his other contemporaries like King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall were. At the very least, he earned the right to not be the poster boy for moral corruption or pre-internet cancelation because his music was a reflection of where it came from and germinated into; for better or worse, Obesere, like Naira Marley now, was the face of society’s pent-up desire to let loose, and that’s why his music blossomed.

Music is a gift given to anyone willing to try documenting their life, what they feel, how they feel it, and where they feel it at any moment. Those who do so to the level that our society is willing to accommodate are bigged-up, lionized, and held-up as symbols of our culture while we turn up our nose at the contrarians who shatter our conception of what is plausible to say, predicting the date when they go out of vogue, and no longer “pop.” The history of Nigerian music is replete with “deviant” musicians who are not products of pop’s uniformity and force us to reckon with where we are – and are going – as a society, even if it is just for one glorious stretch of five singles. Fela Kuti, Obesere, Saint Janet, and Naira Marley are examples. Fela Kuti’s music carefully constructs a dissenter’s political and sociological understanding of his times in the mind of the listener when they listen; Obesere and Saint Janet’s music antagonizes the puritanical image of sex that a certain generation of Nigerians hold valuable; Naira Marley’s music embraces the corpulent nihilism of the saddest generation wholeheartedly.

There is no mistaking the intended meaning of Obesere’s lyrics when he sings: “Ah, e daju,” or the playful boisterousness of Egungun Be Careful. His music drips with the suggestive meaning of what he is saying, telling you with a sonic wink that he sees you, knows you are probably engaging in pre-marital sex, and that you are decent in bed, and that it is perfectly normal. Similarly, nothing screams nowness than when you hear the addictive opening of Naira Marley’s Mafo or when he drawls, “Omo iya mi mo wa pelu e,” because despite the cynicism of now, we all want to be part of something bigger than us.

In Argentinean football, the pibe is one of the most important spirits of the country that is almost always represented in its football team. The pibe is an angel, just also accessorized with a dirty or muddy face. A pibe is blessed with balletic grace and supreme vision on the ball, and unending poise but all his talent is bookended by a mischievous strong headedness, a sly streak that can see them descend into madness or see them try a radical approach to anything. Nigerian music appeal to these souls, those who are blessed with unbounded talent, but for whom radicalism is a means as much as it is a source of livelihood; Fela Kuti was an angel with a dirty face and a mischievous heart, Obesere is one too, as is Naira Marley. They will never be forgotten because their music comes from something that transcends us all, an imperceptible quality that can not be quantified or bottled. They are roses that grew from concrete.

Much as Obesere is back again in our collective consciousness more than 19 years after he recorded Egungun Be Careful, it is not hard to imagine that 30 years from now at a civil justice match against police brutality somewhere in Nigeria, someone might hit play on Naira Marley’s Am I A Yahoo Boy because stripped of the context and accusations of fraud against him, the music comes from a repressed place in defiance of society’s hard glare against his comments on cybercrime – and the assumption that he is a cybercriminal. To a kid 30 years from now, it is a potent reminder that the police are, indeed, not your friend and have a history of assaulting young men and women. That’s why we go back to Fela’s time anytime we have social grievances because we are sure that he documented himself facing similar injustices, and why Obesere’s hedonism resonates with us.

Not many people understand this, but that is okay; often, it can be a lifelong process to understand the importance of our divisive figures and how much they contribute to humanity even with their flawed states. But Steve Jobs understood, he once said: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”It is okay to vilify or castigate our contrarians, facing our collective anger is a necessary sacrifice for their immortality. They must forge their careers from the fierce fires of criticism, censoring, or social media canceling, but our favorite deviants will never fade away, their music will never disappear, their imprints will be visible in the sands of time, and even when everything vanishes and nothing remains, we will never forget them.