Mainstream Music Is Embracing Nigerian Cultural Identity

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Afrobeats has a popular definition as music that is a potpourri of indigenous genres from West Africa, like Highlife and Fuji and sounds from across the continent, like Hip-hop and Pop. This definition is deliberately kept as loose as possible, seeing as no one can account for what new direction our creatives will take in the future. Will we embrace fast-moving, limb-loosening beats like we did when Azonto was the fad in 2011? Or slide down into low-tempo pon-pon rhythms like when Mr. Eazi emerged with his sound in 2015? Perhaps we will imbibe percussive log drums as we do now in the latest Amapiano wave. Our music is designed to take and fit into parts of other cultures with such expertise that it confers our citizens the audacity to argue rights of ownership with its originators.

However, with all our innovation, we have done our indigenous genres a disservice. Afrobeats is by-and-large, Nigerian, (ignore the all-encompassing term Afro) but if we cannot account for our half of the supposed mix between Nigerian and foreign inspiration, we run the risk of erasing our own identity in the bid to perfect the sounds of others. This is not to say, though, that indigenous Nigerian genres have not flourished. In nooks of the country—rural areas where music trends are not influenced by chart placements, indigenous genres thrive. You hear Yinka Ayefele boom from speakers at an Owambe for a significant birthday celebration, if the celebrants are affluent, you may even watch him perform in person; you will be serenaded by percussive, tune-heavy music from Hamisu Breaker at a Northern wedding; you might even hop on a bus in Enugu and encounter an old soul driver who serenades you with instrument-heavy highlife from Chief Onyenze. 

But despite it being enjoyed at events and by older people, music bearing an indelible Nigerian cultural mark hardly ever makes it to our charts, which is an objective record of the most popular songs nationwide, or as close as you can get to one. The most obvious culprit for this is the youth demographic. Since cultural music is mostly enjoyed by older citizens, it hardly stands a chance of making it to streaming charts that are primarily determined by younger people with smartphones and internet access. This is not a good sign– what it tells us is that there’s a chance these indigenous genres are not being passed on to the next generation, and as a consequence, they may not outlive the people who are currently enjoying them.

Thankfully, Nigerian music has seen a recent trend of looking back to these genres for inspiration. Granted, these are only early days and there is no telling if it will be sustained or built upon, but it is worthy of commendation. By fusing bits of local music with pop, some creatives have fashioned a way to present decades of music history in a wrapping that younger people will enjoy. Pop music is short for popular, or what is in the most accessible music at a particular time. In 2023, it’s Amapiano, so it’s not surprising it is the go-to for creatives seeking to teleport music genres from the past.

Fuji-piano or Neo-fuji are two terms used to describe the experiments from South Western Nigeria that involve taking Amapiano’s log drums and singing over it in the sing-song cadence Fuji is known for. It has been popularised mainly by Asake and Seyi Vibez, and to a lesser extent by acts like Zinoleesky and Mohbad. These acts go further than using Yoruba language for their delivery. A song like Joha by Asake tells the complete story. Take away its log drums and replace them with the Sakara, and imagine Pasuma’s voice over this production, and you will have a classic Fuji record. By combining this with modern production, these acts can allow an ancient music genre to survive and thrive in modern times.

On Fuji interlude Seyi Vibez takes this a step further, delivering a track that is as authentic to the genre as any song from thirty years ago. Other times, his influences are a lot more subtle, like in the spoken word verses and high-pitched keys of Flakky. Some of this inspiration even transcends Fuji, allowing Seyi Vibez pick elements from Apala, Fuji’s distant cousin.

The South East, especially in 2023, has made a case for itself with one instrument—the Oja, one of the Igbo flutes. First, it must be mentioned that this mixture of Igbo instruments with modern pop beats is not novel. In 2016, Zoro and Flavour recorded Ogene, which featured the Ogene, the local bell, as well as the flute and local drums. These instruments can be heard in a number of South Eastern tracks released since then, especially by acts like Flavour, Zoro, Larry Gaaga, and Umu Obiligbo. These artists seek to create modern music with recorded percussion instruments and not studio beats, in a bid to draw from Igbo Highlife that dominated the 70s to the 80s, carried by acts like Osita Osadebe and Oliver De Coque. While this is commendable, it hasn’t been enough to elevate these songs from regional anthems to national hits.

It took Kcee’s return to make this change, with a return to pop music after spending the last few years on a detour into cultural gospel. His May release, Ojapiano, peaked atop Turntable’s Top 100 charts a month later, reflecting not just the influence of Amapiano but a genuine interest in the Oja. Another artist, Kolaboy, operates in a similar domain. His songs, Kolapiano Vol 1 and 2, which were released on either side of Ojapiano, enjoy acceptance on a local scale. Kcee has already followed up Ojapiano with Ojaginger, hoping to prove that lightning can strike the same spot twice. It is a different piece of the same cloth, hopefully, it inspires the growth of the sound and a greater penetration of Eastern music into other regions.

Shallipopi is a rising act seeking to make 2023 his special breakout year, and he is already almost there. He followed up on smash hit, Elon Musk with Ex Convict, recorded after he became the latest upcoming act to grace the cells of the EFCC. But beyond the shallowness of his adulation for cyberfraud, –Yahoo, is a connection to Benin’s music culture. He shows this on Obapluto, the opener of his debut EP. Here, he and producer Busy Pluto go a step further than the high-energy Amapiano beat they fashioned for Elon Musk and reworked for most of their other tracks. They don a garb of culture on their signature production, throwing in flutes and vocals sampled from Monday Edo Igbinidu’s Ogbaisi.

It is disappointing that Igbinidu has called out Shallipopi over his failure to give credit or compensation for the use of his music. It goes contrary to everything the industry should be aiming for right now because the young will need to adapt from the old so that the baton can pass from one generation to the next. It may be said that these songs and artists mostly incorporate diluted forms of the music they draw from, but that is no problem, what we seek is evolution and not merely repetition. 

A lot has been said about how the growth of Nigerian music opens it up to adaptations or sampling from other countries, the fear persists that one day some other people might do it as well as we do. Incorporating our indigenous music into mainstream songs makes it less likely to lose the music we cherish so much. At the moment, these artists—Asake, Seyi Vibez, Kcee, and Shallipopi—sit on the top ten of Turntable Charts, each bringing a piece of his culture that the rest of the nation apparently enjoys. That is commendable. Only time will tell if this will turn out to be another passing trend, if it isn’t, Nigerian music may have gained another edge as we surge to be the world’s next hub for brilliant, innovative, and now, culture-rich music.