At any given time, it feels like Lagos is burning. Literally and figuratively. You can be forgiven for thinking that the city is threatening to smite you for an undiscernible offense when the sun is overhead; maybe you were a tax offender in your previous life, who knows? At other times, it feels like the city is having an all-engaging party that you have been dropped right in the middle of. You are standing apart, but the entire metropolis is swaying and dancing to a distinct undercurrent that must have originated from the innermost layer of the planet. It is a beautiful concoction of hedonism and heat. That is the genius of Lagos: to exist in the heart of excesses.
The proclivity for excesses in Lagos extends to the arts where a silent changing of guard is on-going. For the first time in close to a decade, a new crop of artistes is breaking through that will, for better or worse, define the cultural climate of the country for the next ten years. They are the New Skool and, fortunately, operate across a number of genres other than afropop, effortlessly expanding the range and depth of the soundscape. As it stands Nigeria’s music industry is operating at a cultural surplus.
One Friday night in November, energy drink giants Red Bull Nigeria decided to pay homage to the new class of Lagos-based musicians making names for themselves across categories. We convened – party revelers, expatriates, university students, and journalists – at The Backyard Bar & Grill, an upscale restaurant, located in the heart of Victoria Island to celebrate the New Skool Cool. Over the course of the night we would be treated to performances from Joeboy, Oxlade, TClassic, Tolani, and Tomi Owo among others.
Oxlade has been one of the most recognisable faces on the new school circuit this year. Since his piercing chorus on Blaqbonez’s Mamiwota brought attention to him, he has grown in stature delivering memorable verses and hook on his songs as well as features all year round. He has particularly shone on his collaborations with DJ Tunez, Melvitto, Jinmi Abduls, and grime acts, Skengdo, Am, and Sneakbo. Oxlade performed at the O2 Arena when Wizkid hosted his Starboy Fest in October in a truly memorable 2019.
Talking briefly between performances, Oxlade tells me forthrightly that he did not expect 2019 to be so great for him. “I felt like this year would be another year of the grind,” he says. “You know there’s something called paying your dues – when you have to pay your dues and grind. I felt like I didn’t grind enough but when it came, I had to be ready.” With a big grin on his face and attributing his success to god, he confesses that the year has been amazing, “2019 has been my best year yet on every angle. The podiums I performed, the type of numbers I hit; the type of recognition I got in the (music) industry has been quite alarming and I don’t take it for granted.”
For musicians on the come up, it can feel like there are no avenues available to showcase their abilities or gifts and this makes Oxlade thankful for the New Skool Cool event put together by Red Bull Nigeria. “New Skool Cool is great for newer guys like me and others on the platform,” he says. “It feels like people are actually listening. This a validation, basically, of how well-rated we are and someone rewarding a class of musicians that did well in that calendar year.” As we conclude the interview, he says that he would be putting out a body of work, Oxygen, in January 2020.
When Tomi Owó started releasing music on SoundCloud late in 2015, she didn’t know anybody. She was just making music with her brother – who serves as her primary producer – and looking to fully express herself. “My inclination was just to get into the creative industry,” she tells me. “I’ve always wanted to sing, always wanted to create, so I’m happy that I am here.”
Since releasing those loosies in 2015, Tomi Owó has built a following among listeners for the emotive core of her songs and the feathery feel of her voice. Primarily making soul music, she agrees that her acceptance is proof of the widening landscape of the Nigerian music industry. When I ask if she has found kinship among other musicians, she answers: “Yes, definitely. With the women in the industry, with the producers I have worked with and the young men in the industry. We are all very hungry, to say what we really feel, to not be constrained by societal expectations, to not be constrained by anything. Just be ourselves.”
When Tomi takes the stage later that night, she will hold the audience’s attention as she slows down the frantic pulse of the party. Tomi has married couples, young lovers, and singles responding unabashedly to the warm spiral of her music. “I think platforms like these are brilliant,” she had said earlier. “They are always welcome; Red Bull is doing an amazing thing and we welcome more of it. “