Over the years, Nigerian music has ascended to the zenith of African cultural production, with its Lagos-centered industry a monolith which is now considered among the great music scenes worldwide. This commercial position means that Nigerian listeners have often coveted the sounds of other African countries, putting a local spin and then claiming to ‘own’ the sound. Sometimes, the narrative changes.
A song enters Nigeria, so jarring it’s unlike anything around. Its genius is doubly achieved, how it fits into Nigerian spaces but is recognizably not-Nigerian. As its creators are increasingly sought out by the media, the sonic traditions of the record are revealed. On rare cases, the musician doesn’t crossover into the Nigerian consciousness, and the song would seem to be divinely cursed, attaining a level of success its creator can only dream of.
There’s a rarely considered file of African records which have broken into the Nigerian space, generally acclaimed to have succeeded on a sonic level and then going on to fashion their own myth. Certified hit songs. Most of them brought to our screens through shows on MTVBase and Soundcity TV. Others: crossovers helped by the internet. Some has been with us before technological advents, becoming household names in the then-fledgling music scene of the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Anyway, this list recognizes this pantheon of records which, through its impact, have bolstered a pan-African music scene. The spectrum of Afro Pop today wouldn’t be as varied without these unforgettable moments in our collective history, those moments when the unmistakable pride of being Nigerian cedes way for a fuller immersion into blackness.
Ramatoulaye – Decale Aladji (Alhaji)
In the 2010s, a fast-paced record sung in French blew up in several African countries, bewitching listeners with its heavy percussions and a memorable refrain: the words Ehn Alhaji, repeated over and over again. The production was loved by Nigerians, who found reason to blast it at high volumes in every social event, from birthdays to weddings. Complementing its allure, a crazy dance move also evolved along the viral song. Till today, not many know that it isn’t a Nigerian song; but again, the record was so popular that on the YouTube comments section of its video, Africans from other countries keep saying they thought it was sung by a local star. A particularly striking comment was this: “You’re not African enough if you don’t know this song.” The Ivorian creator, Ramatoulaye, would surely have gotten his credit in today’s internet-connected world which is sad because “Decale Aladji” is a classic Afro Pop song, a forever-anthem which still bangs today.
Cabo Snoop – Windeck
The 20-year-old Angolan singer Cabo Snoop had just released his debut album titled Bluetooth in the last quarter of 2010. His sound was bubbly and youthful, something which appealed to Nigerian listeners who loved Wizkid, P-Square and D’Banj, who were similarly high-tempo entertainers. When “Windeck” stormed Nigeria, it seemed like a familiar message from a distant planet. Sung in Portuguese, most Nigerians surely didn’t know what its lines meant but they took great joy in its bi-syllabic chorus, following the video’s scenes by whipping their arms and waists in dance (‘Windeck’ is actually a metaphor for sex). Cabo Snoop, on his part, took active steps in establishing a fan base in Nigeria, visiting the country often and doing radio runs. His trademark outfit, printed shirts and tight colorful trousers, became a trend among younger Nigerians at the time. As another song from Bluetooth (“Prakatatumba”) went viral, Cabo Snoop became increasingly collaborated with Nigerian artists, most successfully on 2Face Idibia’s “Dance Floor (Remix)” and J Martins’ “Good Time.”
Mafikizolo – Khona
Not many outside South Africa would believe that before “Khona,” the duo of Theo Kgosinkwe and Nhlanhla Nciza had released seven albums as Mafikizolo, starting with a self-titled album in 1997. They were three musicians, but Tebogo Madingoane died in 2004. “Khona” was the lead single of Rebirth, their comeback project after a hiatus. The song was a sort of deviation from what South African listeners knew of Mafikizolo but according to the duo, they needed a stimulating comeback record, one which would strengthen their legacy. “Khona,” which means go there in Zulu, did that and more. Co-written with Uhuru and produced by Oskido, it was an immense bop in Nigeria, even spawning a Terry G remix, titled “Ora.” Its colorful video which incorporated daring South African aesthetics with oblique shapes also positioned the record positively, dazzling in scenes which rocked MTVBase Africa every other hour of those days. Typically, collaborations followed: Davido’s “Tchlete (Good Life)” and “Happiness,” featuring May D.
Sarkodie ft. EL – U Go Kill Me
Years later, Sarkodie would become one of the greatest African artists of his time, a rapper who rocks the same grand stages as pop stars. But, in 2012, Sarkodie was largely obscure to Nigerians; in Ghana, he was a fast-rising MC with a rapid fire flow and a sharp ear for pop beats, especially those in the Azonto style. In 2012, he tapped a hook from EL and rapped over the twinkly production, subsequently scoring his first hit song. At the time, Afrobeats was beginning to covet large audiences internationally (especially in the United Kingdom) and Sarkodie would emerge as a natural beneficiary of that first era, along with Fuse ODG and a host of other African musicians. Wizkid and Ice Prince, two prominent musicians in that era, along with Ugandan rapper Navio, was featured on the remix of “U Go Kill Me,” which was, in 2013 one of the biggest hits in Africa. Sarkodie’s adlibs Obidiponbidi and You know say money no be problem also entered the lexicon of Nigerian popular culture, excitedly applied in the context of expressing swag.
VIP – Ahomka Womu
Ghanaian music group VIP (Vision in Progress) was formed in the late ‘90s, their sound a boisterous pairing of Highlife and Hip Hop—the HipLife trend of the time. Their earliest members shuffled as they worked on different albums which, although rich in quality didn’t give them the same reach as their fourth, titled Ahomka Wo Nu (2003). The album’s success was spearheaded by a song of the same title, which filtered into Nigerian spaces the following year, typically soundtracking joyous events like birthdays and parties. For many on this side, it was the first Ghanaian song they loved. Spurred by their crossover, VIP would collaborate with the foremost Nigerian artist of the period, 2Face Idibia (“My Love”). Years later, Wizkid interpolated the evergreen record on “Manya,” a collaborative effort with producer Mut4y.
Awilo Logomba – Coupe Bibamba
In 2000, a Makossa fever gripped Nigeria, almost singlehandedly led by then Paris-based Congelese superstar Awilo Logomba. His techno-soukous infused songs brought joy to many Nigerian households, loved across several demographies, whether child or parent. His visual identity was also strong, bolstered by colorful videos which featured energetic steps by Awilo and his numerous dancers, mostly females who made sensual art from their waist-turning. “Coupe Bibamba” was an iconic moment delivered in just over four minutes, a song which is hard to describe but impossible to forget. Its propulsive, layered rhythms go on to show why Awilo was such a huge part of many a Nigerian’s childhood.
Patapaa – One Corner
Nigeria and Ghana share geographical borders so it’s no surprise how frequently songs cross over between the West African countries. However, when this particular song was released, so brash was its sound, so guttural were its lyrics, no one quite knew where it came from. Its ascent began through shared videos on social media which showed people mimicking sex on the surface of several objects, from cars to chairs to wooden poles. Though it seemed like good fun, several sections of Nigerians frowned at the dance, considering it lewd and inappropriate for children who were beginning to love the record. That didn’t stop the song from tearing down any party, didn’t stop the dancers from running around in comical confusion, looking for the next object to be cornered. It took later before the song’s owner was identified but the Ghanaian Patapaa, in interviews, bemoaned the fact he hadn’t made money from his viral song.
King Monada – Malwedhe
This 2018 song by South African artist King Monada is about unrequited love, the artist saying he’ll kill himself if his desired woman doesn’t love him back. Like many viral songs, its popularity was owed to accompanying videos which showed people feigning their fall to death when the catchy chorus dropped in (Wa nhlala kea idibala translates to If you break up with me, I collapse). The breezy allure of the record also heightened its adaptability, how it flowed into diverse spaces, whether in a cozy meeting between business executives or at an outdoor party full of drunken youngsters.
Fuse ODG ft. Tiffany – Azonto
Quite close to each other, Sarkodie and Fuse ODG popularized the Azonto sound in Africa and beyond its shores. At the time, Fuse ODG was the bigger artist, frequenting the UK where he sold out shows and collaborated with international stars. These moves were off the strength of 2011 record “Azonto,” which had become a phenomenal hit in Ghana and Nigeria, where its radio-friendly sound had caught the ears of many. Across media channels, on DJ’s sets and mixtapes, in passing cars and at parties, birthdays or weddings, “Azonto” was everywhere. The dance step, which involves twisting the legs and turning the arms in calculated movements, was also a favorite among children looking to flex their hipness. Not long after, Wizkid, who’s always reiterated his love for the Ghanaian culture, released his Azonto-influenced song, retaining its title but adding Nigeria’s signature bounce to the track and infusing Yoruba into its chorus.
BigTril – Parte After Parte
Ugandan artist BigTril released “Parte After Parte” in August 2019, self-produced and inspired by a controversial comment by Ugandan-American pastor Martin Ssempa in conversation with a LGBTQ rights activist. Ssempa had bemoaned that the nation’s youth only cared for hedonism, partying each day, ‘party, after party.’ BigTril played on that expression, repeating it until he had the hook. Later that year, the song began circulating on the internet, catching the attention of Nigerian superstars like Wizkid, Davido, Zlatan Ibile and Olamide, who shared a video of him singing along to the song. American rapper Cardi B would also share a video of her and husband Offset in December, at the Migos rapper’s birthday where BigTril’s song had been one of the soundtracks of the night.
Emmanuel Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer and culture journalist. He publishes Distant Relatives, a newsletter on music and culture.