The Evolution of Street Music and the Bourgeois Hysteria

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Afrobeats has rapidly evolved from the indigenous sound enjoyed by Africans in Africa to becoming part of the crème de la crème of contemporary music. From its interaction with different artistes, cultures, and lifestyles, other forms of the sound, such as Afrofunk, Afrojuju, highlife, banku, street Afropop, etc, have been birthed and infused into popular culture, creating vast and versatile delineations of the original sound. Similar to the ways that these other variants have grown out of their respective origins into relatively mainstream sounds enjoyed by many of different social classes, Street Afropop, which has its own origins in the ghetto areas of Nigeria (the slums), continues to soar. However, it is a subgenre of Afrobeats that is attached to many controversies sponsored by classism.

In 2019, the Marlian movement swooped in, creating a shift in social consciousness and forming a class of its own people. Naira Marley, the eponymous leader of the “Marlians” failed to fit into the conventional box of socio-cultural decency; hence, the bourgeois class was unable to find him or his music palatable enough to indulge in – he was largely viewed from the lens of being a provocateur. The recent rise of Portable is another example of the hold, regarding art, held by the superior class. This hold places value on art forms deemed worthy through a perceived image of elitist taste and social importance. While Naira Marley and Portable are some of the current leading examples of the prejudice directed against “street music”, the pervading belief of high-class art is still maintained and affects all street artistes. 

Nigeria, as a society, is swamped in a faux-puritanical culture that derides anything which conflates the structure of acceptable language or behavior. Street Afropop is immediately judged as “razz” and the pre-existing classist mentality swiftly moves people to dissociate themselves from anything considered “razz”. Thus, when the loud, erratic, crazed beats of street Afropop pops up, it is confronted with prompt recoil and condescension. The intellectual class have their respectability questioned if found grooving to any street song or stanning any street artiste. Lois Tyson, in her book Critical Theory Today affirms:

The dominant class dictates what forms of art are to be considered “high” (superior) culture, such as the ballet, the opera, and the other “fine” arts. Forms of popular culture, on the other hand—such as television situation comedies, popular music, and pulp fiction—have been relegated to the status of “low” (inferior) culture. For cultural critics, however, there is no meaningful distinction between “high” and “low” forms of culture. For all cultural productions can be analyzed to reveal the cultural work they perform—that is, the ways in which they shape our experience by transmitting or transforming ideologies—which means, of course, the role of cultural productions in the circulation of power.

With the likes of Olamide, Reminisce, CDQ, Naira Marley, and more recently, Bella Shmurda, Zlatan, Zinoleesky, Asake, and so on, street Afropop is met with grudging acceptance as these artistes are not only reinventing the sound, but pushing it to become one of the major sounds dominating the Nigerian music industry. Street Afropop is a culture of its own – a community of unfiltered, non-conformists powered by the buzz of Afrobeats in its primal form. It is quite typical, the ways that Afrobeats continue to be used as a protest form. From Fela’s Afrobeats which shunned and ridiculed bad governance, lamented mass poverty, and the dangerous order of lawlessness, contemporary street Afropop never fails to emphasize the political cesspool that floods the society, the morbid dangers of unemployment, drug abuse, the underside of gang life and a host of different social vices and crimes. Nonetheless, the fact of its being concluded as a low art form reduces its recognition as a superb addition to pop culture that deserves its due in the global world. Not only has it produced colloquialisms and slangs used as markers of social tides, it has initiated renowned dance styles like the zanku, shaku-shaku, shoki, etc, imitated by notable personas around the world. For example, Beyoncé was seen incorporating the legwork, a viable asset in the culture of street Afropop, in her recent project, Black is King – a project which remains a global success. Street Afropop has also contributed to major trends that sustain significant social facets of Nigerian society. With its groovy percussion, it powers the nightlife of societies, sends fans into a spiral of vibrant gyrations and cajoles non-fans into an eager induction. 

While Street Afropop has an elitist bias formed against it by opinions segregating sounds rendered too brash to be enjoyed in polite society, several valid concerns that pertain to female degradation are construed as one of the basic tenets on which these songs are built. Like all things,  street Afropop rightly has its downsides. The utter lack of respectability politics lauded in defiance to the conversative Nigerian society is drawn forward and enveloped by a deep misogynistic culture that recognises women as too inconsequential to even be considered on the ladder of the oppressed. Thus, while these artistes sing and rap against the terrible political and economic conditions and the flagrant state of oppression by the wealthy and political elite, they soothe their pain with even more oppression on their part by poking “fun” at female bodies, female sexuality, and female bodily autonomy.

This, then, creates a dichotomy where sober reflection is realized in more serious lyrical constructions against poverty, but merriment and unwinding, in less uptight lyrics strung and sung about the enormous body count a woman has or her large breasts which are lying flat on her stomach even though she is twenty-two years old and has not bore any children. A majority of street songs are seasoned with large chunks of stinging remarks perpetuating slut-shaming. Words condemning female sexual freedom and promoting purity culture are swung so disproportionately in street songs that there is almost a double-take if there is the absence of unmistakable slurs like “olosho” in these songs. In Reminisce’s I Need A Girl, he brands the female character in the song an “olosho” and demands that she gives him “what he needs”. Mohbad’s Ponmo is another song that accommodates a wealth of slut-shaming.

Women are used as sexual muses where their fine qualities culminate into peculiar body parts. They are viewed using a one-dimensional lens that focuses mainly on their big buttocks or big breasts. In other words, women are portrayed as having no personality apart from their over sexualised body parts that men consider as built with the sole intent of gratifying their needs. This plays a huge role in enhancing the deep objectification of women. 

The urge to attribute the general non-acceptance of street songs to its derogatory attitude regarding women and its unabashed exploration of sex seem pressing to a lot of people. However, it would be false to assume that the patriarchal society cares enough about women’s cry for general autonomy to cast off a major social and economic object such as music because it may be unpleasant to them. In an essay criticising Naira Marley, the writer masquerades as a progressive critic, championing female grouses while fundamentally defending his rights to decide for the society what should be considered “non-corrupting, proper music”. The postulations put forward by this writer, to a large extent, represent the overall perception of many others.

Nonetheless, Street Afropop keeps defying classist norms and evolving past elitist impediments. Its speedy journey from the bashes held in ghetto streets to uptown parties and Afropop charts foreshadows its beckoning success. It will be no surprise if it grows to the point where its major artistes get tangible forms of global recognition.

Melony Akpoghene is a writer who believes the world can be saved if everyone listens to Beyoncé. She spends her time reading, writing, and eating cakes.

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