After the backlash that trailed hosting the 15th Headies in the USA, it would have been a safe assumption that subsequent iterations would put the cross-continental ambitions to bed and the Headies would return home. But that was not to be; the 16th Headies also held in the USA, and in the same venue. In their defence, the Headies pointed to logistic impediments as the reason for this aberration, as they primarily cited problems with shipping production equipment and a lack of high-quality venues in Nigeria as reasons for the relocation.
What all of these tells us is that the Headies prioritizes putting out a great production over a home-based show, because there are hardly any conditions under which hosting a country’s premier award show on foreign soil should even be considered, especially a country like Nigeria who should be seeking to safeguard her music against appropriation. This geographical mislocation then draws attention to other peeves. First was the co-host, Terrence J., an American actor and TV show host who lacks any genuine connection to Nigerian music or the people or culture behind it. And he apparently could not be bothered to get better acquainted with it, or at the very least, nail the names he would be pronouncing at the ceremony.
His co-host, Osas Ighodaro, was as expected the more connected anchor, but for the second year in a row (after last year’s Anthony Anderson), she could barely strike chemistry or engage in banter with her co-host for all the time they spent on stage together, as is to be expected when people from two different worlds are thrown together. In addition, a few awards were presented by people whose connection to Nigerian music can hardly be traced, even after the unsavory Big Brother Naija–like voiceover made the introductions.
It is obvious the Headies envisioned their award show to be a pan-African entity—a strategic way of opening up the Nigerian awards to global accessibility, another leg of the “Afrobeats to the world” movement—but their execution of this vision is counter-productive, so that the new territory captured in a bid to become a global establishment comes at the cost of Nigerian identity. The Headies’ theme for its 2023 awards, “Celebrating African Renaissance” did not help matters, and it is sad to note that upon making this journey abroad for a venue, the organisers did not seek to root their show more firmly in its Nigerian essence to make up for it. Instead what we got was a half-formed appeal to the African motherland, like a campaign borrowed from Black Panther or The Lion King movies. Several of the guests made greetings that could pass for quotes from Coming To America. Abou Thiam says “Africa what’s good” as his introduction to the audience, while American rapper and social media personality, Sukihana talks of her connection to Africa being her “African body”.
Sadly, the Nigerians present were fully sold on the African theme, so that when they got the opportunity to, they failed to correct that narrative. UK-based media personality, Shopsydoo spoke about “celebrating Africa”, while actor, Michael Okon opened with a greeting to the African people. Many other guests spoke of the celebration of Afrobeats music, and a separate conversation needs to be had on how this catch-all term opens up Nigerian music for misappropriation to the rest of Africa.
It is subtle each time, but every time Africa is mentioned in place of Nigeria, or Afrobeats for Nigerian music, a little bit of the Nigerian identity is erased, so it is entirely possible that some people who tuned into the show could have left without knowing what country’s award show it was. It is no wonder that actress Nancy Isime asked repeatedly, when it was her turn to present an award, “abeg, Naija dey in the building at all?”. Interestingly, the consul general of the US embassy in Nigeria, general Will Stevens, was the only award presenter to recognise that the award was in celebration of “talent across Nigeria”.
All of this was intentional to some extent by the Headies, but it was poorly executed. The Headies remains Nigeria’s premier music awards, and one of the very few surviving where others have tried and given up. If Atlanta has become its new home, as it appears to be, then it needs to work harder to ensure that it sells not just Nigerian music, but the culture and people behind it—the whole package—to the world.
Rema emerged the Best Male Artist at 23, but his celebratory speech drew from a wisdom beyond his years. He spoke on the need to support Nigerian music institutions, and told of the danger that portends when the world is done with your sound and moves to the next thing, because you have not built solid institutions to sustain it in the absence of foreign attention. Nigerian music was built by money from Nigerian investors, grown by airplay on Nigerian radio and TV channels and most importantly, pushed to every corner of the world by over 200 million Nigerians who are all publicists of the music and take it with them wherever they go. There is an entire ecosystem of support around the music, and the Headies needs to realise that there can not be a Nigerian music award show centred around anything but Nigeria itself.