Zlatan Ibile: The Gift and Curse of Virality

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In Zlatan Ibile’s world, the year is ending how it should have started. Just in time for Detty December, the green-haired, crowd-hopping, leg work-pioneering rapper has, belatedly, released his debut body of work, Zanku, after being one of the hardest working artistes in Nigeria over the last 10 months – he will also be headlining a concert in Lagos, for the first time, in December. Without doubt, it has been a truly profitable year for him but in an inexplicable manner something seems amiss; there is a distinctive quality that has marked and aided the span of his swashbuckling rise that seems to be away from him at this key juncture: virality.

On September 27, 2019, the most unlikely precursor to Zlatan having a viral moment occurred. Popular contestant, Tacha, was disqualified from the TV reality show, Big Brother Naija. Tacha’s disqualification (caused by a fiery exchange of words with another contestant who mocked her for having an odour) sparked diverse reactions from different parts of the online community and not one to ignore anything that was gaining traction, Zlatan soon released a video of himself recording a song that poked fun at Tacha and the incident. The video successfully inserted Zlatan into a narrative that didn’t originally involve him and split opinion on social media as always – for Tacha’s Titans, Zlatan was cancelled, others in the online community laughed along, while another section suggested that the freestyle was in poor taste – and it is the schism that his video caused that most registered on me.

To understand and process Zlatan’s music, actions, and inactions is to have a fascinating understanding and grip on the ebb, flow and subtilities of the times and how it all fuses – by happenstance or will (Zlatan’s will) – to become a larger than life part of popular culture. Since stealing Chinko Ekun’s thunder on Able God, the musician born Raphael Omoniyi has evolved to emerge as the face of the ever-changing iteration of street pop starting from the most common base, rap; it was not by chance either. His wholesome embrace of Agege on Leg Work and the helpful introduction of a dance routine was always a smart move that both endeared him to a vociferous indigenous music base and catapulted him to the zenith of the Nigerian music scene.

His music has often stood up too, he delivered a snarky verse on Burna Boy’s Killin Dem that both delights and makes for grooving listen. For virality, refer to his friendship with close friend, Naira Marley, and the products of their artistic dalliance. On Am I a Yahoo Boy, Zlatan delivers squinty lines such as Yahoo lawon ore mi se / Sugbon music lemi fi n gawu that are rich on vague imaginativeness as regards the subject matter, fraud, but suggestive enough to register for both the demography of the audience that engage in or abet the crime and the percentage that abhors cybercrime; the virality of the single, it’s subject matter and both artistes’ input ended up inspiring one of the biggest topics of discussion in Nigeria’s online community for the year.

For Zlatan, sometimes the intense moment of the public gaze came without his effort. If the single was big, what happened next blew the ceiling, when news of Naira Marley’s arrest by the EFCC broke in May fans all eyes turned to Zlatan and what his next moves would be, so heavy was the focus on him, but he was nowhere to be found. Memes and illustration blew through the web that either showed Zlatan denying Naira when questioned by the EFCC or depicted him flying out of Nigeria to escape questioning. All the while, Zlatan was also locked up with Naira and some friends in custody of the EFCC, all parties apparently arrested together.

The efficacy of images to encapsulate history in singular moments and project defiance is well-documented and it is that maximalist value that the mugshot of Zlatan Ibile and Naira Marley presents; in the first picture shared by the EFCC (later deleted), Zlatan and Naira have their hands folded as they stare down at the camera without a care in the world as part of their group of five. “Believe it or not, they (EFCC) have just made Naira Marley & Zlatan future legends,” Ayo Shonaiya, film producer and talent manager, said about the picture at the time. In Nigeria’s intricate web of immediate gratification and post-post-consequence, Shonaiya’s words proved prophetic as Zlatan and Naira Marley became icons of the day and, eventually, went back to doing what they do best with the increased spotlight afforded them by the anti-graft agency. For Naira Marley, he has levied on that to string together a run of releases that have been as flawless as they have been loud and countercultural. Zlatan has prioritised chasing after virality and internet grandiose as his subsequent campaigns have proved.

In the wake of reported xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa in September, Zlatan shared a message on social media that read: “Deep down my heart, I feel sad on the situation of things and happenings. Violence is never a solution but rather chaos. My people let’s pray and hope people in power handle the situation on ground.” A baying audience quickly called him out on his provision of chaos as an alternative despite it being explained as an error. Not one to back down, a few hours later, the musician returned with the largely forgettable retort, English Teacher, designed as both an answer and ignition for further conversation that, ultimately, failed to register. There has also been the rollout for his Bolanle single that saw him seeking out a lady with that name and treating her to a shopping spree as the rest of social media watched on.

The danger of this casual approach to his actions manifests on his debut album, Zanku. Zlatan allows the impulse to seek out the bright lights of social media virality and memeification distort his work to destablising effect. What should have been a coronation of a rave pioneer and street icon becomes a banal affair that seems hurried and lacking the refined sprezzatura of his best efforts. To be clear, there are high points on the album but they are far and in between and the project suffers from an attempt to pack as many trendy buzzwords and slangs into the project. Zlatan’s search for viral gold creates an excess of deficits that the music doesn’t make up for. Is this a worrying theme? Yes. Is Zlatan going to go away? Most definitely not. He and Zanku have hung around longer than most other raves in Nigeria because of his unique ability to merge hits with visibility that will have him on your TV screen and in your head as he did on DJ Cuppy’s Gelato earlier in the year. Zlatan has embraced his hamartia in a year that has been favourable to him and while the search for virality has both dealt him gems and missteps, he will keep forging ahead on that path.

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