The boys are doing it

Given the barrage of Nigerian pop music online and on radio, it might appear unlikely, but the country’s music had to put up a fight to get attention within its own borders – and in the global pop conversation.


‘I love myself,’ read the tweet. ‘I love everything about me.’

The handle making this self-love public on 24 June 2017 belonged to Ayodeji Balogun, the man known to most of the world as Wizkid. Usually, Wizkid posts some vague empowerment notes; sometimes he tells his followers about an upcoming concert; other times, he uses the platform to score a point against his rivals.

This tweet of self-love garnered several interactions – favourites, replies, retweets. Wizkid’s followers endorsed his self-endorsement. And why wouldn’t they? Since the limelight first shone on Balogun, initially as a featured artist on rapper MI Abaga’s Talk About It album and then, substantially, on his own debut album Superstar, Wizkid has come to represent the growing stature of Nigerian pop music.

It wasn’t always this way. Juju music, highlife and afrobeat reigned in Nigeria in the 1970s and ’80s. Big labels set up branches in the West African country, spurred on by the favourable dollar-naira exchange rate. Some of the biggest Nigerian acts were wooed and signed by these companies. Fela was courted by Arista. King Sunny Ade was signed, and released three albums internationally.

Then came the dwindling power of the naira around the time of the implementation of the World Bank-sponsored ‘structural adjustment programme’ put in place by Ibrahim Babangida, head of the Nigerian state from 1985 to 1993. Labels left the country. And as a result of the economic hardship attending the programme, some of Nigeria’s popular artists followed.

‘The structural adjustment programme chased out some of our acts,’ confirms Michael Odiong of Premier Music, the only label from the 1970s still doing business in Nigeria today.

‘It’s why there’s a gap between music from then and the music now. The younger artists never received mentorship from the older ones because they left.’

In their place R Kelly, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, 2Pac and others filled the gap. For many youngsters in 1990s Nigeria, American pop music was as much a part of life as the occasional scolding from parents. So it stands to reason that those who became pop artists never quite lost the shape and turns of American rhythm.

An effect of this American domination would become apparent in the late 1990s, when a new phase in Nigerian pop began to surface: several acts rode to early success by incorporating melodies from American pop songs. ‘The present phase of Nigerian pop started with boy bands who had their ears pressed to the radio,’ confirms music critic Dami Ajayi. ‘Their earliest attempts were imitations of what radio brought their way. Our earliest contemporary sounds took their essence from the US.’

Indeed, Maintain, a popular duo at the time, sampled Aaliyah. Remedies, an equally popular trio, sampled Michael Jackson’s ‘Liberian Girl’. The shortlived group Black Reverendz sampled a Busta Rhymes hit song. Plantashun Boiz used a Lionel Richie sample. As Freestyle, a member of the rap group Trybesmen, put it in one interview, ‘We’re trying to be as good as or better than the people we got the rap from.’

The approach had precise geographical limitations: it was western pop packaged for a West African audience. The sound had no real prospect of going past its own borders. Acts like Banky W and MI Abaga attended university and took their first career steps in the USA but, realising they had no chance at breaking into the western market, they returned home.

Banky W released a cover of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, and Abaga reminded fans of Lil Wayne and Kanye West. Both became successful quickly.

Both met a boy who liked to hang around the studio and thought him talented enough to work with. Banky W signed him to his Empire Mates label; Abaga put him on a song on his debut album. Wizkid was on his way.

Born in 1990, Wizkid belongs squarely to the generation who listened to modern American music on the radio. And although raised in Lagos, he grew up in Surulere, a lower-classer suburb, with a family less cosmopolitan than either Banky W’s or Abaga’s. His influences included both Nigerian pop and fuji music, a traditional Yoruba form often played by young men on the streets.

Wande Coal, an artist signed to Don Jazzy’s Mo’ Hits label, had already combined fuji vocal phrasing with American pop and R&B on 2009’s Mushin 2 Mo’Hits. In Wizkid’s hands, however, that sound was primed to go further.

Groomed by Banky W, Wizkid released his debut album in 2011. Early singles showed he could do songs both in the American pop tradition, as with ‘Holla At Your Boy’, and in the fuji tradition, as he did on ‘Pakurumo’. This ability to move from one culture to the other, as well as his good looks and charisma, would come to serve Nigerian pop well.

‘It can’t hurt that there’s something about him that’s familiar to western audiences,’ says music historian Uchenna Ikonne. ‘Wizkid draws heavily on dancehall and certain strains of southern hip- hop and electronic dance music, so his music isn’t altogether strange to western audiences. It’s just exotic enough without being totally alien.’

For all his innate music qualities, Wizkid and the spread of contemporary Nigerian pop have been assisted by one presence in modern living: the internet. Where artists working prior to the digital revolution had to rely on record labels – with heavy paperwork between companies and individuals – to spread music, today the web has provided a vast and easy platform for exchange.

‘Labels could hardly get songs from outside the US to radio; that was a bridge too far. There was a kind of quota system: in general, the US market and other western markets limited the amount of foreign product they let in. The internet changed all that,’ says Ikonne.

He continues, ‘The sound of Nigerian pop itself is inspired by the fact that young Nigerians with internet access are exposed to a range of sounds from around the world that they might never have heard of if they’d been depending on terrestrial radio. With the internet it’s really a direct line from the artist to the listener. It’s changed the way listeners consume music altogether. People are less hung up about labels, or discriminating based on the point of origin of the music.’

The internet also changed communication between artists themselves. British-Nigerian rapper Skepta played Wizkid’s Ojuelegba for global star Drake. The Canadian liked it, recorded a verse of the song, which already was an Africa-wide hit, and passed it on. A big song became even bigger.

Wizkid then provided both vocals and production on Drake’s single ‘One Dance’. The global pop industry took notice.

Naija pop … fuses everything without being one thing.

From the margins, Nigerian pop had travelled to land squarely in the middle of the pop-music conversation.

‘Naija pop is the next new sound,’ says Ajayi. ‘It fuses everything without being one thing. It’s dance music with pedigree and bounce. It’s a little bit of dancehall, soca and reggae, highlife and traditional African sound, a blend of contemporary Nigerian lingua and cultural idioms. The music has moved from the American stronghold and found its own idiom.’

In January 2016, Sony announced that it had signed Davido, Wizkid’s only rival for pop dominance on the continent. Shortly afterwards, the global giant signed producer and performer Tekno.

After months of speculation, Wizkid’s Sony deal was announced in March. Ahead of his debut, Sony project Sounds From The Other Side, Wizkid scored another collaboration with Drake. The music video clocked over a million views within 24 hours.

The other Sony acts have not been as successful. While Wizkid got the superstar Drake, Davido was paired with the lesser-known American R&B act Tinashe. Their duet ‘How Long’ sparked curiosity but not much else. And Tekno’s next move is unclear so far. ‘I’m not convinced Tekno can catch on in the west – not in a big way, anyway,’ says Ikonne. ‘If Wizkid is just exotic enough, Tekno might be too exotic.’

Ajayi agrees but has hope. ‘Tekno and Davido have sounds still heavy with African sensibilities,’ he says. ‘Their music may not be poised for the international market but you know how these things are – one song and everything changes.’