Sixty Years After Independence

Sixty Years After Independence

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Sixty Years After Independence, Nigeria’s Pop Music Is Rising

Nigerian Pop and the Ownership of Cultural Narratives
Wale Oloworekende
‘[Burna Boy]’s least careful on “Killin Dem”, which sounds like a polemic about Nigerian politics’ – Billboard
The ghost of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will continue to loom large over Nigerian popular music for a while yet. Whether as a benevolent sonic guiding force or a beacon of atavistic defiance, snapshots from the life of the man widely referred to as the Black President still provide illumination for cultural figures that have come after him. One of the most enduring tenets of his legacy is a staunch aversion to the concept of white men trying to ‘steal’ the black man’s music for their gilded interests. In 1973, when world-famous singer and song-writer, Paul McCartney, and his band decided to record an album, Band on the Run, in Lagos, Fela accused the former Beatles member of trying to profit off African music. While Band on the Run did not veer into the realm of ‘African music’, it is Fela’s hawk-eyed guardianship of afrobeat, his cavernous, fiery distillation of jazz synths and traditional instrumentation, that engendered the mythological aura of the genre and allowed it to be inaccessible or even intimidating, for would-be imitators and copycats.
Where afrobeat was–is–dense and shape-shifting, afrobeats, the misnomer used to refer to popular music from West Africa, Ghana and Nigeria in particular, is a soothing salve. Currently regarded as one of the world’s most exciting and fastest-growing genres, afrobeats—fronted by Nigerian stars such as Wizkid, Davido, and Tiwa Savage—is a melodious amalgam of disparate styles of music: hip-hop, fuji, juju, R&B, and alt-pop. And with an African diaspora proliferating around the world and the Internet obliterating constraints of accessibility, popular music from West Africa is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. But, such developments also raise questions about what music from West Africa should, or can, be classified afrobeats; with Nigeria alone boasting myriads of sonic forms that lose their singularity to the afrobeats bandwagon as popularized by UK-based, DJ Abrantee.
Burna Boy is one of the biggest Nigerian popstars presently, and, in the last three years, he has ascended to a level of worldwide visibility. But Burna Boy refuses to refer to his music as afrobeats; instead he calls his eclectic blend ‘afro-fusion’. Describing afro-fusion in an interview with the New York Post, Burna Boy said: ‘It has Afrobeat as the base, the foundation. And then you have a bunch of other genres sprinkled on top, just depending on the mood — hip-hop, R&B, reggae, dancehall, whatever.’ Less brusque than Fela’s responses to perceived incursion into African music by outsiders, Burna Boy’s oft-repeated distinction of afro-fusion is, notwithstanding, defiance of global pop music arbiters’ attempts to view music from Nigeria and West Africa through the narrow construct of a singular precept: afrobeats. In a country where music is intrinsically linked to the fabric of regional identities, Burna Boy’s stance leaves no doubt that there is a plethora of music to be heard from all over the country. His music also reflects the dissatisfaction of a generation of Africans at the marginalisation of Africa in global affairs. Opening African Giant, his 2019 globally-resonant tour de force of Black joy and angst, Burna sings: ‘Tell ‘em Africa we don tire/ So here comes the African Giant.’
Still, the afro-fusion of Burna Boy and his peers is more accessible than Fela’s afrobeat ever was. By virtue of its global ubiquity, Nigerian pop–with its revolving cast of key players–is bound to pique the curiosity of cultural sentries in nations around the world and, sometimes, the tropes they employ in pieces is adjunctive to the stereotypical framing of afrobeats as the totality of music coming out of West Africa. An example of an over-flogged narrative is the super-imposition, even fawning over, of political language in popular Nigerian music–a product of the belief that the model African pop star must be a political ideologue as well as a musician. Even Burna Boy, whose oeuvre boasts political titbits, has fallen into this trap. In a profile of Burna Boy for Billboard, Nick Duerden describes Burna Boy’s 2018 collaboration with Zlatan, ‘Killin Dem’ (African Giant, 2019), as sounding ‘like a polemic about Nigerian politics’, and it is a misconception that Burna Boy does not clarify.
What Happens on the Global Stage?
For all the euphoria around popular music from Nigeria and West Africa, catering to global audiences is a dicey affair that can test the identity that is easily recognizable from music inspired by Nigeria. In 2015, Wizkid’s career experienced an unprecedented boost after his single, ‘Ojuelegba’(Album name, 20xx), housed a Drake verse on its remix. The attention that the Canadian popstar’s input brought to Wizkid and the growing international footprint of the afrobeats movement had many believing that Wizkid was set to be the flagbearer of the movement. His 2017 EP, Sounds From The Other Side, however, was whitewashed of its Nigerian sonic tells, and instead took influences from Dancehall, House, and EDM—genres more hybridized to western sensibilities at the time.
The relationship between Nigerian music and Western markets has always felt like a tightrope of identity and content. But in the 2019 Beyoncé-curated The Lion King: The Gift album, which featured some of the most popular Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians of our time, African musicians freed themselves of the usual restrictions. Beyoncé’s latest production, the visual album Black is King, inspired by music from The Gift, has been criticized for imagining a futurist world that is at odds with Africa’s modern reality; yet, the project’s afro-fusionist sound roots itself vividly in the present.
Tiwa Savage’s eloquence, Burna Boy’s warning snarls, and Wizkid’s sunny lyricism– supplemented at home by rising stars like Rema, Joeboy, and Fireboy DML–show that 60 years after independence, Nigerian pop’s sun is only rising.
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