… a challenge arises when evaluating a work imbued with profound teachings when the artist fails to embody and reflect those teachings in their character. This dilemma is exemplified by Brymo, who falls short as a teacher, not through his artistry, but due to his character and personality.
By Yinka Adetu
Can an Artist be Separated from Their Art?
The first challenge we encounter when confronted with a talented yet controversial artist is reconciling their work, which may transcend their personality, with the true reflection of their character. This engagement, frequently examined in critical discourses, revolves around the dense relationship between art and the artist. Various perspectives have been theorised in discourses concerning this relationship. At the core of this debate is the foundational idea articulated by German artist, Hans Hofmann, that Art is the man because “every art expression is rooted fundamentally in the personality and temperament of the artist”. The artist is his art, and he must strive to embody what his work expresses. The art, as a vessel, must bring the artist’s true self, beliefs, values, sensibilities and character to the limelight. However, challenging this perspective is French essayist, Roland Barthes, who, in his influential 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, challenges the traditional notion of appreciating art by relying on the artist’s identity to evaluate and distil meaning from the work.
Critical debates like this one set the stage for examining one of Nigeria’s controversial artistes, Brymo, whose music has positioned him as a distinctive voice in the Nigerian music industry. Brymo’s perceived moral complexities have consistently ignited controversies among his fanbase and admirers within the Nigerian music scene. The release of his twelfth album, Macabre, on December 1, 2023, has further fuelled discord among his audience, following some of the controversies he was involved in throughout the year. Numerous fans and music lovers have chosen to distance themselves from his art due to their reservations about him.
To start, the question, “Can Brymo be separated from his music?” is not a query into the author’s ownership of his work but rather an exploration of the transformative role of art on its audience. The transformative essence of a piece of artwork should be an emblem of the creator’s personality. But the Greek philosopher, Plato, holds a contrarian view about art, that “it is ruinous to the hearers’ imagination.” In his treatise, Ion, Plato’s theory of mimesis emphasises the role of the artist in their art. He asserts that poets lack reason as they don’t adhere to any artistic standards while speaking; instead, they act as the Muse moves them or as their ideas inspire them, emphasising that art is a product of inspiration and imagination.
However, an artist is intrinsically a social and cultural being, and their experiences are rooted in the culture of their immediate society. Despite this, Plato’s bias also suggests that the artist must serve as a teacher through their art. This explains why he maintains that a poet can never truly know what they write about since every truth must be discovered via reason alone. Plato contends that the poet sings by heavenly might rather than through the deliberate use of art. He views a work of art as “a passing craze”, making the poet unreliable as a teacher, since their words are inspired and not based on firsthand experience. Here’s the claim: If Plato faults an author for relying on inspiration, there are inherent cultural and critical fault lines in an artist whose work does not manifest in their true character.
Olawale Ashimi Olofooro, known by his stage name Brymo, has been described by Sahara Reporters as “the preacher without a church“, owing to the teachings and moral efficacies embedded in his music, as expressed in songs such as “Olanrewaju”, “Adedotun” and “Billion Naira Dream”. His seventh studio album, Yellow, which dropped in 2020, has been lauded by Tribune Online as a “stake for musical greatness”. As a veteran singer and music sociologist, he continues to showcase mastery, meaning, and direction through his songs, as evident in Macabre where he sings solo in all 12 tracks. He explores diverse genres while maintaining his individuality as an artiste. The album contains elements of Alte, African folk, Soul, Pop, and Reggae. There is also a mashup in some of the songs in the collection which gives the album a unique quality. Songs like “Dozen Girls” – “Dear Muse”, “Truth is the New Cool” – “This Man, The Universe is Ours” – “Jupiter”, are a blending of two songs recorded in one.
However, Brymo’s character does not always mirror the virtues present in his songs. The singer has faced significant criticism for his words and actions, some of which revolved around ethnic bigotry and gender objectification. His career has consistently been a source of controversy, and even after a decade, his reputation continues to be marred by these contentions.
Brymo: Evolution, Criticism, and Upsetting Controversies
Brymo began his musical journey as far back as the late 90s and early 2000s while still in secondary school. However, it wasn’t until 2010, when he signed with the record label, Chocolate City, that his career as a musician sprung up. His notable appearance on Ice Prince’s 2011 hit single, “Oleku”, catapulted Brymo into the spotlight, providing him with a distinctive voice. His second album, The Son of a Kapenta, released in 2012, showcased him as an emerging artiste, weaving lyrics and exploring diverse thematic landscapes rooted in the sociocultural context. Early singles like “Ara” and “Good Morning” portrayed Brymo as a singer in his formative stages yet destined for significant accomplishments. Prevalent in the songs were the chaos present in Nigerian society and the struggles of young artistes from working-class backgrounds trying to gain fame through art. Throughout his career, he has consistently taken on roles as a lead artiste rather than a featured one, infusing his work with elements of African folk and popular music.
The initial controversy surrounding Brymo transpired during his association with Chocolate City when, in 2013, he announced on Twitter (now X) that he had departed the record label. In response, the production company contested his assertion, citing insubordination as he terminated his contract without adhering to the formal terms agreed upon. Despite joining another record label, Spinlet, Chocolate City asserted that he remained contractually bound to them, and this made Spinlet disengage from him. Undeterred, Brymo went on to release his third studio album Merchants, Dealers, and Slaves. In response, Chocolate City took legal action, prompting a court order that restrained him from distributing his songs until the case was resolved. The controversy eventually lost momentum when the presiding judge, accused of bias, abandoned the case. The sentiment of the public regarding the controversy was mixed: the artiste MI Abaga said that “Brymo should fulfil his contractual agreement” while Jesse Jagz, an artiste who once signed with Chocolate City, supported Brymo and said that the record label was “claiming music they had no part in.” Brymo marked the resolution with the release of his fourth album, Tabula Rasa in 2014, a collection reflecting on his experiences during the contentious period with Chocolate City.
In 2020, Brymo was publicly accused of rape on X, an allegation the artiste vehemently denied and vigorously contested and which gathered mixed reactions amongst his fans. Despite the adversity, he went on to release his debut EP, Libel, in November of the same year. The EP’s cover art, portraying a pair of women’s panties, blood, and broken glass, served as Brymo’s visual response to the controversy. Through this illustration, Brymo expressed his bitterness, anguish, and the process of healing from the impact of slander. He found himself embroiled in a controversy with the versatile female singer Simi when, in 2023, he revealed that he had requested a sexual relationship from her in exchange for a music collaboration. This revelation, shared through a voice note on X, sparked anger from Adekunle Gold, Simi’s husband, who issued a stern warning to Brymo to steer clear of his family. In a subsequent interview, Brymo clarified that his request for a sexual relationship with Simi was part of an “artistic pursuit”. He went on to explain that Simi was not the sole female artiste who had been subject to such a proposition. As he revealed, he had made similar requests to seven female artistes, four of whom he collaborated with after the Simi incident, while also emphasising that not every collaboration involved such discussions. This issue stirred up criticism related to the patriarchal structure in the Nigerian music industry and the egotistic attitude of artistes who use music collaboration with female musicians as an opportunity to whet their sexual appetite and desire.
In 2023, Brymo stirred another controversy when he took to X to announce his support and advocacy for the APC Presidential Candidate in the 2023 general election. Going further, the singer asserted that he would not support an Igbo presidency because of ongoing discussions about Biafra in the South Eastern region. This declaration led to Brymo being labelled a bigot and a chauvinistic figure. Critics, particularly supporters of the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, denounced the singer as offensive and accused him of displaying ethnic bias. Subsequently, a petition was launched on Change.org, garnering over 40,000 signatures, and called for the revocation of Brymo’s nominations at the eighth annual All Africa Music Awards. The petition reflected public dissatisfaction with Brymo’s ethnic bias and its perceived influence on his recognition in the music industry.
In terms of his career, Brymo has encountered criticism for certain visual productions in his songs. For instance, the public contested both the album cover and title of his fifth studio album, Klitoris (2016). The first track in the album was titled “Naked”, a choice that further fueled the controversy, as the title “Klitoris” bears a phonetic resemblance to the female organ, the clitoris. The album cover featured a depiction of a naked woman adorned with animal horns and a wrapped garment. The objectification and near disrespect of the woman’s body raised questions among his fans and the general public until Brymo later clarified that “klitoris” means “key” in Greek, and the visual art was a painting created by American artist Georgi Georgiev of Moonring Art Design.
Another wave of criticism arose when Brymo bared his naked buttocks in the 2018 video production of “Heya!” In the video, the artiste appeared semi-nude, with only a loincloth wrapped around him, an act that was – and perhaps still – uncommon amongst Nigerian artistes. Responding to the criticism stemming from the visuals, Brymo explained that he aimed to recreate the primal state of humanity at the beginning of time, before the realisation of self-awareness about being naked.
All the criticisms and controversies surrounding Brymo have never centred on his artistic brilliance, the quality of his work, or his competence. Most people might argue that his musical style is an eclectic blend of alté, traditional sounds, and Pop. While he predominantly leans towards Alté and incorporates elements of Pop and Soul, Brymo’s music draws extensively from Yoruba traditional, mythological, historical, and sociological experiences. Additionally, he frequently explores global history and specific issues, showcasing his diverse and extensive understanding of human existence.
Brymo often refers to himself as a “sonic artiste” and seamlessly integrates storytelling, humour, and Yoruba traditional ethos into his music. His thematic range spans morality, values, and love, revealing a multifaceted approach to songwriting. Despite being perceived as serious, political, poetic, and brooding, his controversies typically stem from his statements and personal life rather than his artistry. While he remains an adept singer-songwriter, the controversies he becomes entangled in can be likened to black dots on a pure white cloth.
What Becomes of the Art of Monstrous Artists
The endeavour to disentangle the art from the artist often surfaces prominently when dealing with artists who are deemed “monsters”. This theme was thoroughly explored by American writer and essayist, Claire Dederer in her essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” published in The Paris Review in late 2017. Dederer’s essay primarily delves into her struggles with the art created by men who commit heinous and brutal acts, ultimately presenting the challenge as a puzzle to be addressed by the reader or consumer. The past year of #MeToo has brought to light “monstrous” artistes like R Kelly, who was charged with child pornography in 2008 and faced other allegations related to the mistreatment of women. Throughout these years, the lingering question of what to do with the art of those termed “monstrous geniuses”, as coined by Dederer, continues to persist.
The era in which the audience evolve into critics, diligently seeking logical features and identifying fallacies in artistic works, has ushered in a period of personal scrutiny of art. Readers engage in conversations with artwork, striving to connect them to diverse social and personal experiences. In this context, the role of the artist as a teacher comes to life. Readers are empowered to examine art from an intensely personal perspective, one that inherently relates to universal ideals. Yet, a challenge arises when evaluating a work imbued with profound teachings, when the artist fails to embody and reflect those teachings in their character. This dilemma is exemplified by Brymo, who falls short as a teacher not through his artistry, but due to his character and personality. His flaws cast a shadow over the integrity of his art, making it subject to questioning and contestation, even though the undeniable beauty of his work remains compelling.
Great thinkers and artists who have faced criticism for their reprehensible behaviour can be categorised into three groups. First, there are those whose problematic behaviours manifest directly in their works. Aristotle, often regarded as the father of Western civilisation, is criticised for his harsh and sexist portrayals and evaluations of women, illustrating them as mere objects. However, the bias against Aristotle may be mitigated by the understanding that classical Greek society was inherently male-centric. Secondly, some authors, despite finding prominence in English classics, are not only racists in their personal lives but also exhibit racism in their works. Notable examples include William Shakespeare’s dehumanisation of the Black race in characters like Caliban and Sycorax in The Tempest. This trend is observed in the works of renowned authors such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Dr. Seuss, and even Jane Austen. The third category comprises artists whose tumultuous lives contribute to the beauty of their works. Figures like Picasso are considered monstrous in their personal lives, and this monstrousness serves as inspiration for their artistic creations.
However, some artists successfully compartmentalise their troubled personal lives from their art, and do not necessarily practise what they preach. Brymo falls into this category, where the separation between his personal life and his art is evident. His “true self” does not align with his art, posing a significant question about the authenticity of preaching values that one does not practice. In his Yellow album, tracks like “Black Man, Black Woman” advocate for the awakening of the Black race, urging a departure from superficial actions and desires. Yet, the contradiction arises when considering Brymo’s apparent tribalistic and chauvinistic stance towards the 2023 general election. How do we reconcile this incongruity in his beliefs and actions?
Clearly, the controversies woven into Brymo’s career consistently prompt him to respond with a humane touch, as he often addresses criticism through his songs or interviews. Although Brymo projects an image as an artiste advocating for morality and purpose, his personality might prevent him from being labelled as a true teacher. Nevertheless, we can view him as a singer who, much like his audience, is on a journey toward self-improvement and direction.
Yinka Adetu is an English & Literature graduate student at Lagos State University, Ojo, researching African and African Diaspora Studies, African and migrant literary/cultural studies, African urban-youth studies and African gender/sexuality studies.
Cover Photo: @brymolawale on Instagram