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Fresh Dope (When Hope is a Voice Trapped in Dead Air) | Dhee Sylvester

Fresh Dope (When Hope is a Voice Trapped in Dead Air) | Dhee Sylvester

Fresh Dope (When Hope is a Voice Trapped in Dead Air) | Dhee Sylvester - Afrocritik

As you listen to the diverse themes his songs touch on, you discover a rawness that speaks to the isolating monstrosity of fame, his desire to be the kind of man his daughter will be proud of, all while denouncing the struggle for fast money through crime. In those moments, you perceive Fresh Dope as a piercing scream in a world where hope often fades into a voice trapped in dead air.

By Dhee Sylvester

The scene is a mesmerising spectacle of youthful vigour. It reaches out to you like an echo grasping for impact, absorbing you into itself till your body and senses become involuntary attachments to its form. Your ears recognise the tune as a fusion of synth melodies and percussive bass lines; but almost as if you are an oblivious bystander in its voyage from nothingness to sound, there is no discernable rhythm to the beat. There is only the fullness of sound chaperoned by an intercourse of risqué lyrics and spirited vocals.

As you advance towards the stage, your skin crawls into your bones at the sight of sweat bouncing from one body to another amidst flashes of neon light. A pulsating blend of thumping beats and resounding melodies envelops the arena, the tempo combining with sonic gusto. A throb of energy and emotion surge within you, almost nudging you into a dance, the impulse as bullish as an anthill flattened by a flood. There is a psychedelic quality to the vibe, and for a moment, the arena almost feels like the shrine of an esoteric cult.

On the stage, a body gyrates and struts. It possesses a lean yet muscular frame, exuding both prowess and agility. The body soars into the air, clutching a towel in one hand and a microphone in the other. Adorned upon its torso are intricately inked symbols and faces paired with words rendered in thick cursive typography. The body is a man who wasn’t so long a boy, and with every resonant note that escapes his lips, the crowd responds in euphoria. With one pant leg folded to the knee, this body is a singer with an aura that permeates the stage. This body, along with the music it makes, is the very reason you find yourself here.

As you navigate your way backstage, the singer’s voice detonates through the speakers, commanding attention. The singer, Fresh Dope as he is known, bellows “Mukabala” repeatedly; his pelvis tilting forward in the motion of a thrust. His left hand rises and falls on his crotch, in a self-indulging performance of sexual swagger. From your vantage point, with his back turned to you, he moves like a velvet cloud on fire as he sings: 

Mukabala (rhaar)

Mukabala (rhaar)

Mukabala Mukabala

Mukabala Mukabala

(Rhaar rhaar)

Fresh Dope, smoking on the beat

I clear throat, and it turns into a hit

Last last, na me do the thing

Wey una papa no fit even dream

Mukabala (rhaar), Mukabala (rhaar)

I turn heads like ojuju wey dey rap

Mukabala (rhaar), Mukabala (rhaar)

I like girls but I no too dey knack

The audience, predominantly comprised of teenage girls, immerse themselves in this cacophony of sound and debauchery, evoking memories of a time when you were too young for late-night concerts, yet rebelliously attended nonetheless. They appear entranced by Fresh Dope’s performance. With every mention of “mukabala”, he elicits an eruption of “rhaar” from the crowd. For all the criticism of Fresh Dope’s poor lyrical content, your experience of him on stage suggests he might be better at performing music than he is at writing it.

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When you meet up with Fresh Dope for your interview, he asks if you are fine with him answering your questions in Pidgin, and even though you were surprised by the request, you understood it was a part of his “voice of the street” persona. The first question you ask is what “Mukabala” is all about. He wipes the beads of sweat on his brow and asks if you are being serious. You answer in the affirmative, and though he is unconvinced by your expressed ignorance, he explains that the slang, like the song itself, is a tribute to a man’s ability to please his woman, or as he puts it, “guyman wey fit do the do”.

“So why then does the crowd scream ‘rhaar’ like you’re talking about a lion roaring? I mean what’s the correlation?” Everyone in the room chuckles the moment you ask the question.

“Bros, you no understand,” Fresh Dope says with a shake of the head. “The idea na sey when I knack babe mukabala, she comes like rhaar. You get?” 

You don’t get it, (whatever it means), but you pretend you do. If there is one thing interviewing some of the biggest names in the Nigerian music industry has taught you, it is to know when to connect the dots and when to leave them alone as ellipsis. But there was something about Fresh Dope as a man and myth that made you feel like he was an ellipsis determined to break into a newer string of dots the more you attempt to connect it.  

The first time you heard about Fresh Dope, he was a trending topic on social media after being disqualified from a music talent hunt show. The story unfolded with allegations that he had confronted one of the judges, accusing them of harbouring tribal bigotry. Despite being urged by the show’s organisers to offer an apology, Fresh Dope adamantly refused, resulting in his disqualification. Almost overnight, Fresh Dope’s accusation and subsequent removal from the show catapulted him into a cult-like figure, with a vocal fanbase that would later choose to identify themselves as Dopamites. His actions also thrust the issue of ethnic disharmony into the spotlight, prompting a demand for more artistes like him who refuse to pander to authority.

Three months after his disqualification, Fresh Dope released his debut single, “Mr Cumtroller”, as an independent artiste, a song that had you rolling your eyes whenever callers requested it on your radio show. Astonishingly, the song dominated local and regional charts for over sixteen consecutive weeks, shattering streaming records for a debut track. It was especially popular on social media, and the younglings rocked it like it was an auditory brand of Air Jordans. When the Broadcasting Commission banned its video a few weeks after its release, the counter effect was a boost to its views on YouTube.

On the matter of his polarising influence, you ask Fresh Dope if he was concerned about the potential impact his music may have on his younger fans. In response, he nonchalantly shrugs and states, “I read one article last week wey talk sey teenage pregnancy don high since I drop ‘Mr Cumtroller.’ But yeye dey smell. You get? My mama no reach twenty when she born me. My gran’mama sef still dey go secondary when she born my mama for Biafra time. So to say na me dey cause teenage pregnancy when na inside this teenage pregnancy dem born me no make sense at all. You get?”

“That’s interesting. But do you think an argument can be made that your lyrics tend to be overly explicit, or at least, sexually suggestive?”

“See, Chairman, wetin dey vex me pass about this mumu narrative be sey a lot of the people wey dey always criticise my music no dey listen to am. Them no dey even attend my Dopamine concerts. When I drop song wey get correct depth and message, the critics go side-eye am, because na agenda full their head. You get? All they do is promote negativity about me because na my name dey butter their bread. If I sing about heaven and I sing about nyansh, but na the one about nyansh blow, why person go talk sey na my fault?”

While Fresh Dope expounds on the “media agenda” against him, your mind drifts to the image of a boy you saw a few days earlier. The boy, not more than 6 or 7 years old, was mimicking Fresh Dope’s pelvic thrust dance move. But the irony of that image was, while the boy’s dancing made you uncomfortable, you imagine your parents probably felt the same way when you were rapping to Eminem in your teens. You knew the lyric to every one of his songs, but kept flunking your JAMB exams. You remember a particular song, “Sing for the Moment”, and how it became the soundtrack to your transition from adolescence to adulthood.

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The third verse of that song possessed one of the most instructive pieces of lyric you have ever heard. “They say music can alter moods and talk to you. Well, can it load a gun up for you and cock it too?” That question was Eminem’s response to critics who felt his music encouraged gun violence. You understand that while singing along to “Mukabala” is one thing, having unprotected sex as a teenager feels like a different subject matter on its own. You wonder if Fresh Dope’s moralistic critics would be able to consider his existence as more of an effect than a cause. The Nigerian state is so broken that most young people only feel human when they are lost in the body of another or listening to music.

When seen through the lens of what he has made of himself, it is easy to forget that before he went on that music talent hunt show which projected him into the spotlight, Fresh Dope was no different to the average teenager with a head full of dreams. The kind of teenager raised by a single mother who needed him to finish university just so he could secure a stable 9-to-5 that would enable him to financially support the family. This contemplation leads you to understand why many younglings find elements of themselves mirrored in his experiences and music. Like them, Fresh Dope is a survivor in an environment determined to stop him from thriving.

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“When you started making music, did you ever imagine you would be this household name in the industry? Or have you always been confident about your potential?”

“If you no fit believe say you go make am for anything wey you dey do for this life, e better make you no start am at all because na fail you go fail. You get? When you come from the kain place wey I come from, to break bad go dey enter your eye. But bad things no dey last. Today, everything fit soft, but tomorrow you fit dey inside prison or worse. I no fit make that kain mistake because na only me my people get. E get one time enh, money wey I suppose use chop, I go dey save am to pay studio session. If I no believe sey one day I go make am, I no go fit make that kain sacrifice na. Na hunger carry me enter music, and na that same hunger dey push me go front.”

“So if it wasn’t music, you would have been nothing?”

“Well, no be sey options no dey. You get? But as far as I fit remember, this music thing has always been the way, the truth, and the life. The first time wey I climb stage to perform, the feeling be like sey I dey stand on top wata. No other thing dey give me that kain feeling.”

“Twenty years ago, the only people who cared about Nigerian music were those brave enough to be called ‘razz’ for not obsessing over foreign music. But now we are winning Grammies, selling out venues in the UK and America, and topping international charts. Do you feel any kind of pressure as the new face of Afrobeats music?”

“Pressure ke? No o. I no dey feel that kain pressure abeg. The only pressure I feel right now na how I go comot my people for trenches. If I die tonight ehn, Afrobeats go still dey reign, but no be Afrobeats go enter studio to make song. No be Afrobeats go roof the house wey I dey build for my mama. You get? Sometimes ehn, I feel like when we talk about this music thing and the kain ambition wey musician suppose get, we dey quick forget sey before son of man be musician, na person pikin him first be. So, yeah, I wan win Grammy, I wan shutdown O2 and Maddison, but for now, na my own face I be. Afrobeats na ashawo wey no get face. You get?”   

“I do,” you said – and this time you meant it. “Before I go. Your name, Fresh Dope, what’s the story behind it? Some people think it’s because you’re into drugs. Is that true?”

“I promised my mama sey I no go ever do drugs.”

“Are you serious? But you mentioned smoking on ‘Mukabala.’”

“No o. Na the beat I bin dey talk about not drugs. See, I no get liver to break that promise wey I make for mama. Na drug scatter my papa head and I no wan ever be that kain wasteman. So no, I no dey smoke anything. But about the name ehn, na Killabeatz give me the name. We dey inside studio dey play around with one Amapiano beat wey him just produce. Long story short, I smoke the beat like sey na my own. It was crazy. Afterwards, Killa tell me sey my sound dey fresh and dope. Na how the name start be that. Since then, na Fresh Dope everybody dey call me.”

“Considering what happened to your dad though, did you have any reservations with the name?”

“Initially, yeah, maybe. But for this industry ehn, to make am no be about wetin you like but about wetin fit sell. You get? The streets like Fresh Dope. Most people no even sabi my real name, but I no mind. Afterall, no be my real name dey put fufu for table. Na Fresh Dope dey work, but na Nonso dey chop. You get?”

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Later that week, you will be on the air when you get a text from Kilabeatz that Nonso (Fresh Dope) was in critical condition after getting in an accident on his way to a Dopamine concert. A source will inform you that some molly and weed had been discovered in his car, and that the singer died en route to the hospital. Amidst the ensuing chaos, various rumours will circulate. Some will claim Fresh Dope and a member of his entourage engaged in a race to the concert venue after a bet. Others will insist he lost control of his vehicle while attempting to elude robbers or kidnappers (depending on which version seems most plausible). In response to his untimely demise, devoted fans will rally behind hashtags asserting that their idol had fallen victim to hired guns, accusing the police of orchestrating a cover-up to conceal the truth behind the accident.

But the night following your interview with Fresh Dope, as you drive home with his Last Thing to Leave A Man is Dope album on loop. It is during this solitary journey that you will come to a profound realisation. Beyond the hedonism and obscenity, there exists a profound self-awareness within his music, reflecting the angst and escapism that consume the average Nigerian youth. As you listen to the diverse themes his songs touch on, you discover a rawness that speaks to the isolating monstrosity of fame, his desire to be the kind of man his daughter will be proud of, all while denouncing the struggle for fast money through crime. In those moments, you perceive Fresh Dope as a piercing scream in a world where hope often fades into a voice trapped in dead air.

Dhee Sylvester is a Writer and Graphic Designer from Lagos, Nigeria. He’s the author of From Man To God, the co-author of Two Shades of Crazy, and has featured in numerous literary anthologies. He’s a recipient of the Black Pride Award for Oratory, a finalist of the Bridget Poirson Poetry Prize, and a former Best of the Net award nominee. He can be found on Twitter @nobodhee.

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