The media, the labels and Nigerian brands were the drivers of Nigerian consumer behaviour, and the gatekeepers of rap’s golden era. Somehow, they lost steam in protecting Hip-hop from the bottom rung of the audience’s appetite…
By Chinonso Ihekire
Recently, the American rap superstar, Rick Ross, stormed Africa’s entertainment capital, Lagos, for the ISL Easter edition concert. The show was packed with a lot of supporting acts, from Davido, to Tiwa Savage, to The Cavemen., among others. While the mainstream Nigerian gyrated in the glee of such intriguing performances, there was an outrage in the Nigerian Hip-hop community as to why a major rap figure like “Rozay” would perform without even a single supporting rapper on the stage. It felt like a taboo.
This outrage was even worsened when the acclaimed “African rapper No. 1,” MI Abaga, openly condemned what he claimed was a snob to his request for a one-on-one meeting with Ross, lamenting that it was indeed a snob to the entire Hip-hop community in Nigeria.
Lastly .. I was invited to meet Rick Ross.. I responded by saying if I could do it one on one. Ofcourse they declined.. the afrobeats industry will not respect Hiphop just because.. that’s fine. Let’s accept it as what it is and make GREAT MUSIC FOR THE ONES who do care
— M.I Abaga (@MI_Abaga) April 15, 2022
The question of whether MI Abaga was being proud, or he rightfully deserved that respect became irrelevant really quick as the conversation swayed to the state of the Hip-hop culture in Nigeria. Was it really dead, or was it on its deathbeds? The answer to this question is the reason for a myriad of feuds that are now disturbing the peace within the Nigerian music industry.
Just two days ago, popular music journalist, Joey Akan, got into a spat with MI Abaga over what seemed like a discourse on the state of rap in Nigeria.
Let it be known that @JoeyAkan is an enemy of Nigerian HipHop!
A vile mind that continuously spits on our efforts and debases the Hiphop community!
You are persona non grata and no longer welcome in the culture.
— M.I Abaga (@MI_Abaga) May 19, 2022
While Akan championed the opinion that alternative genres in Nigeria needed to exploit the science of Afro-pop to achieve that global breakthrough, Abaga sensed a subtle shade was thrown because Akan referenced the Rick Ross saga in his analysis. Before we all could say Jack, Abaga “ex-communicated” Akan from the rap community, and a slew of hurtful statements and accusations were flung across each other from their windows on Twitter. Well, those are two grown men fighting publicly over an issue that is actually bigger than both of them. The real crux of the matter is: “What is happening to Hip-hop in Nigeria?” To answer this question, we need to book an Uber to the past.
The Golden Era
DJ Ron Ekundayo actually pioneered Hip-hop culture in Nigeria, with his 1981 record, “The Way I Feel,” which became the first rap recording in Nigeria.
While other reigning genres such as Electro/Disco funk were beginning to sample elements of Hip-hop, especially with rhyme schemes, the next Hip-hop acts to break out were the iconic duo, Junior and Pretty, heating up the early ‘90s with their comical rap records. Soon, other rap enthusiasts such as Zaaki Azzay, Daniel Wilson, and others, were beginning to step out with their records. It was also the era of female rap mavericks such as Queen Change, and Weird MC. Rap was fast-becoming a sought-after genre, as Nigerians paid more attention to it. By the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, Hip-hop was already living its best days in Nigeria.
Interestingly, rap spread across the country, and we had Da ThoroughBreds, and Nigga Raw from the South Eastern clime, K.D. World and Swat Root from the Northern spheres, and Trybesmen and Remedies from the West. Mode 9, Naeto C, Ruggedman, TerryThaRapman, MI Abaga, and Eedris Abdulkareem were trailblazers in this regard.
A name worthy of mention is the, arguably, most influential rapper in Nigeria, the late Dagrin whose sojourn was brief but monumental within the rap community.
A pioneer of hard-core Yoruba rap music, his fame bloomed like wildfire, but sadly ended on April 22, 2010, when he lost his life in a car crash. When the mid 2010s came, and the Afro-pop sound had just begun to seduce everyone, we saw rappers like Olamide, Phyno, the Choc Boiz, SDC, LOS, among others, take over the mantle and still carry the weight of the rap community. They did it so well, even becoming the envy of other African Hip-hop communities, such as the South African and Ghanaian communities. They were winning awards, and even Ice Prince clinched a BET award in 2013 as the Best International act.
Everything soared until the late 2010s when the spotlight started to fade. Hip-hop had barely spent two decades in the major spotlight (altogether it had spent about 3 decades plus) before it snoozed.
One thing that the Golden Era had was the passion that drove its success. There were no TikTok challenges nor digital streaming platforms to help a continental crossover. There was no Soundcloud to help most of these people. There were only the conventional co-signs, endorsements; radio, TV and print promotions; freestyle cyphers, major shows and platforms helping the community. The media, the labels, and Nigerian brands were the drivers of Nigerian consumer behaviour, and the gatekeepers of rap’s golden era. Somehow, they lost steam in protecting Hip-hop from the bottom rung of the audience’s appetite.
The biggest sin of the golden Era seemed to be the fact that it even existed.
Who is to Blame?
While everyone keeps looking for where to cast blame, observe one thing carefully in the Golden Era: the absence of contemporary marketing platforms. Then, to be as big as MI Abaga, you needed to sell physical records. You needed massive co-signs, endorsements, radio and TV promotions, all of which come with a big label budget. One thing that helped Afro-pop thrive is because other acts were willing to put their money behind emerging talents they believed in. MI Abaga put so many people on, from his brother, Jesse Jagz, to Ice Prince, but all of these pioneer trailblazers failed to pass the torch with the same momentum that it was passed to them.
However, do they really share a lot of the blame? It really isn’t easy to bootstrap a person’s career when the market reaction is already dwindling. This brings us to what my good friend, LawalThePoet, terms as the epileptic consumer behaviour in Nigeria. I explain below:
(i) Intentional Consumers: These people love Hip-hop music and are willing to comb music libraries to find the latest Hip-hop records and emerging talents in that space. Arguably, about 20 percent of the Nigerian music audience are in this clan.
(ii) Pedestrian Listeners: These people would listen to Hip-Hop as long as it is the reigning sound. They are indifferent towards music; they would listen to whatever is popping. More than half of the music audience in Nigeria are in this strata.
(iii) Passive Listeners: These people love Hip-hop and enjoy good music, but are too lazy to stress after it. They listen to whatever is available. They would rather consume American drill or Trap than demand for harcore rap in Nigeria.
While big labels saw that the consumer behaviour was shifting towards Afro-pop, they did little to protect the genre. In a bid to stay profitable, the rappers themselves began to combine Afro-pop to their sounds, so much that, shortly, they lost their artistic authenticity and sparked an identity crisis. Most of these rappers — some of whom bloomed after the Golden Era — from Ice Prince, to Ycee, down to Falz, Lil Kesh, Reminisce, Vector, among others, leaned towards their singing personas. This is not a crime. It only became lethal when the balance was lost, and they sang more than they rapped. We have only fewer rappers like A-Q, Show Dem Camp, MI Abaga and Jesse Jagz, who still remain true to the culture. Sadly, without major label support or financial strength, they struggle with marketing. If you really want to enjoy rap music in Nigeria, you will have to go to the underground rap community with the likes of Barrylanez, Psycho YP, Maison2500, Eeskay, Paybac Iboro, Alpha Ojini, and so many more.
Hip-hop is more than just a genre; it is an entire community. In America, when it all started in 1973, in the Bronx community, Hip-hop was coloured with a certain black culture of hardcore street-wear, break dancing, beat boxing, freestyle cyphers, and hardcore music videos. These days, these elements are found more within the Afro-pop community than even in the mainstream Hip-hop community.
In sum, a combination of lack of mentorship, marketing and sustainable branding led to the decline of the rap community in Nigeria. If Rap can still be celebrated in America, nearly five decades after, despite the proliferation of other sounds, then there is actually hope for rap in Nigeria.
A Pathway of Possibilities…Everything, But Public Shaming!
Currently, with the likes of Nasty C, Casper Nyovest, Black Sherif, Kwesi Arthur, Yaw Tog, Sarkodie, Medikal, and others, the Ghanaian and South African communities are killing it on the Hip-hop side, continentally. They do not have three heads. They just have better marketing, and they are more passionate about sustaining the Hip-hop community in their climes.
What must be done? There are potentials in the Hip-hop community, especially with the emerging sub genres of drill and emo-rap. Rap itself is rhythm-applied poetry, and poetry is vast! The sound of rap does not have to be diluted with Afro-pop, to make it pop again; it just needs to be refined to be more relatable to the audience. Rap is mood music, with a lot of messages. Whether it is done in English, Yoruba or Hausa is nobody’s business; what matters is, at the end of the day, does it cause me to emote? Does it sound nice to my ears? Rappers and producers need to continue to think carefully about what they want to do with the sound.
Also, brands need to come back to support the culture. Hennessy and Monster have done a lot in recent years, with their cyphers and challenges, which have helped to provide lifelines for Hip-hop in Nigeria. More brands need to join this ship.
Lastly, record labels need to do thorough self-examination of conscience. They need to eschew this silly capitalist mindset and think like the Americans. If there is heritage + long-term potential in Hip-hop, why let it die? The same energy they put into digital promotions for other genres, as well as sensitive A&R’ing, in terms of worthwhile collaborations to aid global crossovers, can also be put into Nigerian Hip-hop. We hardly even have labels sign Nigerian rappers these days. Who did we offend?
What must not be done is the senseless blame game with no action. The unnecessary shot-taking at the state of Hip-hop in Nigeria, at any slight opportunity, is something that will only work counter-productively for the industry.
If the Nigerian consumer behaviour (which is one of the worst in the world, in my opinion) is anything to consider, then Afro-pop will die out, too, if it becomes complacent. Nigerians will listen to anything if you make them to. Look at what Wizkid did with emo-RnB. After all the initial criticism, is it not one of the most listened-to sounds of this generation? Did “Pangolo” Afro-pop not phase out for the emo Afro-pop of Fireboy and Victony of today?
Lastly, Nigerian music lovers can do better than being pendulums for thought-leaders, swaying without any cognitive dissonance or self-rationalisation. They do not need to pretend like they do not privately listen to rap music from other cultures, when they get exhausted from the “rinse-and-repeat” monochromatic Afro-pop that is choking the Nigerian music industry today. If they actually realised that a music industry with a plethora of genres, such as Nigeria, can have the potential to be the Eldorado of music in the world, they will not fuel the extinction of any genre.
Hip-hop is dying in Nigeria. Nigerians have the life-support machine in their hands. Yet, they prefer to slay as its pallbearers on ‘woke’ social media. What sort of playing is this? God of Hip-hop, save us!
Chinonso Ihekire is a multimedia creative, with expertise in writing, photography and filmmaking. His works have been featured on several pan-African publications, including Pan-African Music, Wakonte, More Branches, Afrocritik, Guardian Life, among others. He believes in the power of art to positively influence behaviour, and by extension, society. When he isn’t busy being a music nerd, he enjoys watching movies, organising events, and writing poetry. You can connect with him via social media. Instagram – @chinonsotherevolutionary