The outsider status, coupled with the romanticised notion of artistic suffering, contributes to the glorification of artists who endured personal hardships in their quest for creative expression. In postmodern contexts, the suffering artist is fueled by deep-seated misgivings that characterise their subjective nature.
By Yinka Adetu
Mohbad: Post-Death Controversy and Fame
Five months ago, Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba’s – known popularly as Mohbad – sudden and untimely death sent shockwaves through the Nigerian music industry and sparked intense controversies surrounding the occulting and oppressive structures within the sector. His passing, among many things, shed light on the intricate challenges and complexities faced by young artistes striving for fame, along with the struggles to balance artistic integrity, personal agency, and professional relationships. Mohbad’s ordeal has been a sobering reminder of the often turbulent journey artists navigate in their quest for creative fulfilment and success.
In the wake of his tragic demise, his songs have surged in popularity, exemplifying the phenomenon of post-death fame often associated with the tortured artist, a concept first embodied by 19th-century Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of modern art. Van Gogh, who struggled with mental health issues and financial difficulties, selling only one painting during his lifetime, gradually captivated audiences worldwide with interest in his work growing exponentially only after his tragic death by suicide in 1890. Mohbad, like Van Gogh whose paintings now command some of the highest prices ever recorded at auction, is experiencing a similar wave of posthumous recognition.
Following his passing on September 12th, 2023, Mohbad’s music has experienced a resurgence, gaining significant traction across various platforms. His track, “Peace“, released in 2022, surged to the top spot on Apple Music in Nigeria by September 15th, accompanied by his single, “Ask About Me” at number two. Additionally, tracks from his 2023 album, Blessed, notably “Beast & Peace”, “Ask About Me”, and “Feel Good”, climbed the charts, with significant increases in streams observed between September 12th and 14th.
His posthumous impact extended to the international stage, as evidenced by his songs on Billboard’s Hot Trending Songs chart at number two for the week of September 23rd, 2023. Furthermore, he ascended to the 46th position on the list of best-selling digital artistes, surpassing renowned international acts such as Nicki Minaj, Eminem, 21 Savage, Lady Gaga, and Chris Brown. In December, 2023, Nigerian singer/songwriter, Chike released his single titled Egwu, which featured Mohbad. The song, likely influenced by Mohbad’s post-death syndrome, is a chart-topping number, becoming the second song by Chike to top the Nigerian Music chart.
While Mohbad gained recognition for hit tracks like “Peace” during his lifetime, it is his posthumous acclaim that has truly propelled him into fame and brought his songs to the forefront. His passing has prompted listeners to revisit his music with a fresh perspective, uncovering the underlying torment in many of his songs. The controversies surrounding his final days and the circumstances of his demise have further contributed to his profound popularity. His case has ignited widespread interest among music enthusiasts and concerned individuals, fostering a fervent desire to honour his legacy through his music.
Fans and supporters often seek solace and meaning by listening to his songs, using his music as a means to reflect on the occurrences leading to his untimely demise. This posthumous phenomenon has opened avenues for examining how death can be a catalyst for artistes to achieve fame. Several artistes, including Olamide, Bella Shmurda, Kenny Black, Barry Jhay, Oritse Femi, Zinoleesky, Seyi Vibes, and Wizkid, have honoured Mohbad through their music following his passing. Artistes like Bella Shmurda expressed personal anguish over the void left by his absence, while Barry Jhay’s tribute emphasises the torment Mohbad experienced throughout his life, hoping for his peace in death. While the tradition of artistes commemorating fallen colleagues is not uncommon, it is essential to note that the tributes to Mohbad stand apart, portraying him as a tormented artist who met an untimely and uncomfortable end. These posthumous tributes evoke comparisons to other artistes who tragically passed away prematurely, such as the versatile rapper Dagrin, who died in a ghastly motor accident with his demise believed to be self-predicted in his last recorded track, “If I Die”.
However, Mohbad’s case differs markedly. Until his demise, he ardently pursued his artistic ambitions, driven by a hunger for fame and a passion for music. Even after parting ways with Marlian Music, and starting his own record label, Imolenization, Mohbad remained steadfast in his commitment to his career, willing to risk everything, including withstanding the alleged bullying from his former boss, Naira Marley, for his art. His decision to leave Naira Marley stemmed from the seeming dissatisfaction with the promotion of his songs under the label. It was during this period of fervent dedication to his craft that Mohbad’s life was tragically cut short, mirroring the profound sacrifices endured by many artists in their pursuit of creative expression.
To What Extent Should an Artist Suffer for Their Art?
An enduring myth that has persisted over time and has evolved into contemporary culture is the belief that any art that is considered great is borne out of the deep misery and suffering of the artist. This is because art is meant to transcend the mundane and offer new perspectives on the world. The artist, as a perceptive individual, is compelled to delve into the depths of existence, probing beyond superficialities to create enduring works that resonate across time. Since art often serves as a medium for expressing the complexities of the human condition, it is commonly associated with suffering. Consequently, the myth of artists enduring agony for their craft, with their pain and longing reflected in their artistic creations, has become deeply ingrained in cultural and historical narratives surrounding creativity and the artistic process.
While the prevailing narrative often portrays art as the source of an artist’s suffering, it can be argued that it is rather the intelligence of artists and their acute awareness of this intelligence that precipitates such anguish. Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, captured this sentiment when he remarked that, “pain and suffering are always inevitable for a great intelligence and a deep heart”. An artist bears the dual burden of intelligence and emotional depth as they navigate a world over which they have little control. To be an artist is to therefore be intelligent; to be acutely aware of one’s finite existence in an infinite universe, to be aware that one is a curious and formidable individual confronting the inherent injustices and malevolence of the world, and to be aware that one solely exists to tirelessly pursue truth amidst a cacophony of conflicting narratives. It is to be aware that instead of embracing ignorance, which offers the illusion of bliss, one will be an artist; an individual who bears the pain and suffering of being intelligent. This kind of awareness inflicts a particular kind of suffering upon the artist.
That artists must endure suffering for their work finds its origins in the concept of purity and the prevailing notion that truly great art arises from profound personal anguish is a concept elucidated by the notion of the “agonal mentality”, as identified by the renowned historian, Jacob Burckhardt, who observed its pervasive influence in the cultural productions of ancient Greece. Burckhardt argued that the Greeks, often regarded as the progenitors of Western art, created enduring artworks by channelling internal struggles into expressive forms. This agony permeated various aspects of Greek life, including their philosophies, lifestyles, sporting endeavours, and cultural productions.
The Greek conception of drama, particularly their preoccupation with tragedy as an art form, is a poignant illustration of this agon (agony). Through tragic narratives, the Greeks sought to convey the fundamental confrontation between human existence and suffering. This thematic exploration is exemplified by the archetype of the tragic hero, a character possessing noble qualities who is inevitably subjected to immense suffering. The trajectory of the tragic hero typically follows a pattern, one that is characterised by hubris (excessive pride), which precipitates peripeteia (the hero’s tragic downfall) and culminates in anagnorisis (the moment of profound realisation or awareness).
The romanticisation of the artist as a tortured genius, a trope that gained prominence during the Romantic era in the 18th and 19th centuries, is another concept that reinforces the notion that artists must endure suffering to create art. Romantic thinkers and artists often portrayed the creative process as indispensably linked to intense emotions, personal turmoil, and existential struggles. This romantic idealisation of suffering and sacrifice as integral to artistic inspiration helped cement the belief that great art must come from pain and hardship. In essence, art and pain are intertwined in the temperament of the artist, echoing the sentiment expressed by Lord Byron, the esteemed English Romantic poet, who proclaimed, “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” An artist, fully aware that art demands more than mere existential existence, transcends the banalities of everyday life to produce works that plumb the depths of human experience. This is why Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Austrian poet, asserts that no great art can ever be made “without the artist having known danger”.
Pain and suffering therefore characterise the artistic embodiment and imaginative existence of an artist, as they draw deeply from life’s darkest, most painful and dreadful aspects. Yet, amidst this understanding, questions inevitably arise: To what extent should an artist suffer for their art? Must an artist confront death before their art can authentically speak for them? How do we reconcile the suffering an artist endures in the pursuit of their craft with the potentially different suffering that accompanies fame? These questions gain greater potency when examined through the lens of Mohbad’s life as an artist.
Mohbad and the Postmodern Reality of the Tormented Artist
The “artiste manqué” (tormented artist), a term that originated in French, is an umbrella term that covers the broad conception of the suffering artist. In the journey of Western literature, the interplay between suffering and art has been a recurring theme. Suffering often exerts a profound influence on artistic expression, while art, in turn, may serve as a means of mitigating suffering. Within this dynamic, there are artists who never experience significant hardship, those who consistently endure it, and those whose suffering jeopardises their art, ultimately leading to its demise.
Stories of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and other forms of adversity are frequently intertwined with the narratives of celebrated artists. These tales align with societal perceptions of artists as unconventional and bohemian individuals who often exist on the fringes of society, rejecting norms and expectations in pursuit of their creative visions. This outsider status, coupled with the romanticised notion of artistic suffering, contributes to the glorification of artists who endured personal hardships in their quest for creative expression. In postmodern contexts, the suffering artist is fueled by deep-seated misgivings that characterise their subjective nature. For these artists, art may serve as an escape from personal or collective trauma and anguish, offering a means of grappling with existential questions and confronting the complexities of the human experience.
Known for his versatility in genres such as Amapiano, Afrobeats, Afropop, and Hip Hop, Mohbad is emblematic of many artists who have emerged from the vibrant Nigerian music scene. His musical journey epitomises the reality of the tormented artist originating from an average family and striving for fame while navigating the complexities of self-discovery and societal understanding through his art.
Like several prominent Nigerian singers today, Mohbad hailed from a humble background, emerging from a community reminiscent of a ghetto. In the nascent stages of his career, he grappled with the pervasive challenges faced by impoverished artistes from working-class backgrounds in attaining recognition for their music. This struggle is palpable in his early songs, particularly those preceding his affiliation with the Marlian Music record label. Songs such as “Adura” released in 2019, reflect an artist yearning to be acknowledged in his pursuit of artistic expression. Collaborating with Bella Shmurda, the song serves as a plea to God, asking that his desires come to fruition, and protection from life’s uncertainties. His profound sense of unease and longing is further echoed in his 2020 album, Light, particularly in tracks like “Sorry”, where he delves into his personal experiences and familial background, providing listeners with insight into the circumstances that have shaped his musical journey. In the track, Mohbad discusses the challenges his average family faced and how these experiences left him troubled in his early life. Despite being sent to school, he struggled to attend classes and ultimately did not graduate. However, he found solace in music, hoping it would compensate for the uncertainties that have characterised his life.
In the contemporary postmodern music scene, achieving success and recognition as an artiste entails a multifaceted blend of talent, creativity, hard work, and a desire for validation within the industry. However, for young and aspiring musicians aiming to attain fame and popularity, the path is often fraught with challenges, chief among them being the necessity to secure deals with record labels to gain visibility. Since fame has always been an illusion for creativity, establishing connections with established figures in the industry becomes imperative for most.
Mohbad’s journey is characteristic of this struggle. From the outset of his career, he entered the music scene driven by a desire to transcend his impoverished circumstances through his passion for songwriting. His early compositions reflect the turmoil wrought by economic hardship, showcasing an artist grappling with poverty’s constraints. Prior to his association with the Marlian Music record label, Mohbad garnered recognition in 2019 through tracks like “Adura” and “Imole”, as well as various freestyles. Yet, despite these initial efforts, attaining the level of fame necessary to fulfil his artistic aspirations remained elusive.
In 2020, having inked a deal with Marlian Music record label, a move that marked a turning point in his career trajectory, he swiftly released a string of chart-topping hits that garnered widespread acclaim. Notably, his debut project, Light, released in the fourth quarter of 2020, served as a follow-up to the viral sensation, “Ponmo”, which featured Naira Marley and Lil Kesh. Among his notable releases under the Marlian Music imprint are “Ponmo”, “Peace”, “Sorry”, “Komajensun”, “Feel Good”, and “KPK (Ko Por Ke)”.
Some of these tracks embrace a counter-cultural ethos exemplified by the Marlian music label, defying conventional moral standards, others delve into the complexities and contradictions of Mohbad’s own life experiences. Songs like “Komajensun” “Backside” and “Ponmo” exemplify his unapologetic embrace of postmodern themes, showcasing a disregard for traditional societal norms and an emphasis on indulgence in vices such as drugs, sexual gratification, and material wealth. However, alongside these rebellious anthems, some of his songs reflect the internal struggles and confusion that characterise his personal journey. For instance, “Feel Good”, a track nominated for the Headies Award in 2022, signals a departure from Mohbad’s earlier narratives of poverty and suffering as a struggling artist, instead hinting at a newfound sense of contentment and success. Similarly, songs like “Peace” and his most recent album, Blessed, released prior to his untimely demise, offer glimpses into the emotional turmoil and challenges associated with navigating the pitfalls of newfound fame. Mohbad’s post-Marlian Music era reflects a profound internal conflict stemming from the complexities of newfound success and the challenges it brings. Tracks like “Beast and Peace,” “Sabi,” “Ask About Me” and “Blessing” in his Blessed album reflect the internal turmoil of an artist grappling with the pressures and uncertainties of fame. These songs reflect the struggles the singer faced, an artist torn between the allure of success and the burdens it imposes on his personal and professional life.
Mohbad’s artistic journey, spanning from adversity to fame, is a narrative of personal struggle and artistic expression, echoing the archetype of the tormented artist. In the postmodern context, he embodies the essence of the suffering artist, with his life and untimely death emblematic of the inherent struggles in achieving recognition and acclaim through art. While his posthumous fame underscores the complex interplay between suffering and success in the art world, there is a compelling need to question the enduring tradition of artists enduring immense hardship for their craft. Should an artist’s posthumous acclaim be the sole validation of their talent, and if so, is this justification warranted? Are we resigned to accept this as an unalterable reality, or can we enact change?
The demand for artists to labour for their art is deeply ingrained, as art is often seen as more than just a means of livelihood — it is a pursuit of perfection and self-expression. However, the postmodern appreciation of art challenges this notion by emphasising interpretation and the audience’s experience over the artist’s intentions. In this context, artists are urged to persist until their works resonate with the eclectic tastes of the audience. Accessibility becomes paramount, as artists strive to engage with the public on a real-life level. As a result, the artist’s role becomes somewhat limited, overshadowed by the ever-changing preferences of the postmodern audience. While the demand for artists to endure torment for the sake of art may persist, the influence of postmodern culture in shaping the appreciation of art cannot be overlooked.
French essayist and literary critic, Roland Barthes, famously posited in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”. This is because, in expressive art, it is the language itself that speaks, not the artist. This concept, known as the death effect, has become a prominent aspect of postmodern art appreciation, which has contributed to the phenomenon of artists gaining recognition only after their death. In response to Barthes, French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, in his essay “What is an Author”, suggests that the author serves as a functional principle in our culture, used to limit, exclude and choose certain meanings. Rather than declaring the author dead, Foucault proposes that the author should assume the role of a symbolic figure, allowing for the proliferation of meaning without constraint.
In light of these perspectives, there is a pressing need to reconsider the role of artists in the postmodern appreciation of art – a move away from the notion of their complete erasure, and instead embracing their symbolic presence as contributors in the ongoing dialogue of artistic interpretation and meaning-making.
Yinka Adetu is an emerging culture critic with a keen focus on literature, culture, and history. He 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.