An A‑Z guide of the Nigerian music scene
Nigerian musicians are making a major impact across the globe – but in their home country, the industry has a different set of rules. Lagos-based journalist Joey Akan provides a beginner’s guide.
This is an amazing era for Nigerian music.
The sounds of the scene are penetrating markets across the globe. Drake’s mega hit One Dance was achieved with help from Wizkid, while Beyonce leaned heavily on the movement’s largest stars to birth her soundtrack album, Lion King: The Gift. In 2019, Burna Boy has been pushing for a crossover campaign with his Grammy-nominated African Giant album. The London diaspora is nurturing a tight cultural bond with Lagos and it’s become a rites of passage for Nigeria’s biggest stars – Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido – to perform at The O2 Arena. There’s also a wave of exciting new names on the scene, from Rema, to Joeboy and The Face’s cover star Naira Marley.
But compared to the US and the UK, the Nigerian music industry is, admittedly, a little chaotic. So understand the context around the contemporary Nigerian scene, here’s an A‑Z. Don’t refer to this alphabet next year – things are really moving at breakneck speed.
A is for Alté
When a new generation of Nigerian kids wanted to hear new music on radio, they upped and created an entire subculture to cater to them. Alté kids are the Nigerian youth known for creating, showcasing and amplifying fashion styles and genre-bending music which strongly differ from the dominant local standards.
B is for Baby
Not a child, but an affectionate name for your love interest. Nevermind that these men and women are full-grown adults. When you fall in love in Nigeria, your default pet name is baby. You might have grey hair, or wrinkled beyond measure, but in Nigerian music, love infantilises you again. “Baby this, baby that, baby your waist has killed me.”
C is for Cash
Cold hard cash is all that works in the Nigerian music industry. Davido can’t stop singing about it and getting it. The ladies seem to have unlimited access to enormous amounts locked up in banks, and industry execs have named it as the not-so-secret ingredient for blowing up. It gets into the hand of everyone except underground rappers in Lagos. They prefer beef.
D is for December
While the US and Europe celebrate the summer as the peak period for their concerts, Nigerian music doesn’t move like that. We wait for a proper holiday in December, with cold Harmattan breeze, and the dry air to prevent concertgoers from screaming too loudly when they finally smoke their loud during Wizkid’s live set. You get extra enjoyment points when you don’t live in Africa, but can enjoy a second summer groove in Lagos.
E is for Energy
Since it became cool to use the word energy, everyone looks out for it. Artists can’t perform unless the fans closest to the stage can project it. Fans can exactly give the energy you need, if you can’t inspire it. Energy gives energy, more like the chicken and egg situation. So nobody performs, nobody enjoys any music, and every side can say “I wasn’t feeling his/her/their energy,” to deflect from a lack of skill or understanding of the music.
F for Fela Kuti
The late, great pioneer incorporated local rhythms into funk and jazz to create a new genre – Afrobeat. His political activism through Nigeria’s years of military dictatorship gave his music legendary status, and so did his expansive lifestyle. He once married 27 women in one day. Kuti was arrested at least 200 times but was only jailed once (for a currency smuggling charge, which Amnesty International say was a sham) by the regime of former army major Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 1983 and returned in 2015 as Nigeria’s president. Kuti’s influence on the scene is powerful – from the musical aspect (Burna Boy samples him on many of his songs) to his rebellious spirit (Naira Marley compares himself to Kuti on Am I a Yahoo Boy).
G is for God
High above the music industry, beyond the efforts of scheming execs, circling lawyers, frustrated promoters, lying middlemen, and curious journalists sits God, who is believed to have the final say over every decision. Do you want to launch a record label? You pray to him. Your artist has a big deal to sign? You implore his grace. And when you inevitably get scammed? He has to punish your aggressors. He’s always in everyone’s business.
H is for Highlife
It’s not a life of getting high all day. Highlife is a core genre of Nigerian music fused with other elements to create pop records. It has its roots in Ghana, but it’s travelled far and wide, before being embraced by Nigerians, and reinvented in this market. The music, which is packed full of heavenly guitars, maybe you feel spiritually high.
I is for Ibadi
The Yoruba word for butt. Ass-worship is the favourite pastime of singers and the songwriters that feed them the lyrics. You can find it in every pop song, glorified as the world’s most magnificent wonder.
J is for Journalists
A pesky bunch. Music journalism in Nigeria has evolved. We went from having no one covering the art, to this day where we have anyone who can turn in an unedited 500-word thinkpiece calling themselves a music critic. But the new talent mostly enjoys the support and coverage, so while the quality varies, the current wave of music journalism is welcomed.
K is for Kapaichumarimarichopaco
Nobody knows where this word came from. No one knows what it means or to what end it is being deployed. But rapper Zlatan Ibile says it all the time before he drops any fire verse. It might be a spell, summoning ancient creative spirits. Or maybe it simply means “get ready to dance.” Either way, the fans love to scream along with Zlatan.
L is for Lagos
Nigeria’s commercial capital also doubles as the continent’s hub for Afrobeats. Home to the country’s only functioning sea port, Lagos contains the headquarters of many arms of the business. The media, the tech companies, the distribution, and a rich culture that continues to inspire people. You also get to party a lot.
M is for Marlians
These are followers of The Face’s cover star Naira Marley – a controversial artist who got huge with his 2018 World Cup anthem Issa Goal before gaining notoriety by defending internet fraud and introducing a dance craze referencing masturbation, which was inspired by a short stint in prison. Marlians believe that life should be enjoyed, not stressful. They can be identified in public when they dance Zanku and scream “Marlians!”
N is for Numbers
Numbers is the new buzzword for everyone who wants to sound smart. Artists use it to brag smartly about how much their art is moving. Ad agencies use it to screen out the ones who claim to be more than who they are. Cynics believe that somewhere in India or Korea, there’s a farm where all those lovely streams come from. Anyway, in the Nigerian industry you need good numbers for success to come your way.
O is for OG
OGs are important for the culture. They are custodians of experience and crucial history. But these days, anyone can claim to be one. Once you have three solid years of anything, someone knocks on your door one day, with a badge, a beret and a bible for induction. The years that validate OG status continues to grow smaller. The internet gets all the blame here.
P is Payola
Everyone will swear on their life publicly that they never engage in the culture of payola. But once the lights go off and the cameras stop rolling, they move strange, and get all the airtime on radio and screen time on TV. You will find them as buddies with the most influential media execs and in the housewarming parties of On-Air-Personalities. That’s how they get things done. Nobody pays payola. I also have an Island in the Sahara to sell to you.
Q is for Queen
Every lady who makes music wants to be queen of something. For Nigeria, the queen of Afrobeats is still a contested issue. Some people believe Yemi Alade should carry the crown. Others say Tiwa Savage owns the tiara.
R is for Record Label
The record label structure is dying in Nigeria. People either can’t sell their music or scale their business after they lose their top talents. The emancipated artists then go on to set up their own labels. Most never make it past the first year. Those who survive three years organise masterclasses on how to teach others to make it through year one.
S is Show Money
The lifeblood of Nigerian music. The music cannot be sold here for good bucks, leaving local artists with limited streams of cash. Show-money (performance fees) come in handy as the next big thing, and the hill upon which everyone wants to die on. An artist can give his album for free if it means getting to play more shows.
T is for Ten Percent
Every middleman in Nigeria is all about their 10%. Managers work extra hard for it. Consultants pursue it. And businessmen will not entertain jokes about it. The 10% is the Holy Grail of the industry. 10% here, 10% there, that’s how generational wealth is built here.
U is for Underrated
Once in every generation, there’s an artist who makes music that is worthy of all the highest honours, but somehow gets to be slept on. Those artists continue to work hard, hopeful that one day, people will wake up to their greatness. People never do. Once you go ‘underrated’, there’s almost no coming back.
V is for Vibes
There’s a long-running argument in Nigeria on why artists choose to focus on vibes (how the music makes you feel), rather than a healthy infusion of lyrics. Pop music in this country is generally designed for escapism. It’s supposed to give good vibes. If it doesn’t, that song won’t go far. Bad vibes chase the money away.
W is for Wizkid
You can’t talk about contemporary Nigerian music without the contributions of Wizkid. Loved beyond measure, hated without explanation, Wizkid’s music has been at the top of Nigerian music for the better part of a decade, and is currently one of the bright spots of Africa’s push for cultural crossover into non-traditional markets.
X is for X
The industry is hard, and nobody knows what exactly they are doing. So as expected, when things go south, or a deal falls through, or the DJs only cable decides to get fried by some electrical fault. If you have any sense of responsibility about the situation, you escape – or, as we say in Nigeria, you ‘X’.
Everyone else might know it as a American web services provider, but it actually means cybercrime and internet fraud here. And some of the money from these scammers makes it into the music industry as funding to be splashed on a concerts, promotion or recording. After releasing their song Am I a Yahoo Boy in May this year, Naira Marley and Zlatan were arrested by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – who are supposed to crack down on yahoo yahoo in Nigeria. Marley will be in court on the 11th and 12th an 11-count charge of conspiracy, possession of counterfeit credit cards and fraud. He has pleaded not guilty and maintains that he is innocent.
Z is for Zanku
It’s a hard dance, but with the right technique, you will be alright. Zanku, popularised by Zlatan Ibile is best delivered with beats combining repeated foot tapping or pounding, with hands held aloft, or in cross, and finished with a simulation of kicking down a door. Variations include a faster footwork which is equivalent of a full-body workout.