Feyi Fawehinmi: How to export Nigeria to the world

by Feyi Fawehinmi

*Another thought experiment. Don’t take it too seriously — it’s not that scientific or even serious, maybe*

So I tweeted this the other day.

It triggered a lot of replies from people saying how and where they heard Nigerian music somewhere around the world and were pleasantly surprised by it. There were so many gems but I think this one was my favourite:

When stuff like this happens, it’s safe to say the music has travelled well. Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing but how did this happen and what might one learn from it in terms of maybe replicating the same thing elsewhere?

The other day the government did a huge song and dance when 3 containers of yams left Nigeria’s shores. Most people will agree that exporting more stuff out of Nigeria (other than crude oil) won’t be a bad idea. But it often seems a lot harder than it is to achieve. And even when the country manages to do it, it is often raw materials like cashew which still undergo a value transformation elsewhere.

But music is a finished product that emanates from Nigeria. On the face of it, it should be harder to export a finished product like music which relies heavily on taste and cultural preferences for its acceptance than a packet of cashew nuts. Yet, the hard thing is seemingly done and the easy thing confounds the nation. Why?
Slow Down

2 comments from a couple of my friends who have better perception than I do might offer some clues. The first one was from Segun Demuren as a comment on my previous post on the lack of historical context to Nigerian music.

The key paragraph to note is the middle one where he talks about the ‘slowing down’ of Nigerian music. At the time it sounded interesting but I didn’t pay enough attention to it.

The second comment is from Seyi Taylor who made the point about the Ghanaian born producer Juls.

Who is Juls I hear you ask? He produced…

That last point got me thinking and inspired this blog post.
Asa Gave Y’all The Sign

A lot of the replies to my first tweet were from people saying how they heard Asa in some random place around the world. My first pleasant surprise with Nigerian music was in a really random corner on the outskirts of Singapore in 2012. Next thing Asa’s music came on ever so normally over the loudspeakers in the park.

One might say, without fear of exaggerating, that she led this current globalisation of Nigerian music. The Beautiful Imperfection album of 2010 was the one that introduced her to most people, safe to say. And all the hits on that album are noticeably…slow.

Using the Song BPM website, I tried to measure the beats per minute of the popular songs off that album and some of her popular singles.

The range is from the very slow Bamidele to the uptempo Why Can’t We. It’s safe to say 120bpm was the high point of her songs. If you check songs off her new(est) album as well, they mostly come in under 120bpm — Eyo is 80bpm.

But go back a few years to some of the biggest hits in Nigeria.

It’s not possible to think of every single hit in Nigeria over the years or we will be here all day. Remember — we are just having fun testing a theory here. No doubt there have been some slow hits in Nigeria, but on average, they seem to be around the 120bpm and above range which is quite fast. P Square’s Personally at 160bpm is probably the same as doing 20 minutes on the treadmill if you try to dance to it.
Oliver Twist to Ojuelegba

Let’s attempt to pin down the tipping point of this globalisation of Nigerian music at somewhere between D’banj’s Oliver Twist in 2012 and Wizkid’s Ojuelegba in 2014. I distinctly remember how Oliver Twist was literally everywhere in London that year. And with Ojuelegba coinciding with Apple Music as well as American stars like Alicia Keys picking it up and spreading it on Instagram (in 2015) before the remix with Drake.

This song makes me happy??? #goodvibes @wizkidayo ????

A post shared by Alicia Keys (@aliciakeys) on

So if we check the hit songs since 2015 that have really travelled, we might see if they’ve really slowed down.

Is this ‘scientific’? I can’t say for sure. But it does seem to me that Segun and Seyi do have a point about the music slowing down. Tekno’s 2 breakout hits are comfortably below 100bpm (Diana is 103bpm — tuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnneeeeee! — and Rara is 102bpm). Davido has gone from above 120bpm for Dami Duro and Skelewu to below 110 for If and Fall. Wizkid has seemingly slowed down as well.
So How To Export?

So if this theory — that foreign influence, through feedback (Alicia Keys etc) and production (Juls) has slowed down Nigerian music and made it travel further and mainstream — what might be a lesson to learn for other things Nigeria wants to export?

Lesson 1There is nothing new under the sun. Everyone does this type of thing. Here’s one of my favourite examples.

By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish. He believed that pad Thai would improve the diet of people who ate mostly rice, and that cooking pad Thai in clean pans would improve national hygiene.

Most of all, Phibun wanted to unify the country by promoting a uniquely Thai dish. Despite its Chinese origins, pad Thai stood out from the wet or dry noodle dishes sold by Chinese vendors. It was, as Penny Van Esterik writes in Materializing Thailand, “part of Phibun’s nation-building strategy to develop ‘Thai-ness’ and impose a ‘Thai Great Tradition.’”

Within several years, vendors selling pad Thai filled Thailand’s streets. Phibun’s son called it “Thailand’s first fast food.”

It may seem strange today that a politician could mandate the country’s most popular dish. But when Phibun decided to promote pad Thai, his efforts looked nothing like Michelle Obama appearing with Sesame Street characters to encourage kids to eat vegetables.

The promotion of pad Thai was the work of a military dictator who survived multiple coups and World War II — and believed that his political future and his country’s future were at stake.

I love Thai food and Pad Thai in particular. Yet it was an invention of a guy who had a different goal in mind. Today it is one of the most common Thai exports across the world. For culture to travel, it needs to be ‘remixed’ along the way for a global audience. A few years ago I spent a week in China and I spent the whole time eating KFC and Burger King as I was somewhat terrified by the Chinese food in China. The Chinese food that is exported around the world is quite different from what you get in China for sure.

Lesson 2 — Experimenting is awesome. If we say Nigerian music is now globalised and it started around 2012, then we can also say most of what happened before then was a process of trial and error till the sweet spot was hit.

Nigerian music was popular back then but it seemed to be a diaspora thing compared to now where it is just travelling on its own legs without Nigerians even being involved. The songs come on the radio all across the world and new fans are born everyday. Many countries will kill for that kind of soft power.

Lesson 3 — The Diaspora can be useful. People in the diaspora often have to inhabit multiple worlds at the same time. You have to keep in touch with your home country while being part of the country they live in. So they tend to pick up all sorts of cultural clues and see the ways in which things can or not translate across cultures.

If Juls has been an unwitting influence on Nigerian music in the last couple of years, then the fact he was born in London but raised in the UK and Ghana is more than an interesting sidenote. He’s taken the ‘Naija’ sound and remixed it for an international audience. Not everyone can (or wants to) dance as fast as Senator Ademola Adeleke.

If you’re trying music for the first time, you probably don’t want it so fast that you risk looking like a headless chicken. Doing the Azonto is tricky (it remains a personal failure of mine) but almost anybody around the world can dance to Ojuelegba. You might like a lot of pepper but most people don’t. So getting Nigerian food out there might mean a compromise or remix of the pepper content.

But the most important lesson of all is this — it is possible to produce a finished product in Nigeria and sell it around the world.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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