When rapper M.I Abaga released the first single off what was supposed to become his return project ‘You rappers should fix up your life’; he started an anticipated maelstrom. Understandably, M.I rose out of relative obscurity in the mid 2000’s after spending several years battle rapping in the US, into stratospheric fame with ‘Crowd Mentality’; a song like a lot of Nigerian sleeper hits of the 2000’s, challenged the form while also packing a punch in social justice parlance. The song preached the kind of individuality that was only beginning to be eroded in the newly minted music industry, a rot that even M.I couldn’t have predicted would taint his own catalogue. Spurred by the pressures of Nigerian living and a cocktail of industry pressure, greed and a distinctly Nigerian need to circumvent process, rappers began to ‘experiment’ with sung-rap and other gimmicks to make their music sound more like the increasingly successful Nigerian afrobeats scene and genre.
This business strategy worked so well, the few legitimate record labels we do have waste no time in pressuring their new rappers to ditch the sound for a more commercially viable hybrid. The biggest documented victims of this trend is singer Skales, who in the late 2000’s was known for his highly complex rap lyrics and his engaging delivery. He wrote the now ominous song ‘Headed for a Grammy‘ in 2012 around which time the rapper had begun to be associated with singer Wizkid. A few year later, and a very public falling out saw Skales finally make it an afropop singer with an island twist who managed to get almost every person with a pulse turn his song ‘Booty Language’ viral earlier this year. When M.I refers to rappers fixing up their lives, these are the stories which come to mind.
Not that there aren’t rappers still doing amazing work, but it was clear that M.I brought to the fore and condensed the general sentiment that Nigerians had tried and failed to articulate to even the most empathetic of celebrity musicians. Nigeria’s rappers have simply not provided a robust enough approach to rap for their audience to empathize enough to financially support them. Or in local parlance, apart from small niche audiences, Nigerian rappers haven’t convinced us to give a shit about them. Industry insiders have to tried to rationalize against this for a while, before stumbling on the excuse that the Nigerian music audience is simply not exposed or complicated enough to understand anything that isn’t a afrobubblegum replica. They have accused the audience of refusing to listen to their music, to unfurl it metaphors; they have accused us of being too dumb to get ‘real’ rap.
Last week, rapper J.Cole, in the country for an official function proved this as well. A week after the release of his newest album KOD, he arrived Nigeria, dressed in a Bob Marley shirt (we’ll leave that one for another post) ready to headline the Castlelite Unlocks concert, a festival created to activate a foreign beer look to cut its own share of our vastly profitable beverage industry. The team behind CastleLite had aggressively promoted the concert through a series of social media campaigns, reaching the core of the J.Cole audience. But in reality, they didn’t have to do too much. J.Cole fans had long awaited for an opportunity like this, and fell over themselves to get tickets. Come concert day, the Eko Hotel convention center was filled to capacity and the audience bid their time through an atrocious Wizkid set and a fun but predictable Wizkid set. When J.Cole finally got on stage after an hour of levelling the sound, he literally tore the house down, performing his new catalogue and a set list curated from his old work. The Nigerian audience kept up with him at every turn, rapping along to an album only released a week, matching him lyric for lyric. It was clear that J.Cole was impressed, even he had underestimated just how much his music had infiltrated into Africa. Whatever social media hot takes that followed, one thing was sure, Nigerians ride hard for all kinds of rap, even the supposedly ‘corny’ conscious rap that J.Cole has built his career on. w
So where does that leave us?
Nigeria is hard enough as a country, so I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses to abandon purist rap for a more commerical version. But you can’t eat your cake and have it. J.Cole has built his audience through consistency, even when he was ridiculed for it, even when his potential success was threatened. But that consistency shines through in his work and connects him to his audience and maybe Nigerian rappers need to do the same. We all need to fix up our lives.