by Wilfred Okiche
How come Nigerians swallow all the sub-standard nonsense all around us – and how do we snap out of it?
Those who were around at the start of the new millennium will remember that Kennis music was top dog as far as record labels were concerned. There were indigenous competitors such as Dove Records owned by Nelson Brown, but with founders such as Kenny ‘Keke’ Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D1’ Adeneye who had imprints in both the entertainment and business angles of the industry, it was hard to touch Kennis. At the label’s prime, it boasted artistes like 2face Idibia, Sound Sultan, and Kenny St. Brown (yes, she was a thing once upon a time.)
Fast forward to 2015 and Kennis music finds itself unable to come up with the hits- singles or artistes- that can guarantee its relevance in today’s fast changing world. Matter of fact, for the last 5 years the label has been bleeding talent, grabbing headlines only when another B-Lister announces their exit. An ignoble fate for a label that once fancied itself ‘’Africa’s Number 1’’ but one that is hardly surprising considering the signs were visible for a while.
The rise and fall of Kennis Music is a prime example of the Nigerian audience’s fickle behaviour when it comes to things that rock the culture. In today, out tomorrow is the name of the game and only the fleet-footed can manage to hold on and remain relevant long after the initial fascination has left the building.
Change is constant
A wise man once observed that the only thing constant in this world is change and indeed the history of mankind can be demarcated using major events as milestones. Thus historians can look at the world in terms of World War 1, the Holocaust, the Nigerian Civil War, and America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Medical scholars and epidemiologists can think in terms of discovery of anaesthetics, arrival of antimicrobials, the sexual revolution and the rise of HIV.
It follows therefore, that life as we know it is in a constant state of flux. With every passing minute, something no matter how minute or insignificant is happening, and every second is really just a cascade triggering a complex constant positive feedback mechanism. Going by this logic, everything about the world is subject to change and nothing is expected to last forever. Pop culture follows the same beat.
But some things last longer than others and even in the midst of a rapidly shrinking collective attention cycle, there remains people and events that manage to outlast. In the United States for instance, evergreen singer Barbra Streisand had her 35th studio album, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway debut at number one on the Billboard album charts in August, trouncing new efforts from contemporary and glossier acts, Britney Spears and Florida Georgia Line.
That the 74-year-old diva is able to move such big numbers (150,000 copies) first week is hardly a surprise. What befuddles is that the Encore album is a non-traditional one, consisting of Broadway show tunes with no promotional singles released prior. Back home, Innocent ‘2baba’ Idibia is still able to generate more interest in his work than a healthy portion of today’s trendiest artistes.
The simplistic, misleading explanation for phenomena like this would be to just assume that with maturity comes a certain guarantee of quality in terms of output. This leads to the assumption that a Streisand record instinctively boasts more quality than a Britney Spears record or that 2baba will always out sing a Wizkid whenever their material is compared. That audiences will instinctively flock to Streisand or 2baba because they are familiar with their stuff and expect a certain standard.
This isn’t necessarily the case as reviews for Spears’ Glory and Streisand’s Encore were equally mostly positive and Wizkid has proven to be as lazy and reductive as 2baba when need be. His Ayo sophomore album is as weak as 2baba’s The Ascension misfire and antecedence is not always a useful pointer.
It has long been proven that the market does not always respond to quality and in any case, quality, as applied to music, movies or any other form of art is entirely a subjective matter. People like what people like. And what people like today may come in the form of the latest Asa album, or the next trifling single from MC Galaxy.
So for all other aspects of the culture that are consigned by the constant nature of change to last only a while, what is responsible for determining just how long a certain item stays in fashion and in the people’s good graces?
A revisit of the quality phenomenon is welcome at this point. Now the truth remains that quality is most likely to ensure that a body of work or idea merits further contemplation but quality also assumes that there is a benchmark level with which to measure what works and what doesn’t. For pop culture, the bar isn’t exactly high. Historically associated with poor education and the lower class, the term popular culture as deciphered from its 19th-century origins, is a distillation of what is left over when it has been decided by certain tastemakers what high culture is. So in order to appeal to the masses, majority of whom have not enjoyed the privilege of an Ivy League education or the opportunities to travel widely, what is considered pop culture has to be dumbed down or diluted.
Participants who seek to contribute to the culture therefore have a low barrier of entry. The idea is to seek for the lowest common denominator, strike a nerve and watch the people respond favourably. But something as seemingly straightforward as this has proven difficult to manage.
In the case of Kennis Music, the label came of age at a time contemporary pop music as it is now recognized was struggling to get a foothold on audience imagination. There were pockets of success littered around but there was as yet no successful model that could serve as a template for building future music careers. The golden era of foreign labels like EMI and Polygram was effectively over and even locals like Tabansi were no longer considered relevant.
Kennis Music contributed its part to building the industry and while a lot of its output resonated with the public and received plenty buy in, truth is even by pop culture’s dumbed down standards, their stuff barely made the cut in terms of quality. Specializing in hip-hop and R&B with a dash of dancehall at the time, Kennis Music’s patented hits were cuts from KC Presh, Tony Tetuila and Azadus, all artistes who managed to churn out hits in their day but were really marginally talented at best.
Perhaps it was with the rapper (for want of a better term) named Eedris Abulkareem that the label was ultimately demystified. Fresh from a successful run with Tony Tetuila and Eddy Montana as one-third of the super group, Remedies, Eedris Abdulkareem launched a solo career whose spectacular run lasted between 2000 to 2004. Within that 4 year period, Abdulkareem became the biggest thing in hip-hop, credited with releasing the first mainstream rap diss track, Wackawikee MCs, an all-out attack on the then establishment poster boys. Sparing not even his former bandmates, Eedris Abdulkareem went for the jugular taking down the likes of Tony Tetuila (‘’…you gotta thank Remedies. Without Remedies you ain’t sh_t.’’) and the Plantashun Boiz (‘’…you gotta thank 2face. He’s the plantation y’all niggas are the boys.’’)
This honesty and adversary tactic was embraced, never mind that of all these acts, Eedris Abdulkareem as MC was actually the wackiest and his lyricism practically non-existent. It did not stop him from enjoying a red-hot spell dropping hits like Mr. Lecturer and Jaga Jaga and he was even voted to participate in Nigeria’s Olympic torch relay.
But karma is a bitch and it took another troublesome rapper with a big mouth to upset Abdulkareem’s perch on the pecking order. Ruggedman’s Ehen landed in 2003 and it was like a tsunami, sweeping everyone in its path. This for a change, was a guy with actual rapping skills and the bravery and honesty to cast himself as anti-establishment, which Kennis represented.
Ruggedman was vicious, as he was the first notable person to draw Nigeria’s attention to the fact that Eedris Abdulkareem could not rap to save his life. He compared Abdulkareem’s skills with that of his 5-year-old nephew and advised him to try using recognizable words and he ‘’just might sound nice.’’ This marked the moment Nigerians stopped taking Abdulkareem’s shit and the end of Abdulkareem’s pretensions at being a serious rapper. This singular track was responsible for the unravelling of Eedris Abdulkareem’s career. The beef with President Obasanjo, the altercation with American rapper 50 Cent, they were just nails in the coffin.
Ruggedman did not stop at Kennis Music’s talent. He revealed behind the scenes moves of how Kennis music head honchos Keke and D1 attempted to blacklist him from major industry events and opportunities, uncovering the duo as petty and intolerant. By the time the mass exodus of talent started at the label, there was little sympathy left for the guys whose dominance of music, television, and radio was beginning to grate.