Millennials have gotten the worst and best rap as a generation.
To the baby boomers and generation X we are entitled lazy narcissists, caged by a self created maze of micro-aggressions and trigger warnings. But being born in the age of cellphones and the Internet has imbued us with an outward facing, culturally diverse, self-aware idealism that makes us open to tangential ideas that were never given audience before us. The Nigerian music industry has recognised this trait in millennial artists and tagged them as the “New Age”. While they have the privilege of being born in a digital, liberal age, it would do us well not to forget that rebellion and innovation is cyclical and the privileges and opportunities our “New Age” enjoys were fought for by the generation of artists before them.
They stand out because they have a fevered, almost fanatic devotion to standing out, being different in an industry that enforces conformity, exalts transient music. They’ve replaced loud, party instrumentals with moody ambient sounds that suggest despair and decadence. But you see, while their sound is enticing and different, it isn’t all that new. In fact, the only new thing that stands out is their seemingly camaraderie, alien in an industry that many would liken to a gladiator pit, full of throne seeking, territory marking sonic mercenaries.
Exceptional songwriting and musical experimentation have always gone hand in hand. While many song writers adhere to the more time-tested formula of rhyming and writing, others forge their own way with unconventional melodies, expansive narratives and complex allusionary references. Sampling especially has become integral to how a song finds its bonafides and honors its creator’s inspirations.
Nigerian music can be split into three distinct eras, the pre-Independence era, where traditional musicians were only starting to dabble with contemporary instrumentation and distribution models. Then there’s the music of the Golden era, promulgated by international music labels seeking to cash in on the prosperity of newly independent and newly oil rich Nigeria. After then came the Dark Era, up front about their politics and inspired by the corruption and decay of successive oppressive military regimes. Lagbaja, African China, Daddy Showkey and Baba Fryo and other scion of the Ajegunle movement all shot to fame on the wave of conscious music. Asa’s early catalogue was also rooted in socio-political themes as evinced by “Jailer” and “Fire on the Mountain”.
Sticking it to the man was pretty much the ‘New Age’ thing to do in those times. It didn’t matter if the message was serious and the lyrics often sad, what truly made them iconic was their ability to allow the music switch between different emotional states without tainting the song’s integrity. In African China’s “Mr President”, there is slightly toned down wailing which asserts itself in between hooks and verses. These were the undertones of sadness and still, the instrumental itself remained uptempo and danceable. It was a contradiction that always worked.
Music’s fluidity lies in its ability to bring together seemingly unrelated elements to create an entirely different sound. It mixes and matches and blends. Experimentation has always been a great part of the process. Working electronic sound effects into established/traditional musical progressions, vocal distortion, tempo changes, anything really that veers from the expected. Lagbaja for one, made great use of electronic sounds on “Gra Gra”. His voice was pitch bent into an android drone, It was a breakthrough in a time of minimal digital production.
Expanded sound libraries have also increased the rate at which old beats and tunes are remixed and remastered to fit the artistes’ present needs. Sampling was a practice but not as widespread as today. Pre-internet music saw Old Era musicians taking inspiration from limited sound libraries. Meanwhile, today’s connected artistes can rely on readily available sound libraries with thousands of samples to choose from. This is a luxury the others had little to no access and most of them had to make do with what was at their disposal and create their own unique sounds.
Despite the limitations the older artistes faced, they were still able to create music that was relevant to their time and transcendental enough to outlive the generation that created it. They established distinctive styles which played with the tones and atmosphere of the time. Their song writing was brilliant and at times universal. It is no doubt that their work has served as the foundation on which the New Age has built its new iteration of quintessential music.
For artists getting started, or just trying to revamp themselves, establishing a brand can be a dicey creative process. Your brand is the first contact your fans will make with your music and being consistent with it is important. Once you have an idea of what you’d like your brand to communicate, the next step is to convey this idea through vivid imagery and of course, music. Think about what you want listeners to think and feel when they learn about you. Weird M.C. and Lagbaja were more or less some of the Dark Era musicians who did things differently, stood out with their identity and people came to resonate with them. Weird MC, who was inspired by people like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, dressed androgynously and came to be recognised for her suits, tees, free jeans, sneakers, fro and hat style. She was one of the first mainstream female hip-hop rappers at the time. And Lagbaja was anonymous long before Sia donned her first oversized platinum blonde wig; Lagbaja made music and attended interviews in his mask and matching costume. Many still can’t recognise him sans his mask. His mask was an icon for the faceless and voiceless people in the African society. And he stuck with this persona throughout the reign of his career.
The New Age has talent. They’ve done a good job of building a remarkable following on social media and grown a fan base independent of the industry politics, commercial demands and pressure from for-profit labels. But the New Age’s goodwill seems to come more from a false camaraderie fueled by a rejection of established artists and music practices, than the kind of quality and originality that demands to be acknowledged. We need to demand more than just ‘afro-trap’ and ‘mumble rap’, made ‘African’ by a not so subtle unlicensed Fela Sample. The tools at their disposal are genre and convention defying, and perhaps its time their imaginations and craftsmanship match their tools, before the genres they’re milking fall out of fashion, and with it, them.
There is time, not much, but enough. We’d hate to see it wasted.
This story includes contributions from Debola Abimbolu, Fisayo Okare and Ehimenem Agweh.