The sixth BrymO album arrived with a splash.
Not the kind usually orchestrated by major record labels with huge publicity spends at their disposal. This was more organic, gimmicky perhaps; but just as effective. Oso (Yoruba for wizard) was released quietly, just like most BrymO projects on 27, March 2018. The video for the lead single, Heya! which followed hours later, spoke volumes.
BrymO, clad in nothing but a loin cloth, his gluteal region magnificently displayed, was the hard focus. Directed by Ayomikun Oludoyi for NVMB3R production, the video, consisting mostly of close up shots of BrymO, working a piano and performing against the backdrop of a fast-moving Lagos City, was an immediate internet sensation.
There was the excitement of a bare-assed BrymO, visible for all to see, but there was also subtext. The lyrics, just like the song’s stripped-to-bare-minimum arrangement, allowed for a lot of inference. In just under five minutes, BrymO managed to comment on colonialism, capitalism and consumerism.
Heya! isn’t one of BrymO’s best songs, not buy a mile. The lyrics are too uninvolved, the melody too slight to stand the test of time. But the video will be remembered for a long time. If for nothing else, as the one in which BrymO went naked for the sake of art.
Naturally, the reactions were divided. Profound artistic expression or crass exhibitionism, the Internet couldn’t quite agree. But at least for an entire day, on Twitter and on Facebook, BrymO, and his art, were not just trending topics, but center of attention. Right where he both belong.
Patience and Goodluck
As far as Nigerian music is concerned, BrymO is somewhat of an anomaly.
He makes music that doesn’t sound like anyone else on popular radio. His lyrics aren’t always literal, loaded with well couched ruminations on love and life. He refers to himself boldly in the third person. He will put out music videos to promote his music from time to time, but he isn’t necessarily bound to them.
BrymO sells physical copies of his albums far beyond the price of the market average. He isn’t the humblest guy on the block, given to Twitter rants where he makes claims of inventing his own genre of music. Recently, he caused quite the stir on social media when he declared himself at 32 years old, the greatest artiste of his time.
No small boast, coming from a singer who despite briefly attaining the highest echelons of pop superstardom, chose to trade it all for a less visible but more self-satisfying spot as an artist, in tune with his muse, and speaking directly to a cross section of cultivated fans.
Any other recording artiste of BrymO’s generation, confident enough to make such a boast would instantly be dismissed, put in their place when the limitations of their realities are placed alongside the absurdity of their delusions.
But BrymO? There is something special about the man. Something rare, something true. This makes it all the more difficult to cast aside his occasional rants as the ravings of a fellow under the influence. In a little over a decade, Brymo has put out six studio albums, five of them as an independent artiste, plus a sole label effort. He’s paid his dues.
One of those artistes who have gone beyond the hype to produce a body of work that can speak volumes, BrymO’s career trajectory is even more remarkable considering the hurdles he had to scale to arrive at some level of stability.
His first album Brymstone, released in 2007 was a minor affair. Without a major label to give wings to his efforts, the album went by unnoticed and Brymo resorted to distributing copies personally within his immediate environment. His second, Son of a Kapenta, a much more lavish, if hopelessly flawed enterprise boasts slick, up to the minute production values combining Fuji influences with contemporary pop/techno sounds. Interesting enough for a debut, the record simply wasn’t given the full big label push despite BrymO’s high profile contract with Chocolate City.
The botched roll out of Son of a Kapenta was merely a foretaste of the very public irreparable breakdown of relations that would follow shortly between Brymo and Chocolate City. Without missing a beat, BrymO came through the very next year with Merchants, Dealers & Slaves, a stark pivot from the commercial inclinations of Son of a Kapenta. Venturing into the artistic territory that would mark the rest of his career output, M,D&S was followed in almost quick succession by the fabulous threesome of Tabula Rasa, Klitoris and Oso.
If Son of a Kapenta marked the start of BrymO 2.0, M,D&S was a necessary rebirth, an aggressive reorganization that marked the beginning of BrymO’s artistic unveiling. He was no longer a regular pop star, manufactured to craft hits, sing hooks and keep the wheels of fame chugging along. He was on his way to a more terrifying but no less rewarding expedition.
By the time the BrymO ship birthed with Oso, the former Chocolate City in house vocalist had scored one of contemporary music’s most exceptional runs, one characterized by a quiet consistency and an almost slavish devotion to quality. In five years, BrymO put out four critically acclaimed discs housing a healthy number of future classics and sleeper hits. In his own way, BrymO helped deepen the alternative space and position it as a viable entity.
Brymo, Son of a Kapenta
Born Olawale Ashimi in the back corners of Okokomaiko, a satellite hub in Lagos to a carpenter father, BrymO inherited his singing gift from his petty trader mother who regularly put her own spin on popular Fuji and folk songs of her day. His father was of Muslim faith but his mother came from a family of practicing Christians. It was in between both worlds that BrymO was raised and this day, he chooses not to profess any particular faith.
He started singing while in secondary school and came together with three of his friends to start a musical group. Aliens, as the group was named, hung around for a while before the realities of growing up came in the way of constant rehearsals. BrymO went solo, performing in and around the Okokomaiko axis. He didn’t leave the area till he was eighteen and long after he found superstardom, his parents held on longer to their familiar environment.
He describes his first album, Brymstone as his worst body of work but credits it with helping him get a foot in the music business. Sponsored by a business minded person, BrymO cut a video for Shawty, the record’s lead single but a hoped for distribution deal with Alaba market failed to pan out. MI, a bright new star in the rap game, liked Shawty and expressed intentions of working together. Denrele Edun, then working with Soundcity, facilitated the hook up and Brymo joined a team- also consisting of Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince- on the verge of gripping the nation’s attention.
The 2011 Ice Prince single, Oleku made BrymO an overnight sensation. Produced by Jesse Jagz, the song opened with BrymO confidently stomping through a chorus that was gigantic and memorable enough to make up for Ice Prince’s relatively nondescript bars (One, two, three I win like wrestling/…Too many songs but mine is latest)
On account of his startling work on songs by MI (Action Film) and Jesse Jagz (L-O-V-E U), as well as on Choc Boiz anthems like Represent, BrymO became known as the hook guy. His voice, throaty, robust and refreshing, arrived bearing a lilt tilting towards more traditional sounds like Fuji and Juju but he kept his delivery very much in the pop realm, without losing any of his roots.
It wasn’t till his Chocolate City solo debut, Ara, that BrymO proved he was a full-fledged artiste in his own right. The video for Ara, presented predominantly in monochrome, with occasional bursts of color embodied some of the elements that have remained with BrymO till the present.
Deliberately vague lyrics suggesting something deep, shots of Eyo masquerades existing alongside western ballet dancers. The air of mystery could be a metaphor something quite profound, or it could mean nothing at all. That has always been the BrymO shtick. Never serve everything on a platter, retain a sense of wonder, and even when the art does not aspire to anything higher, maintain that mysterious layer.
Even after signing a record deal with Chocolate City, BrymO didn’t quite blend in seamlessly. As the only singer in the group, he claims he was not invited to meetings where major decisions concerning the team were held and was largely treated as expendable. As the label mismanaged the release of Son of a Kapenta through song leaks and poor promotion, BrymO decided he’d had enough. He wanted out. The label insisted he see out his contract which tied him down for three more years and two follow up albums. He announced –on Twitter- in May 2013 that he had quit Chocolate City.
What followed was a bitter, drawn out battle that had both parties unleash the worst of themselves. In courtrooms and on social media, newspapers and online blogs, the case raged on, coming to a conclusion only after a court resolution gave way to a mutual settlement.
To better appreciate BrymO and his impact on the culture, it is important to understand where exactly he is coming from. This May, he unceremoniously declared himself the greatest artiste of his generations on Twitter. It isn’t the first time BrymO would describe himself or his craft in such superlative terms but as usual the outrage machine went to work. ‘’How dare he?’’ ‘’Who is he to say such a thing?’’ Many queried instinctively without taking the time to listen to what was not being said.
Statements like that are useful for grabbing attention, especially when they are issued from social media handles, directly to the target audience but BrymO is only playing the fame game, using the platform available to him to speak his truth as loudly as he can, but also troll. If that is what it takes to get people to sit up and listen then so be it. He gave a revealing explanation of himself on Pulsetv in December last year when he said, ‘’For me, the bulk of the things that I say online is to draw peoples’ attention to what is important. A time will come when there will be a Nigerian artiste that plays the guitar as well as Carlos Santana…but for now I feel like very little attention is paid to content so every opportunity I get to make people say ehen! What is that? I use it.’’
But are there any truth to his claims?
In terms of quantity, BrymO’s output presently stands at four albums in the last five years- the compilation album, Trance, released for international markets makes it an album for every year. The only contemporary artiste who has outperformed this level of consistency is rapper Olamide who manages to release an album every December. Last year, Olamide released Lagos Na Wa, his seventh record overall and fifth since 2013’s Baddest Guy Ever Liveth. This number does not account for 2 Kings, his duet with rapper, Phyno.
But where Olamide is infinitely more prolific, and has secured a permanent spot on the mainstream, the quality of his output has been less than standard, with most of his albums suffering from shoddy mixing, mastering and even songwriting.
Former label mate, MI has had four solo albums as well as a couple of other side projects. While his three Illegal Music mixtapes have been unimpeachable, the same cannot be said of his solo albums. Each one since 2008’s debut, Talk About It has received considerably less critical acclaim than the one before. And 2018’s vibe heavy, Rendezvous: The Playlist was welcomed with a shrug.
Jesse Jagz who used to be part of the Chocolate City family was at some point BrymO’s sole rival in terms of artistic fearlessness and an unwavering commitment to excellence. In a space of four years, Jagz was responsible for three of contemporary music’s finest discs, each of them journeying in different directions. He attempted dance pop for his Chocolate City debut, Jagz of all Trades, dancehall for the independent Thy Nation Come and rap for Royal Niger Company. This hot streak came to a disappointing end when he reteamed with Chocolate City last year to put out the self-indulgent Odysseus
2Baba can be counted upon to score hit singles, almost fifteen years after venturing out as a solo artiste but when it comes to albums, his record is spotty, with classics like Face 2 Face and Grass 2 Grace existing alongside duds like The Unstoppable and The Ascension. The now defunct Psquare had a terrific run while it lasted, culminating in an impressive six album run. The Okoye brothers may have moved millions of copies in their heyday, but no one would think to go to them for timeless art. Asa and Omawumi have three solid albums a piece but they don’t touch BrymO for consistency in delivering.
The price of genius
2013’s Merchant, Dealers & Slaves was always going to be a troublesome sell. It was BrymO essentially torching the brief but eventful pop star phase of his career and emerging from the ashes, just like a famous Game of Thrones character, unburnt. The BrymO on M,D&S was brave yet vulnerable, spinning indelible yarns of hard luck, missed chances and tough love.
Trading the unchecked dazzle of Jesse Jagz for the restrained glory of Mikky Me, BrymO incorporated folk, rock and pop elements into one sassy sound that would form the basis for the rest of his career going forward. Songs like Eko with its reliance on Afrobeat soul and funk would be replicated in the future, on the cautionary tale, Prick no get shoulder from Tabula Rasa and on the nostalgic, Alajo Somolu. He would also explore his fascination with social commentary with the scorching Down– Heya! Is actually a pale copy- while maintaining a sense of mystery hinted at on Son of a Kapenta’s Ara with Se bo’timo.
A record as iconic as M,D&S should never have been dumped on an unsuspecting public, especially coming from an artiste enjoying high profile pop status like BrymO. It was an almost 360 degree pivot from everything that had come before. Far from the madding crowd of dance ready beats and call and chant responses, the audience needed to be prepped and guided through.
For Brymo and his team understandably, the suddenness was the only way to go. Chocolate City was threatening to put a lid on his career while demanding he see out his existing contract. Funds weren’t limitless but he was defiant, and desperate enough to appreciate that the music was all he had left, his ace in the hole
The record paid the price for it. Despite its instant classic status- at least by critic standards- only few people ever got to listen to it. Initially available exclusively online, it was only a year later, when a federal high court granted him the freedom to make and distribute new music, that physical copies of the record made it to the shelves.
In 2014, BrymO took the template for M,D& S, improved upon it and delivered what some have called his magnum opus. He named the record Tabula Rasa, after he picked up on the words from a judge during one of his numerous court appearances.
The opportunity that Tabula Rasa presented was a form of starting over, free from hostilities and label conflicts. While M,D& S was deeply cynical, unsurprisingly so, Tabula Rasa is more accessible, with BrymO finding a happier place within to make songs like Back to Love and Never Look Back. Less a departure from M,D and S, and more a companion piece, Tabula Rasa is cheerier, but stinging with the same shot of bitterness. For BrymO, it was freedom but even freedom comes at a price.
On the bizarrely titled Klitoris, BrymO finally embraced something akin to hope.
Not as troubled, no longer as brooding, happy go lucky BrymO was a welcome departure, jubilant on the churchy, throwback feel of Something Good is Happening and dishing out good vibes on the positive plea, Happy Memories.
As an artiste, BrymO remains without peer.
Having a recognizable name from his pop heyday has been beneficial, as it afforded him the luxury of building anew from an existing foundation but he has remained committed to the very hard work of building a formidable discography that bigger selling artistes can only dream about.
He practically had to start from scratch to nurture a loyal fan base that can not only be trusted to purchase his albums, but regularly up venues like Terrakulture arena and Freedom Park for his headlining shows like Organized Chaos. At such events, the BrymO faithful gather to watch an explosive performer pay tribute to his convictions.
The journey has been rewarding so far, but if there is any person capable of sabotaging his efforts so far, it is BrymO himself. Upholding strong opinions are understandable but they tend to go down better when couched in diplomatic finesse.
BrymO doesn’t bother with all of that. He once advised a fellow who attempted to shake him down on social media for some money to pay his fees to quit school- BrymO did quit Lagos State University in his second year. He also insinuated that the black man is the cause of his own suffering, both home and abroad and is easily dismissive of his colleagues who have decided to pitch their tent on the pop side of the fence.
BrymO’s claims to greatness may yet be premature, but if there is any one musician working today who has earned the right to sing one’s own praises boldly, he is the one.
No one else comes close.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.