What Is The Problem With Nigerian Music? – Part 1

The Nigerian music scene has always been vibrant though the acceptance of its brand of music has largely been local with a few Nigerians in diaspora helping to spread its popularity to sub saharan Africa. Unfortunately, much as they may want us to believe, our artistes are largely unknown outside Africa, of course, except among Africans in diaspora.

Sunday Adegeye popularly known as King Sunny Ade was the first African to be nominated twice for music’s highest honours, the Grammies, in the 1980s. Son of Afrobeat music legend Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, has also been nominated for a Grammy award three times in the world music category in 2003, 2010 and 2012. Both have never won.

ice-princeIt is unfortunate that while the Nigerian music scene can be considered to be at height of its vibrancy ever, not much achievement has been made in making our music truly international. I was priviledged to watch the 2013 BET music award a few months back when Ice Prince was given an award for best African act, the largely black American audience had never heard of him. To attest to the quality of Ice Prince‘s 2010 rap release, “Oleku”, it is an original and innovative rap release that would continue to rank in my top ten of Nigerian music releases for a very long time.

So, the question is, What is the problem with the Nigerian brand of Music? To have a better understanding, perhaps we should start by going down memory lane as i know it.

The pre 1970s witnessed the birth and popularity of a number of music genres that included Highlife, Juju, Fuji (Were) and Afrobeat. Equally popular were the creators and big propents of these genres which included Nigeria’s music great, Fela Ransome-Kuti (Later known as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti) ,Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, Oliver de Coque, Nico Mbarga , Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and a host of others.

The 1980s saw the emergence of the hip hop/RnB genre, slugging it out with the aforementioned, hugely popular music genres. Naturally, this genre was popular with the youth of that time and no party was complete without the music of Kris Okotie, Dizzy K Falola, Jide Obi and Felix Liberty.

By the end of the 1980s, the popularity of RnB had taken a huge nose dive with only the likes of Alex Okorigwe “Alex O” that was keeping the flame burning in his own way.

By the early 1990s, Hip Hop music was very dead.

The reggae/ragga genre that got re-introduced in the late 1980s had now become firmly rooted with about every new musician coming into the scene having the tag “Rasta” afixed to his name, with claims of “I & I just come from Ethiopia!”. Perhaps the greatest of this era was Majekodunmi Fasheke “Majek Fashek”. Others were Ras Kimono and Orits Wiliki. Nigeria’s brand of reggae music was hugely popular in sub saharan Africa. I remember that i could sing most of the tracks from these guys from top to bottom. However, long before the turn of the century, Reggae music also went belly up!

However, in the midst of this chaos came a group of boys who called themselves “Emphasis“. They created a reawakening of the hip hop brand popularizing the Nigerian HipHop flavour as we now know it today – music lyrics with a huge mix of local dialects and pidgin English, hugely influenced by black American beats. They had fairly decent airplay. Charlie Boy, Dr. Alban‘s cousin, probably had the biggest airplay of this era for this genre with his biker, bad boy persona.

To be continued…


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  • Hello Wale….lovely write up. I remember all too well those Nigerian artists of the 80s and 90s like Onyeka Onwenu, Christy Essien-Igbokwe. I was a huge fan of Emphasis and met and married one of their members…..the one who used to be known as Mouth MC. I’m enjoying the explosion of Nigerian music and agree with Elena…..they need better exposure and promotion. With regards to originality, I think it’s there already but there needs to be some confidence for it to come out. Love articles like these…..please keep ’em coming.

    • Thank you for your comments Jules. A real privilege having someone close to the music icon make comments here. My deep regards to him.

  • Elena Williams

    Nigerian music is amazing, some of the best in the world. I also cannot understand why it is not much more popular and international in scope. I only came across it, as an English person, because I was fortunate to be introduced by some Nigerian friends. Now I love it and listen to it almost every day. It cheers me up and lifts my spirits. There’s something about the wonderful spirit behind it, the beats, sounds and harmonies which are so beautiful and unique!

    I’m no expert but I suspect the problem lies with exposure and promotion. I feel sure that if more people were exposed to the music, then it would become much more popular internationally. Perhaps if more international artists collaborate with Nigerian musicians, then this might help too.

    The first Nigerian artist I was introduced to (aside from Fela Kuti) was Flavour and I must confess I love his music. It is beautiful and uplifting. After him, many more have followed…

    However, I do sometimes feel sad when I hear Nigerian songs and see videos which portray a very materialistic approach to life – the expensive cars, the (partially dressed) women etc. It is sad that the beautiful spirit of Nigerian music would get polluted with these influences.

    Although I love much of Flavour’s music, I have to disagree with his portrayal of women in the video Shake… I mean could we imagine a row of men lining up and shaking their behinds in that way…? Never! It is demeaning and degrading. I know you could argue that a lot of western music and culture objectifies women too. True. However, that does not mean that Nigerian music and musicians need to follow these negative trends. Sex might sell, but respect for self and others are more important principles to follow, I feel.

    As a religiously minded person (I’m a Baha’i) I also appreciate that some Nigerian music makes mention of God, Nigerian culture being more God-centred than some other cultures, as well as appreciating Nigerian Christian music in general.

    You could argue that music is “spiritual food for soul and heart”. My feeling is that this is one of the reasons why Nigerian music is so inspiring and uplifting – it is infused with the wonderful spirit of the Nigerian people:)

    Baha’u’llah (Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith) gives us a warning about our approach towards music: “Take heed, however, lest listening thereto should cause you to overstep the bounds of propriety and dignity… make it not, therefore, as wings to self and passion. Truly, We are loath to see you numbered with the foolish.”

    I believe that music should be used for worthy and noble purposes. The Baha’i Faith states that music should be “a ladder for the soul”. It is “a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on high”. I believe that the beauty and strength of the Nigerian spirit which lies behind the music, assist us in this process and I feel blessed to be able to listen to Nigerian music. It certainly lifts me up, as the P Square song tells us “Bunieya Enu”…..

    • Hi Elena, read your comments twice. Honestly, i dont think i could have put it together as well as you did. Your words indeed captured my views about it all. I honestly do not think there is a need to conclude this write up as the comments made sums up what i had in mind.

      • Elena Williams

        Oh thank you Wale, you are so kind with your words. I’m glad you agree:) Hug to you:)

  • I have often asked myself this question… Why is it that Nigerian music with all the vibrancy we have at home and even in many part of africa is unable to conquer the world. The answer is simple. Our music lacks originality.. our music is without a soul. With the exception of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen ( A guy so revered that The greatest hit of Red Hot Chili Peppers give a tribute to him as one of their inspiration) and to some extent King Sony Ade.. Many of our artist have failed to create a unique sound .. something that captivates the world.

    I like to fancy myself as a create fan of music and as thus have an open mind when it comes to music. Growing up I got over rated with popular music and nowadays take interest in world and folk music. The sheer number of materials out there simply puts our artist to shame. For all the swags of Dbanj and co I do not see any reason why any of our popular hit would appeal to audience outside of Africa. The world would always see our music as poor imitation of Pop.

    The only way to create a nitche is to sing to the world a new tune, something Unique to Nigeria, something which speaks our culture and tradition, expressed in our talking drums and traditional musical percussion. This is what our West African Brothers in places like Mali, Senegal have done right. Legends like Ismael Lo, Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Baaba Maal, Salif Kaita, Youssou n’dour etc.. This are guys who are recognized world over as the voice of Africa. The are legends who have tons of Grammies and other award to show.

    What we have in nigeria are people who just try to translate rap and hiphop into local dialect. Its might sell and have a mass appeal within our shores and a little outside of it. To the rest of the world it is largely unknown (at best) or seen as some annoying wannabe music without a soul or originality.

  • spacyzuma

    I grew up listening to many of these old Nigerian songs, and watching some of them on TV.

    For years, I’ve been searching the internet for some of these songs and artists like Daniel Wilson, Fellyx and Mozzyx, Sunny Okosun, Ras Kimono, Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Onyeka Onwenu, etc… No childhood birthday party was complete without music of Shina Peters, Alex O, and Ras Kimono

    This may be odd, but I’ve never found any of Fela’s songs interesting or entertaining. *shrugs*

    • Not sure about entertaining but Fela’s music was in a class of his own. Whatever could have made over a million Nigerians throng out for his burial in 1998 means that he had made a very strong impact on the populace.

  • Emphasis – “Cool Down No Vex”…. now that was a great song…. havent heard anyone mention the song in ages much less hear the track…. funny, now its playing in my head! Nice one….

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