“Always gon' be a whip that's better than the one you got. Always gon' be some clothes that's fresher than the ones you rock… But you ain't never gon' be happy till you love yours…” – J Cole (Love Yourz)
Bellowing a familiar warning about the effect of envy on happiness, U.S. rapper J Cole, real name Jermaine Lamar Cole, was surprised to hear his words thrown back at him. After an energetic performance, Cole left the Eko Convention Centre on April 28th 2018 with an unshakeable impression of Nigeria: Nigerians love rap music.
The energy and vibe at J Cole’s concert, and the rapper’s genuine delight at the reception he received, sparked customary debate about Nigerians’ relationship with rap music. For some commentators, watching a capacity crowd rap along to an album barely a week old (KOD, J Cole’s fifth studio album) was evidence enough that Nigerians like rap music, they just prefer it imported.
Kelechi Ohia, who raps under the alias Kel, shot to prominence in the late 2000s with rap hit “Wa Wa Alright”. She took to Twitter after Cole’s concert and mused on the state of Nigerian rap, asking why fans refused to support local Hip Hop artists as fervently as their international counterparts.
Although Nigeria has produced notable Hip Hop figures like Naeto C and Olamide in recent years, none have attained the level of commercial acclaim or cult following enjoyed by their Afrobeats peers. For some reason, Nigerian rappers have been unable to replicate the success enjoyed by rappers in the United States who have scaled race and class barriers obstacles to catapult the genre to the top of the music food chain.
One potential reason is relatability. Hip Hop has always carried a strong sense of African American identity, and Nigerian rappers are yet to replicate this. “I find it (local rap) tedious and unrelatable,” David Adeleke says. Adeleke, an Editor and music enthusiast, tells me that he prefers to listen to foreign rappers because their sound is better quality. “The sound comes across as unoriginal like they’re trying so hard to copy the West.”
Adeleke is not alone. In his 2017 single, “You rappers should fix up your life”, M.I., real name Jude Abaga, one of Nigeria’s most prominent rappers, seemed to throw jabs at his peers, accusing them of losing their place to South African rappers. Although the song can be seen as an attempt to reassert his dominance in the rap scene, M.I. may have inadvertently unearthed the drag on Nigeria’s rap industry: quality.
“None you of you rappers inspiring. None of you pass the requirements.” – M.I. (You rappers should fix up your life)
But this perspective has been disputed within the industry. Olawale Aremo, a rapper known as MC Skill ThaPreacha, tells me that Nigerians like local rap, just not English. He argues that Nigerians would rather listen to rap in any of the Nigerian languages or rap from other countries. “Rap performed in English is underappreciated and not as popular as Afrobeats or rap performed in a local dialect,” he says.
His point is not amiss. The likes of Olamide, Phyno, and Reminisce infuse their local dialects into the music and have done much better than their English-rapping counterparts in recent years. Someone like Phyno has built a base in the East, best represented in his annual Phynofest held in Enugu State. These rappers may have hacked what their predecessors overlooked: rather than imitate the rap forbearers from the U.S., they have applied the art to Nigerian culture and reaped the rewards.
‘Street ti take over’
“Street ti take over, wordplay o jawo mo (The street sound has taken over, wordplay no longer pays the bills)” – Reminisce (Local rappers)
Yoruba rapper Reminisce began his 2015 hit “Local rappers” with the warning that indigenous rap was gunning for the throne of mainstream rap. The song, featuring Olamide and Phyno, all award-winning indigenous rappers, was a marker in the sand as indigenous rap took pre-eminence in the mainstream music consciousness.
Just like rap gave young African-Americans a medium to express their culture and a way of painting their gritty lifestyles, dialect rap has spoken to the heart the average Nigerian. That is why the late Dagrin’s 2009 video for “pon pon pon” was so well-received. Laced with staunch Yoruba lyrics, it showed the dogged streets of Lagos, giving many street kids the chance to see themselves represented on screen in a way they rarely could.
Aanu Adeoye, a journalist and Hip Hop lover, agrees that dialect rap is more appreciated than English speaking rap. “It’s great to see rappers rap in their local language. It opens up the genre to people who perhaps don't understand English or those who do but appreciate seeing their languages being put to good use,” he offers. According to him, it doesn’t matter that he does not understand a word of Igbo or Hausa rap, it just feels good listening to people throw punchlines in languages many people can connect with. “I don't understand a word Phyno says, apart from when he switches to English, and I love listening to him. There's a novelty to him that I quite enjoy,” he adds.
None of you rappers is real enough. Once you blow up now you switching up. That’s why these fans are not feeling ya’ll… I swear it’s a shame it’s a pity no real. Rappers are singing now just to get popular.” – M.I. (You rappers should fix up your lives)
But the success of indigenous rappers has opened them up to an ancient accusation, perhaps the most sacred in Hip Hop culture: selling out. As some of these rappers began their careers with English rap, commentators have accused them of dumbing down their lyrics and selling out for commercial success.
Looking closely at this accusation, we find an unresolved issue in Nigerian rap. The industry is still unsure whether fusing other genres elevates rap or waters it down. Yet the argument is largely moot. Even as “Afro-pop” rappers like Skales and Ycee face the most criticism, nearly every living rapper has fused non-Hip Hop elements into their music. Even M.I., whose cutting lyrics have fanned the flames is guilty of it in songs like “African rapper number 1” and “Monkey”.
Still, the idea that infusing external elements dilutes the intricacy of rap lyrics and betrays Hip Hop principles refuses to die. The irony is that rappers often diversify into other genres to communicate better with their audience, a fact M.I. endorses. “I never tampered with my music in order to sell. I never thought I was dumbing down, I felt I was trying to communicate,” he says.
M.I.’s stance seems to have softened in recent years, as he argues that rapping in pidgin or local dialects is a way of passing across complex messages in simple ways. “If I want to speak to someone from the streets who is not from where I’m from, I can’t be doing ‘yo yo my name is Jude Abaga’. I have to go in my hustle mode so that he understands what I am saying,” he comments. For him, adopting another style does not necessarily have to be about giving up on rap, but reaching more people.
For those more familiar, the “selling out” debate is not unique to these shores. In fact, the issue was immortalised (but unresolved) by Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, arguably the most influential rapper of his era. In his 2003 song “Moment of Clarity”, he chimed, “I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars. They criticize me for it yet they all yell ‘Holla’. If skills sold truth be told I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli. Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense. But I did five mil (million), I ain't been rhyming like Common since.”
His lyrics are not entirely performative either. Jay-Z's debut album was “Reasonable Doubt”, and it is considered one of his finest. But it flopped commercially, peaking at No.23 on the charts and selling only 420,000 copies. He later streamlined his style with a series of averagely received albums in the 1990s, a move rebuffed by music critics and fans who panned the records and attended his shows in the same breath.
Why do we even care about Nigerian rap?
“You never thought that Hip Hop would take it this far.” – The Notorious B.I.G. (Juicy)
From New York house parties to the United States Congress to the world. Hip hop is one of America’s greatest cultural exports, and rap has grown to become the arguably the biggest music genre in the world.
At the same time, Nigeria’s music industry is receiving global acclaim on an unprecedented level. But most of its stars are non-rappers. Wizkid, real name Ayo Balogun, one of Nigeria’s most successful musicians on the global stage regularly shuts down shows outside the country, and in 2017, won the International Act category for Music of Black Origin Awards (MOBO), the first Africa-based artist to do so. Afrobeats legend, Femi Kuti, has also been nominated for the Grammys, the world’s most prestigious music awards, four times.
While Nigerian rappers like Phyno and AQ are doing pretty great, they’re yet to attain the level of commercial success their counterparts in other genres have within and outside the country. Fans’ preference for styles like Afrobeats has led some music commentators to opine that rap is too complex for the average Nigerian.
Mode 9, real name Babatunde Olusegun Adewale, a bona fide Hip Hop legend in Nigeria, mused on the issue on his 2006 release “Pain”. On the song, the rapper hints at a trade-off between lyricism and commercial success, saying, “If I don’t make money, I got myself to blame cuz I didn’t sell out, didn’t make my rhymes lame for the glitz and the glamour and the mainstream fame.”
Somto Uyanna, an engineer and music commentator, scoffs at the idea that rap is too complex for Nigerians. In a 2018 article for Culture Custodian, she points to the popularity of international rappers in Nigeria as a starting point for dispelling the myth.
In truth, if we were to learn from the success of Afrobeats and dialect rap, we would see the importance of creating content to match the audience. Folarin Falana, popularly known as Falz, has reinvigorated Nigeria’s rap scene, skilfully moving from English to pidgin to Yoruba. Moreover, his songs are known for their strong moral content—conscious rap as it is known—which puts to bed the notion that Nigerians have a uniquely simple taste in music.
It is evident that Nigeria’s rap culture is a complicated one. Rap, historically, has been a difficult genre, one often at war with itself. In Nigeria, it is no different.