[Base Room] TimeTo Break The Restrictive Boxes In Nigerian Hip Hop Culture || Chukwudi Iroko
‘Do what you like; don’t let them put you in a box.’ ~ Symbol of Hope, Olamide.
Just in case you missed the news, Nigerian rap legend MI, after a long hiatus, released a song titled You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives, towards the end of October 2017. In that song, MI’s message to his colleagues was simple: stick to the genre of music that reflects what you claim to be – a rapper. The song has so far generated both musical and commentary responses from musicians and commentators alike.
Undoubted, MI has reignited a conversation we’ve already had before now in Nigeria hip hop. Unfortunately, some, including MI, thinks this conversation is new. I disagree. And here is why.
I will take you on a musical tour to prove this, so follow me.
Cast your mind as far back as 2006 when Ruggedman gave a lecture on the song titled, Hip Hop 101, off his most relevant album so far, Ruggedybaba. At that time, given the mass apathy Nigerian music audience had for core Hip hop song, (and we must quickly add that most of the rappers then awfully mimicked African American rappers’ tone of voice and cadence, perhaps that was one of the reason Nigerian audience found them ridiculous) Ruggedman advised his colleagues to do commercial songs if they want to remain relevant. He however gave a caveat that while spicing things up with local dialect, they must find a balance between making good music that can also be commercialized.
Few years after that musical lecture, the seed Ruggedman sowed found fertile ground to germinate and later blossom in rappers like Mr. Raw, MI, Dagrin, Illbliss, Vector, Olamide, Phyno, Reminisce, CDQ, Zoro, Lil Kesh and so on. That lecture in a way, contributed to raising the avant-garde rappers we now know today. Take a look at this.
In Illy Bomaye, the title song of Illbliss’ fifth and latest album by the same title, a body of work that has been described as his most personal project yet, he talks about being able to stay in the game by evolving as the industry evolves in spite of some setbacks here and there, which are human. He is not just bragging, the proofs are there.
For instance, Illbliss went all hip hop on the track Chukwu Agozi go gi. We will play that song for a while. However, what kept him on his fans’ mind were the songs Jawonlaya featuring Reekado Banks and Mr.Eazy and Alhaji Featuring Runtown, all from his fourth studio Album, IllyGatty. The description of his persona in the titular song illy Bomaye as ‘The Igbo version of Rick Ross and slight semblance of Biggy Smallz,’ says it all – I can make money like Rosay but I will drop bars and punchlines like Notorious B.I.G to keep the culture alive. I wont sacrifice one for the other. The Illy Gatty album won the Best rap album at the Headies.
Olamide is staunch believer in the survival of Nigerian hip hop culture, but not without the unapologetic reservation that: ‘if it is not making money, then, it is not making sense.’ In songs after songs, he has reiterated this. In the song Symbol of Hope, he says, ‘Kini show business if you are not making the profit?,’ i.e (what is show business if you are not making profit?)
Phyno the playmaker shocked everyone recently. The rapper whose annual sold out Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium-Staged Concert, Phynofest, is coming up in November 19, 2017, in his hood, city of Enugu, in a recent interview with Hiptv, has declared that he would rather that people address him as a musician, than box him into a restrictive straitjacket – rapper. He went further to explain that, just because he came to limelight with rap music should not warrant anybody to stereotype him. According to him in the same interview, having been a producer for more than eight years, he responds to music how he feels it in the moment. He then referred us to his latest album, The Playmaker album, as a proof of what he means.
One may think it is a defensive statement to cover up the fact that bars and punchlines are exhausting in his goatskin bag of rapping arsenal, but again, before this recent interview, he had demonstrated in the song Best Rapper, off his The Playmaker album, that he does not want to be the best rapper, he just wants to make good music and money.
Now, this sense of crass monetary gain as the motivation for why artistes create art sounds selfish. And it is rampart in the music industry all over the world. But it also seems like a deliberate rebellion against attempts at people directing how artistes should create. And truly, Phyno sings when he wants to, and raps when he wants to. But are they good music? Only time will tell.
Do you remember the principal theme of Reminisce’s Local Rapper, featuring Olamide and Phyno? It is; do what you like because punchlines and bars doesn’t pay the bills In Nigeria neither does it get you called for highly paying shows. But the irony is that the song bearing this leftist message won the best rap collaboration award the year it was released because of the bars and punchlines it sampled using a mix of Yoruba, Igbo, Pigeon English and English language.
From the few instances above, one could see that some of the artistes we consider as rappers see rap as a serious business and equally as a serious artistic endeavor. And they have all displayed a knowledge of this fact with song after song, even prior to the release of MI’s supposed ‘epoch making’ musical commentary, You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives.
Here is why I think MI’s imploration to his colleagues to fix up their lives is not new but a creepy PR strategy. And I totally agree with people who think that MI is using his influence in Nigeria music industry to impose an agenda on other rappers coming before and after him.
Let me put is straight, You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives is an image-making song. You come to understand this by looking at the circumstances under which it was released. To begin with, the song is coming at a time when folks think a fresh album from Mr. Incredible, as MI is alternatively called, is overdue. It is coming at a time when the artistic relevance of his Chairman album is being questioned by music critics. The song came after MI received a scathing, but unprofessional, criticism from the influential Nigerian music critic, Osagie Alonge, during the Loose Talk Podcast interview series powered by Pulse.ng. These are the circumstances surrounding the release of this song. The song sounds more like a deliberate, but futile attempt at making others look bad in order to look good.
Furthermore, a close examination of the message of the song shows how MI creates a narrative that metaphorically portrays him as a military general – a leader and tastemaker in the music industry; and rightly so, but what does this narrative really mean in the context of this song?
First, the self-irony of You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives is that the rapper is that kind of leader too complacent to lead by example. More like a Nigerian politician calling the poor masses to sacrifice what himself cannot. MI actually boasts of staying away from the booth longer than necessary. One begins to wonder if MI is saying he wants to retire, or more appropriately, that he is too old to consistently drop new songs back to back.
Half of Olamide’s songs maybe viewed as sub-par in both form and content, but this dude is consistent and making money year in year out. If every artiste takes a long break as MI is boasting of, Wizkid wouldn’t have gotten Grammy nomination. For goodness sake, Nas and Jay z are still releasing albums, never mind that they are world-acclaimed hip hop legends with track record of inimitable achievements both commercially and otherwise.
Since the release of this song, MI has been portrayed as an overbearing artistic dictator bent on ordering his colleagues to create music a certain way. This is not entirely true. Because MI cannot really force anybody to make music a certain way, it is just that his opinion is highly regarded because of his marked achievements and contributions to Nigerian and indeed Africa Hip hop culture. C’mon, we are talking about African Rapper Number One here! In his heyday, though.
But does this mean MI statement is not important? Far from it. Indeed, some rappers are now beginning to sound pathetic just because they want to stay relevant. Yes, rappers should experiment even if the purpose is commercial. They are free. They are artists.
All I am saying is that the best way to learn is to learn from the best. Look at Drake and Nicki Minaj and learn some lessons from them. They both sing and rap. They are relevant. Yet, to a large extent, they make good music. In fact, Hollywood Reporters says that Drake is officially taking six months or a year off to expand his artistic niche through film and television either in acting or production. Can one accuse Drake of blowing up and switching?
May be this is the sense MI wanted to make but failed because of his mode of presentation and intention.
It bears repeating that my claims here may be regarded as intentional fallacy ( please google it), But the fact that some Nigerian rappers are pathetically desperate to make hits through singing, is hard to brush aside. Try to define the artistes Dremo.
Another mistake MI made in You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives, was to compare politically and culturally different Nigerian Hip Hop with South African Hip hop just because Nasty C is rapping like an African American born in Bronx, New York, where hip hop was birthed. He should remember that no real progress can come out of imitation.
We don’t want to start another verbal war of decolonizing Nigerian hip hop please. We are still recovering from Negritude movement and all its attendant headaches. Ngugi Wa’ Thiong got tired of writing decolonizing the mind essays in English language before daring to write in his Gikuyi dialect of his Kenya people.
Thankfully, our Local rappers in Nigeria are not going about proclaiming their tigeritude with mere words, they are doing the deed by pouncing on beats and percussion with dialectical bars, rhymes and punchlines from their various tribes (Apologies to Wole Soyinka). That is why this kind of comparison between Nigeria and South Africa hip hop is irritating and amounts to drawing us nine steps backward.
Hopefully, with more years of post-colonial experiments, these South-African rappers that MI hoist aloft as African hip hop messiahs would come to understand why we revere Lord of Ajasa, Dagrin, Mr.Raw, Olamide, Phyno, Reminisce, CDQ and Sarkodie from Ghana, who are all local rappers, because that is what we call making progress.
Hip Hop is a serious business and remaining relevant in this business is everything and the only thing that matters. It does not matter how you do it. Can’t you see P.Diddy aka Brother Love? He is relevant, yet he does not rap often.
Finally, the dangerous thing about advising artists against experiment is this; when such artists take such advise and consequently go out of fashion, the same advisers will turn around and boo the artists for lacking the ability and the‘juice’ to evolve. Mode Nine’s works have replay value and tick all the boxes of core hip hop right? But where is he today? What is he doing for the culture right now? This is the reality.
In this age of neoliberal identity, the least person you would ever attempt to force into a conventional box is the avant-garde artist. MI should know this.