The Songs of Jos

the ministry of ARTS / MUSIC DEPT.

The Songs of Jos

For a long time, the city of Jos has grappled with violence fuelled by religious and ethnic differences. But today, Jos is home to musicians and creative communities who are giving language to the traumas they witnessed growing up.

Photography by Becky Renni.

the ministry of ARTS / MUSIC DEPT.

The Songs of Jos

For a long time, the city of Jos has grappled with violence fuelled by religious and ethnic differences. But today, Jos is home to musicians and creative communities who are giving language to the traumas they witnessed growing up.

For much of my life, the city of Jos was coloured by the Abaga brothers. They came into the limelight in the late 2000s; rap stylists whose lyrics were saturated with affectionate references to their hometown. The occasional thunder which struck twice, Jude and Jesse came two years apart, the former born in 1979 and the latter in 1981. Their early musical education happened inside the church, as their father was a pastor. He was Jukun, from Taraba, where ethnic differences have often sparked religious clashes. When his sons began permeating the underground circles in Jos where they had grown up, I wonder what the elder Abaga must have felt. His intimate knowledge of his children notwithstanding, I imagine he would have been like the rest of us; completely unaware of the indelible mark Jude and Jesse would leave on Nigerian music history.  


Jude, or M.I, was the immediate star. A returnee from the United States, he burst Click here to enter text.onto the Nigerian music scene in March 2008 with his breakout song Safe, which interpolated the era’s popular songs. Those years thrived on community: in Lagos where the mainstream industry had crystallized, several neighbourhoods were intensely aware of music being created by Nigerians across the city and elsewhere, creating a vibrant local culture centred around music. But while Lagos drove M.I’s commercialist vision, he was quite nationalist in his art. His intent was clear: to provide an alternative vision for Hip-Hop which, emerging from the 1990s and entering the 2000s, provided the visual and lyrical template for our pop stars to make superstars of themselves.  

On the albums, Talk About It, MI2, and Chairman, this was evident: pair and consider ‘Number One’ and ‘Rich’, featuring Flavour and Koker respectively—both were modern interpretations of Highlife and Juju through the prism of rap. These were songs where M.I flaunted his lyrical dexterity, and by adapting genres that were significantly older than Hip-Hop, these songs transcended Jos, the rapper’s birthplace, and gave him national appeal. He was the quintessential postmodernist rapper operating within wider streams of popular culture. While doing that, he also stuck to the ethos of representation that is so respected across Hip-Hop, which upholds that where a rapper is from is as important as where they made their name.  

And so, M.I was the ‘Short Black Boy from J-Town’. In ‘Undisputed’, he pays homage to the city of hills and plateaus, before screaming with triumph, ‘We have arrived!’. Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince, both signed to Chocolate City shortly after M.I, showed a similar knack for championing their city of origin. The trio would collectively be known as the Choc Boiz, embodying a rap sensibility defined by swag and identity. However, for the brothers especially, music was a portal through which their city could emerge, drawing not only from personal experiences but also from the influence of other ‘homegrown’ artists. 

In truth, Jos has long been renowned as a hub for some of the country’s most distinct musicians. Perhaps we can trace the modern era’s great purveyors to Panam Percy Paul, that shimmering man of suits and songs. A maestro of gospel, his immaculately-composed songs earned him recognition across Nigeria, but especially within Jos’s capital city of Plateau, whose soon-to-be stars witnessed the rise of an enthralling one in real time. ‘Growing up,’ the Soul singer and frequent collaborator of Choc Boiz Ruby Gyang recently commented to OkayAfrica, ‘Jos was the premiere missionary station in the North, and all the different church denominations were very musical. He (Percy Paul) was like a rockstar who was extremely talented and musical and we grew up just basically idolizing him. Coming from that heritage and seeing him break all these boundaries was also inspiring.’ 

Along with the Choc Boiz, Ruby Gyang and the other Gyangs—the brothers Jeremiah and Sammy—contributed to the heralding of Jos’s contemporary stars on the Lagos-dominated mainstream of Nigeria’s music industry. But make no mistake: the Tin City wasn’t just a feeder for the industry; it had steel in the physiology of its artistic ideas. With intention, music enthusiasts were taught—whether in churches or in the streets—to revel in the techniques of music-making. The diverse array of ethnic voices prompted the most successful artists to perform in the widely understood languages of English and Hausa. Indeed, many of the mentioned artists showcased their versatility by mastering musical instruments and serving as producers. 

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Jesse Jagz (Left), MI Abaga (Right). / X.


Jesse Jagz’s peculiar appeal came from his musical versatility. He was informed on both sides of the sonic divide: how to write songs and produce them. His records carried within them the grit of a working musician. His voice evoked a bohemian’s edge and the media were quick to pronounce him Nigeria’s answer to Kanye West. He recognized this otherness attached to his art and so began to weave his music through the tapestry of being where he’s from, a child of so many divisions. On the revelatory ‘Blaze’, he starts off his verse by mentioning his full name—Jesse Garba Abaga—and then his tribe, and then his parent’s initial resistance to him doing music, preferring, like many parents of that generation, a professional life in the corporate world.  

And so, resistance was etched into that initial popular period and so many that came after. His debut album, Jag of All Tradez (2010), didn’t explicitly advance the J-Town mythos as its sound leaned on an electronic zest blasting straight from the future. He calls himself ‘the incredible kid from J-Town’ on the record, ‘Pump It Up’. On ‘JARGO’ he adapts Hausa in the chorus, which rushes with nostalgia while being purposeful, showing the scenic affiliations of the rapper. When he moved to Lagos and into the central mosaic of Nigerian cultures, there was a slight shift in his perspective. And by the time Royal Niger Company was released in 2014, he was creating a more immersive portrait of himself through the devices of myth: referring to himself in third person, having unique, contrarian ideas about the world, subliminally evoking the landscape of his city in songs. It was different from what many artists from Jos had done, and in this city’s song, it’s especially relevant to consider the potential of being able to contain several voices and make one’s way through their distinct qualities.  

It must have been hard being seen through a peculiar and predictable prism. Jesse Jagz stood among the most accomplished artists Jos had ever seen yet he was constantly being presented in the press as ‘M.I’s younger brother.’ Jude, in recognition of his brother’s exceptional ability as an artist in his own right, was consistent in affirming Jesse’s individuality—even acknowledging that Jesse was the more talented musician between them. Still, there are interviews like the one on Modern Ghana, where the headline and majority of the questions directed at Jesse were focused on that relationship. At one point the journalist asked him, ‘Would you say your brother’s influence played a major role in your choice of career?’ Jesse responds: ‘It did in two ways…First, with his first album, people knew the name Jesse Jagz. But on the second hand, the pressure on me to perform was a little more than it was on him when he came out. It was like M.I did this, let’s see what Jesse would do. It all turned out good. But there were both the positive and negative sides to being M.I’s brother.’


Through that complex but artistically fulfilling relationship shared between Jesse Jagz and M.I, we are drawn closer to the typical consciousness of Jos-bred artists. There might be competition, but only in regards to art; everyone is working their own path towards greatness. And this, quite starkly, is an antithesis of the conflicts that have marred the city’s social fabric. On that heralded Jesse Jagz’s debut, track twelve is titled ‘My Brother’, and features Eve who turns in a soothing, reflective hook reminiscent of Mode9’s ‘Lagos State of Mind’. On several levels, he peruses, like Chinua Achebe, the knife that has come between things that held us together and brought division to what was once shared. Technically, it adopts a style Jesse has often used, which is the retention of each verse’s first line. It also samples a screeching cry the artist would later infuse into ‘God On The Mic’, which won the Headies award for Lyricist on the Roll in 2014 and introduced him to a wider section of popular audiences.  

‘My Brother’ mirrored the inter-ethnic clashes that have troubled the otherwise serene Jos landscape for many decades. On the surface, it’s a poignant reflection of the relationship two brothers share, but probe deeper and the reality emerges: this is a song that considers the city through its relationships, especially those between men, who often wield the instruments of violence. Beginning each verse with ‘Same country, same city, same home,’ the artist delves deeper into the narrative, weaving imagery of tension and bloodshed. Phrases like ‘Each time he looks in the mirror, he could see he’s my bro’ are juxtaposed with the harsh reality that ‘the war we fight is making us poor’ and because we are ‘born from the same uterus, [pain] is not something that’s new to us’. Despite this, the artist expresses a yearning for hope and unity, concluding with a prayer for love to embrace and unite them all: ‘I pray love finds us, and binds us.’  

Us—the collective first person. Jesse’s preferred method of perception is to view events from a bird’s-eye perspective, a lens through which he often interprets his personal experiences. In this context, it becomes intertwined with his reflections on his upbringing in Jos and his direct encounters with the profound violence and divisive tribalism prevalent in one of Nigeria’s most ethnically diverse states. Jagz of All Trade isn’t the most conscious of Jesse’s albums but it was his first and there was a fine, even if sparse, register of autobiographical detail he immersed in its nineteen songs. ‘Dis Jagged Life’ and ‘Nobody Test Me’ have such references; while the latter is a chest-thump of a rap cut, featuring M.I and Ice Prince, the former’s soulfulness owes huge credit to the Lindsey hook, while Jagz’s verses are pure and intimate, the first using the pronoun ‘we’ in consideration of the expectations the artist was held to. Coming from a close-knit society such as Jos, the second verse is more personal as it highlights the birth of his kid, once viewed by observers as a mistake but in response, he rapped: ‘Well, look what heaven did, that baby made me/ For me it was the best I ever did in my life/ Giving life to her in reverse gave me life…’  

With Jagz Nation, Vol. 1: Thine Nation Come, the rapper consolidated the themes established in his first album. Then came Royal Niger Company, where his truest tendencies as an eccentric storyteller sprang forth. Widely considered his masterpiece, it was Hip-Hop at its core, and championed the myths of legendary figures like Fela Kuti, the American boxer Joe Louis and 2Pac, whose monologue inspired the album’s last record ‘How We Do’, a stirring call-to-action where each verse started with ‘And this is how we learn to fly,’ a poetic lilt similarly found in ‘The Window’ and ‘The Case’. But where this album is packed with eccentric imagery and Afrocentric production, vaulted by critics as an essential Nigerian Hip-Hop album (I think so too), I found the position of the critic Dennis Ade Peter interesting. In a 2017 feature published by FilterFree NG, Ade Peter asked: ‘Just how great is Jesse Jagz?’ It’s a charged essay, establishing what confidence means to Nigerians and tracing that to Jagz’s entry on the scene; how Jag of All Tradez, ‘succeeded at showing off Jesse’s expansive arsenal with a buccaneering edge.’ But where Ade Peter faults the rapper’s perspective, not just on that album but the others after, is his insistence on the crafting of myth. The consequential sentence comes in paragraph twelve: 

It’s trite to say Jesse is a very good rapper and an even better producer, his catalog is enough evidence. Where my gripe comes in is the fact that Jesse never goes beyond the usual in his writing. Color me overly critical, but classic albums aren’t just filled with well-executed aesthetics, they give you a personal part of the artist. And being honest at the risk of sounding harsh, Jesse’s catalog is incredibly vapid.  

The analysis is correct. It is true we haven’t seen Jesse Garba Abaga in the sandals of his youth, the rolled joints of his youngster era, his beating heart as he held his daughter for the first time. We haven’t seen a lot of things and people. Ironically, that is the exact reason why he is so revered, why he evokes a truer description of Jos than his brother M.I or any other rapper from the city. Because when Jagz raps, he creates an associative atmosphere that takes after the city’s quaint qualities: through his vocabulary and application of poetic devices, his production. Ade Peter’s observation is marked with fine musical knowledge: across genres, the most resonant artists tend to be those who have made a living, breathing art of the human condition. But what happens when an artist is so connected to their city, they begin to embody its psychological characteristics, suspended in its songs and the motions of its trauma?  

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I visited Jos in July 2023. Those were five days of intense discovery, not exactly in the explicit nature of the stories I had heard, but rather the things unsaid, the quiet way the city rolled past our car windows and keke openings, its joy checked into pockets our wandering fingers couldn’t reach. The people were friendly but hesitant in conversation, smiling with caution, sort of. Connected through a mutual friend, my friend and co-traveller Chiedoziem Chukwudera met with Jesse Jagz at his house. Set on hills as most of the houses were, it was an expansive one-storey building with wide balconies and dim lighting. He’s been living in the city since 2014 or about, a practical means of shutting himself from the music industry and its direct proponent in Chocolate City which fucked him up and continues to hold the masters of his first album till date.  

Jesse Jagz welcomed us inside the compound, a smile beaming on his sweaty face. He mentioned the name of the friend who connected us, and I commented likewise on the person’s fineness of character, the three of us walking upstairs. The living room was sparse and filled with austere posters and pictures, its scent reminiscent of an old library. We sat on sofas in the balcony and talked about the music industry in its current state, the levity of its biggest stars, but mostly we asked questions about his art and process, and even then, he wasn’t very forthcoming. I asked who Hadiza Aboki was, the lady to whom he dedicated ‘Burning Bush’, which is arguably his most poignant record ever.  

‘She was my classmate who died,’ he said, with a wry laugh that failed to disguise the pain escaping from his mouth. I said no more, but days after Chiedoziem mentioned how quickly Jesse had brushed off her death, obviously not out of disregard but not willing to touch the nerve of its pain wracking memories. Likewise, his music evades the most essential parts of him; I found that quality during my time in Jos, a place so beautifully marked yet slyly expressive, so you always seek something in it. What it is, the beholder can’t really say, but the feeling is undoubtedly strong. And like any magician worth their salt, Jesse Jagz knows it’s the trick of hiding that is the showcase.  

And yet it was M.I’s ‘Wild Wild West’ that Chiedoziem rapped as we ascended Yingi Layout which led from Books2Africa, a partly charity-based organization we had visited, whose warehouse had pallets stacked with titles across different genres. It was one of my most poignant experiences in the city, as the street’s flawlessly tarred road appeared in front of us, the low-rise buildings and passersby emerging into view. “Better get your gun, better get your vest/ Cos in J Town is the wild wild west, down here everyone cursed, no one blessed,” he admonished in the memorable hook, setting the tone for his incinerating verses. In a sweeping draw of his pen, the second verse advances the nostalgic gaze of the first, carrying the city’s pain on its shoulders, and the listener is brought closer to actual reality:  

Yeah, wishful is, my memories of peaceful bliss 

Now streets full of deceitfulness 

Evil is now around where all of my people lives 

Need a hero quick, J town I miss how you were 

Tell me, how did this occur? 

Now memories of peace are a blur  

And you were so pretty I swear 

Driving through the city thinking this is not her 

She seems so strange, when did she change? 

Blood on her street, smoke in her sky 

Can’t feel her heartbeat, no hope in her eye 

Orphans, coffins, bastards, caskets, mass burials 

How we gonna move past this? the sun about to set 

I’m getting ready for the war, I fear it isn’t done yet! 

In retrospect, ‘Burning Bush’ is the most natural extension of ‘Wild Wild West’. If M.I strikes the attentive poise of a journalist, Jesse Jagz is a poet. Jesse Jagz is not a cartographer of expansive moments but rather a painter of detail, in this case, a portrait of how two young people’s exploration of weed leads towards learning the bigger truths about life. At his storytelling best, it vibrates with religious allusion (daughter of Eve and the seed of Jacob) and political imagery (take the election booths and then burn it to the roots), relating some focused commentary on the modern world. By using the language of religion, Jesse Jagz creates a mirror image of the instruments that bring his people pain, which is the reason why ‘[he] knows to keep [himself] silent cause the kingdom suffereth violence.’  

In 2001, for over ten days, Jos was embroiled in a deadly crisis that left thousands dead and several thousands more displaced. There are numerous reports on the causes of the crisis, but most connect it to religious tension that had been brewing due to politics. Human Rights Watch, which conducted extensive on-the-ground investigation noted that: 

…what little coverage there was prior to September 11 had tended to portray the violence in Jos as a religious conflict, with Christians and Muslims attacking each other because of faith. In reality, the conflict was more political and economic than religious. It stemmed from a longstanding battle for control of political power and economic rivalry between different ethnic groups and between those labeled ‘indigenous’ or ‘non-indigenous’ inhabitants of the area.  

David Nwogbaga, who wrote a paper titled ‘Analysis of Ethno-Religious Conflict in Nigeria: The Jos (Plateau) Experiences, 2001-2011’, related how Jos, which was ‘formerly known as “The Home of Peace and Tourism” was satirized into “The Home of Pieces and Terrorism”’. In his introduction Nwogbaga traced how conflict began in the early eighties, starting from the Islamic crisis between the sects Darika and Tijanniya; and then the chieftaincy crisis between Mwanghavul and Pyem in 1987; the Hausa–Berom conflict over indigene-settler dichotomy (who owns this land?) that same year; and in 1991, the crisis in Jos particularly intensified due to the chairmanship of the then newly-created Jos North and Jos South, which further exacerbated due to the political reasons discussed above.  

The governments of Joshua Dariye, who was governor between 1999 and 2007, and David Jonah Jang, were especially heated periods for these conflicts, as the former’s charges of embezzlement and money laundering saw him arrested and reinstated through several spells until 2007, when Jang succeeded him. A devout Christian, Jang, according to his detractors, sought to fight against the Muslim domination of northern Nigeria, and did so by making decisions that were supposedly in the sole political interest of Christians. When the 2001 crisis broke out, and another in 2008 and 2010, the echoes of these deep discomforts were heard all over the country.  

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I asked residents who had lived in Plateau for some firsthand insight. One of them was Jindu, a writer whose work I’ve been familiar with since we orbited the same circles on the Facebook literary scene of the mid-2010s. He had stayed in Jos for a little over a year, but when I asked him about the crisis, he was clear-eyed in his response: the situation hadn’t been considered with sufficient depth. He made a point of how conflict-ridden northern Nigeria was considered with a sort of otherness, especially in the southern part of the country. Because most southerners consider northerners to be lesser-educated, primitive beings without any agency or consideration of nuances, over time such reports tend to be glossed over, another postcard from a never-ending war. 

Wazani remembers everything: he was a child when the 2001 crisis broke out, and in the aftermath, bore witness to the division it brought upon the city, which is still deeply felt today. ‘It was the first major crisis that happened,’ he said to me: 

It really shook the whole state and it affected a lot of things, most especially relationships. Prior to now, we were living as a mixed community but now, particularly after the 2001 crisis, it’s like the Muslims and Christians started staying apart from each other. Personally, it’s one of my major concerns.  

Music was present through this, but it wasn’t a major influence during the crisis. If anything, says Wazani, ‘most [artists] were too shocked to even talk about the experiences, so it took some years for few artists to start coming out with works depicting the violence and talking about their experiences’. The day Wazani and I met in Jos, at our resident hotel close to an upscale area called Old Airport and which we had reached from Terminus, the city’s central market, he showed me a poem he had written. He had visited a local IDP camp, and the poem responded to a recent crisis, using the charged language of NGOs, welfare workers and government agencies. I thought it was poignant, with heart wrenching turns of phrases, and I told him so. Little did I know that Wazani was also a talented musician, whose lifetime immersion into the city’s art and cultural landscape made him a portal through which one could enter and understand the manifestations of Jos’s many histories in its music.

 A lot is made of the Jos weather, how the city is one of the coldest places in Nigeria and how it inspires heavy clothing among its residents. Making the association, Ice Prince once spoke about how wearing jackets and thick sweaters was a means for people to battle the cold, but for rap enthusiasts like himself—and this happened also in other parts of the North like Kaduna and Kano—it was a means of reflecting swag, turning the essential into the aesthetic. When the rapper picks up a verse and reflects on their ‘coldness’, in this context it can be reimagined to mean the temperature of the city, and how their bars of ice were mirroring the body-grabbing feeling one gets from being within its embrace. And perspective—rap’s dominant perspective has long circulated around machismo and braggadocio, and cold as a contemporary adjective suggests an absence of emotional sentimentality, and that ethos is the exact opposite of a new crop of artists emerging from Jos, a sensibility Wazani’s music emerges from.  

Amidst all the rapping, amidst all the bravado of lyricism which is one way to look at how trauma influences the mind; amidst the consistent offering of something greater than oneself; amidst the shooting and cutting and burning, the ravaging language of violence; a counterculture has emerged. Inspired by the sounds of sensitivity—soul and folk—many artists and communities are springing up in austere spots around Jos, giving language to the traumas they witnessed growing up; not in the explicit way of reportage but through the sustained interiority of creative writers, the facts there but hidden. So, further divisions aren’t the motivation rather the showcase of what makes us collectively human.  

The trio of Douglas Kaze, Eric Limani and Agbutun Abulaya formed Soul, Folk and Chill, which is an annual festival that is currently in its fourth year, bringing together artists who fall under what most Nigerians dub ‘alternative music’, a tag summarily rejected by Wazani and myself during our conversation. The origin genres of these artists are clearly represented in the title of their event. While some others have filtered their local sensibilities through genres like Rock and R&B, Irish folk and Malian music has particularly been a touchstone for Wazani’s artistry. Other influential artists for this group of Jos artists are the American Tracy Chapman, British singer-songwriter Passenger, the Malian griots, Ali Farka Touré and Rekia Touré. Wazani sent me a video of himself and his friend, Fortune Dyve, performing an evocative song titled ‘Magic Woman’ at a recent poetry gathering tagged Kintsugi 2.0. Evidently, the arts scene in Jos is vibrant and on the rise, not quite hampered by the staggering weight of the city’s history. This is what every generation ought to do after all: to consider the psychological limitations of the predecessor, and with the illuminating benefit of hindsight, fashion a better existence for itself.  

A memory returns now. We’re walking on a tarred road, Wazani and I, headed to a chill-out spot which, I was assured, isn’t very far away. It’s evening and the air is cold, the cars and other automobiles passing by seem to slow down to a rhythm I can’t hear, but not long after, Wazani starts singing a song. It’s ‘Darling Cora’, the version by B.F. Shelton, which was performed in 1927, set to a haunting banjo. The lyricism is striking: the singer wonders how the titular Cora, a vision of peace, can sleep so soundly, even though robbers are nearby. Wazani sings it with so much soul and this leads me to my conclusion: a city’s song can mean a lot of things, but more than anything, it’s an anthem calling all the little lights burning with variant intensity within those who hear it

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