Twenty years since the Nigerian twin band, P-Square, released its first studio album, the beautiful thing about P-Square’s songs is how they take you back to where you were when you first heard them. They bring back memories of what you were doing and the sort of life you had, and they awaken all the beauties of moments you would otherwise have forgotten, Ernest Nweke writes.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.
When P-Square, the singing and dancing duo made up of identical twin brothers, Peter and Paul Okoye, broke into the Nigerian music scene in 2003, no one saw their talent coming. Their music spread like wildfire. You heard their songs wherever you turned. Around street corners, on the lips of teenagers and children; in homes, shops, clubs, and even dining halls that turned into dancing halls on social nights in boarding secondary schools in different parts of the country, everywhere reverberated with their songs. Nigerians of different ages lost themselves to the music, singing along to ‘Bizzy Body’, ‘Ifunanya’, or ‘Do Me’. As this happened, they also found themselves dancing because to keep up with P-Square was to forget and find oneself in the music and the dance that were the duo’s talent. P-Square was a sensational experience that lasted us decades.
The December I first heard P-Square, I was in Aguata, Anambra State, for the Christmas holidays. It was 2006, and the road leading to Mbara Oye, the village market, and St Charles Catholic parish Achina, where we attended vigil masses on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, was still untarred. We spent most of the day holed up inside the house, away from the cloud of dust that rose into the air and over the fence when cars sped past. Over and over again, with doors and windows closed to keep out the dust and harmattan cold and heavy curtains drawn to give the high-walled sitting room a cozy feel, we watched Maid in Manhattan or played the P-Square’s Get Squared album on repeat.
The beautiful thing about P-Square’s songs is how they take you back to where you were when you first heard them. Even after years have gone by, they bring back memories of what you were doing and the sort of life you had, and they awaken all the beauties of moments you would otherwise have forgotten. For Abuja-based corporate and commercial lawyer, Dibia Epundu, P-Square still signifies a time when life was without worries. ‘They had this custom of dropping new jams around the Christmas seasons that still makes me think of Christmases when I hear or think of P-Square,’ said Epundu.
‘“Bizzy Body” was the first P-Square song I heard, and it remained one of my favourites from them.’ Michael Uzomah, a Music lecturer at the University of Nigeria, said to me. ‘It was so full of life, and it made you just want to dance. Whether or not you can dance does not matter; you would always lose yourself on the dancefloor whenever a P-Square song came on.’
The VCD plate we had on that Christmas holiday in Aguata contained songs from P-Square’s second album, Get Squared, and two songs from their first album, Last Nite. When Get Squared finished playing, ‘Senorita’ and ‘Igbedu’, the songs from P-Square’s first album, played. Before that holiday was over, I knew all the words to all the records in their sophomore album and the extra two songs from the older album.
WHAT MADE P-SQUARE DIFFERENT?
P-Square was not the first sibling band Nigeria had. For two decades, the Lijadu Sisters, a group made up of a pair of identical twin sisters, Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu, reigned as one of Nigeria’s most popular bands. P-Square was also not the only band that debuted or sang to Nigerians in the wake of the 21st century. But their sound was like nothing we had ever heard before. Where the older sibling band, the Lijadu Sisters, had given us more psychedelic, soul, and Afrofunk sounds with reggae licks, and bands like Styl-Plus, that were contemporaries with P-Square gave us a sound that was almost too Western, P-Square found a middle ground. The duo found a way to give us a cosmopolitan sound that was both foreign and familiar. They did not make protest songs with political undertones like the records African China made. And, even though they made you dance, their songs did not ask for the kinds of moves you would use for music by the likes of Daddy Showkey. P-Square songs were new and fresh, and they were the moment. According to Epundu:
P-Square was different. It was like something new but with the warmness of something old. Hearing P-Square sing for the first time felt like something you were already used to. They took existing genres of music and made it even better and suiting for their Nigerian audience. I remember the first time I heard them, it was Omoge Mi and Bizzy Body on the same day, and it felt like coming home to a sound. Their sound has since reminded me or made me think of home.
Revisiting Last Nite and Get Squared, with a much older ear, what differentiated P-Square’s style—an African or Africanized repackaging of the hip hop and R&B music genres, presented not as an experiment but as a masterful work of art—from local and foreign contemporaries becomes clear. P-Square took genres we had only heard from American contemporaries like Usher, Omarion, Nelly and Ne-Yo and found a way to make it African and Nigerian. They sew African elements like pidgin, stories (in the case of ‘Oga Police’), and African native languages into them. By doing this, they infused their music with a kind of Africanness that we, their audience and fans, had not seen in those genres before they came along. They took ownership of this otherwise foreign content and adapted it to our Nigerian reality.
P-Square was well aware of the times they were in. They understood the country’s economic situation and how that related to how people consumed art. The economy was improving, and with years of repressive military regime now behind Nigerians, there was less need for protest music and more desire for happy songs. Even when they sang songs about societal ills, like in ‘Oga Police’, a song about police harassment, it was the kind of ailment that was not only current at the time but remained recurrent to this day. This understanding made this shift, this new kind of music P-Square brought to the music space, easy to accept.
For many Nigerians under the age of 50, watching P-Square sing and dance, was their first encounter with the concomitance that exudes when a pair of identical twins is in action. However, this synchronization is neither strange nor new for twins. According to researchers, identical twins have an extreme level of closeness and understanding that comes from ‘having a best buddy for life’ and affects everything they do, including ensuring a cumulative survival proportion at every age. With P-Square, as with most identical twins, having this ‘best buddy for life’ goes beyond ensuring they stand the chance of outliving people who are not born (identical) twins. It affects the subtler things like the seamless harmony and synchroneity they exhibit in their craft.
ELEMENTS OF A P-SQUARE SONG
Beyond the genre of the songs P-Square wrote and sang, the group’s foreignness or Africanness, P-Square was an excellent storyteller. Their ability to tell a good story showed in the synchrony of their works, which, like a wonderfully told story, flowed seamlessly like a rolling brook. ‘Storytelling with art’ is an art form different from the ‘art of storytelling’, and nobody seemed to understand this in the wake of the 21st century like P-Square. For P-Square, it did not begin and end with a song that told a beautiful story, no. Everything—every bit of art involved in a record, from their matching clothes, which always told a story of their oneness and synchrony, to their dance steps and the totality of their video—in a P-Square album told a cohesive story that enriched the album.
‘Their ability to create lyrical audio-sonic stories that flowed across to their listeners was one of the many ways they hooked their audience and fans,’ Uzomah commented. ‘The duo revolutionalized music videos in the African music industry and what was obtainable in African music videos generally,’ he added. ‘When we were undergraduates, a significant number of students were visibly ardent followers of P-Square. These students took their fashion ideas straight out of P-Square music videos, and dance crews sprung up more all over campus, all of them dancing the same kinds of dance you would see in a P-Square music video.’
A key element of these P-Square videos is the duo’s attention to fashion. When P-Square made its entry into the music scene, the Y2K fashion trend had the world in a chokehold and no other person followed this trend devotedly like P-Square, who dropped some of the biggest music videos Nigeria saw in those days. P-Square videos became very much a fashion and style instructional for young people and party-goers.
Before the fan base grew significantly in Nigeria with the release of their second album, the videos of ‘Senorita’ and ‘Igbedu’, which got repeated airplay on MTV, had created a following for them in South Africa and the US. This extended reach resulted in a shoutout to their fans in those two countries in the first song of their Sophomore album. From 2003 to 2017, when P-Square reigned supreme in the African music space, anyone who bought a P-Square album knew they were in for a treat of premium entertainment packaged as music, beats, dance, fashion, and all-round general happy vibes.
The excellence of P-Square did not begin and end with what they could do together. It also showed in how they blew their audience and fans away when they featured other acts. ‘We lived in Kaduna. It was while listening to P-Square that I encountered Waje.’ Asake Joy Balogun, a nursing student and hair specialist who now lives in Surulere, Lagos State, said. She sounded thrilled, like someone introducing another person to an excellent new act they had not heard of yet. ‘Her voice was magic! I thought songs by P-Square were great, but she made them even better. Waje made them perfect. It was “Omoge Mi”. The whole song was like being in heaven’.
Balogun was not the only one caught in the Waje hypnosis after listening to ‘Omoge Mi’. Nnamdi Ohachenu, a training consultant, singer, writer and economist, felt the same way. ‘I liked “Omoge Mi” the most. For some reason, the chorus reminded me of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart”. It was such a passionate song.’ When asked if the fact that he was a choir boy and had always sung was also an influencing factor for this choice of favourite, he agreed it was. ‘Yes, the fact that I sing and care about vocals and what a piece of music sounds like may have been a defining factor that endeared that track to me. I was very young then, but I always imagined singing it to someone someday.’
Apart from Waje, P-Square went ahead to feature other significant acts in the albums that followed. From the incredible award-winning dancer and choreographer, Kafayat Oluwatoyin Shafau, known by her stage name ‘Kaffy’, to musicians 2 Face Idibia, J Martins, Alaye, Weird MC, May D, Naeto C, Muna, Eva Alordiah, T.I., Dave Scott, Don Jazzy, Awilo Longomba, and Jermaine Jackson, they gave us hit after hit.
Some of these collaborations became their biggest hits. No two songs stopped Nigeria, Africa, and the world like: ‘Do Me’ (2007) and ‘Roll It’ (2007). ‘Do Me’, for the power rendition of vocals from Waje, a featured guest artiste, and ‘Roll It’, for the mesmerizing, perfectly curated choreography of Kaffy and P-Square. From 2003 to 2017, P-Square had a whole country in a chokehold, and no one wanted to be set free.
In 2016, news broke that the duo who had spearheaded the musical direction of an entire generation of Africans were going their separate ways. The split disappointed and broke the hearts of their fans, causing an injury some of them still nurse in secret to this day. Paul Okoye became Rude Boy, and Peter became Mr P.
‘I will not even lie; I took it personally,’ Uzomah said. ‘They made my teenage years and early adulthood fun. Of course, it hurt when they decided to go separate ways.’
Epundu felt the same way. ‘P-Square was a uniting force for me and my cousins. Because their voice, and I say voice in a singular sense because, to me, they were one and should have stayed one, was a part of our Christmas celebrations, the holiday never felt the same after they split. We had loved them even more than we should have, partly because they were also from Idemili like us. It hurt.’
‘I low-key expected that it would happen because singing groups always split up in the end, and that period seemed to have something in the air making them split up,’ Ohachenu said.
P-Square eventually resolved the quarrel and restored their duo in 2021.
So much has changed in the African music space within the last three decades that the market to which P-Square released ‘Senorita’ 30 years ago is unrecognizable today. Afrobeats has expanded to be a global sensation, but we must remember that we owe a bulk of this growth to the release of P-Square’s Last Nite album and the many albums after that.
Before P-Square came to the music scene 20 years ago, the African music industry, at intervals, produced internationally famous musicians whose fame did not have a holistic impact on the music industry it came from. As a result, during each period, while there were many talented musicians in different parts of Africa making good music, only one or two saw the light of day on the international scene. This is the reason why many in other parts of the world would never know who the contemporaries of such big names as Miriam Makeba, Fela, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and Brenda Fassie were. But this changed with the debut of P-Square in 2003. Peter Okoye of the P-Square told OK! Nigeria TV in an interview eleven years ago:
When we were coming up, we said to ourselves that we did not just want to be musicians, but that we want to convince Africans—starting from home, Nigeria—that we are really good and to go out there and listen to our music. Back then, when you go to the club, it was only Western music that was played. So we said to ourselves that what we have to do now is to convince people to go listen to our songs, and we did that.
Following the success of P-Square, there has been no breakage of the African musical sound on the global musical scene. If anything, there has been a comprehensive growth from across Africa, that has successively contributed and grown into the sounds of Afrobeats and Amapiano that Africa is now globally known for. From Sauti Sol, Bobi Wine, and Diamond Platinumz, to Mafikizolo, Uhuru, and Nasty C, different African musical acts have strung on to what P-Square was able to do—transcribing sounds known to people in other parts of the world for their people and sounds known to their people for people in other parts of the world—to give African music the global success it enjoys today. Just like they had wanted from the very beginning, P-Square made the world listen to African music by making their countrymen and the rest of Africa listen to them. The story of what became Afrobeats today cannot be told without the impact P-Square had in making dancehall African music that was true to Africans while being relatable to non-Africans.
The only phrase that amply captures the 2000s and 2010s P-Square experience is ‘you had to be there’. You had to be there to hear and see a crowd go wild once the introductory instrumental to ‘Do Me’ came on. You had to be there to see young people trying to master the steps in ‘Roll It’. You had to be there to know what it meant to be spellbound and lost while you danced madly to ‘Personally’. P-Square was an experience, and you had to be there to fully comprehend what it means when a generation stops to listen to a pair of twins who had a gift and an urgent need to share it.
The true power P-Square had is often not deeply considered nor appreciated. The P-Square sibling group emerged in the wake of a century with music content so good that people around the world not only listened to them but were eager to hear more songs like theirs. To have achieved this level of fame and impact when the world had no streaming apps, instant messaging and social media platforms, and from Nigeria, is something beyond spectacular. In the beginning, it may have been as a result of an incredible stroke of luck, but it was sustained by their undeniable talent, attentiveness to the hunger of their fans and that oomph that comes from two people, who look exactly the same, moving in perfect synchronization⎈
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