In a time when rap music in Nigeria was almost in a state of inertia, M.I Abaga, with a cohort of ‘Jos boys’, gave it life once again, this time, introducing an original aesthetic that transformed the sound of Nigerian rap.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.
Folks from Jos, the capital of Plateau, like to say their city is the birthplace of Nigerian rap and hip-hop. The pointer is mostly to a rap group called Black Maskuraderz whose song ‘The Truth’, very early in Nigerian pop history, was featured as a soundtrack in the 1997 film, Out of Bounds, starring Richard Mofe-Damijo in his first ever acting role. This happened in the context of an already vibrant rap music consciousness that was fostered in the city since 1994, when radio host, Sammy Rita, hosted a 30-minute show on Peace FM 90.5, tagged ‘Ghetto Raps United’. The show was later continued by Eldee Extra Large, Yiro Abari High, a writer from Jos, told me during my research for this story. (Eldee Extra Large would later be part of the hip-hop group, Swat Root, which shot to fame in the early 2000s.)
The debate about the birthplace of Nigerian hip-hop is mostly an argument about paying respect—as the hip hop culture is known for—especially since The Remedies, formed a year later, in 1998, blew up in Lagos and is, today, more likely to begin a conversation on how rap music became mainstream in Nigeria. But silent in this conversation is Kaduna, where the rappers Six Foot Plus, Overdose, and Eldee, once avatars of Nigerian rap music, are from. In the end, however, from a long line of ancestors, emerged a rapper who would represent not just his city, but his country, and even the African continent, in a ground-breaking career arguably unrivalled by any African rapper to date. That rapper is M.I Abaga.
THE BEGINNING OF A LEGACY
M.I didn’t announce himself so loudly. The year was 2008 when Abuja was still lauded as the ‘fastest growing city in Africa’. M.I, who had formed a music group, Loopy Music, in Jos (with brother, Jesse Jagz, Ruby, and Lindsay), moved to Abuja following a record deal with Chocolate City label. Abuja was very much still morphing, unassuming, still defining itself, which led to the proliferation of satellite towns as a direct result of an influx of citizens relocating to it to enjoy its comfort and safety. There wasn’t any solid entertainment infrastructure. What was available were new radio stations like Hot 98.3 FM, Capital FM, and Cool FM, among others. With Cable TV, young people could watch South Africa’s Channel O, and MTV Base, popular music channels at the time. And on paid airtime on AIT, indigenous music channels like Soundcity and Hip TV aired, becoming popular.
It was perhaps this slow and lukewarm landscape that inspired M.I’s laidback but hippy and funky 2008 single, ‘Crowd Mentality’. Before the first punchlines of the song, we hear the intro, ‘Now we’re going to talk about something serious…’ In no rightful rapper’s mind, or even the mind of a music executive, could anyone have expected such a song, which defied known formulas of a hit song, would become pivotal. ‘Crowd Mentality’ paralleled (known as Tuface at the time) 2Baba’s ‘Nfana Ibaga’ as a song that announces an artist as well as a new era. Where Tuface’s ‘Nfana Ibaga’ was more personal, a reflection on self-worth, M.I’s ‘Crowd Mentality’ was a critical manifesto of the society M.I found himself in; it showed his scepticism of the music industry, and his stated vision or solution to the problems he highlighted. He rapped, ‘If you don’t have a mind of your own / Don’t be disappointed, this is fine, be a clone,’ and ‘I’ve changed my mind I’d rather be the same as / All these fake ass entertainers / Make bad music just to rock in arenas.’ He goes harder in his criticism of what is almost an over-glorification of philistinism:
Cos I tried hard to make a difference
Make the kinda music you’s can use as reference
Everybody else say ‘let’s dance’
Who am I to tell them otherwise?
That’s a job for Reverends
So I’m ready now to join the movement
Together press for negative improvement
To forever end the search for life
M.I’s sentiments or distaste for our music tastes in the foregoing lyrics represented, at the time, what was a vacuum in the music scene that allowed songs presumed of being of lesser merit, or simply wanton, to be celebrated—a vacuum, perhaps even unbeknownst to him, he had to fill. It is this same vacuum that made him (the boldest rapper at the time) thrive in a landscape where other rappers were stuck with a forgone aesthetic or had already lost their game. If radio stations were not playing the stale raps of Ruggedman, 9ice’s Fuji rap verses, or Mode 9’s popular ‘Cry’, it was M.I’s ‘Crowd Mentality’. Unsurprisingly, it won the Hip Hop World Award, now known as the Headies, for Best Rap Single in 2008, the year of its release.
Then came the single, ‘Safe’, featuring dulcet-voiced Djinee, an instant radio hit. It was followed by the single that sealed M.I’s dominance: ‘Blaze’ featuring Jesse Jagz (who produced the song) and Ice Prince, all Jos boys, who’d eventually joined Chocolate City. In a period when rap music in Nigeria was almost in a state of inertia, true to the claim, it was these Jos boys that gave it life once again. (Though the vacuum was certainly going to be filled anyhow.)
DEFINING A UNIQUE HIP-HOP SOUND
‘Blaze’—with a jolly hook, ‘Put your lighters in the air’—was so successful it almost made it seem the trio of M.I, Jesse Jagz and Ice Prince were the ultimate return of rap music in Nigeria. So much so that circa 2008-2010 their names and the label Chocolate City, crowned as Choc Boiz, became, arguably, a synecdoche for rap music in the country. Jesse Jagz had released ‘Greatest’, one of the best Nigerian rap songs. Ice Prince had become a household name with the hit single, ‘Oleku’; his other popular songs at the time, ‘Rewind’ and ‘Got Your Back’, all fine rap. Not long after, in 2011, all rappers appeared on the Tim West Wood show performing a freestyle that was almost a peek into the soul of Nigeria’s rap at the time, widely celebrated and criticized. This was the reach of their dominance and popularity in that era, piloted by the charisma of M.I.
If M.I had sworn on ‘Crowd Mentality’ that ‘he’s changed his mind to rather be like fake ass entertainers, making bad music just to rock in arenas,’ it wasn’t to heart. It was sarcasm; the rapper we hear in that song is a visionary. In 2018, ten years later, he tells Native Mag: ‘I can tell you categorically that I’ve never made music I didn’t want to, or compromised what I wanted for market reception.’ For the Afro RnB or Afrobeats singer, experimentation isn’t as laboured as we are led to think. This, however, isn’t the case of a rapper whose career was endangered during the era M.I broke out, especially before our music arrived at its now dominant place. It is why his 2008 debut, Talk About It, and 2010 sophomore, M.I The Movie, are very iconic albums, both in rap and Nigerian pop.
‘Blaze’, a leading single from Talk About It, takes the crown as one of the most uniquely produced Nigerian pop and rap songs (produced by Jesse Jagz); drums, synths, tambourines; immediately original and approaching a true indigenous aesthete, or Afro beat. It was a noticeable shift. Rap songs before this that attempted to accentuate a home-grown locale simply introduced Pidgin and indigenous languages—2Shotz’s ‘Carry Am Go’, Six Foot Plus’s ‘E Don Do Me’, Trybesmen’s ‘Plenti Nonsense’ and ‘Shake Bodi’, being examples—but all with an intricate boom-bap signature, the basic key of American hip-hop.
This departure in sound characterized the oeuvre of M.I’s Talk About It album, with songs like ‘Money’, ‘Short Black Boy’, ‘Talk About It’ and ‘Forever’. Featuring Wizkid, YQ, Pype on ‘Teaser’ and Gabriel on ‘Anoti’, were deliberate exploitations of pop, distributing such songs across the album to penetrate a rather obstinate audience for rap music at the time. A trait he has maintained to date, as Dennis Ade Peter writing in Native Mag confirms, ‘M.I’s superpower has always been his ability to make rap that affects as many as possible without totally slouching on his obligations as a lyric-driven rapper.’ Other rappers would try this, too. Samklef, a producer, in 2012, put D’Prince and Ice Prince on a song, ‘Molowo Noni’, with Wizkid on the hook, and it was a hit because of a pop star on its hook. A very successful example of pop-leaning rap, following M.I, has been Ladipoe’s ‘Know You’ featuring Simi, who was more popular than the rapper when the song came out in 2020; subsequently, the formula paid off monumentally as ‘Feeling’ featuring Bnxn scaled the charts, followed by the two features of Rema on ‘Afro Jigga’, and Fireboy on ‘Running’—songs which have remained more popular from Ladipoe’s catalogue.
M.I would replicate this formula on his second album, M.I The Movie. Even when a song like ‘Action Film’ from the album was more like noise—‘I’ve changed my mind I’ll rather be the same as all these fake ass entertainers’—‘Nobody’ was very original. ‘Undisputed’ was a strong statement. And ‘Beef’ with nuanced Afrobeats percussion and vibrant horns, was so natural in the fusion of rap and hip-hop; not just another adoption of Fela’s Afrobeat. (Another good example of this is Threewisemen’s 2012 ‘Bastard’).
STILL KEEPING THE CROWN
An obvious M.I influence on any rapper in the continent at the moment is Ladipoe; it is no wonder he has been the most successful among his peers, not overlooking Blaqbonez, a junior maverick already, whose career M.I has hugely supported since the days of Blaqbonez’s album, Bad Boy Blaq (2018). In the song ‘Talk About It’, M.I said he was Nigeria’s hip-hop reviver; Ladipoe, the 31-year-old rapper signed to Mavins Records, whose 2018 mixtape, Talk About Poe, established his genius, calls himself the ‘Lord of the Revival’, the likely successor to M.I. In an interview with music journalist and critic, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, who wrote the 2018 essay, ‘Chocolate City and Nigeria’s English Hip-Hop Problem’, I asked about M.I’s career surviving over a decade and half in a landscape where the lifespan of a rapper is mostly three-five years. Aigbokhaevbolo told me:
When M.I retires, we’ll look back at his run and realize he was the one who made it look like commercial success was possible for rappers in Nigeria. Before his heyday, not a lot of rappers appeared like they could make a living. After him, not a lot of rappers could do so rapping in mostly English.
As Choc Boiz in their glory days was a synecdoche for rap in Nigeria back then, M.I has remained that synecdoche for rap music in Nigeria for far too long; his footprints indelible, with what appears to be the richest, diverse, and nuanced number of projects in the catalogue of a Nigerian rapper—only rivalled by Olamide—with a good number of these projects or albums marking significant moments in the industry. No doubt, there has been a weak M.I, too, or rather a playful one, perhaps laboured by the fatigue of innovation or becoming relaxed after quantifiable successes. His 2018 album, Rendezvous was passive and less passionate, as he basked in the luxury of having no competition. But a bounce back from this abeyance was 2020, the pandemic year, which gave many artists a lot to think about, and during which he co-released The Live Report EP with A-Q, which I believe is now one of the greatest rap collaborations on the continent. The Live Report, masterfully produced and highly nuanced, not only celebrates the ethos of rap music, but is also a very contemplative take on the modern world—critiques on Big Tech, climate change, the disillusion of social media, the destiny of man, capitalism, theism, and the eternal question of self-enlightenment.
Irrespective of his innovations, ‘being Nigeria’s most pop-leaning rapper’, as culture journalist Emmanuel Esomnofu tells me via email, ‘wherefore his latest album, The Guy, refocuses that ambition,’ M.I’s true power has always remained his ability to rap, simply; to rap in the traditional sense of an emcee. No doubt, no true rapper schooled in the art, which is a predominantly American culture, can totally sidestep or deny their influences; it is something they want to pursue. So we find M.I, unleashed in beast mode on his mixtapes, Illegal Music 1, 2, and 3, with songs sampling African American soul singer, Nina Simone. A blast from the past espousing a ‘real hip-hop’ spirit, so-called, is a song ‘1, 2, 3’ by DJ Neptune, where M.I possibly outdid himself, bragging, ‘Lyrically molesting the rest, and the rest have no resting . . . My mission is to violate the status quo, the baddest bro . . .’
As a result of his prowess, he took the lead—and, for over a decade, Nigeria’s rap industry, has naturally revolved around him. In 2019, ‘The Viper’, his reply diss track to Vector, to a beef the latter initiated, if anything, is a strong reminder that M.I Abaga remains a name to be feared in the game of rap. Although just entering his forties, M.I has always had a paternal disposition in the game and among contemporaries, well aware of his reputation. In the 2020 Hennessey rap freestyle cypher, he rapped, ‘We pray for peace in Kaduna / We hope that we beat the Corona / For those who turn up to protest, we hope you turn up to vote . . .’ In the Martell Cypher 2, he paid tribute to B-Elect, an almost obscure rapper of the Thoroughbreds rap group: ‘Rest in peace B-Elect / Spent his last year trying to get the game to connect / A legend in my eye, so hear it from me, respect. / Salute king, my prayer is never may we forget’.
This kind of conscientiousness is an M.I trademark. He brings it to music; in many songs, he’s always talking about the state of rap music on the continent. The Martell Cyphers 1 to 3 he executed made sure that he promoted Nigeria’s rap culture. Not to also forget his executive role, serving as a Chocolate City VP, in the discovery of Blaqbonez and CKay, acts who have been breaking grounds in the Afrobeats scene; plus an attraction of a Warner Music Group partnership (whereby where Chocolate City signees receive the support of WMG’s distribution and artist services) which was sealed in May 2019.
A pastor’s son and firstborn, M.I was born Jude Lemfani Abaga, in Jos, on October 4, 1981. He attended Baptist High School, Jos, and later Calvin College, Michigan, USA, where he studied economics; perhaps foundations to help him—understanding the place of providence and human behaviour, respectively—to become a leader. He calls himself Judah, after his name Jude; and like the Biblical allusion to one of the sons of Jacob, there is no doubt M.I claims to be divinity, a son of God, leading his people and the music industry. A list of artists he has worked with or helped in their careers includes Jesse Jagz, Ruby Gyang, Lindsay, Ice Prince, Djinee, Pype, Wizkid, Tay Iwar, Dice Ailes, Brymo, Khaligraph Jones, Blaqbonez, A-Q, Loose Kaynon, and even old-time rapper, Dark Poet. He is ‘The Guy’ as the title of his latest album proclaims; in the song ‘Bigger’ from the album, he raps on a very reflective verse, ‘Bigger you I pray as I become bigger me / What’s the limit my G, hmm, infinity.’ In the 2010 song, ‘I Am William’, where legacy rapper, 2Shotz, features him, M.I sings a hook, ‘I am the definition of longevity / After I’m gone these streets will remember me / For so long we’s killing ’em / I am-I am-I am Wil-li-am.’ It was in honour of the rapper, 2Shotz. It was only two years after M.I’s breakout. But even then, he knew he wasn’t only singing about 2Shotz, but also prophesying about himself: ‘the definition of longevity.’⎈
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