The Foreign Flows of Nigerian Hip-Hop Nigeria’s Hip-Hop Problem

As military rule in Nigeria came to an end, a new generation of singers, heavily influenced by the ‘golden age of American hip-hop’ was born.

In ‘A Million’, a bonus track off his 2012 mixtape, Occupy The Throne, rapper, Modenine’s excitement verges on the explosive. Delivered with characteristic élan, the track is a quickfire memoir of a trip to Johannesburg. In it, Modenine recounts, among other experiences, a performance at which he is surrounded by ‘real heads’—a reference to an audience schooled in hip-hop—who ‘got up as he spat.’ Modenine is in his element as he fashions his travel memoir, a transgression into a narrative practice that is usually the preserve of Fuji artistes returning from trips abroad. But masked behind this joie de vivre—‘O what a feeling/hip-hop is life’—is a longing for the acceptance of hip-hop, which, back home, remains an aspiration.

The Dawn of Nigerian Hip-Hop

For much of the 1990s, Nigeria’s popular music scene was saturated with highlife, local reggae and Fuji. As the country’s long night of military dictatorship wound down, a new generation of singers arose, heavily influenced by American hip-hop of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, the so-called ‘golden age of hip-hop’ that threw up The Fugees, Naughty By Nature, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, and Jay Z. 

In Nigeria, the new generation of singers fully imbibed the hip-hop zeitgeist. These pioneers wore the baggy pants and large FUBU shirts of the Bronx. Tony Tetuila of The Remedies, perhaps the most popular group of these early years, wore a singlet and dyed his hair blonde like Sisqo. Eedris Abdulkareem, easily the group’s most prominent member, imitated American-style rapping, doing tongue twisters and dropping bars like Busta Rhymes. Wale Thompson, a juju artiste, featured The Remedies in ‘Lalale Friday’ (2000); and Maintain, a different group, evolved a unique sound by sprinkling humour over a blend of hip-hop and Fuji, signalling possible futures for hip-hop. ArtQuake’s ‘Abule Lawa’ (1999), one of the most memorable hip-hop songs of that era, sampled Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo Wop’ (1998). ArtQuake’s video featured Plantashun Boiz and The Remedies, the flagbearers of a new dawn in Nigerian music. Hip-hop culture, for these pioneers, was a welcome relief from the dreariness that had come before.

Nigerian Hip-Hop’s Early Struggles

Despite the initial success of hip-hop, more indigenous genres like galala, popularized by Daddy Showkey and Baba Fryo, lurked in the open. In retrospect, these indigenous sounds, not hip-hop, provided the template for the renaissance Nigerian music enjoys today. Hip-hop, with its foreign aesthetics, still doesn’t seem to sing to the Nigerian ear.

Released in 2006, OD Overdose’s ‘Don’t Hate’ is an unwitting illustration of the classic dilemma of the Nigerian rapper attempting to balance their foreign influences with the peculiarities of their Nigerian audience. In the same song he admonishes rappers to read the room (‘Bros, no dey rap like sey you dey Jand / Dey drop something wey all man fit understand’), Overdose still stunts on his audience with lines like, ‘Groupies want to hang like dungarees / Cos I’m dropping jewels like craftsmen on Parkinson’s disease /… I laugh when you claim you the dopest / You can’t talk in my face, you got halitosis.’ Even in 2006, there was a small number of listeners for such lines by Overdose. And they were either familiar with Nas or Public Enemy or read New York Times Bestsellers. This meant these listeners belonged to an internationally exposed, elite class readily appreciable of such music. Our hip-hop, therefore, was—and is—an elitist endeavour, produced for and sustained by elitist consciousness. This is why it remains underground.

Overdose’s refrain summarized the contending currents in Nigeria’s hip-hop scene. Though they gained widespread appeal, rappers like 2shotz and Nigga Raw were still seen as an aberration, as ‘local’ (urban colloquialism meaning parochial) in a scene dominated by ‘real heads’, foreign-headed wordsmiths like Modenine. 2shotz, from the hip-hop ensemble Trybesmen, elected to deliver walking-pace rap in Igbo-inflected pidgin. His comical facial expressions, laid-back flow, mad capers and on-screen chemistry with Big Lo allowed him to transcend rap into popular culture. And though Nigga Raw achieved popular acclaim with ‘Obodo’ (2005) by taking 2shotz’s cue, this locally inflected rap did not gain ground until Da Grin, who made the hit song ‘Pon Pon Pon’ that became wildfire by the end of 2009, its release year.

Da Grin wielded the talisman to localize hip-hop, albeit with Yoruba lyrics. But his avant-gardism laid the groundwork for the likes of Olamide, Reminisce and Phyno, who, alongside mainstays like Wizkid and Davido, have dominated the Nigerian music scene in the past half-decade or so. 

A Different Kind of Relevance

Aware of their failure to make relatable music for the average Nigerian listener, Nigeria’s ‘real hip-hop heads’ reconfigure the terms for relevance. Relevance, for the real head, is irrelevance; after all, only the irrelevant can stand out in a sea of relevance. This is the mad logic of D Truce, who, in a feature in Modenine’s 2012 Occupy The Throne, raps that he is ‘standing out’ and ‘Don’t see no need to blend … I’m not your average rapper, and yes I keep it real / You need entertainment? Fuck it, I’m spitting how I feel.’ The other problem with standing out is that one can either be above the fray or below it. The average Nigerian listener is unlikely to ever have heard of D Truce.

Five Mics, whose 2011 ‘E Don Tey’ remains a good listen, returned from exile in 2017 with the single ‘YFRFR’. In it, he brags: ‘They can’t forget who the illest be . . . In the negative world of morons I keep it positive, no protons . . . I’m out of this world, eons beyond the future, man.’ Ignoring his puns, Five Mics is right. His sense of his own importance is fantastical, especially with the renaissance of Nigerian music on the global stage. Rappers like Five Mics cannot find a place and so insist, with characteristic braggadocio, that they belong elsewhere. 

The Martell Cyphers

This outlandishness of hip-hop in Nigeria runs the genre aground before it sets sail. And the Martell Cyphers (1 and 2), led by rapper, M.I Abaga, and released in January and November 2019, are a perfect illustration of the problem. 

In hip-hop lingo, cyphers are debate-style manifestos that carry the professional sentiments of the artistes. With the best lines they can think up, rappers in a cypher are expected to pontificate about the genre and lay down their marker in the zeitgeist. In theory, therefore, the Martell Cyphers are a fascinating proposition; in real life, they barely make a ripple in the wider culture owing to the fundamental disconnect between the average listener and American-style rapping. 

Featuring Loose Kanyon, A-Q and Blaqbonez, the Martell Cyphers are M.I’s rostrum. In ‘Crowd Mentality’, the 2008 single with which he elbowed his way into the consciousness of Nigerian music lovers, M.I decried the lacklustre hip-hop scene. A decade later, his assault is more pointed in ‘You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Life’ (2017): he sees nobody dope on the scene. Nevertheless, M.I rounds up the dopest rappers he can find for a transformational crusade, and together they embark on what might best be described as an exclusivist circle jerk. This is the exasperation that compelled the music critic, Dami Ajayi, to ask: ‘how does this help Hip-Hop?’  

Re-inventing the Culture

Is hip-hop and rap music alien to Nigeria? No and yes. No, because the culture is not totally antagonistic to it; some, like Da Grin, Olamide and Phyno, have found a way to make hip-hop work. What these three have in common is their use of local musical elements. Da Grin, whose sound wasn’t purely indigenous, sang in Yoruba and pidgin, inflecting the genre with a local flavour. Olamide blends hip-hop with heavy borrowings from Fuji and Naija dancehall sounds, and Phyno incorporates ogene and atilogwu rhythms too well in his style. Put these tracks together—‘Kondo’ (2010), ‘Bobo’ (2015) and ‘Connect’ (2015) by the three artists respectively—and the picture is clear. But they are the few exceptions. Affairs like the Martell Cyphers, however, ensure that hip-hop remains out-of-place, its aspirations still strapped to a foreign idiom.

We face this irony then: in the America of its origin, hip-hop is unpretentious street music; here it might as well be jazz, if one pays any mind to the posturing of its purists. But what the urban culture—the streets—here appears to demand is not this transparent pretence, or a genre whose self-mythology is far-removed from its reality. To create a viable hip-hop culture, cyphers are not enough. The Nigerian music scene is replete with templates for indigenizing foreign influence. Our rappers must begin to look inward to find the ingredients to bridge the gulf between what they see and what actually is

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]