No Room for Eccentrics
One of the greatest ironies in the Nigerian music industry is that the average Nigerian is quick to complain that so many mainstream artists sound the same, but yet the underground act trying to carve out a signature sound remains a starving one. In fact, going beyond just the sound of music, even on a lyrical level, we find most popular songs revolving around everything but issues that actually matter in our society. One could almost make an argument that Nigerians have no ears for socially conscious or existential lyrics. But then what about the famous Fela Kuti, I hear you ask? That was then, this is now. Let me explain.
As far as my father is concerned, what passes for Afro-pop music these days is just a lot of mumbling over ridiculously similar up-tempo beats. On more than one occasion, he has suggested that producers be paid more than singers for a song. When I try to defend the sound of my generation, he breaks into a long list of artists from Osita Osadebe to Sunny Ade, and of course the legend that is Fela Kuti. Then he would ask me to listen to these artists and see how different they sound sonically. After that, he would pose a challenge that I name only five artists today in the mainstream market with distinctive sounds, a task I am always shamefully unable to complete.
This really got me thinking about how in just one generation, we have moved from valuing originality and lyricism, to glorifying what I would best describe as bubblegum music. At first I thought it was a classic case of nostalgia, as depicted in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, where Owen Wilson plays a writer that finds himself in the fifties among the company of Ernest Hemmingway and other classic writers of the decade. Caught up in excitement and filled with contempt for the literature of his time, he sees this as the golden age of writing. In a twist of events, he is transported even further back with a woman he met in the fifties to the Renaissance era. Coincidentally, she views this era to be the golden age of literature and refuses to leave. It is very common for the perceived classic nature of older works to outshine the brilliance of modern creations. This can also be seen in hip-hop music where the nineties are considered the golden era and anything since then is just an attempt to be as good.
On second thoughts, I realized this was not a matter of nostalgia. Every era has its greats but these days we have an elevation problem for musicians and the arts in general. Any real fan of hip-hop music will tell you that the art form is alive and well. However, you would have to hit the underground scene to find what you are looking for. Unfortunately, the same is the case with Nigerian music. The country is neither short of talent nor is it lacking in diversity of sound, but you will not be hearing any of this on the radio.
The overly commercialized state of the music industry that has artists paying for radio spins has all but completely killed the upcoming, independent artist with an alternative sound. In this hyper connected age, the public has become the taste maker of what is promoted as popular music so it comes as no surprise that material with questionable content and repetitive patterns has taken over the industry. There is also the current social condition of the country to contemplate. Immediately after independence, Nigerians enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Travel was not restricted, exchange rates were pleasant, and institutions flourished with social perks including free education and even state sponsored allowances for students. It only seemed right that the people would pay attention to the likes of Fela Kuti when things began to change for the worse. Fast-forward to 2015. For most young people, governmental corruption and broken institutions represent not just a familiar reality, but the only reality they have ever known. The last thing the youth want is a reminder of these bitter truths that greet us at every waking moment. An artist can consider selling hope, but even that will be viewed as a pipe dream by a deluded citizen. The only option left is for music made to numb the pain of existence. This is exactly what the popular music of the day helps with—escapism.
Looking at theories like Marlow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, it becomes clear that with the current level of education and economic instability of the average Nigerian, existential angst and philosophical musing over music, is a luxury for a select few. After all, the beauty of art is only a reflection of the consumer’s understanding.
Images: dailypost.ng and www.maxsmadmix.com
First published in REVitUP! June/July, 2015 issue
September 03, 2021