It’s no longer news that Nigerian music is going places.
Propelled by catchy beats, infused with an authenticstreet quality that the world is finding more interesting than the generic American ghetto version and fronted by charismatic youths with irresistible swag, it is making unprecedented inroads into the world’s hearts, clubs and auditoriums. From India to London, New York to Johannesburg, Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, the evidence of the popularity and acceptance of Afrobeats continues to mount.
A recent Premium Times report captured some of the broad statistics behind the excitement. The industry, now one of the largest in the world, generates two billion dollars annually, mostly from digital streaming and downloads. It employs thousands of Nigerians and provides for possibly hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries, including families. Key players in the sector include over 500 music producers and over 1000 record labels. There are also over 50 radio stationswhich chronicle and celebrate the hits that are becoming continental and global staples. Perhaps most impressively, Nigerian music has over 30 million monthly listeners worldwide.
The growth is driven by Boomplay, iTunes, and Spotifyand other music streaming services. This perhaps the most critical development in the ongoing revolution. Boomplay and co have made it possible for artists to access global audiences and get paid for their creative output in a structured, consistent and measurable way. Thus, the kind of power and control that record companies and tyrannical owners had over earlier generations of musicians has reduced significantly. Of course, the situation is far from perfect. As the trending case of the 27-year-old singer Mohbad (real name: Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba) demonstrates, the stranglehold has only been lessened not eliminated. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Burna Boy, arguably Nigeria’s biggest musical export at the moment, the country’s only winner of an individual Grammy is one of the big kahunas of the industry. He recently released a much-anticipated album “I told them”. The album title, builds on “African Giant” and other songs that proclaim his conviction that he is the greatest musician of his generation. The 32-year-old clearly fancies himself as the Muhammad Ali of the African music scene. From initial reports, the new album is making a big splash in the market. It’s become the first number one album by an African in the UK and it’s making waves in streaming and other indices of success in the current music industry.
Elsewhere, Wizkid, Rema, Asake and other top Nigerian musicians are reinforcing Nigeria’s status as a top player in the music industry. Wzkid whose music has become a staple on Barack Obama’s summer favourites over the past few years, continues to generate hits and excite fans on every stage he appears on. Davido is the lovable billionaire’s son who shares his wealth with the underprivileged while demonstrating a knack for songs with phrase-hooks that quickly become mainstream: “Assurance”, “Unavailable”, among others. Rema is a strong contender for inheritor whenever the big boys to call it a day. He has consolidated his place with a run of hits over the past two years and there seems to be no let-up in his momentum. The young man is the young,tender face of Afrobeats and his fan base includes both the tough guys on the street and the starstruck young girls who are charmed by both his looks and his dance steps. Asake is also a notable addition to the pantheon of current Nigerian greats. His rather jarring golden teeth serves as a counterpoint to his gritty but graceful version of Afrobeats infused with the street sounds of the south-west.
Beyond these national and global stars, there are, of course, many others. Kizz Daniel, an effortlessly creative manufacturer of irresistible national favouriteslike Buga; Flavour, one of Nigeria’s best stage performers; Simi and her husband, AG Baby, aka Adekunle Gold; Tekno; Patoranking; Yemi Alade; Falz; MI etc etc. This is a far from representative list. The industry is churning out stars and hits with dizzying rapidity. It Is very likely that, even before this piece is published, another young star, will emerge, burning bright in the charts.
But as the MohBad story illustrates, there is also a very dark side to the industry’s success. Many upcoming musicians are treated like modern day slaves, forced to sign away their rights by labels. There are allegations that some of the labels are financed by yahoo and drug money. Poorly regulated and opaque, big boys in the sector operate more like Mafia bosses than CEOs, deploying police and thugs to deal with uncooperative musicians who refuse to do their bidding. Mohbad’sstory is sadly common but he was notable for two reasons: his determination to keep standing despite serial abuses as well as going public with his painthrough his songs.
Mohbad, like country singer Jim Reeves who died in a plane crash in 1964, was fascinated by death. The difference was that Reeves was obsessed with the imminent delights of heaven while MohBad desperately wanted his rewards – stardom, money to take care of family and have some fun – before death. As we know now, his wishes weren’t granted. Three weeks ago, he died in suspicious circumstances at the hospital, apparently from an ear infection. But the young manhas, in a very real sense, achieved his dreams in death.The accounts of how he was cheated, beaten and hounded by Naira Marley, the owner of his former labelhas spurred an outpouring of posthumous sympathy and interest in his music. People who were not aware of his existence when he was alive are buying his music and he’s sprinting up the charts.
Mohbad’s life and death is a metaphor for the many things wrong with the Nigerian music industry, for the sharp thorns in the thick undergrowth hidden behind the colourful stages where stars, old and newly minted, holdsway. It is a reminder that for every star who emerges out of the ghetto, millions of others remain stuck in the muck, struggling against great odds to escape. And that even for those who have made some progress, released some music and earned an underground reputation – like Mohbad – things can go south in a moment, sometimes fatally. To improve the odds, there is urgent need to expose and punish the cruel masters holding dreams hostage, for better regulation and enforcement of relevant laws to protect the most important resource of the Nigerian music industry: starry eyed youths yearning for stardom.