Falz’s “This Is Nigeria” and the business of distraction
Giving it some thought, Glover having created something that Falz found resonant enough to build on is not surprising. The most obvious similarity is that both artists have an evolving oeuvre built from their work in comedy, and have had to work to be taken seriously as rappers. Falz’s comedy is often standard Nigerian fare, with the exaggerated accents and poking fun at “runs girls” and “sharp guys” while simultaneously reinforcing the “baby boy” lifestyle, even though he has shown a willingness to take on social topics and a refusal to glorify Nigerian social ills like corruption and abuses of power by politicians or religious leaders, even having run-ins with others on the issue, most notably fellow entertainer 9ice.
“This Is America” asserts Glover’s seriousness as a rapper in a pop culture that has only recently begun to take his music seriously. Elsewhere, Glover’s TV show “Atlanta” has earned plaudits for its cinematic portrayal of the exact kinds of characters who do not often get portrayed in a nuanced manner. Both Glover and Falz are similar in the scale of their ambition, not satisfied as being seen as great in one thing. For Falz, he has shown that he does not want to be seen as just funny, but as an artist whose voice matters.
Glover’s “This is America” is striking, because it does not give the satisfaction of a message. The video puts you in a vast warehouse (or is it a jailhouse?) full of activity and does not bother to give you a tour. The guns used to kill people in the video are carefully placed on velvet cushions after use. On first viewing, you may be so entranced by the dancing that you do not notice the white horse striding by, or the absolute chaos going in the background. If you manage to look beyond Glover’s shirtless body and manic dancing, you would notice commentary on American gun violence and how quickly the audience is demanded to move on to entertainment while the number of the dead just keeps increasing. The title of the song, the statement of it, is all there is.
By contrast, Falz’s “This Is Nigeria” offers you no distractions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Where the video on which it is based is focused entirely on Glover to distract you from the chaos in the background, the camera in “This Is Nigeria” wants you to miss nothing, straying often from Falz to focus on the bus driver sipping codeine, the woman packing money with a dead snake in a calabash, the fraudulent pastor, the young men pulling at their generator. Look, Falz seems to be challenging us, as he highlights everything that has occupied the front pages of newspapers over the past few months. In the end, the whole motley crew of characters in the video gather, with Falz atop a car, both hands in a Black Panther Wakanda salute ends with both hands up — in surrender or in victory, one is not quite sure.
Contemporary Nigerian artists are often derided for making music without substance, but a closer view shows that this is not entirely true. Sound Sultan, Eldee, Asa, Falz, TuFace, Omawumi, and even Tekno, are among artists who have recently addressed politically conscious themes in their music over the past five years alongside their more party-ready fare. I would even argue that many of the less politically-conscious songs are just as emblematic of who we collectively are, and have become. “Lagos today, London tomorrow, Oluwa lo se o” is basically the Nigerian dream. “30 billion for the account” resonates because we know the role of wealth in respectability. There is indeed many a young adult Nigerian on a “codeine diet”. Burna Boy’s “Ye,” off his recent “Outside” EP, basically recites the unofficial Nigerian anthem: “I no wan kpai, I no wan kpeme, I wan’ enjoy, I wan’ buy motor, I wan’ build house, I still wan’ turn up.” “This Is Nigeria” sits alongside these songs every bit as comfortably to stitch together the story of who we currently are.
Falz’s refrain “This is Nigeria/see how I’m living now” begins as angry and ends as a lament. At the end, Falz does not tell us what to do about the unholy mess he has showed us. If art holds up mirrors to society that artist themselves are a part of, then it may be time to acknowledge their rightful place as bewildered witnesses, just like the rest of us. Speaking of his vast catalogue of “Big Boy” songs, ElDee recently criticised what he sees as his own music’s role in “promoting materialism and oppression”, opining that his music “contributed to social decay.” The idea that one’s music is setting the soundtrack of our destruction and that artists must change their tune is seductive but ultimately as wrong as thinking the right song will necessarily make a change. Indeed, that is a cruel burden to put on anyone’s shoulders. Perhaps the main lesson from “This is Nigeria” is that we should be more suspicious of our desire for substance and moral weight. We have now itemised all these issues we collectively face. Now, what?
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