Dear Nigerians, Alté is Not Your Problem in Life
Over the past three months, I did something I have always wanted to do but had little time for. I started work on understanding the music industry in relation to the different movements that make up the great hub of pop music in Lagos, Nigeria. I discovered that while everyone talks about creativity and expression as the foundation of their artistry, only one group truly applies it as a collective spirit.
I studied the mainstream pop guys who take all the big prizes and fat cheques. They possess originality and raw soul in little silos, but the pursuit of commercialism has eroded the best parts of it. Money is an asset in this game, but only when it comes as a reward for widely accepted expression. When it’s promoted to the position of sole Chief Creative Motivator’, it becomes an obsession that skews the art. Money rules pop music. It dictates the pace of the industry for the rest of us.
On the flip side of the mainstream mafia, the Alternative Music community exists. These are the people who worship Brymo for his pen, voice and occasional nudity. Their luminaries also include such creative names such as Aramide, Ric Hassani, Tjan, Funbi and more. While these people do aspire to get the money, they approach the hustle with a more artsy approach. Again, money is an influencer here, and as such, it dictates that the art becomes a tasteful mimicry of the mainstream offering.
Three other interesting movements exist. They are the “Street Movement (Shepeteri)” made up of the creatives from Mushin, Agege, Iyana Ipaja and other pockets of Lagos State. There’s also the Traditional Music community who make up the highly lucrative live music industry, based on legacy sounds such as Fuji, Juju, and Highlife. There’s also the embattled Alté Crew.
The street movement has been top influencers of mainstream music, due to their most illustrious son, Olamide. He extracts elements of Shepeteri culture and reworks it for mainstream audiences. If you go below the glare of his lights, you will find an entire independent music industry for, by and of the streets. This new world, located primarily in Lagos Mainland, is seldom acknowledged and appreciated in mainstream circles, but it does possess a self-sufficient ecosystem that rivals what the mainstream has built. They have artists, songwriters, DJs, a growing audience, and diaspora followership. They build their own venues, play their own shows, have a crude but effective system of rating their performers. They also release and market their albums to themselves. Only a few of their champions eventually find popular acceptance. Shaku shaku, Shoki, Alanta, and a few other recent pop culture waves have come from this community. Artists such as Zlatan Ibile, GucciMane Eko (Formerly known as Yomi Sars), 2T Boys, and many others come from this movement. Mr Real, Slimcase, Chinko Ekun, Lil Kesh, are also from this part of town. It is a near-consistent feeder team for pop culture. They have the sauce. Raw sauce.
Over the past three months, I have extensively studied the Alté Community. I conducted a holistic search for its soul in Lagos and connected it to their growing appeal and fanbase in the UK and US. I talked to some of their brightest creators and the businessmen that are attempting to sell and commoditize the movement. I have also spoken to some of the journalists who cover the beat and illuminate the art. Also, their core consumers have shared with me, the essence of their attraction and bond to the music. I find that, of all the different creative movements in this city, this is the purest in spirit and approach. Unlike the other movements, the Alte community contains a creative sincerity and dedication to original art. The creators operate as Afropolitan sponges, soaking up Western culture and elements, and attempting to marry them to local audiences and tastes in the most creative ways. This very attitude to the art seeps into their aesthetics too. They are edgy, pushing the boundaries of fashion by tweaking the most mundane fashion pieces to achieve a fresh look or ‘vibe’.
They are different. Many are true to themselves. Their art is driven solely by an unshakeable thirst for creativity as an end in itself. It’s partly why they are also the least grossing music community in Lagos. They make the trickling money that they can from plugging their art in underground spaces across different continents and selling it via international streaming platforms. They also do come across concerts and live performance opportunities, but the economics of their live music scene isn’t balanced yet. Over time, it has shown growth. But when compared to the other movements, it falls very short.
The Alté community is also the most hated of all the music movements. Why this is, is plain to see. On the surface, they do appear to be an exclusive club, filled with entitled, privileged children of the rich. They are also considered snubs, who keep a tight circle defined by societal class dynamics. While this appears to be the case from a distance, a closer look will unveil that they are mostly commoners like you, bounded by a burning desire to create art that stands out. They keep to themselves and push their music in that exclusive fashion because they lack funding for large and inclusive campaigns. While other communities have investors and big budgets, the Alté crowd are mostly self-funded, scratching from corner to post, and denying themselves a lot of comforts to create music. They have repeatedly reached out to mainstream mediums, but many are rebuffed by their lack of spending power. Only a few of them own presentable music videos.
But it is from this poverty, that they found success; They’ve perfectly converted that weakness to a creative strength, by finding new ways to cut cost. It is the product of that genius that is perceived as elitism. Yes, when viewed from this perspective, it’s creative elitism, birthed by necessity, improvisation, and pure swag. When Santi and Odunsi run back into history to find inspiration from the ’80s and ’90s, they aren’t just overdoing it. They are looking for ways to save cost, as well as thrive.
People hate what they don’t understand. Regardless of how much knowledge about a particular topic of contention just sits on the internet, it’s neglected by the people who need it the most. Personal growth is a hard process. Hating is easy. It’s primal, even, to perceive new and foreign entities as a threat and to respond accordingly. The Alté community isn’t the resistance destined to wipe out pop culture. Rather, they are a progeny of the system, Culture’s most rebellious sons, bound by a desire to improve and harmonize, rather than fight the system. They are proposing a new way, a different take on the sound, and a simpler but equally enjoyable approach to the art. They are the hand of diversity, knocking for a seat at the table. They are the future, the change that we might all need.
Perhaps it is this progressive quality that people find so disagreeable. They represent the best parts of ourselves; the part that elevates us and pushes us to be better people and richer human beings. But to achieve that, we need to put in more work, push ourselves a little extra, and become higher versions of ourselves. This does not necessarily imply that Alté is a more superior movement. Much of what they create either fails to connect, or are unrefined pieces of art. But they do possess a willingness to continue to think outside the box for inspiration. It’s a harder game to play. One which calls for a higher price.
Odunsi the Engine pays this price naturally because of his niche leadership. He is regarded as the most successful, popular and advanced creative of the Alté community. The 22-year-old individualizes everything the movement stands for, both sonically and optically. This power places a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. Being the first man standing, when the heat is unleashed, he becomes a human target for it. His music is bashed. His sexuality is questioned. His fanbase is derided. His aesthetics are criticized unfairly. Humans love to focus their emotions on other humans. We love to put a living face to our pain, our love, our disgust. Our rancid hate. That’s why he is attacked for being himself and a winner.
So far, Odunsi The Engine, whose “rare.” album dropped in October, has appeared to deal with this pressure nicely. He’s had a number one album in the country on Apple Music. His healthy streaming numbers on Spotify are a testament to the strength of his art, the loyalty of his fans, the curiosity of people on the sidelines, and his business team. Everything’s coming together for him, as his stars continue to align. Perhaps one day, he would not have to shoulder the majority of this burden alone. His niche success is a great personal blessing, but it comes at the price of suffering for the curse of his community. That’s why he continues to provoke conversations and polarize schools of thought. Let’s just admit it for the first time, he is “Alté Jesus.”
Perhaps, one day we will be more receptive as a people to progress, no matter which shape, form or sound that it appears. While we have the free will to not like it, we should also exercise our restraint in equal measure to not denigrate it. If you lack understanding as a consumer of the culture, you should be willing to put in the work to seek more knowledge and elevate your interaction with the art. If you choose not to go down that path, then avoid the topic, the music, and the creators completely. Alté is not the name of your pain. Your flawed humanity is. Do better, think better. Act better. The Alté crowd, with their desire to be different, is not your hill to die on. If anything, they exist to serve and perhaps, save you?