Lagos: A Retirement Home For Fading R&B Stars?
Just before Christmas, the quartet of Bobby Brown and RBRM (Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe) – all former members of 1980s teen heartthrob act New Edition headlined a huge concert named “Flytime Music Festival” in Lagos. The three-day extravaganza took place at the prestigious 6,000-capacity Eko Convention Center was tagged “An Exclusive and Explosive Show” by the organisers. Brown and co. thrilled the audience with hit songs from their ‘New Edition’ albums amidst solo performances from each of them. Backed by a live band, some of their popular classics including ‘Candy Girl’, ‘My Prerogative’, ‘Poison’, ‘Mr Telephone Man.”
Brown, who has lived what a more sympathetic observer might describe as a “full life” was periodically winded during performances in the hall packed by older millennials. Many of them had grown up using his music as a soundtrack to their early wanderlust years, and could now afford to pay for it. The singer had to take rests, leaving the rest of the crew to perform, while he sat at the back and gathered his strength. He joked about the episodes, apologizing while stating that “Life has taken a lot from me.”
“Bobby Brown did better than I expected” says Niyi Osidipe, a talent manager, who spent the evening singing at the top of her voice. The concert meant a lot to her. “These were the people whose posters hung on our doors, lockers and above our bedsides,” she explains. “I enjoyed the show.”
Events featuring this calibre of veteran performers aren’t rare. Nigeria has a long history of being a cash spot for 90s and 80s R&B artists. The list of stars who have found visiting Lagos very lucrative reads like an all-star list for the perfect throwback concert. The most notable names who have breezed through the city include Dru Hill, India Ari, Ginuwine, Brian McKnight, Babyface, Joe and many more. These are only a few names that make it to public knowledge, due to the high profile nature of the concerts they played. If you are a Lagos or Northern Nigeria socialite, it’s common sight to walk into a high-profile wedding reception and find a 90s star serenading. Sometimes, it’s just an elite party, where people just want a throwback performer and boom! It’s Joe being hired to come serenade guests with his 1999 hit, ‘I wanna know’.
To understand this phenomenon you have to go back to the era of these performers in the 80s and 90s. Nigerian pop music was still in its infancy, with traditional sounds ruling the air. Where young people found extra music joy were in the influx of R&B. With the growth of the local music industry, and regulatory laws installed by the country’s National Broadcasting Commission to help the music get airplay, that trend shifted.
But the nostalgia lingers. Much of the young people who enjoyed this era of consumption in Nigeria are now part of an older demographic, occasionally seeking to pay top dollar for a chance to be kids again. “They are the people who are the decision makers across business and brands,” says Hakeem Condotti, a popular live music promoter in Nigeria. “These people have the cheques and can pay for their services to relive their past.”
These R&B stars are not booked for mass market concerts and events. They are branded as “classy,” with the VIP tag attached to the marketing of their concerts. Much of the fanbase and attendees who can still connect with their music are in their forties and fifties. They are the low-energy crowd who love to sit at tables during concerts, walking down memory lane, and cheering for their heroes past. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and promoters are cashing out.
This phenomenon might also be down to the top quality of the music, and how the soothing and personal structure of the sound, influences strong emotions, says Shola Thompson, a 16-year radio veteran of popular Lagos radio station, Smooth FM.
“A lot of those artists poured a whole lot into it. It was sincere, and at the same time they captured things that were happening, and their entire life.” Thompson, who plays classic R&B classics every day on late night show, to a demographic savouring a connection to the past believes that these records will still continue to retain their power forever. “Music moves in circles. You can hear elements of these songs being remade into new music today. They would live forever.”
Veteran R&B stars aren’t the only ones to come to Nigeria. It’s a country that has played host to some of the biggest stars in music. There’s a popular video of pop goddess Beyonce singing the Nigerian national anthem when she made a stop in 2006. Kelly Rowland, Trey Songz, and Ciara are some of the popular stars to perform in Nigeria. Others from Hip-hop include Nas, JAY-Z, Migos and most recently, J.Cole, who performed his platinum-selling album, “K.O.D,” for the first time in April, 2018. It’s a city that welcomes all.
If you are reading this, and you once had a thriving career in R&B, you need to come to Lagos. Chances are you will find your fans in large numbers, and a payday waiting for you at the airport. Retirement never looked so lucrative.