Nigerian pop music and glorification of internet fraud
For years now, music journalists and culture critics have warned about the continued rise of Yahoo-Yahoo sub-culture, but now the legal cost of celebrating and perpetuating that lifestyle is slowly catching up. In 2017, Dammy Krane was arrested and acquitted in the US on fraud-related charges, while earlier this month, “Issa Goal” singer Naira Marley landed in hot water with the EFCC after attracting attention through his online antics. If Marley is found guilty on all 11 charges, he could face up to 7 years in prison. But even if he too gets acquitted, this episode will go down as the EFCC’s most significant attempt to control the proliferation of internet fraud through Nigerian music culture.
Nigerian music’s love affair with low-level fraud can be traced back to the ‘80s, a period in which many historians agree that corruption became institutionalized. The dual effects of a crippling financial crisis between 1983 and1985, and lawlessness created the perfect storm that allowed fraudsters, drug traffickers and racketeers to emerge. Many of whom were popular singers of their time, who used the proceeds from these illegal activities to fund their careers.
Between 1999 and 2005, internet penetration grew astronomically in the country. This growth would also change the face of crime. According to the FBI, Nigeria accounted for over 15% of the total internet crime activity reported in 2002. The caustic combination of crime syndicates and improved access to the internet birthed the “Yahoo-Yahoo boy”; named after the American company whose email platform and instant messaging service was ubiquitous at the time and became a favorite medium for their communications.
Yahoo-Yahoo found a home in the poverty-stricken ghettos of Lagos. Many young singers and dancers starved of opportunities noticeably started to abandon the arts and crafts for broadband and cybercafés. When explaining the reason why he seemingly disappeared from the scene in the early 2000’s, Ajegunle legend Baba Fryo complained that: “We don’t have raw talents in the music industry; people doing music now are the Yahoo and drug boys. They took over the industry.”
Internet fraud was ruling the streets but it wasn’t celebrated very much in pop culture. A shift happened in 2003, however, when the iconic “Osuofia in London” movie starring Nollywood veteran Nkem Owoh was released. The movie became so popular that its theme song “Chop Your Dollar” became a nationwide hit. The song was a satirical jab at the emerging Yahoo-Yahoo trend and contained playful threats from Nkem to steal from his unsuspecting white victims. It was tongue-in-cheek, as were most references to Yahoo-Yahoo in pop culture in the early 2000’s. Notably, London-based group JJC and the 419 Squad even attempted to re-purpose the term “419” to something positive.
A second and more significant shift happened in 2007 with Olu Maintain. A dance step that symbolized the jet-setting lifestyle of the Yahoo boy started gaining popularity in clubs in Lagos and London, and a number of artists made songs to capture that moment. The most popular song by far was done by ex-Maintain star, Olu, whose “Yahoozey” became one of the most iconic songs in Nigerian music history. The song and dance became so big that the former Secretary of State of the US, Colin Powell, danced to it with Olu on stage in one of the most ill-advised moves a senior US government official will ever make. Olu Maintain will go down as the godfather of the Yahoo-Yahoo sub-culture in Nigerian music – it was he who elevated the dark art from the underworld to the mainstream. His success emboldened other artists to embrace the lifestyle in their music.
Former Kennis music star, Kelly Hansome, followed Olu closely and took things to a whole other level. Kelly embraced everything about the dark lifestyle; he called his record company Creamynal (Criminal) Records, titled his second album 2 Much Money and made the insidious “Maga Don Pay”, its lead single. The song was even bolder than “Yahoozey”. On it, the singer offered wholehearted thanks to God for one of his illicit deals becoming successful.
In the years that followed, both artists have tried to clean their act up with Olu constantly denying that his song glorified internet fraud and Kelly even going as far as claiming that Maga is an acronym for ‘Man And God Always’ and recording a gospel version of “Maga Don Pay” years after. But the damage was done.
Today, the Yahoo sub-culture is alive and thriving. Street songs are released every year glorifying the lifestyle and singing the praises of those who’ve been successful doing it. It gets even deeper, receipts from the illicit trade fund a significant part of the Nigerian music industry with Yahoo boys becoming label owners, sponsors, show promoters and even artists, in a bid to either launder their money or use music as a strategic decoy for their activities.
With the eagle eye of the EFCC now seemingly on the sub-culture, it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. However, and it saddens me to say this, Nigerian music has had a complicated relationship with internet fraud that preceded Marley and it will almost certainly still have another one after the noise from his arrest has died down.