Nigerians Vs Grammy… On whose terms are we winning?
• Meet 13 Winners Of Nigerian Origins
Just last week, it was raining congratulations for our Nigerian-born Temilade Openiyi, professionally known as Tems, as she clinched her first Grammy award for her collaboration with Future and Drake on the song, Wait 4 U.
As Tems dazzled in her stunning yellow dinner dress at the Crypto.com arena, in Los Angeles, meeting and receiving accolades from global heavyweights Beyonce, Jay-Z, and DJ Khalid, like every other normal day, back home, her win ignited another endless debate. It resurrected the same controversy that surfaces every time a Nigerian wins a Grammy: who was the first Nigerian to win the hallowed award?
For the few Nigerians who will lift a finger to fact-check, it is common knowledge that Burna Boy and Wizkid were some of the award’s recent winners from Nigeria. However, just a handful of people even know about the other iconic winners who had clinched the gloried gilded gramophone decades before. In fact, it would be shocking to reveal that Tems is not actually the first female Grammy winner of Nigerian origins.
It is surprising also to see that women who are meant to be at the forefront of championing female achievements in society are among the first to forget a name as recent as Jenn Nkiru, who was among the trio that clinched the award, in 2021. The 36-year-old bagged her first Grammy win that year for her directorial work on Beyonce’s album, Black is King, which won the award for Best Music Video.
Interestingly, it was this same award that gave Wizkid his first Grammy win, by proxy. Nkiru, who is also British and resides there, is proudly Nigerian, despite being born and raised in the city of Peckham, and her production company is called ‘Nkiru + Nkiru’.
If Nigerian women could be forgiven for forgetting Nkiru, they ought to be less penance for them forgetting their feminism advocate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who clinched a Grammy win in 2015 for her speech dubbed, We Should All Be Feminists, which was sampled into the winning song by Beyonce titled, Flawless. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most prominent black women of her generation. The Igbo-speaking Nigerian has received several global accolades for her literary works and her pro-feminism struggles. But while we even criticise the women, the ignorance for these winners is actually genre-fluid.
Another mind-boggling discovery is the name Shirley Bassey, a Nigerian-Welsh chanteuse who was inducted into the Grammys Hall of fame, in 2008, for her brilliant work on the official soundtrack of the 1964 James Bond blockbuster, Goldfinger. Born to a Nigerian father and English mother, Bassey grew up with her mother in Wales, after her parents separated at age three. She is revered across Britain for her iconic vocal prowess, and she created the official soundtracks for three James Bond flicks, Goldfinger (1964), Diamond are forever (1971), and Moonraker (1979). She was appointed a Dame, in 1999, for her contribution to the British performing arts. In 2011, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired a biopic dubbed, Shirley, on the legendary songbird.
The buck did not also stop at Tems or Nkiru, for the Nigerian feminine folk; another Nigerian singer, who lives in London, Cynthia Erivo, has also clinched a Grammy. The fellow 36-year-old clinched the Grammy statuette for her performance on the 2017 musical, The Color Purple, which won the Best Musical Theatre Album award. Erivo is born to both Nigerian parents who raised her in Stockwell, South London, all her life.
The most talked about blast-from-the-past winner is the Nigerian-British sound goddess Sade Adu. Born Helen Folashade Adu, the four-time Grammy winner was born in Ibadan, before relocating to Essex at age four when her parents split. She lived with her grandmother and brother, before proceeding to London to study the arts. In 1986, she clinched her first Grammy award for the Best New Artiste category. Her 1986 song, No Ordinary Love, gave her second Grammy trophy for clinching the Best RnB performance by a duo or group, while her 2002 album, Lovers Rock, clinched the Best Pop Album award, and her 2011 song, Soldier of Love clinched the Best RnB performance by a duo or group.
While it is safe to say that Tems is the first Nigerian-bred female artiste, and first among her contemporaries, it is politically incorrect to forget these other previous feats by Nigerian women at the Grammys.
So, you don’t have to go looking for several articles whenever this debate comes up, let’s find out about the other Nigerians – all male – who have won a Grammy award before.
Spinning off this list is the prolific Drumming whiz, Babatunde Olatunji, the Badagry-born drummer who played with several musicians across the United States, including Mickey Hart. It was Hart’s 1990 album, Planet Drum, that clinched his first and only Grammy win as the record won in the Best World Music Album category. The now-deceased musician (passed in 2003) is among the iconic percussionists who contributed to the global popularity of Nigerian talent, with his exploits. Despite spending a greater part of his life in the US, he still wore his Nigerian roots on his sleeves.
Another percussionist that preludes the Wizkid-era of winners is the legendary Sikiru Adepoju, who clinched the award for yet another Mickey Hart record, Global Drum Project, in 2008. The record won the award in the Best World Music Album category. Interestingly, Adepoju also ranks as the most popular among the list of the recently-forgotten Grammy winners (preluding the Wizkid era) in Nigeria, after Sade Adu; even Twitter bots have been used to spew rumours that he was the first winner preluding the Wizkid era.
Another bi-racial Nigerian who has clinched the award is the US-based rapper Chamillionaire. The rapper, born Hameed Temidayo Seriki, won the award for Best Rap Performance by a duo or group, for his Grammy win in 2007.
The list continues with other greats such as Kevin Olusola and Seal, both Nigerian-Americans who have clinched the award multiple times. Olusola, the acclaimed beatboxer of the 5-member American a capella group Pentatonix, clinched his first win in 2015 as Pentatonix’s Daft Punk Medley won the award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella. Olusola, as a member of Pentatonix, clinched two other Grammys, in 2016, and 2017, respectively, as Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Capella for their rendition of Dance For The Sugar Plum fairy, in 2016, and as Best Country Duo/Group Performance for their Dolly Parton-assisted track Jolene, in 2017.
On the other hand, Seal, born Seal Henry Olusola Olusegun Samuel, is another veteran Nigerian-American singer who has grabbed the Grammy honours. The four-time Grammy winner got his first three wins in a single night, in 1996, although he was first nominated in 1992. His song, Kiss From The Rose, bagged the Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Male Pop Pop awards, respectively. He followed with another win, in 2011, as his song Imagine bagged the Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals award. The 59-year-old English-born singer remains one of the most successful and prominent British singers of Nigerian origins.
While the above-mentioned 11 individuals are all officially previous winners, one of the most iconic wins by a Nigerian is the Burna Boy win. Clinching the Best World Music Album award at the 63rd Annual Grammys, in 2021, with his career-defining album, Twice as Tall. It was the first time that a Nigerian-born and bred musician and co-pioneer of the Afrobeats-to-the-world movement, clinching the gilded gramophone for an original work and not a feature.
Wizkid recorded another iconic win in the history of Nigeria vs Grammys, chaperoned by his performance on the 2019 Beyonce global smash hit, Brown Skin Girl, which clinched the Best Music Video award. His win was the first, although by association, among the musicians soundtracking the modern popular music in Nigeria.
While all these wins are national bragging rights, the conversation often sways to whether winners with dual parentage should be recognized as Nigerians. The conversation often ignores the fact that they were all born to at least one Nigerian parent, while some of them were born in and spent some time in the homeland. If we are going with the concept of nationality, then these individuals are Africans, and Nigerians, specifically, as well. And, therefore, until they renounce their Nigerian nationality, they are also among the list of Nigerians who have won the Grammy award.
Interestingly, today is the Soundcity MVP Award in Lagos, Nigeria. The 16-year-old award body is among the few Nigerian-based award systems that rewards African musicians. The other major ones include Headies, which has existed since 2006, as well as All Africa Music Awards, with its headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria, although it claims a more pan-African outlook. All of these award systems are not half as old as the Grammys, which kickstarted in 1959, as a platform to celebrate and reward American talent. The Grammys soared across the global music community, and it has grown to become a primary and acclaimed figure in the music industry currently thriving as one of the most globally inclusive award systems.
While the Grammy started recognising works from non-European/American artistes in the Global Music Album category (originally called ‘Best World Album’ category) respectively, in 1992 (the same year a Nigerian first clinched the award), it unveiled the Best Global Music Performance category in 2021 (the same year the Best World Album category was renamed to Best Global Music Album) to further extend this inclusivity.
Now the Recording Academy – organisers of the Grammys – is considering an Afrobeats category, in recognition of the influence and popularity of the sound style in the global music scene.
If you are wondering how the Grammys awarded Tems, Sikiri Adepoju, Wizkid, Cynthia Erivo, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as winners despite them not being the sole owner of the winning records, then you might be surprised to know that the Recording Academy has a strict, but inclusive rule, which allows all composers of a recording to receive statuettes as winners, if they were listed as featured artistes. On the other hand, other artistes such as producers and songwriters who were not listed as featured acts would receive Grammy certifications for their contributions to the winning record. Artistes and producers like Niniola, Josiah Bassey, Yemi Alade, Kel P, Telz, etc, are among the Nigerians who have been awarded this certificate.
From the fore, the obvious truth is Nigerians are a set of talented folk, with one of the richest heritage of music and arts across the world. Nigerian musicians have been revered genre inventors and acclaimed performers who have put the country on the global map when it comes to matters of entertainment.
However, the more obvious truth, which should be the focal point of debates, is our lack of indigenous award systems and infrastructure to host major awards in the country. Since awards became a big event type in Nigeria, Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos remains the most used venue for these award ceremonies. The 5-000-capacity hall remains one of the few indoor venues that can be utilised for events of such magnitude. Sadly, for Nigeria to scale higher, bigger and more sophisticated venues need to be developed for hosting world-class events.
Apart from the infrastructural deficit is the ‘sin’ of apathy, which is rife among Nigerian music lovers and even the musicians themselves; we prefer to give more credence to awards abroad than we give to our indigenous awards. For instance, you hardly find most of the nominated artistes at these local awards during the main awards ceremony, and you hardly even find them agreeing to perform at the awards. The organisers have equally defended themselves in this situation, stating that these artistes charge them high professional fees that are usually below their budget as not-for-profit organisations.
While the fans and artistes share some of the blame, the organisers sometimes go ahead to create sub-par shows and award night experiences that often put off the fans and artistes. In all, the trifecta of causes point to one solid point: Nigerians need to start paying more attention to developing and sustaining its award systems and music industry, generally.
It would also be needful to mention that any right-thinking government would have prioritised the Nigerian entertainment scene by now, intensifying efforts to attract foreign direct investment and even putting some taxpayer’s coin behind the sector. Currently, Nigerian entertainment is a global force that has strengthened Nigeria’s foreign image and tourism appeal.
Nigerian music is thriving and it is poised to soar beyond perceived limits. And to keep winning, we need to learn to build our music ecosystem, without having to cherish and record our wins solely on Western terms.