The Nigerian Dream: “Wetin We Gain?”
Back in primary school, I had a teacher I fondly called Aunt Charity. She was the most awesome human being. Never had a frown, corrected us in love, and had treats when we performed exceptionally at school work. But one day, she got angry at me. I wasn’t a perpetrator of some childhood mischief. I didn’t fail at my homework. I just didn’t dream ‘big enough.’
One day, during a class on Social Studies, she asked us all what we wanted to become when we grew up. Everyone had great ideas. Some guy, with big glasses, had mentioned “Pilot.” A girl who always dragged the top honours with me declared that she wanted to be “President.” For me, I didn’t know what I wanted to become. But at that moment I had to provide an answer. My eye went down to my new uniform shorts, which was made by my family tailor. He had inserted a secret pocket at my request. I needed that special feature to hide my candies from my rapacious siblings, and also to save my money from my parents who always wanted to take my cash gifts, and “keep it for me.” That tailor saved me. In that moment, he was my hero, and I wanted to be like him when I grew up.
“I want to be a tailor,” I yelled enthusiastically, as it got to my turn. Aunty Charity wasn’t impressed. Her face changed to disgust. She simply called me outside and gave me a long lecture about how I was too smart to sew clothes. I wasn’t dreaming big enough, she said. Being a tailor was not the Nigerian dream. I clearly had the head for “something better.”
The Nigerian dream is found in Burna Boy’s ‘Ye’ hit song. An aspirational record, it features the pursuit of wealth and the quest for the materialistic enjoyment of life as an end in itself. When Burna sings “I wan enjoy, I wan chop life,” he is echoing the foundation upon which almost every Nigerian has built their life. This world is one and we need to enjoy. That’s why the song was such a hit. That’s why when friends gather to celebrate, the song is a ubiquitous feature of playlists. It’s why the voices in the room are the loudest when it comes on. We want to chop life. Nobody wants life to chop them.
Victor AD, another musician is also having a moment. Sneaking in from the South of Nigeria, the young man is having a moment in the sun this year due to the truths on his record, ‘Wetin we gain.’ On the song, he looks you dead in the eye, questioning your life choices and asking a question that bugs all of us. “If you no get money, wetin you gain?” I admit. I have spent countless nights awake, wondering what the purpose of my existence is. Am I doing enough? Is earth better because I exist? Is my path clear? Are my fields watered. Is my skin clear? Will my beards ever connect?
For Nigeria, all of these can be condensed into one thing: Get that money. It is the Nigerian dream, reinforced by the crushing poverty across the land. People want to eat. They want to buy cars. They want to build houses. They want to pop bottles over the weekend. They want a life of dignity. It is what keeps them alive. A number of artists have essentially captured this dream and sold it for profit. As a theme for music in Nigeria, it lies at the very centre of every demographic, from teenagers up to geriatrics. Even on your deathbed, you will still seek to answer the vital question: “Wetin you gain.”
‘Ye’ and ‘Wetin we gain,’ represent all of us. And that’s why they are hits. A lot of music experts will point to the subject of love as a surefire way to score a hit. Look around you. Browse the charts. Peruse playlists. You will find out that songs about love and all its friends are winners. But look closely, and you will see the strong reverberation that hits you deeper than love, when ‘Ye’ and ‘Wetin we gain’ come up. When you sing it out aloud, it stops being an expression of entertainment. It is a prayer. A supplication, submitted at the feet of life. We all want to gain something. In fact, we have to gain something.
Nigerian music, for all its criticism that it faces for its lack of coherence with the real issues facing Nigerians in Nigeria, continues to turn up gems. Once, it was Tekno laying it all bare with “Rara,” this year, we have Burna boy and Victor AD summarizing our personal clamor for improvement. Perhaps there’s a formula here to be discovered. If artists look closely enough, they will find out that the Nigerian need for hustler anthems and existential truths can never be saturated.
You know, I didn’t become a tailor. I took a few vocational classes in fashion designing, but they were enough to bring me to the realisation that I have no aptitude in that department, and “Na small pikin been dey worry me.” I still want to chop life. Buy cars. Build houses and provide for my loved ones. So every day, when I return home from the day’s hustle, I lie in my bed, and ask myself the sacred question: “Wetin you gain?”