Sunday, 1st October 2023

Nigerian Music: Then and Now

By Chidirim Ndeche, Njideka Agbo, Fejiro Onohwosa and Happiness Nleweoha
03 June 2018   |   11:00 am
Last month, Nigerian pop artist Ayo 'Wizkid' Balogun had a sold-out concert at the revered 02 Arena, joining an illustrious list of international acts that include Beyonce, Rihanna, Gary Barlow and the Spice Girls. Weeks before Wizkid's epoch-making moment — now a bench for any Nigerian artist seeking to flaunt his worth on the international…

Last month, Nigerian pop artist Ayo ‘Wizkid’ Balogun had a sold-out concert at the revered 02 Arena, joining an illustrious list of international acts that include Beyonce, Rihanna, Gary Barlow and the Spice Girls.

Wizkid performing to sold-out crowd at Afrorepublik. Photo: Michael Tubes Creations

Weeks before Wizkid’s epoch-making moment — now a bench for any Nigerian artist seeking to flaunt his worth on the international stage — his once-upon-a-time rival and now friend, Davido, performed before a crowd roughly half of Wizkid’s 20,000-strong audience in Suriname, a country alien to a bulk of his loyal fan base in Nigeria.

Davido at the 30 Billion UK Concert

Last week, Falz’s new video, This is Nigeria, a remake of Childish Gambino’s viral hit, This is America, was co-signed by one of the biggest names in world hip-hop, Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs, with a promise that the socially-conscious video would be given generous airplay on his Revolt TV network.

That three of the biggest Nigeria’s entertainment export in the last decade are constantly expanding the frontiers is not only a testament to their tenacious work ethics. It also follows in the paths already charted by equally talented and influential front-runners such as Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé and, more recently, D’banj.

UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 01: BRIXTON ACADEMY Photo of Fela KUTI, Fela Kuti live at The Academy, Brixton, London 1983 (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

But it has not always been that way.

The pioneers

With its diverse cultures and ethnicities, it was difficult for popular music in Nigeria to have a mono-cultural identity.

The early styles of popular music saw highlife and palm wine music spread across Nigeria and neighbouring countries such as Ghana and Senegal in the 1920s. Palmwine music derived its name from the alcoholic beverage tapped from trees and drunk at bars where the urban music style was frequently played.

These popular styles of music eventually evolved into a genre called jùjú that thrived for many years and saw famous stars like Baba Tunde King and IK Dairo who helped create and popularise the early jùjú sound. During this time, we also saw the apala style of music that was derived from traditional Yoruba music but had a more limited audience.

King Sunny Ade


By the end of the second world war, Nigerian musicians had taken on new instruments and techniques from western countries such as Cuba and America, incorporating these elements into jùjú music. Highlife also started gaining popularity among the Igbos, who made it unique to their tribe over time. It also saw other guitar-band styles from other countries like Ghana, Cameroon and Zaire.

The 1960s saw a number of Nigerian musicians growing in the booming music industry. Haruna Ishola dominated the apala style of music. The early 1970s saw some of the biggest names in the history of Nigerian music at their peak, including Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey. Traditional music also spread throughout Nigeria with stars like the Hausa Dan Maraya.

Fela Kuti

These westernised pop influences and imported music resulted in a profusion of new styles like waka music, Yo-pop, Nigerian reggae and the popular Afrobeat. These styles thrived all through the 20th century. At the end of the decade, hip-hop music had spread to the country.

A new age

The last two decades have seen the Nigerian music scene evolve exponentially, giving rise to a number of stars. These young people have evolved in their musical careers, eventually becoming some of the greatest voices in music in Africa.

At the core of that rise is Kennis Music, a record label founded by Kenny ‘Keke’ Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D-One’ Adeneye. Both OAPs in the Ray Power radio station at the time signed on artists such as The Remedies, Wale Thompson, Eedris Abdulkareem, Tony Tetuila and Sound Sultan.

Sound Sultan

At this point, the artists with a mainstream following in pop culture were mostly rapping hits by their American counterparts. Artistes such as Maintain, Rasqie and Black Reverendz became popular for remaking Ludacris’ Area Code (I Catch Cold), DMX’s Ruff Ryder’s Anthem (Soji) and Busta Rhyme’s Dangerous (Ayangba).

The relatively fresh breath offered by the artistes on Kennis’ roster meant the Nigerian music industry was directed to create more homegrown pop culture-ready songs. However, external influences were still very visible.

Evident in the music made in the early 2000s were the act of storytelling and socially-conscious lyrics. Sound Sultan’s Mathematics, a mellow, yet groovy track became an anthem of soft with its poignant critique of prevailing socio-political ills in the country.

Even the feel-good songs released were driven by well-thought-out lyrics and structure. The Remedies’ Shade and Plantashun Boiz’s Knock Me Off fit this frame.

Although the first Nigerian rap album I am African by Ibrahim Omari Salim, an American rapper on exile in Nigeria, was released in the 1980s, the genre did not enjoy mainstream acceptance until the likes of Modenine and Ruggedman came to the fore. The former’s first official single, Elbow Room, became a mainstay on Nigerian urban radio while Ruggedman’s Ehen, a stinging diss track which mocked the likes of Eedris Abdulkareem, opened a new vista for Nigerian rap music.

These forerunners of Nigerian rap paved the way for a new breed of rappers who have now found unique ways of infusing their culture into their music. Case in point are the likes of Phyno and Olamide who sell out venues locally.


The new breeds

The coming of the 21st century saw women standing out in the Nigerian music industry for their talents and achievements in genres like rap, hip-hop and Afrobeat. Rappers like Weird MC, Sasha P and Eva Alordiah and Afrobeats singers like Omawumi Megbele, Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade shot into the spotlight and flourished.

Regardless, the face of the Nigerian music industry today is masculine with the likes of Wizkid and Davido flying the flag of the country in different arenas while smashing the records created by their countrymen who came before them.

While both Wizkid and Davido still, in some ways, pander to the Western music genres, Urban highlife singer Omoba ‘Adekunle Gold’ Kosoko draws inspiration from King Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey. He became popular in 2014 when he released a cover of One Direction’s Story of My Life titled Sade. With multiple awards under his belt, the singer has gone on to become one of the most widely-acknowledged highlife musicians today.

Simisola ‘Simi’ Bolatito Ogunleye shot into the limelight in 2011 after the release of her song, Tiff. 20-year-old Tay Iwar has been labelled as the future of Nigerian music with his lyrical depth and a melodramatic mix of alternative RnB and psychedelic hip-hop. 21-year-old neo-soul singer, Lady Donli, drew influences from RnB, jazz, hip-hop and alternative music to form her own unique style.

Lady Donli

However, while the bulk of the songs released nowadays are lacking in depth in terms of lyrics, and are mostly bereft of socially conscious content, the likes of Folarin ‘Falz’ Falana are recreating themselves in the mould of firesome Fela. Falz recently gained international recognition with his video for This is Nigeria. The song, inspired by Childish Gambino’s This is America, included commentary which held a mirror to the social ills in Nigeria from drug abuse to corruption.

This was a striking contrast to some Afro-pop songs by other popular Nigerian musicians that seemed to endorse the abuse of drugs, especially codeine. Take, for instance, Diet by DJ Enimoney featuring Reminisce, Slimcase and Tiwa Savage, a song which couldn’t have come at a worse time.

No doubt that Nigerian music has progressed and evolved over time and, with the internet and the external influences that have made it what it is today, a number of things are evident. Every generation of musical artists has their peculiarities and has produced frontline popular music. However, in terms of production quality, international recognition and the forms of music that are classified as popular, there is an obvious fact that it has changed from what it was to what it is now.

Today, more Nigerians have international collaborations with their foreign counterparts, are selling out shows and shutting down arenas. This proves that there is a possibility that Nigerian artists who dare to be different to create sounds that the world has not heard before will be raised higher than the likes of today’s international pop stars.