Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Great Music Debate (4): Letter to Naija hip-hoppers


Bros, please help me, I’m a hip-hop artiste. I just finished my single and I’m working on the full album. You know I need publicity to sell my music.”
These are the typical words of some of the up-coming Nigerian hip-hop artistes whenever they come to the newsroom or the reporter’s home seeking media recognition. Most times, you have lots of CDs to listen to and you are expected to write ‘good reviews’, else, you are tagged ‘bad reporter.’ I will confess that some of the songs made a lot of senses; however, a good number of them is just far from it; in terms of lyrics and instrumentation. Yet, as an ‘understanding’ reporter, you are expected to give pass mark to help a ‘hustling youth.’ Sometimes, your hands are tied between being objective and helping a brother make a living. Yes, most of these guys depend solely on these beats for livelihood, as well as taking care of their ‘poor’ parents in the village. Now, you see why it sometimes becomes very difficult to water down that production with just one paragraph, especially as a young person? This is what we go through on a daily basis as music reporters, in fact, I still have CDs lined up, waiting for my attention, with reminder calls coming every now and then. “Your car is always filled with CDs. Can you spare me one; I want to wipe it to save an important data,” a friend once requested as we rode home. Of course, I can’t give out such CDs; the owners depend on them for daily breads. However, some of these guys are so talented that you want to do justice to the album as soon as you could. But funny enough, after going through pains of fishing out positive sides of the recording for your story, once published, it’s ‘bye, bye” to you. You are on your own; they’ve moved on, till their next release. Yet, there are some of them, who would surely call to say, “ah, bros, thank you so much. I saw the story, I appreciate.” A good number of Naija hi-hoppers are not really out to be artistes; it’s about stardom. For them, to hell with sensible lyrics –– whatever comes to their mind, they sing. Of course, with one or two interview on TV, radio or print media, they are stars, appearing on red carpets in dark goggles and blings and winning multiple awards, many of which are themselves questionable in intentions, every now and then. When Dr. Reuben Abati made his observations on the Nigeria music industry, I expected my artiste friends to read in-between the lines to see where the man was coming from. Instead, they saw it as an attack. To be honest, Abati has a lot to think about in his head. Yes, I know him; always busy. So, for him to have devoted an edition of his well-read Crossroads column to the music industry should be a thing of great concern to the artistes’ fold and music lovers alike. Let me not go into details of his points; after all, I’m not his attorney. Let’s take the movie industry as an example. How many of us are still enthusiastic about Nollywood movies? Do you still spend long hours watching them at home? Do you still go crazy meeting a Nollywood actor? Well, keep the answers to yourself. The truth is that the cinema is gradually taking over; go to Silverbird Galleria and Palm Shopping Complex and see how Nigerians struggle to squeeze in their vehicles, just to see a Hollywood movie. Have you asked why the sudden drop of interest in Nollywood? Of course, the audience is beginning to see loopholes; same actors in every movie; poor or repetitive story lines; poor production quality; life style of some actors, lack of message… it has become an all comer’s affair! If you observe well, the music industry is toeing exactly the same line. Yet, people are busy calling those who out of genuine love have expressed their concern about the future of the music names; and getting hysterical when they should be brooding the various observations made. They want to shout down the voices of the critics of their works. Nollywood is shaking right now and the actors are beginning to look towards the music industry. You know a lot of them now sing? Yes. Stella Damasus-Nzeribe, Omotola Jolade Ekehinde, Kate Henshaw-Nuttal, Bob Ejike, Jim Iyke, Ernest Asuzu, Tchidi Chikere, Genevieve Nnaji… the list is long and; we are still counting. At the Nigeria Music Award (NMA) organised by former President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN, held in Owerri, actors outnumbered the musicians in attendance! Yes, we’ve done well in making the industry what it is, but we are not done yet. We have to look at the message we are dishing out. It’s very important. That’s what you will be remembered for when you are long gone. Your children, grand and great grand children will one day listen to their grand Pa’s music. What will be the content? They will surely watch those videos with half-nude ladies exhibiting their bodies shamelessly in the name of dancing; and they will want to know the content f their father, grandfather’s character. Yes, they will definitely lay their hands on those lousy videos some day. By then, you may not even be there to file your defense. I understand what you go through to make your beats, oh yes, I do. You need our support to develop and we wish you well. But asking for good lyrics, I believe, is not too much a request to ask for. There are some songs that will surely take time to go out of fashion–– African China’s Mr. President, Edris Abdulkareem’s Nigeria Jaga Jaga, Femi Kuti’s Sorry Sorry, Sunny Neji’s Oruka, Onyeka Onwenu’s One Love… even Tuface Idibia’s For Instance, P-Square’s No One Like You, D’Banj’s Fall In Love… quite a good number of them. Where will your songs be grouped, Mr Hip Hopper? Thank God, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) is hosting a Hip-Hop Conference on Sunday, July at the Main Exhibition Hall, National Theatre, Lagos by 2pm. Lets get-together and brainstorm for the future of our industry. For now, let the debate continues

Music, critics and a nation’s identity
By Lasunkanmi Bolarinwa

In recent times, I have read two very interesting and stimulating articles by two distinguished men of the pen and ink trade in The Guardian. The first is by ace music and broadcasting commentator, Benson Idonije titled: ‘Nigerian Music in Search of Definite Identity’. It appeared in the Friday, June 5 2009 edition. The second is by the respected columnist, Reuben Abati. His own is titled, ‘A Nation’s Identity Crisis’. It was in the edition of Sunday, June 21 2009. Both are about music. Both are about a fear — of the loss of our ‘identity’ as a nation.
The two pieces dwell on a similar and particular aspect of Nigeria’s current popular culture — music. They both express reservations about the limitations of the current hip-hop genre to: ably capture our aspirations and yearnings as a people with a particularly glorious past and tradition, and to; equitably and justifiably represent us as a nation of serious people.
I take on the arguments of Benson Idonije first.
His piece read as interesting and engaging as most of his seminal articles on music and broadcasting. It captures some of the frustrations of the oldman about the attitude of the Nigerian nation to the state of our musical heritage. You cannot blame him, the man lives the trade and, at over 70 years, he is still going strong. The piece captures our inability to evolve a definite and guiding pattern that can distinguish our rich musical heritage as we have in Ghana, in the make of hiplife, and in other African countries in different guises. The article captures the failure of the ruling elite in protecting and harmonising what ought to be our greatest asset in the comity of nations.
The article captured me to the extent of agreeing and disagreeing with some of his assertions at the same time. Confusing? Maybe. Contradictory? Definitely not.

BI, as I shall henceforth refer to Mr Benson Idonije, in this article, expressed his disappointment that in49 years of independence and 10 uninterrupted years of “democratic” governance, music which is a nation’s most powerful expression of cultural heritage has been left to subjugate itself under foreign cultures. It is hardly possible not to have this. As it is, there is hardly an aspect of our culture that is immune to foreign influence. We wear foreign dresses, we grow on foreign diets, we go on holidays in foreign lands, we watch and kill ourselves on foreign football leagues, we speak foreign languages and in fact, we are foreigners in our own country. What is more?
The claim that the past 10 years have been a democratic one is suspect. Our stark reality speaks better than that conditioned expression of historical fallacy. In a proper democracy, where the will of the people is paramount, where government officers are in positions based on the trust of the people expressed through their votes, the quality of our discussion about an issue as dear to our heart as music would have moved beyond this pedantic level.

Quite early in his piece, BI suggests that the solution to this specific problem is for government to legislate that the airwaves be compelled to devote three quarters of its broadcast time to Nigerian music as played by Nigerians; and not foreign music as played by Nigerians —the way it is happening now. I guess that would mean Sunny Ade, Victor Uwaifor, or maybe not just the very old ones, we could also have the likes of Asa, Nubia, Femi and Seun Kuti, Seyi Solagbade and so on enjoying tremendous airtime. So what would happen to all this burst of energy in other forms of the musical scene? Is it possible to have a population of very active young men and women in their prime confined to music as legislated by a supposedly democratic government?
My grandfather before he passed on at about age 120 could never understand the very early Ayuba and the guy called Yoboroyobosky among other contemporary artists. That is even permissible, to tune the radio to anywhere where the likes of Felix Lebarty, Dizzy K Falola, who I guess is now doing gospel music in either UK or USA, is to incur his wrath as he would ask if barking like a dog is synonymous with singing and order you to find a station where Haruna or Yusuf was crooning. That to me is an attestation to the fact that the popular music of today were also either music of protest or measures of a shift in taste in times gone by.
My hypothesis in terms of the expressed difficulty in identifying any particular form of music with Nigeria as BI says is because of the highly heterogenous nature of the country. Also because what we had in the 60s was possible because the spread of technology was limited. But don’t forget also that even what you refer to as indigenous highlife music is a fusion characterised by more outside influences. The horns that were the most visible and audible of the highlife genre were not familiar to this land and clime till cultures were ready to open up to themselves.
Bongos Ikwe sang country music and he was popular even when the use of technology was not this wide-spread. In instrumentation, if not in lyrical composition, he had to take something from other lands. Highlife music on the African coast took something from the big bands in the west as well. Highlife did not just become West African; it was a synthesis of the traditional and the new. Then also, highlife was the music of the elite, the young and the upwardly mobile. It was fighting the older forms of music and used the affinity between it and technology to maintain an edge. The older forms that managed to survive were the ones that also realised that they had to fight to survive. For some of them, their survival was for anthropological and historical reasons as the crowd stuck in the highlife mode gave only occasional and concessionary glance the way of the other form.
It was even easier then because the gap between the different economic groups was not as wide as we have them today. Thus, the adoption of highlife as a national music, according to BI, could only have been done by the corps of the elite who would have thought that they were the only group that mattered. That was the oppression of the literati.
BI goes on to say, very much as Reuben Abati (RA) came later to say, that with the overwhelming influence of imitative hip-hop, the country has lapsed into a state of confusion as far as its identity is concerned. Two things that this indicate for me is the dislike of imitative hip-hop and I try without much success to see or understand how art, of any form is not imitative. In fact going by the theory of mimesis, the first tendency to create in any human being is borne out of the urge to copy; to speak like, to walk like, to do like some other character that we either see physically or whom our imagination has created for the sole purpose of copying.
The second is that identity in this age and time is static and we must guard against its change. There seem to be a negation of the understanding that an individual’s or a nation’s identity, especially in a world like ours is the intersection of multiple cultural identities. Constant change and mutation is a constant feature of modern identity.

What is happening in Nigeria at the moment can only be a necessary evolutionary trend given the world of today. Culture itself will cease to be once it is not reacting to external stimuli. Even China that is renowned today as a strong alternate force in global reengineering has a hip-hop sub culture where the genre is called C-Rap and like you have here, it is a fusion of the home grown and the international. Today, the reality of hip-hop in a global and post colonial world is the reality of hybridity. It could even be more than that when you consider the multiple layers of infusions you hear in it from country to country and from culture to culture. It could be validly labelled a polygenetic art with conflating and intersecting interactions.
The traditional Yoruba music of fuji and apala have also over time indicated a need to adapt not only to meet the yearnings of their traditional audience as determined by position on the economic ladder and cultural background, but also that of a growing younger audience, for them to stay on top of their game. Progressively, the artists were not even researching into traditional music forms, especially in terms of lyrics. The most consistent changes were the banal, the slangs, the lewd and lurid references to women; the uncensored praise singing that reduced from the moral on the flip side or the next track. It was also an art form that promoted the obscenity of throwing or spraying money and the general manhandling of our currency, the most common symbol of our identity.
There were allegations and counter allegations about one artiste reproducing the song of an older one with little or no decoy. A lot of them abandoned the agidigbo as it gave way to the keyboard. Before then was the mouth organ, something Dauda Epo Akara of the Awurebe fame used to distinguish his art. Olowonyo, to give Haruna Ishola a run for his money brought in the guitar. The bands started saving up money to introduce the disco drum set into their rhythm. Then the keyboard came and I thought there would be no end to it. I actually once had the fear that juju and fuji were going to end up as one genre in due course. Right now, a good trumpeter that you see behind Seyi Solagbade today may be the same young man doing the trumpet for King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall the next day. Such is the blurred and dizzying edges of these art these days. In the case of Apala music, I can recall that the last record of Haruna Ishola was titled apala disco. A reflection of the need to adapt to suit a growing audience in search of something new. I doubt its success in terms of appeal and commerce. I am sure however of the success of the remix of Soyoyo that Haruna’s son later came to do with a strong hip-hop blend.

I am in no doubt that if any of the gods of old were to show up now on a mission from heaven (or wherever they come from), they would come a in space jet. The story tellers of old are not likely to repeat their stories the same way they did years ago. The rhythms would change. The imageries would adapt. We can be sure it would still be the same old theme, but the elements would have to speak in imageries that the audience can understand. That is where the young people on the streets come in.
Have you not noticed that the language on the streets has changed? A simple example is in the song titled O4 ka sibe, which could mean blow your mind. Somehow, collocates that were associated with possibly serious and violent interpretations are now deconstructed to stand for everyday subtle prodding. We could come back to meanings and interpretations later. But let us begin to imagine that this is the age that requires some interpretation first before dismissal. It is changing here as it is in other lands. I am not yet in a position to say whether this change is good or bad; not until we have studied it beyond car radio and street jamz tolerated assessment. That is some form of cultural change, which we have to study well before making our prescriptions.

The critical section amongst us have knocked us repeatedly about how in the feast of globalistion, we, as a country have not collectively contributed anything that has greatly removed from whatever gains we could have made from the entire process. Right now, we have some mutations that is almost original to us. I know that part of the argument in the air now is about the quality of originality in our current trend of music but the least we can do is not to study what we have on our hands properly right now and just throw it away as unworthy pastime. We can also revisit the issue of originality later.
The Americans from whom we are copying this music have not also always done hip-hop. Hip-hop is as much a reaction to social realities in America as it is here. These realities may differ but they are cogent and valid. At the end of the day, what we make of the transformation of the musical genre is what matters. The situation will suit us better if what we have is not a contrived democratic circus. That is one of the fundamental errors BI makes in his argument. That is to presume that this government as constituted has a moral base and an intellectual faculty to prospect for a beneficial and home grown cultural direction. Let us not forget that we did not just get here. We did not find ourselves here overnight. It has been a gradual process of lethargy, of cultural poisoning. Our culture today, poor as it may be, is nothing but a mirror of our immediate past and a projection of our future.
I will therefore not advocate a blanket castigation of the hip-hop genre as we have it in Nigeria today. For me, in its current state of evolution, it has huge promises even of a cultural revival in language and general performative.
This genre is developing the technical knowledge and marketing strategies of the music sector. That is one thing that would have been tough were we to legislate on the old form of music.
I can hardly fault some of the suggestions of BI because they are well reasoned and backed by years of experience in the industry but I cannot but feel some queasiness about his expectations, especially from a government that he keeps suggesting has the interest of the people at heart.
Clearly, without a cultural policy that captures the bigger picture and presents it to all stakeholders, all interested parties would keep on describing this elephantine project from the angle of elevation or depression where they are positioned. In the meantime, we should, just like we provide our own schools for our children, dig our own drainages, sink our own boreholes, generate our own electricity, begin to evolve a cultural policy of our own now. Let us not lose sight of the fact that this is a deregulated government running a deregulated system. We might be the ones to use what we have to forge what we need.
Some older forms of music from other African countries are accepted in the west (as exemplified by BI) but why should we be after products solely accepted by the west out of anthropological interest and in the name of balancing cultural geopolitics? I am more interested in the prospects that some of these young men and women are exploring. That is to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other artiste in the world in this same genre. I can see Akon. I am waiting to see Tu Face Idibia and by God, there are a whole lot of others as good if not better. In the absence of a heaven that can help them, they would do better to help themselves.

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