Op-Ed: African Music and the Consuming Allure of International Acclaim

In July 2017, Wizkid released his highly anticipated mixtape Sounds from the Other Side [hereafter referred to as SFTOS], it was built on a solid premise of Africa’s golden boy giving African music a voice on the global scene and confirming the not so subtle secret of Africa being the emerging market of music, art and creative; full of talents waiting to be heard, the moment felt cathartic.

The promotional campaign for SFTOS was top-notch and unmatched for an indigenous African act and when SFTOS came, it was released across various musical platforms with a vigorous global campaign that saw the mixtape go on to chart in France, Canada, Belgium, and the US.

The release and success of SFTOS was a solid crystallization of a truth that had been years in coming. The truth is that the Nigerian music industry has expanded its frontiers. In the last decade alone, a noticeable shift has occurred in the industry which has positioned it as a force to be reckoned with within the global music space, as the sonical quality of the musical offerings have stepped up, the lyrical contents have also undergone marked improvement and the tools for furthering the fan and artist connections have been adopted and used brilliantly by Nigerian acts.

The Nigerian music industry has placed itself into the wider consciousness of an ever-expanding musical landscape. All as a result of Globalization and Nigerian music’s expanding profile, Nigerian artists have received co-signs from international acts, been signed to international labels, Nigerian songs have become certified radio hits in foreign lands and Nigerian artists have been sought out for collaborations beyond the coast of Africa. This has been the defining character of Nigerian music since circa 2009; this westward push.

Music is the elixir of the soul, in its truest form – music is meant to provide a heightened sense of self-awareness to the listener and serve as a vehicle of release for the artist, true to its nature, good music is good regardless of constraints of space, language or time, good music is in all sense universal, this means that a song that hits in Nigeria could easily sift across the Indian Ocean and find its way into a Chinese home to be enjoyed, the tools that break the constraints of time and space have aided the proliferation of Nigerian music around the world, allied to this facts and the improvement on standards in the Nigerian music industry it is not hard to see why our music and musical gods have become objects of adoration the world over.

However tempting it is to call this revolutionary or the first of its kind, it would be simplistic to call this outward wave the first of its kind, pioneers like Fela Kuti, Onyeka Onwenu and King Sunny Ade have had varying level of exposure to foreign markets but the rise of social media platforms, streaming services, foreign tour dates and the visibility that this brings means that now more than ever the acceptance level of Nigerian music is truly universal.

The perks of this global movement for Nigerian artists are numerous; it opens up a whole new plane of visibility to their art as well the possibility of a global brand and ultimately yields better remuneration for the artists. Artists are after all humans, they must think of their financial security and it is only right they get as much attention and material benefit for their efforts, our Musical Gods are after all mortals and needs to profit off their art.

Like everything in the world, the integration of Nigerian music into the global space also has negative consequences, consequences which are much harder to pin down.

Tim Parks in an article titled The Dull New Global Novel writes that “As a result of rapidly accelerating globalization we are moving toward a world market for literature. There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she must be an international rather than a national phenomenon.”  The resulting consequence of this international visibility is that the “greatness” of artists are now judged by their international footprint and how they are perceived globally, with international acclaims perceived as more important than national honors, the holy grail for a  Nigerian artist is no longer to win the “Headies” award but to win a Grammy, by no stretch of imagination should this be an offense, after all caps should not be placed on ambition, what is however discouraging is the relegation of national and regional awards like the Headies to the back burner and a barely concealed thirst for international awards by Nigerian acts to validate their musical talents.

This view is not isolated to the musical acts, their fans are indirectly influenced by this attitude and have come to accept international visibility as the ultimate barometer of success, when pressed on why Wizkid should be considered as Nigeria’s finest act, fans of WizKid would point to the fact that he regularly hangs out with American A-List artistes and plays at sold-out events overseas, this to them is proof of an artists “greatness”.

It is this lack of international visibility that makes  Olamide, a local champion for the average Nigerian music fan, the same Olamide who has released  7 albums in 7 years and played a key part in the underground revolution.

Parks further commented that “From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change.” On SFTOS, Wizkid added numerous gains to his brand from a financial and media point of view but a more forensic look at his musical offerings since that westward push would reveal that to a significant extent Wizkid’s sound has been stuck in a musical purgatory.

Wizkid’s music in that period was made from a place of awareness of his international audience and a need to cater to this international audience, as a consequence of this awareness Wizkid experimented with Reggeaton and Island sounds that distinctly marked SFTOS, his inability to infuse the nuances or subtleties of his home region ensured that in the end he birthed a good but not great album.

A much earlier example of this issue is D’banj who after years of immense success in the Nigerian industry attempted to take “Nigeria to the world,” ultimately the success or failure of that attempt is open to debate but what is clear from that sojourn was that the musical output of D’banj suffered, signed to the  Kanye West owned G.O.O.D music imprint, D’banj had to cater to a whole new audience whose aesthetic understanding and appreciation of his Afro-pop genre was at best rudimentary and at worst uncomprehending.

Wizkid’s colleague and competitor Davido also dropped his Son of Mercy E.P under Sony Music in 2016 to largely negative critical reception of the body of work for the lack of originality in its writing and a departure from the well-crafted Davido sound in favor of an “Americanized” sound and it is also on record that Davido considered that period in his career as particularly difficult.

An important point to be taken from Davido’s Son of Mercy E.P was that he alluded to the fact that he didn’t have creative control over what contents made the final cut for the project. Sony Music controlled the creative and musical direction of that project and tried to condition Davido’s crossover to the American musical scene on the basis of a sound that just wasn’t his.

In a 2009 TED talk, notable Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke on the danger of single stories, she famously said “The single story creates stereotypes , and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but they are incomplete”,  the terms on which Africa and Nigeria, in particular, has been integrated into the Global musical consciousness has been through the sonorous sounds of “Afro-Beats” and this has created a single story for the musical acts from  Nigeria in particular, artists who reach global levels are now often shoe-horned and introduced as Afro-beat Stars, the problem is not that it is far off point. It, however, is a misrepresentation of African music, its multiplicities, and different sounds, there are other forms of artistic expression within the African space, Juju, Fuji, South African House, and Burna-Boy’s signature Afro-Fusion are examples of other forms of African music that can often be ignored, misinterpreted and packaged off as Afro-Beats

The danger of this new integration of African music into the global music space is that the awareness it gives to the artist is damaging , the artist becomes overtly aware  that for every step taken, every verse recorded or song released he is catering to two separate markets and to maintain his marketability in both markets, he walks a tightrope that may sometimes constitute existential conflicts in his creative process, a suitable solution to this conundrum can be found in the re-invention of Wizkid and Davido after their international campaigns, Wizkid after SFTOS in late 2017 starred on the Afro-beat created “Manya” with Starboy label mate Mutay as well as “Ma Lo” with industry best friend Tiwa Savage, this mini-renaissance has continued with hit singles in 2018.

Davido after the Son of Mercy E.P teamed up to return to his basics and recorded “IF” which has given his career a new lease of life and repositioned him as one of the leading lights of the “Africa to the world” movement.

The point being, progress into global stardom isn’t bad, far from it, it is often the next logical step for our musical Gods from every point of view, what is important is that our Musical Gods do not get artistically bogged down by these foreign commitments or see this international visibility as barometers of their superiority over other domestic acts and lose sight of their origin, one popular adage In Nigeria says “a stream that forgets it’s source is bound to dry up”

It would be impossible to cut off the transition of Nigerian musical acts, their sounds, and products into overseas markets, this evolution is here to stay, the most important thing is that the artists don’t lose touch with their inner self in this bid, Africa to the world is here to stay, our music will trend overseas, our artist would gradually become global citizens in musical terms but this global citizenship must be grounded in their inner Nigerian experiences and influences to make the art thrive and to push the culture forward, if anyone tells you otherwise, show them videos of Davido’s set at the Wireless Festival 2018 where the delirious crowd shouted “30 billion for the Akant oo” over and over as they were hypnotized by Davido’s grounded in Nigeria music. Now, that is the way to go.

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