Alté is named perfectly, a take on the word alternative, but given its own twist. And that’s exactly what the music is. Not exactly alternative, but a genre carved out of this, so that it holds its own identity, in music and culture. What this means is, not every music form deemed unconventional is allowed in, for there is as much that unite this music as separates them from mainstream Nigerian pop.
This name, Alté, was given it by DRB Lasgidi, a trio of then underground artists (Boj, Tezee and Fresh L) making unconventional music in the Lagos scene in 2012. It was more a christening than a creation, for there were a lot of other acts also dabbling in the colourful, rap-esque sounds whose name they didn’t know. Many of them released their early music on Soundcloud between 2016 and 17 – Cruel Santino, then Ozzy B, with “Suzie’s Funeral” , Lady Donli‘s “Wallflower”, Odunsi with “Time Of Our Lives”, Tim Lyre with “Circa ’94”, etc.
In the half decade since then, Alté has grown strictly of the merit of its members, for it is a close knit community of multidimensional creatives operating under an umbrella of self expression, and there is no clear distinction between artist and audience – every member of the community has something to share, an experience to relive. They do this in fashion and music.
Alte fashion, much like its music, artfully combines past with future, and is heavy on what is now referred to as old Nollywood/y2k aesthetic – bright colours, black eyeliner, that dark weavon that instantly brings to mind a young Genevieve Nnaji. These fashion references from the past, stored across pictures and videos, are immortalised on pages like nolly babes on Instagram and twitter. Do not be surprised to see Alté icons like Teezee and Obongjayar lurking in the comments, scouring for inspiration.
But Alté is touted as a marriage of the past and future, so nostalgic love letters to y2k Nollywood only constitutes one half of its fashion. The other is obtained not by remembering but by imagining, for there are no templates for the look of tomorrow, of the future. In what must be abhorred by older Nigerians allergic to change, Alté fashion is designed to be edgy, pushing past what was thought possible, or right. So whether it comes in full length afro or clean shaven baldness, or skinny jeans or baggy, the goal is to ditch the rule books and achieve true expression how best you see fit. When you look in the mirror and see yourself, who you are, and not who you are expected to be, you have achieved Alté fashion.
Creul Santino leaned heavily on this old Nollywood aesthetic – its slender actresses and the black magic (or Juju) that exists in its world – for his “Raw Dinner” video. The visual, which clocked in at 8 minutes long, was proof of the extent Alté artists go to layer context and authenticity to the music. An afropop artist might be content with “clean visuals” – hiring a director, who employs actors (see: big bottomed women), and rents props (dollar bills and fast cars) to create a video that would be no less forgettable than the hundreds that came before. But Alté artists set for themselves a higher standard. It would be very dishonest to dip back into the conventional culture they exist to counter when it becomes convenient. Little Simz and Obongjayar’s “Point and Kill” was overflowing with references to 70’s African culture, and Odunsi’s glittering full length film for “Half A Tab” explored Alté fashion in all its glamour.
And this eye for perfection speaks loudest in the music itself. Like the supporting pillars of alte it is a blend of past and present, and of indigenous and foreign. Lady Donli’s “Enjoy your life”, in addition to being an advocate for achieving the much famed soft life and a great album in general, was a time capsule for delightful Nigerian sounds. Dbanj’s “don’t hate me cos I’m hotter than you” was borrowed for “Take me home”, while “Answers” evokes recollections of 2005 Psquare with its slow burning hip hop melodies and lines like “they never know say they go soji o”. DRB Lasgidi was probably a little high-handed in naming their 2020 album “Pioneers”, but in their defence the LP was as close as it gets to a showcase of Altés range – fitting in everything from RnB to modern afrobeat to rap. Throw in other albums like Odunsi’s “rare”, Santi’s “Mandy and the Jungle” and “Suzie’s funeral” and you basically have every genre represented, which ties into Santi’s description of his sound as “every genre of music with an alternative twist”. The well these artists draw from is truly boundless.
For the longest time, however, this community did not get the respect proportional to the level of talent and creativity it possessed. That’s putting it lightly. The reactions to the music, and especially, fashion from the group was met with outright insults, which is not very surprising, for in Nigerian conservative culture, those who go against the grain are lucky if they are only ridiculed and nothing is actively done to stop them. This article from 2018 chronicles the public perception of Alté at that time and it is as bad as you would expect, one person went as far as creating an Urban dictionary entry for Alté, giving it this definition.
And so more than a few expected that these pioneers would simply give it up and go back to holding regular jobs, or perhaps make music more in line with conventional afropop. These assumptions constituted a gross underestimation of the drive behind the artists, and they were fueled by a misconception of what inspires them to make music in the first place. If it was money, they would be taking the easier route of queuing behind a hundred other creatives for a slice of the afropop cake, rather than putting in more effort to earn less plying a less popular route in Alté. In 2022 though, perhaps it need not be one or the other. Alté musicians are going mainstream, but not in the genre hopping fashion their detractors wanted. After sticking with their craft and playing to their own strengths, Alté is being rewarded with public spotlight and the financial rewards that come with it. These interviews of Lady Donli by Okayafrica in 2018 and two years later are proof of her growth and the growth of Alté in general. She remarked on the newer interview: “Right now, I actually get gigs, I’m able to tour, I have dropped an album that is doing relatively well for me. I’m able to look at the growth”. Other Alté heavyweights would share similar testimonies.
Boj believes this is a direct result of hard work. “I think a lot of people might be surprised about what’s happening now, but I’m not. If you put in the work, you’ll see the result.” he said in an interview with audiomack. In addition, he believes striking out your own path – rather than following the popular – is a key ingredient for sustainable success. “I’ve seen people blow up and in two years, they’re struggling again, trying to chase the next trend. That’s because they didn’t stamp their own identity.” And he must be right, for he, with the success of his album, “Gbagada Express” took the biggest strides for Alté this year. An ensemble project packed with stars, Boj’s capacity to fit in big names of traditional afropop like Wizkid and Davido without losing much of Alté identity has won him accolades for the album.
Moving forward, there is still a lot of room for Alté to grow. Alté songs do not yet enjoy the streaming and revenue numbers of their Afropop counterparts, and so are not able to rub shoulders with them at the top of the charts, but all that stands to change if they continue the trajectory they are presently on. To become a proper industry, however, there will need to be a sense of continuity, where established acts take a step back into management and mentorship, and help grow the next crop of stars to take the baton. The past few years have seen Wavy the creator, Azanti and others break through in alternative music, and it is hoped that many more would follow in the coming years. With a steady pipeline of new acts choosing Alté, these pioneers can ensure the protection of their legacy, and a sustenance of the new heights Alté has achieved in the past few years.