AGEGE, Lagos — I have had a long day at work, I am numb, walking more from habit than ability, I am headed to Pen Cinema to crash at a friend’s place. I find a shuttle in a hurriedly set up motor park by a roadside. Luckily, I am the first passenger in the shuttle; I pick a window seat, always a window seat, stretch out comfortably and plan to catch a moment or two of silent reflection and go over the day’s work; that is when I hear it. A song blasts into the night air from a roadside record shop; it is sung in an eclectic mix of pidgin and Yoruba, the dominant language in South-West Nigeria, the main thrust of the song says “O nba client soro, o gba ope, change your scope” vaguely translated to “you are trying to scam your internet prey but they aren’t paying up, change your scope.”
The lyrics play over a mash of the now popular Shaku Shaku sound; fast-paced tempos, sprinkling of slangs and attempts at a rhythmic structure with little in a way of changing the dominant theme of the mainland Lagos message – Make money or nothing, execute or die. There is no recrimination at the choice of song in the bus stop, in fact, a couple of young, perhaps 7/8-year-old children just go on dancing to the song, probably oblivious to the message it is passing. By the time the song plays for all of 2 minutes the shuttle is full, we negotiate a treacherous parking position and begin our journey into the heart of Agege.
Music in Lagos is fairly representative of wider life in the coastal city. The underlying influences on music are often geographic, representing the various socio-cultural, financial or material differences in the city. The music is chaotic and loud in some places, vibrant and balanced in other spaces, while others prefer it numbed down and almost orchestral.
Agege is firmly on the mainland, to ask Google is to describe it as a “suburb” of Lagos, the people there are rowdy, boisterous and battling for sustenance while on the journey to secure the skewed Nigerian dream – often they are just poor, barely surviving and then they also have some elitist middle-class members [I say elitist because, in the midst of that much lack, they become quasi-elites]. Away from the privilege, status and wealth of Victoria Island, Ikoyi and other seats of power and status in Lagos, music made in Agege fiercely clings on to its identity, they have curated a sure mix of the old indigenous music of the area [Juju, Apala, and Fuji] and blended it with the newer pop/hip-hop brand – the result is Wobey music or Shaku Shaku – whatever you call it.
The poster boy for this wave is Small Doctor, bred in Agege and wearing his crown proudly, he puts creative spins on normal plaid sounds and infuses them with the local characteristics of his fiefdom using call and response, slangs and diverse mental imagery to make the music memorable in your mind. The end product is sonic gold, it is not too stripped of the indigenous content of yonder to discourage local interest but at the same time, it is funky enough to satisfy the evolving musical yearnings of millennials.
Agege is representative of the Lagos mainland; there is poverty in the land, the means of survival are too unevenly distributed, there is palpable discontent on the lips of every young person in the streets and the musical trends are often the same, whether in Agege, Mushin, Ifako-Ijaye, Gbagada or Bariga.
Small Doctor is on his way to undoubted mainstream acceptance but along with him on that particular journey are others like Zlatan Ibile, Chinko Ekun and Victor AD. They are rising out of the bleakness of life on the hard streets of the Lagos Mainland with their music. The tectonic plate of the Nigerian society has shifted, as a society we are poorer, healthcare is terrible, humans are harassed by officials of the state and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; more than half of the collective society lives in extreme poverty, the people are seeking to make it out of this labyrinth.
On the streets of the mainland, the Nigerian dream is not hard to decipher, it is often varying tones of the same message – ‘chop life, make life no chop you.’
— Enter the music.
Music has a place of honor as the beating soul of a community; revealing the status quo of communal life, agitating for change or serving as society’s soothing balm. In the early 2000s, Nigeria was awash with music that had vibrant societal messages underpinned by protest culture, this period had frontline voices like African China, Sound Sultan, Eedris Abdulkareem and 2Face. Society still serves as the fodder for the music in 2018 but the message has changed.
The biggest songs of 2018 in Nigeria industry have tapped into the simple strategy of glorifying the street hustle and reworking it for motivational purposes. Whether it is Chinko Ekun telling “Able God to shower his blessings,” Victor AD asking hard questions of “wetin we gain if we no buy that Benz” or Zlatan Ibile imploring us to “Gbe body,” 2018 has been the year when the street hustle has come to the forefront.
The street hustle isn’t creating start-ups though or bagging grants to study a scientific inquiry, far from it, the street hustle is Advance Fraud popularly known as Yahoo Yahoo or in some circles “Journey to Benz.” The trick to creating monster hits in 2018 is to pay homage to the street hustle and wiping off the incriminating parts of the street business, think Micheal Corleone making the Corleone family clean after the Godfather died. What follows is a double legitimization, the artistes give credence to the street business by infusing their slangs and mannerisms in the music while giving occasional shoutouts to their biggest patrons, the street obliges by putting its stamp of authority on the music, playing and hyping it up till it enters mainstream consciousness.
Mainstream music is too commercialized for the truths to come to the surface, the truths of the inspirations and truths behind these song, that is why when Chinko Ekun plays a set he naturally doesn’t get to Zlatan Ibile’s part where he rapped, “Omo ase, o lo n to’ro jacky, kuro n’be, To ye ko lo ra lappy. Tete connect, ki iwo na le collect, Ko le rale si Lekki, ko put e for Rent.” which loosely translates to – nitwit, you’re begging for Jack Daniels, leave that place and get a Laptop [For Yahoo], quickly connect [Start Yahoo] so you can collect [Money], then buy a house in Lekki and put it up for rent.
When questions are asked about these lyrics, vague explanations are given to encouraging graphic designers and computer skills, but we understand, as a society, we understand the truths and we let go every time the song comes on. The mainstream is understanding the appeal of the music that originates from the mainland, this year alone, Davido has collaborated with Zlatan Ibile and label mate, Idowest while bringing his unique style to their work.
In the biggest parties anywhere in Lagos, it is almost impossible not to hear someone say ‘Gbe body e’ or ‘Gbe soul e’ they have entered our lexicon and will continue to be updated by the raw sauce of the Lagos Mainland. Even the Island guys catch the vibe too because they are constantly on the up and want Able God to continue showering his blessings. Insufficient funds, never.
In the days after I slept over in Agege, I thought back to the song I heard in that bus stop and noticed subtle things about the song I missed earlier, the guy had that thing, you know, the one that makes people ‘blow’ in Nigeria, he just needed to clean up his lyrics and connect. Who knows, in 2019 he might be driving his Benz, wetin him gain if him no drive Benz?