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In ‘A Million’, a bonus track off his 2012 mixtape, Occupy The Throne, rapper, Modenine’s excitement verges on the explosive. Delivered with characteristic élan, the track is a quickfire memoir of a trip to Johannesburg. In it, Modenine recounts, among other experiences, a performance at which he is surrounded by ‘real heads’—a reference to an audience schooled in hip-hop—who ‘got up as he spat.’ Modenine is in his element as he fashions his travel memoir, a transgression into a narrative practice that is usually the preserve of Fuji artistes returning from trips abroad. But masked behind this joie de vivre—‘O what a feeling/hip-hop is life’—is a longing for the acceptance of hip-hop, which, back home, remains an aspiration.
THE DAWN OF NIGERIAN HIP-HOP
For much of the 1990s, Nigeria’s popular music scene was saturated with highlife, local reggae and Fuji. As the country’s long night of military dictatorship wound down, a new generation of singers arose, heavily influenced by American hip-hop of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, the so-called ‘golden age of hip-hop’ that threw up The Fugees, Naughty By Nature, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, and Jay Z.
In Nigeria, the new generation of singers fully imbibed the hip-hop zeitgeist. These pioneers wore the baggy pants and large FUBU shirts of the Bronx. Tony Tetuila of The Remedies, perhaps the most popular group of these early years, wore a singlet and dyed his hair blonde like Sisqo. Eedris Abdulkareem, easily the group’s most prominent member, imitated American-style rapping, doing tongue twisters and dropping bars like Busta Rhymes.
Wale Thompson, a juju artiste, featured The Remedies in ‘Lalale Friday’ (2000); and Maintain, a different group, evolved a unique sound by sprinkling humour over a blend of hip-hop and Fuji, signalling possible futures for hip-hop. ArtQuake’s ‘Abule Lawa’ (1999), one of the most memorable hip-hop songs of that era, sampled Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo Wop’ (1998). ArtQuake’s video featured Plantashun Boiz and The Remedies, the flagbearers of a new dawn in Nigerian music. Hip-hop culture, for these pioneers, was a welcome relief from the dreariness that had come before.
NIGERIAN HIP-HOP’S EARLY STRUGGLES
Despite the initial success of hip-hop, more indigenous genres like galala, popularized by Daddy Showkey and Baba Fryo, lurked in the open. In retrospect, these indigenous sounds, not hip-hop, provided the template for the renaissance Nigerian music enjoys today. Hip-hop, with its foreign aesthetics, still doesn’t seem to sing to the Nigerian ear.
Released in 2006, OD Overdose’s ‘Don’t Hate’ is an unwitting illustration of the classic dilemma of the Nigerian rapper attempting to balance their foreign influences with the peculiarities of their Nigerian audience. In the same song he admonishes rappers to read the room (‘Bros, no dey rap like sey you dey Jand / Dey drop something wey all man fit understand’), Overdose still stunts on his audience with lines like, ‘Groupies want to hang like dungarees / Cos I’m dropping jewels like craftsmen on Parkinson’s disease /… I laugh when you claim you the dopest / You can’t talk in my face, you got halitosis.’ Even in 2006, there was a small number of listeners for such lines by Overdose. And they were either familiar with Nas or Public Enemy or read New York Times Bestsellers. This meant these listeners belonged to an internationally exposed, elite class readily appreciable of such music. Our hip-hop, therefore, was—and is—an elitist endeavour, produced for and sustained by elitist consciousness. This is why it remains underground.
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