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“Music is encoded history”: a Deep Dive into Nigerian Music with the New Series from Afropop

Post by Evelyn Owen

For almost 30 years, Afropop Worldwide has shared and celebrated music from Africa and the African diaspora with listeners in the US and around the world.

Earlier this year, three of the platform’s producers—Sean Barlow, Banning Eyre, and Morgan Greenstreet—embarked on their most ambitious project yet. They traveled to Nigeria, to conduct research for the long-running series Hip Deep, which uses music as a lens to tell bigger stories, whether about history, religion, literature, or politics.

In Nigeria, the team visited Edo State, the Niger Delta, Kano, and of course the country’s biggest city, Lagos. They spoke with musicians, producers, scholars, activists, and others involved in the Nigerian music industry to learn about the astonishing diversity of musical styles across the country, and to find out how Nigeria’s rich musical history is influencing today’s crop of Naija pop stars.

We interviewed Banning Eyre to find out more…

The Africa Center: For anybody who is new to Nigerian music and curious to know more—what’s the best place to begin?

 

Banning Eyre: Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and its cultural and religious diversity is vast. So there are many entry points into its fantastically varied music.

Historically speaking, four classic genres are especially important: Highlife music was the soundtrack of West Africa in the years surrounding the wave on independence movements in the 1950s and early 60s. Juju music was popularized in the 1980s worldwide by the great composer/singer/bandleader King Sunny Ade. Percussion-based fuji music began as Yoruba Muslim music but is now broadly popular. In fact, fuji is probably the most vital and successful form of traditional popular music in Nigeria today, with a pantheon of contemporary stars such as Saheed Osupa, Salawa Abeni, and K1 de Ultimate.

Nigerian music fuji star Saheed Osupa
Saheed Osupa. Photo: Banning Eyre
Nigerian music fuji star Salawa Abeni
Salawa Abeni. Photo: Banning Eyre

And finally, Afrobeat is the rebellious, funky sound created by Fela Kuti in the 1970s and carried on by his sons Femi and Seun, and by Afrobeat bands in cities all over the world.

In Africa today, Nigerian music dominates with a more highly produced contemporary sound called Naija pop or Afrobeats (note the “s”). Slick, playful, generally non-political Naija pop recordings and videos are now ubiquitous all over the continent and throughout the diaspora, as artists such as Wizkid, Yemi Alade, and Davido are achieving success the stars of highlife, juju, fuji, and Afrobeat could hardly have imagined.

All these artists and genres are well represented on YouTube, perhaps the best way to immerse yourself in the music, once you’ve experienced Hip Deep in Nigeria.

Why is music such a powerful starting point for telling bigger stories about society, history, and culture in Africa and the African diaspora?

 

Musician Tony Odili meets Banning Eyre of Afropop in Port Harcourt Nigeria

Legendary Highlife musician Tony Odili meets Afropop’s Banning Eyre in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Photo: Sean Barlow

Music is encoded history. The rhythms, sonorities, melodic idioms, and the actual language of lyrics all carry imprints of larger stories: migrations, wars, conquests, religious conversions, political revolutions, and more. In Hip Deep we use music as a starting point, and try to unfold these larger historical narratives.

I think the reason it works so well, especially in African contexts, is that music is such an immediate and emotional expression of circumstances, used to accompany important events in families and communities since ancient times. In Port Harcourt, we met Tony Odili, almost 90 years old and the last surviving member of Rex Lawson’s legendary highlife band. In Tony’s words and music, you find the story of Nigeria’s Biafra civil war, as well as the arc of Nigerian highlife music’s spectacular dominance in the 1960s, its decline during the war, and its ongoing moral power in Nigeria right up to the present.

How did you conduct the research for Hip Deep in Nigeria? Did you do a lot of preparation in advance, or did you rely more on word-of-mouth once you arrived?

 

It’s a combination of the two. Preparation is essential, involving a lot of reading, interviewing and music listening, but most importantly, networking to find the kinds of contacts on the ground who can provide access to key events and people in each location. Afropop has developed a rich network of allies over the years, and before we traveled to Nigeria, we had lined up advisors and collaborators in each of the four locations. These starting points are crucial, but things always change once field work begins. We don’t believe in locking down a day-by-day schedule in advance, because you have to be able to pursue opportunities as they arise.

For instance, we reached out to a number of major Naija pop stars, but these folks travel often, and can be difficult to access. As it turns out, we were able to meet with three major artists, 2Face, Yemi Alade, and Flavour. To get these interviews we had to work through layers and be ready to jump at the right moment. But they never would have happened had we not begun the networking process in advance of our trip.

How has the spread of access to the internet and social media affected the growth and development of the Nigerian music industry?

 

Social media and the internet have changed everything. Artists now start out by promoting themselves on YouTube and Facebook, not relying on record companies or any other institutional support. This approach creates opportunity, but also intense competition. Songs and stars can rise and fall quickly in this fickle milieu, but for those who catch on, the rewards can be tremendous: participation in stadium-scaled concerts and music and video awards broadcasts on satellite television, and, ideally, corporate sponsorship from clothing, alcohol, and technology companies.

Meanwhile, the internet has become a rich museum of the past, where one can hear hard-to-find classic recordings and videos going back to the dawn of music recording in Africa. Social media also allows less commercial, more original artists to build and sustain a following on their own terms.

For instance, we were lucky to attend a performance by and an interview with a prolific, quasi-underground singer/bandleader called Beautiful Nubia. Largely ignored in Nigerian popular media, and little known abroad, this artist draws passionate, loyal fans to his shows using Facebook.

Which rising stars are causing waves in Nigeria’s music scene right now? And what’s the best way to keep up-to-date?

 

The top stars of Naija pop are easy to experience on YouTube, as all hit songs from Nigeria now come with well-produced and highly entertaining videos. Yemi Alade, one of the most successful stars at the moment, has garnered over 67-millilon views for her video “Johnny” directed by Nollywood filmmaker Clarence Peters.

The video for Davido’s “If,” another major hit this year, has over 12-million views. Naija pop acts like these—also Runtown, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Flavour and others—dominate the radio airwaves in the ongoing heyday of Naija pop. And they do perform abroad.

Meanwhile, on the local live scene in Lagos, fuji stars continue to draw large, rowdy audiences for their long, percussion-intensive shows featuring songs laced with social commentary, bawdy humor, and life advice—all continuing a Yoruba song tradition that is constantly being reinvented. K1 de Ultimate is widely recognized as the King of Fuji, though rival stars such as Saheed Osupa, Obesere, and Pasuma all have titles and large followings of their own. Although fuji artists mostly thrive on live shows, almost entirely within Nigeria, they too can be found on YouTube and occasionally on tour internationally.

Thank you so much, Banning! You can check out the whole Hip Deep series on the Afropop Worldwide website.

At the time of writing, four episodes are available: Hip Deep Nigeria Preview, which highlights key moments in the series; Edo Highlife, Culture, Politics, and Progressive Traditionalism, which examines the evolution of highlife music; Hip Deep in the Niger Delta, which looks at how the Biafran War and subsequent oil exploitation have impacted on music produced in the Delta region; and *just released!* is Hip Deep in Northern Nigeria, which digs in to music from Kano, in Nigeria’s Islamic north

The final episode to be released later this summer will look at music in Lagos, the megacity of 21m people. 

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