Lagos: heart of Nigerian hip hop

Yinka Ibukun
19 October 2011

With Nigeria’s newly invigorated music scene finally emerging from the shadows of highlife and imported US hip-hop, Yinka Ibukun explores the jumping sound of Naija. Photography by Adolphus Opara

Cigarette smoke curls in the air, while the blare of music assaults the senses at the exclusive Caliente Club in Lagos. Four rooms flow into one another; none offers a respite from the crowd, but people don't seem to care. They are clearly feeling the music; some raise their brows and others pout their lips as they dance and sing along to Nigerian — or rather Naija — songs.

Scenes like this (minus the cigarette smoke) are being echoed across the world, with clubs from New York to Nairobi playing hits from Lagos. It's the sound of a new generation of Nigerian artists, and a world away from the highlife pioneered by the first wave of exports — IK Dairo, Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade — who helped spur the growth of world music as a marketable product in Europe and North America. Listen to music by D'banj, 2Face, Jesse Jagz, MI, Vocal Slender and Mo'Cheddah, and you'll hear the smooth synthesised sounds of US productions. But these artists — more hip-hop than highlife — stand out because they add a Nigerian stamp to American urban sounds.

Lagos itself is an African megacity, home to more than 15 million souls. It's like no other Nigerian city. By 2015, it is estimated the population will hit the 24 million mark, making it the world's third largest city. A resource-rich yet largely impoverished country, the nation's petrodollars are drawn to Lagos like iron filings to a magnet. By day, it is loud, fast-paced and commercial. Everyone is on the move. Conductors hang off the side of the city's distinctive yellow buses calling out destinations to commuters, while drivers navigate round numerous obstacles, from potholes to street vendors. Life in Lagos isn't easy. Snarling traffic means that workers who can't afford the high rents in the city centre (often paid two years upfront) leave for work at 5am. The power supply is sporadic; access to water can be complicated. When night falls, Lagos's imperfections fade under cover of darkness, leaving a city of lights reflected in the glittering lagoon below looping bridges. It is a city where little can be taken for granted, but it is also a place where opportunities abound — especially in its music scene.

This is something 27-year-old producer/rapper Jesse Abaga — Jesse Jagz to his fans — knows all about. In his hit song, Las Gidi Grinding, he raps about how his old ‘Lagos hustle' finally paid off: ‘See, even Sunday is a hustle, never go slow, Ekó be the city of m'dreams. The city weh m'live in and the city weh m'sing.' The lyrics switch between English and Yoruba, referring to Lagos by both its nickname Las Gidi and its Yoruba name, Ekó. It's authenticity such as this that has helped establish the new Nigerian music scene.

In the 1980s and 90s, an entire generation was bombarded by American hip-hop. US rappers flooded the airwaves and young artists around the country began shaping their music to sound like Biggie or Tupac. But people soon grew tired of the affected accents of Nigerian imitators, and the slang borrowed from America's inner cities bore little resemblance to the reality of Lagos life.

But that's changed. When veteran DJ Jimmy Jatt started spinning back in the 90s, he says there was hardly any contemporary Nigerian music he could play in clubs. Today he has to go out of his way to incorporate music from other places. ‘Our music scene was a goldmine all along and we just sat on it,' says Jatt, ‘but now people are digging and every step of the way, we're seeing gold.'

For those who hit the big time, the success is life-changing. Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo, better known as D'banj, is a born showman and one of the country's hottest stars. In June, he tweeted (@iamdbanj) that he had signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label. Three weeks later, he was back tweeting his thanks for the Los Angeles' BET Award he won for Best International Act, joining a prestigious line-up on the night that included Cee-Lo Green, Alicia Keys and Mary J Blige. Not bad for a boy raised in military barracks. ‘Congratulations 2 myself and our baba 2face 4 bringing this one home 4Naija,' D'banj wrote, before signing off with his trademark ‘Osheeeeeee,' (‘thank you' in his native Yoruba).

'Though life can be hard in Nigeria, artists sing about what they aspire to: a good life, a flashy car,' says Tara Hecksher, known as T-love, presenter of the television show Music Arena. ‘These are the things that most Nigerians want. Music becomes a motivation to keep pushing, to achieve dreams.' In a country where the average Nigerian scrapes by on less than two dollars a day, the most successful artists can earn up to £600,000 a year for endorsements. Audu Maikori, CEO of music label Chocolate City, says Nigerian artists are by far the best paid in Africa and that their salaries almost rival those of mainstream US artists. But endorsements are crucial in an industry that suffers piracy and poor distribution networks.

Thirty-year-old MI, real name Jude Abaga (and older brother of Jesse Jagz), is arguably Nigerian rap's poster boy. In a lounge located in the historical part of Lagos, near the old British colonial seat of government, MI's fans have gathered for a private gig. The parking lot is lined with SUVs. The lounge is on the top floor of a shopping mall that used to house the recording studio of Moments with Mo, Nigeria's response to The Oprah Winfrey Show. As MI takes to the stage, the small performance room is filled. MI, in his sagging jeans and designer shades, delivers an electrifying performance. ‘It's something I've dreamt of all my life,' he says after the show, as a white Land Rover pulls up to avoid him being mobbed by fans. ‘I'm one of those people who would do it anyway but to have the other benefits is great.'

To support upcoming rappers, MI started a label of his own, but he says that the best thing an artist can do to inspire others ‘is to shine'. And that he has. MI won the MTV Africa Music Awards for Best New Act and Best Hip Hop in 2009, and was nominated in 2010 for the same BET Award that D'banj and 2Face won this year. He's constantly touring, travelling to Kampala, Dubai and the capitals of Europe and America.

For every success, however, there's an artist slowly working his or her way up. Eric Obuh, known as Vocal Slender, was scavenging on a Lagos dump to pay for studio sessions until a BBC documentary last year propelled him into the limelight. Since then the 28-year-old has twice been to the UK, performing at London clubs. Back in Lagos, however, the scavenger-turned-pop-artist struggles to sustain himself. Tonight, he's performing at the Oriental Hotel on Victoria Island. He hits the stage and performs his biggest song, Owo Yapa. The lyrics talk about having too much money and Vocal Slender says that when he sings them, he is prophesying his own life.

‘In the UK, I have a manager, but in Nigeria I do everything myself,' he says. He pays for studio sessions and mixing — all without a steady income. ‘I've been hustling all my life. I started fending for myself since Primary 5 [nine years old],' he explains, ‘I've learnt life the hard way, and my zeal and perseverance won't allow me to be pulled back. I want the people at the dump to know that they too can make it.'  

Bez is an alternative soul artist who performs in English and the northern Hausa language.
Cobhams Asuquo runs Cobham Asuquo Music Productions and has produced some of Nigeria's finest artists.
Tiwa Savage sang backing vocals for Mary J Blige and Chaka Khan in the UK and US for 15 years. She's now back in Lagos to pursue a solo career.
Oluwaseyi Joshua, who goes by the name of Seyi Shay, is also a ‘returnee'. Raised in the UK, she was once managed by Beyoncé's dad.

New Afrika Shrine Run by Fela Kuti’s daughter, Yeni. Fela’s sons Femi and Seun also play regular gigs there. 1 Nerdc Road, Agidingbi Ikeja
Caliente Bar and Club One of the city’s most exclusive clubs and serves the most expensive drinks. 9 Goriola Street
Rehab Bar and Pool Beware the fussy doormen. 288B Ajose Adeogun
SS Lounge and Bar Live bands on a Friday night and very busy.
Liquid Lounge Playing Nigerian, hip-hop and garage.

BA is celebrating 75 years of flying to Nigeria this month.