Exploring The Influence of Language and Environment In Creating Art
Examining how language and environment influence our creative process.
In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, a new artist named Omah Lay released his debut EP and quickly became a household name around the country. It was an unprecedented growth, especially when you consider that he did not have the opportunity to go through traditional routes – like parties and shows – to promote his songs because everyone was stuck at home. After seeing his name a significant number of times on my Twitter feed, I decided to give him a listen, and I was hooked quickly, for two reasons: Firstly, the reviews were true: the music was really good. His versatility shone on the tracks as he switched from heartbroken loverboy to Casanova in minutes, changing tempo and production style as he went along. Secondly, the music was fun because it was made by a Port Harcourt boy, just like myself. Listening to him mention places and slangs I was familiar with felt cool.
Typically, I began to think about the importance of environments in the music-making process, ad art on a larger scale. Just how much of an influence does an artist’s geographical background have on their work? How much of it is inspired by the things they have witnessed in different cities? How has language pushed them to invent and innovate? As a writer myself, I recall how confusing it was for me when I tried to write like foreign authors because white literature was my first introduction to fiction. After reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, I realized that lived experiences were crucial to stories. The discontentment I had been feeling was because I was adopting a voice that was not mine and recreating places that I shared no connection with me.
It is also important to remember that the environment is not limited to our physical surroundings. A political environment is a major influence on art, and words and slang are a part of this ecosystem. Writing is a word-heavy art form, and Nigerian English is still different despite the universal nature of the English language. Mirriam-Webster tells us that the word “severally” means separately or individually, not part of a group, but the same word means “many times” or “repeatedly” in a Nigerian context. The interconnectedness of all these elements – environments, slang, etc. – results in the artist’s final work. To solidify this theory, I conducted a series of interviews with a bunch of artists in different disciplines to find out how much inspiration they draw from their environments, physical locations, and otherwise and the impact of language on their work.
I already explained how important my environment and language are to my work as a fiction writer and as a journalist. But, so you do not take my word for it alone, I spoke to two writers to find out how much of their work is influenced by their environments.
For Nnamdi Ehirim, essayist and author of Prince Of Monkeys – one of the best Nigerian novels of 2019 (no, really) – language is essential to his work. However, he is frugal with incorporating slang or lingo in stories and only uses them strictly when necessary. As for being inspired by his environment, he admits that although it is not a deliberate thing, his settings and characters are reflections of the things and people he meets in his day-to-day life: “When I am not actively working on a story, I note things down and may utilize them.“
Jojolola Dopamu is a screenwriter and film reviewer. Like Nnamdi, he does not deliberately set out to use slang because “it makes your work sound cheesy when you read it back.” This is understandable, of course, as it affects the flow of the story and makes it a bit difficult to enjoy. As for environmental inspiration, he is very much inspired by his physical surroundings in addition to “political, mental, social environments and atmospheres.”
Emefak Inyang-Ekwo is a dancer, content creator, singer and songwriter. She credits her father and his love for music for even awakening her creative pursuits:
“I'm a 90's baby, and growing up, my dad played a lot of music. The radio was always on, in the car or at home when we didn't have electricity. My father once told me that when my mother was pregnant with me, he would play music for her; I’ve always been surrounded by music. I used to bang on the glasses and empty containers in the house when there was nothing to do; no one ever said shut up, they allowed it. So because my parents never silenced me at that age but instead encouraged me to read, dance and sing it was only natural that I would start writing poems and songs.”
The past and the present connect a lot in her work, as spending a lot of time in her orthodox church as a kid means that she tends to prefer writing music with heavy classical undertones like the violin, harp and piano chords. On language, she affirms that local lingo is present in her songwriting as she consistently writes songs in Pidgin English.
IN VISUAL ARTS
From time immemorial, paintings, drawings and sculptures have been revered forms of expression and enjoyment. Artists have created memorable stamps of culture that have stood the test of time, for both their significance and meaning and for pure aesthetic value. The ancient masks and sculptures of Benin have been subject of a custody battle between Britain and Nigeria for decades, after the colonialists stole them, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an iconic piece of history and is still the origin of memes and academic studies till date. Artists use their work to reflect all parts of society, both good and bad, and by default, their environments.
Tani Idowu’s paintings are heavily impacted by her environment. From the basics like colour choices to the attitudes, moods, and emotions on the canvas itself, she draws heavily from the people and things surrounding every stage of creation, from idea conception to finishing touch. Language becomes a factor during “Naming ceremonies”, aka the process of titling her work. “With regards to naming ceremonies, they are one of the hardest things for artists to do. Before an artist picks a name, what they pick from their environment has to speak to them and can be used to pass the message across. It could be a name in any language, English, Yoruba, Korean and helps to tell a story and make people connect deeply with your work.”
Chigozie Obi, visual artist and animator, also says that language is a key factor in naming her pieces. As an Igbo person, she titles her work in Igbo as she wants to have the element of her heritage felt whenever a person engages with her art. She also has one titled in French as it was an enjoyable thing to do while she was learning the language. Her relationship with Nigeria is a very strong part of her creative process. It is part of the reasons she puts brush to canvas: “Being a human being can be tough but being in Nigeria is tougher, so showing how that makes me and the people around me feel comes into my work from time to time. I draw, paint, and even talk about the sadness or anger or frustration that I may feel, as well as about things like comforting yourself or being hopeful despite all that happens.”
Paseka Nkumbi aka Espiquet is a rapper from South Africa. A true artist and willing learner, he has never been one to shy away from new influences or ideas, and his environment is responsible for most of these influences: “I see music as personal therapy. I talk a lot about experiences, and I’ll name-drop a place or person just to paint the picture better. So surroundings play a huge role; that’s how I make it relative. The influence of my surroundings is evident in the way I do everyday things. So it’s always gonna be present in the music and the videos; it’s in the locations I shoot my videos, the style, the lingo, dress code and slang. It’s always there.”
Furthering the lingo conversation, he says he is trying to make music in his “hood dialect”, although it’s a lot easier singing and rapping in English: “My first language at school was English, and all the artists I grew up listening to all rapped in English; that’s what I tried to perfect growing up so I could reach a lot more people. But lately, I’ve been trying to make music in my mother tongue and my hood dialect (the language we speak on the streets), and I’m getting better at it, but it’s still a lot easier right now to articulate it in English.”
The same is true for Toronto-based Nigerian rapper Miki Miks. A versatile rapper whose work ranges from Emo to Cloud rap, he draws inspiration from his environment and the cities he has lived in to create his art. “To be honest, I would say like 65% is heavily influenced by my past, and mainly my current environment. This is evident in areas like beat selection, lyrical content and fashion. I’ve lived in Lagos and Toronto and this definitely shows in the art. In my more recent songs, I find myself using terms like “fam” and “ahlie”, which are terms peculiar to the city of Toronto.”
Adopting language can be tricky as African musicians are often criticized for using “foreign” terms in their work. The most common angle with such critics is that they believe these additions make the songs less relatable if a local audience isn't familiar with them. Miki Miks understands the logic behind the criticism, but he disagrees: “I think it is important to note that art is universal, and using foreign terms can help expose listeners to a side of life they have not experienced. Also, the region where the art is created and promoted plays a major part in the creative process.”
Espiquet agrees with this sentiment, defending the rights of artists to express themselves however they want. “Every artist wants international success and the world is so connected now it’s so easy to reach people in other countries and learn other cultures, listen to their music and be inspired by them you know? Think it’s a natural thing, and it doesn’t make you less authentic. Actually, I’m for it. Let’s close the gaps and make the world smaller!”
IN CODING AND APP DEVELOPMENT
In today’s increasingly digital world, software engineers, developers, coders, whatever title they go by, are architects of the new world order. Charged with creating apps and systems to make our lives easier, tech bros are some of the most creative people around, constantly thinking up fun new ways to solve problems. However, because different demographics have varying needs, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to problems, developers need to decide who their work is for and study their users to find the best possible methods to create a seamless experience for users.
For Lagos-based game developer Timilehin Tayo, the key is in identification: “I always feel the need to identify my work with a certain thing. As a game developer, one thing I try as much as possible to do is to give it a certain feel so that any Nigerian playing the games just knows that it was made by a fellow Nigerian. It isn’t easy, but it’s important to me.”
Language is an avenue for him to implement this identity and although he hasn’t worked on a game with a storyline that will afford him creative license to expand on these additions, he does the little he can with the use of Nigerian names and local slang: “Remember when “gbas gbos” was a popular thing to say? I worked on a game at the time and for comical effect, whenever the characters in the game hit something or encountered a difficulty, “gbas gbos” would show up on the screen. It turned out to be a good addition because people enjoyed it and said it made them want to play a little more.”
Taiwo Famakinde is a lawyer and software developer who admits that her environment plays a role in her design process, albeit subconsciously:
“What I see and perceive on a daily basis is being registered in my subconscious, and all these things come to the fore when I am designing or building something. It influences my decision of what to do or include. For instance, I am currently working with a diverse team and we’re building a driver’s license application/renewal app for another country. What I have observed in our process has affected my input and contribution to the team. I didn’t even know cars had codes!”
The same process applies to her use of language while writing code, “I won’t say I’m particular about using local slang in my work. I just do it and realize it later, like leaving comments in codes and stuff aIt’s after the application has been deployed and you’re working on an update you realize ‘oh wow I actually wrote this here.’”
Photography is the art of capturing motion and freezing these moving moments forever. Like painting, photography is a field that is heavily dependent on the person’s environment behind the lens. As we highlighted in this special on Layeni Kamal’s collection, photographers are documentarians of their surroundings, looking at the core and margins of society.
In the same vein, Agbolarinwa Oloyede, a law student and photographer, relies on his environment to produce high visual and even emotional quality images.
“My physical environment defines much of what is naturally available for me to utilise. For outdoor photography, there are times when the entire setting is just perfect, and my work is simply to press the shutter, and there are other times where I already know I’m going to need lots of editing to get a photo right. From the leaves and flowers to the buildings, the background, the availability of sunlight, it all affects just how much your creative juices need to flow.”
But, as stated before, the environment is not just physical, it’s also a mental space, with as much presence and influence despite not being leaves and concrete. According to Oloyede, the mental atmosphere and energy of a place also affect the results of photography:
“The ambience, vibe and culture of a place is equally as important. I’ve taken pictures in Lagos, Accra and New York, and I can assure you, they all provide different opportunities to test the extent of your creativity. In some places, the people are always smiling, such that it creates a cordial environment where you’re free to be flexible with model poses. In other places, the energy is so vibrant and restless that it keeps you on your feet so you don’t miss any of the action. The thing about this is that you have to be able to adapt in the moment if you want to get the best from your talent and your camera.”
IN GRAPHIC DESIGN
Contrary to what you might believe, graphic design as a discipline extends past using Canva to create a flyer for your house party. Transmitting unambiguous messages with typography and images while worrying about page techniques and brand consistency is one heck of a job. Like their counterparts in the visual communication world, designers are inspired by the spaces they exist in, turning to their surroundings for help in conveying their message.
As a UI/UX designer, Eseosa Belo-Osagie always prioritises mobile users because she’s in a place where most people use phones, not laptops, to access the internet. This commitment to optimizing her designs for accessibility clearly indicates how the designer’s locale guides design. Her use of language is also determined by the type of work she’s commissioned for: “At my last job as a content creator, I had to design something for Ahmadu Bello University’s Distance Learning Institute, so it was important we had the copy in both Hausa and English.”
On the contrary, Bakare Sikemi, a graphic designer based in Lagos admits that language is not a big factor in her design process as she prefers to work with textures. For her, different environments elicit a different creative reaction: “I find that things inspire me more when I’m in a serene and quiet place like my hostel where I’m not constantly called on to do different things. Sometimes though, I can be in a chaotic place like a market and still be inspired.”
IN PODCASTING AND YOUTUBE
In recent years, podcasts have become a popular form of media and entertainment. As they are majorly audio-only, podcasts can be listened to while doing another activity, as they do not require the level of concentration a TV talk show would demand. Also, from football to finance and tech, podcasts exist for every type of listener as a source of information or mere leisure to pass time away.
Feyikemi Akin-Bankole is one half of F&S Uncensored, a weekly podcast centered around life experiences as young adults in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial centre. With a 4.7 rating on Apple Podcasts, F&S Uncensored is one of the most consistent podcasts in the Nigerian space, celebrating 100 episodes in early 2021. For Feyikemi and Simi Badiru, her partner, their environment is vital to their work, as it is responsible for the content they produce:
“My podcast is majorly about my week-to-week life as a young adult living in Lagos, so I typically just talk about what I’ve been through or ‘seen’ as a Lagosian that week. For a while, we had a segment about NYSC just to inform our listeners how insane the entire system is and what we experienced for a year. Once in a while we get guests on the podcast who come and tell their stories and experiences as Lagosians working in the entertainment industry, as that’s what we can relate to.”