For The Umpteenth Time, Let’s Talk About Alté
Alté culture is birthed from the desire to be seen and heard no matter the limits — a mindset that Nigerians know all too well.
As a society, Nigerians are a peculiar bunch. We’re characterized by creativity and perseverance, but also by pretense and an obsession with towing faulty lines in the name of conservatism. To be Nigerian fills one with a sense of pride but living that reality comes with ever-growing difficulty. Lagos’ Third Mainland Bridge is a symbol of the vast difference between the two ends of the social spectrum. We are loved by many and hated just as much, and the underlying element of contrast highlights the polarizing effect of the Nigerian experience.
This contrast is the nucleus that exists in the genes of the Alté scene. Either loved devoutly by those who sing its allegiance or detested by those who can’t stand the sight of its colonies, Alté is the ying to Nigeria’s faux-conservative yang. For all the world of differences between what they seemingly represent, Nigeria’s cultural ecosystem is incomplete without the existence of its greatest foil. Look at the bigger picture — it all comes together.
Existing seemingly on the fringes of Nigeria’s pop culture, the Alté community is a space crafted by those whose methods of self-expression are met with scorn and ridicule. They go this way when everyone decides to go that, creating a sub-culture that thrives on inclusivity and creativity that’s carried in their air of rebellion. When you examine closely, you begin to notice that alté’s core is made of the ingredient that outlines the very essence of our Nigerian-ness — for better and worse.
It is no secret that the alté scene is flawed. Sometimes prone to acting out of line, the alté scene’s extremism and segregation on basis of privilege are prominent militants to the community’s extended success, as the behavior of some of its allies often impedes sustaining professional relationships. The previous sentence can apply to the average Nigerian (youth) who is blamed (and often caught red-handed) for being less than satisfactory in their execution of things that really matter. This Nigerian-ness extends to our inherent ability to stand out in places previously thought impossible, breaking barriers across different walks of life and doing so against considerable odds, despite how “easy” it might seem from the outside.
Our internal music scene is a perfect case study. Following its rise between 2016 and 2017, the alté scene birthed several musicians who had a different vision of how Nigerian music could sound. Since then, we’ve witnessed significant cultural statements that reverberate to this day. Odunsi (The Engine) put out the era-defining “alté cruise” and then proceeded to release one of the best debut albums in Nigeria’s recent history with rare. Santi cultivated a cult following in the wake of his 2019 effort Mandy & The Jungle, leading to an appearance at Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival later that year. Tay Iwar’s debut at 17, Passport, served as a launch pad for current success, quickly growing his way to respectable stature and new status as one of Wizkid’s musical sweethearts. Everyone knows how quickly things changed for Tems since she dropped her breakout “Mr. Rebel” — earning BET Awards and nominations, performing at the O2, and hitting #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Large-scale successes like these are hard to ignore. These efforts added a new dynamic to what Nigerian music currently sounds like. In response to this change in the soundscape, streaming platforms acquiesced to the demand for alternative Nigerian music and created several alté-centric playlists. Publications introduced dedicated alté segments, and The NATIVE — one of Nigeria’s leading publications that showcase the African pulse — was co-founded by Teezee, one of the pioneers of the alté culture.
This penetration of a major market draws parallels with the siege of Afrobeats on the rest of world music. Our genre has added a new flavor to the world’s sounds. From Billboard entries to Grammy and Beyoncé features, we have silently extended our reach through the earth’s soil and are now rearing our heads in global conversations. Our mass exodus from the motherland has subsequently made us true world contenders across different disciplines. As children of the world, ours is a marketable sub-culture; and standing out under the public’s piercing gaze is at the core of the Nigerian experience.
If mainstream and alternative Nigerian cultures share such glaring similarities, why is there so much disparity between them? Calling anything “alté” on our shores sounds borderline derogatory when used in certain ways and in certain tones. Music from artists that populate this community is talked down on internally. People laugh at the way they dress, call them weird and find new ways to dismiss their efforts and what they’re about.
Some of the criticism labeled against the community is valid of course, but most of it is rooted in the simple concept of making fun of things you don’t understand. This disparity reflects the contrast in mainstream and alternative influences, which differs usually as a result of class differences. The Alté community also represents freedom — a luxury most people wish they had. Although alté does dance dangerously on the line of moderation and delusion, the average Nigerian could be held back by several militating factors which might lead one to scuff at adventures of the Scene. The segregation of one from the other is a vicious cycle that will not end until there is a realization that we are one and the same.
We are cut from the same cloth. It would take a while, but the first step to closing this disparity is to understand that there is no one way to live life, or express art. Alté culture is birthed from the desire to be seen and heard no matter the limits — a mindset that Nigerians know all too well. The common denominator is that we are a vastly talented and resilient group of people. While we may have our flaws and reservations against one another, we’re more powerful integrated rather than segregated.