Nigerian Performers and the Art of Pseudo-Performance.
For too long, performances in Nigeria have been well below par and they simply do their best to mimic the environments where music is generally enjoyed.
With the world about a year and a half removed from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain luxuries can once again be considered within the realm of safe possibilities. One of such luxuries for most music lovers has to be the exhilaration of witnessing live performances again.
For very good reason, musicians garner most of their personal income on the road. The sheer amount of commitment required to make daily appearances might be appreciated but ultimately oversimplifies the amount of effort that goes into making a show sound and look appreciable. Developing the stage design, tweaking the sound, building the sets and creating specific landscapes are all seemingly mundane tasks that fall mostly on the shoulders of the tour crew. Unfortunately, that level of dedication, attention to detail and work ethic is a missing feature in most facets of Nigerian life – when it trickles into crafts such as stage performances, however, lines must be drawn.
For too long, performances in Nigeria do their best to mimic the environments where music is generally enjoyed. One such environment is the club. For the uninitiated, the discotheque experience in Nigeria is a frantic, noisy exercise. Pocket depth is unashamedly measured and there are frequent record scratches or pauses to hail the wealthiest of patrons. For an artist who has developed music that rises to hit status, all of the above are amplified. Your records being played in these environments is the clearest indication of success, this means they enjoy your presence where the wealth is. No streaming metrics could measure up to such impact in a nation driven primarily by what degree of said wealth can be acquired.
This is the basis for incessantly recreating the club effect at what should be first and foremost considered an opportunity to present a new visual and sonic interpretation of your music. Burna Boy’s Space Drift Tour across Europe raises the bar as far as what Nigerian audiences are accustomed to – a muscle he has honed over years and is arguably his strongest. My attendance at one of his more intimate shows in 2019 at Lagos’ Terra Kulture made this distinction clear since. Olamide’s annual OLIC performances also incorporated actual deliberate set design at a time when almost no Nigerian acts bothered, especially for their local shows. Expectations for performances in Nigeria are notoriously low, most audiences settle for attending a party with someone on stage lip-syncing shamelessly, delivering their best karaoke rendition of their own record.
Another issue is the aforementioned lack of attention. Yes, you made this monster hit record. No, you do not care enough to give it the best presentation possible. Perhaps in situations where there are multiple acts on the bill, procedures like soundcheck and set implementation are next to impossible. However, this points to an attitude that must be eradicated if we expect to grow our music industry in this regard. At the recent Rick Ross appearance in Lagos, The Cavemen were booked to open the show and did so in immaculate fashion. Playing their own instruments and dovetailing with The Alternate Sound, they managed to be the only acts on the set aside from the Florida rapper to apply their live vocals and instrumentation. There were seven artists total on the bill. The truly detrimental part about this predicament is that it is a clear representation of regression. The live performers responsible for the popularization of some of the continent’s biggest genres clearly took their jobs seriously.
These failings do not emerge from a lack of technology and neither should the presence of technology be ignored. Up until the 80s, lip-syncing did not pose any major issues. Audiences' need for authenticity began to erode with the emergence of MTV in that decade. Complex choreography routines and larger-scale performances that often left artists out of breath while running across a hundred yards of stage every night forced alternatives. Live teleplays also played a role in the emergence of error masking technology – no one wanted to gaffe in front of a camera beaming signals out to half the world. Milli Vanilli’s revelation in 1990 perhaps did the most damage to an artist’s reputation stemming from what audiences considered fraud. The band had not only lip-synced through all their performances but had sung none of the vocals on their Grammy award-winning album.
Fast forward to the 2000s and everyone from Beyonce to Lady Gaga either engaged in active autotune usage or lip-syncing on tour. The former’s famous Presidential inauguration debacle from 2013 sparked debates as to whether it had become essential to sometimes enlist these tools. There are many challenges associated with delivering live vocals and a lot of the time, the decision is taken out of the artist’s hands depending on the scale and expectations of/for the performance in question. However, this does not absolve simply lazy stage culture. It boils down to what audiences will accept and the nature of each situation. We would just prefer our talent to make the effort some of the time.