Cultural moments represent both subconscious and conscious shifts in what is considered pop, fringe and old. Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu takes a trip down memory lane, highlighting the most impactful cultural resets we've had in the last decade.
Ten years is a long time by many standards. But by cultural standards, a decade can often feel like it hasn’t been more than a week. Technology has a condensing effect; we are constantly badgered by one notification or the other, each one with seemingly more important information than the last. This has in turn created a situation where attention is the most important currency, leading many to believe this is the reason behind the astounding amounts of content being created in recent times. The consistency of this can make it feel like certain events have happened more than once. While this deja vu can feel all too real, it is worth noting that every cultural shift feels similar to the last.
Take Nigerian dance trends for instance; from 2011 till date, there has been an average of one dance created or repurposed year on year. To put it in perspective, we went from the Azonto to the Legwork in nine years. It took eight years for us to come up with roughly ten new dances, while between 2000 and 2009, we only went from Makossa to Yahooze with less than three others in between.
Cultural moments represent both subconscious and conscious shifts in what is considered pop, fringe and old. Pop is a contraction for pop culture, while fringe represents either a subculture or counterculture within the larger scene. Subcultures can be defined as movements that are an offshoot of a more prevalent movement while countercultures are movements within a larger one that seek to do things differently by rejecting the values of the larger community.
The disparity between what is considered pop culture and what isn’t comes down to the acceptance from society, and while this may seem a daunting task, it is one mired in inevitability as the permanence of change demands it. Some of the most significant moments responsible for moulding the current landscape of Nigerian pop culture happened in the last decade and we will be considering two of these moments for their impact on the current state of entertainment, locally and globally. The birth of the alté scene and the rise of the Marlian movement are two key cultural events that have set the pace for many reasons. From the presentation of variety in production techniques to the influx of a new breed of artists and professionals, one of the most important parts of this conversation is the fact that the last decade has been culturally curated by millennials.
The Birth of the Alté Scene
The origin of the word alté can be traced back to a DRB lyric from a 2014 song titled “Paper”. TeeZee and Boj coined the term, but a range of artists who embodied the sound and lifestyle helped to solidify its status. In its early days, alté music was heavily associated with artists who many considered to be upper class and thus were pursuing music more recreationally than commercially. This was a false positive prognosis for the simple reason that beyond these artists, very few Nigerian artists attempted making music without the pressure of blowing up and instead just recording for the catharsis it could provide.
Infusing Nigerian lingo over Western-influenced rap beats, artists like Bridge (of L.O.S) and TeeZee (of DRB) embodied an era of blog culture and cloud rap that would go on to spawn more artists like PsychoYP. An intrinsic value of the movement was the lack of boundaries, out-of-the-box thinking was the new norm and counterintuitive approaches were encouraged. Afrofusion started to take on a new face as a result of the changes that were happening on a molecular level. The new generation of production was influenced in real-time by the impact larger artists like Wizkid were having overseas with one sound and the pursuit of its expansion.
More diverse sounds began to pop up all over the map with even Africans in the diaspora desperate to connect to a new market that had begun seeking a new appeal. This is not to say that Afrobashment and Afrofusion were not in existence before the term was coined, only that their identities received far more definition and development since then. Nigerian Alternative music (and its several offshoots) also took on a new face with a crop of artists who had taken globalization by the scruff of its neck. Odunsi, Tay Iwar and Cruel Santino were the experimentalists at the forefront of that sub-sound. The scene began with a distinctive DIY look and feel to the art being produced by the community with stalwarts like Cruel Santino focusing on not just the sonic angle, but also the visual. The alté scene underwent multiple transformations to get to where it is today: starting out as a subculture that mirrored a more global sound, the movement shifted into a counterculture for many within it, before becoming more widely accepted as more than just a genre. It had become a lifestyle.
The Rise of the Marlian Movement
The growth of other soundscapes in Nigeria was aided by the increasing participation in the music industry. This was largely driven by a demographic of Nigerians: young people with a dwindling list of prospects and a muted disdain for the ineptitude and chaos of the country. Increased participation was only bound to create more variety and in a country with a population exploding. Younger people were less prone to sticking to existing styles or existing methods of executing musical work-streams – whether it be vocals, sound design or production, the variety served the purpose of shaking things up and with the average age of industry participants falling, positions and plaudits began to shift towards the new generation. These factors in combination with increased exposure to other sounds have inadvertently birthed other movements.
In a society tied together by social media growth, the ability to connect with audiences, scale your craft according to your engagements and receive real-time feedback has proven invaluable in our pursuit of growth – to the point where many cannot imagine life before social media. But, for an audience constrained to the technology of the early noughts, smartphones and internet access did not tip the scale of preference towards the alté scene.
Like many issues in Nigeria, poverty and illiteracy have been left to fester by the ruling class. As aforementioned, during the induction period for the alté crowd, the presence of means among a large number of its practitioners seemed to devalue their work in a skewed sense versus that of pre-existing artists. There was a perceived barrier perpetuated by the marked difference in the caste of a new and rising group of artists. The mass appeal attainable by pre-existing artists also seemed elusive to the growing subculture. This is because poverty and strife were huge ingredients for many of these artists. The lack they had experienced helped them make these extremely relatable records that connected with the masses and while we might be the poverty capital of the world, this was still a commendable effort.
To touch base with millions of people as opposed to almost making music for the upper-middle class was a dilemma for the newcomers. Indigenous labels in Nigeria up until this point had focused on acts that could break the mainstream with a couple of well-timed singles (heavily reliant on the ‘vibes’ and less reliant on the lyrics); foreign labels were yet to tap into the market as much as they have in recent times. With the imminent deviation from what was considered the bread and butter of African music (Afrobeats), the 2010s saw a number of labels like Universal Music Group and Empire Music break ground here in a bid to capture the existing markets as well as emerging ones. The alté scene began with a distinctive DIY look and feel to the art being produced by the community with stalwarts like Santi focusing on not just the sonic angle, but also the visual.
The portion of the populace referred to in the paragraph above (the middle class) were however being set up for a renaissance of their own – one that would be of proportions capable of capturing the larger market by going against many of its values. In 2017, a bonafide countercultural movement was unleashed on the world in the form of a socialist democracy, complete with a president. The Marlian movement gained traction in Nigeria with the release of the single “Japa”, but the groundwork that set this monster hit (and a slew of hits that followed) in motion was laid in the UK as far back as 2014. Naira Marley details the humble beginnings of the movement in his Vice documentary. After the release of his hit sleeper, “Marry Juana”, he had begun to appear on multiple radars but it was not until his 2018 World Cup-themed single “Issa Goal” hit the airwaves around Nigeria that his legend began to take hold.
The controversial artist gained a lot of his notoriety by confronting the Nigerian Government and its authorities over the internet for a host of faults, including defending internet fraud. The rapper’s No Manners Gang from the streets of Peckham was one of the most notorious the city had ever seen and while Naira was in the UK, he was arrested over a hundred times for a variety of violations. This possibly prepared him for the heat unleashed upon him when he moved back to Nigeria in 2018 and was arrested in 2019 by the EFCC under fraud charges. Dragged through court proceedings for a number of months, as any true leader, he emerged mostly unscathed from the ordeal to a rabid fan base ready to consume every offering.
It is also worth noting that, unlike most movements, the origins of Marlian culture can be traced back to its single innovator – Naira Marley. This, however, does not remove from the legitimacy of his cohorts and collaborators who helped carry his torch while he was behind bars. Zlatan Ibile is one of the first names that comes to mind when you consider the aforementioned group. Also responsible for one of the dances that went global this decade, the rapper appeared on the local smash hit, “Am I a Yahoo Boy?”, a loaded record addressing the distressful issue of law enforcement officers (and prejudiced middle-aged Nigerians) profiling young Nigerian men as fraudsters. Not quite as suited for the NAACP Image awards Tiwa Savage, Wizkid and Davido were nominated for this year, Naira Marley has become synonymous with vice culture in modern-day Nigeria.
“Popular music challenges the accepted belief in the superiority of 'pure' and 'high' culture and spurns relevance in our face.” When Johannes Fabian said these words in the 70s, popular culture as a phrase had not been coined, but it captures a sentiment many share regarding the state of music today. Easily relegated to the genre ‘Street Music’, Naira Marley has made no attempts to walk back his bad-boy image so far. The sway he has over Nigeria’s youthful populace is at godly proportions. Many credit this to the fact that he is not overtly attempting to appeal to any demographic specifically. He does not make music for the aspirational class (young working-class Nigerians, possibly with a first degree), he does not make music that solely appeals to Nigerians in diaspora and he definitely does not make music to win over the seniors. Yet across all the groups mentioned, you would be hard-pressed to find people who are unaware of his existence. The unprecedented level of impact he’s had on the culture cannot be understated.