Hip hop arrived in Nigeria in the '80s and has since undergone an expansive rise from more commercial-friendly sounds to lyrical chops delivered predominantly in native languages. We chronicle the rise of hip-hop in Nigeria and examine the importance of indigenous rap as a means of expression in marginalised society.
In the 1980s, a rapper named Ibrahim Salim Omari, a member of Sugar Hill Gang, an American rap group came to Nigeria in exile. In a space that was dominated by other music forms and styles – think highlife, fuji, afrobeats – he released “I Am an African”, commonly known as the country’s first rap song. Although the genre did not take roots in the country, it laid seeds for a hip hop generation to take flight two decades later.
In the early 1990s, the American hip-hop wave hit the shores of Nigeria with intensity. With increased access to foreign media and entertainment, it was inevitable that the music genre would make the crossover. An added incentive was the accompanying fashion styles associated with hip hop and rap at the time. As Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G, Ice Cube, and later on, Jay Z and Nas ruled the airwaves, they inspired a generation of bar-spitting Nigerians in oversized T-shirts, Timberland boots, and fitted caps. Rappers like Rasqie, Black Reverendz, and Maintain became famous for their covers of some of the hottest hip hop songs at the time. However, rap was not considered commercially viable until the arrival of The Remedies in 1998. Backed by record label Kennis Music, Remedies, consisting of three members – Eedris Abdulkareem, Eddie Remedy, and Tony Tetuila – released the single ‘Sakomo’ to instant acclaim. Subsequent singles and an eventual album to relative commercial success made them household names and marked a significant point in Nigerian hip hop.
As the 2000s came into view, America and Nigeria’s cultural exchange boomed even further after the switch from military rule to democracy. The music styles simultaneously grew, with Nigerian rappers mirroring their counterparts abroad. Rappers like Mode 9 and Ruggedman garnered massive airplay with songs like “Elbow Room” and “Baraje.” At this point, it was evident that hip hop had come to stay in the Nigerian music scene; the audience was there, and the record labels offered some support. However, while there was significant growth, rappers in the country were more or less cult figures compared to their pop and afrobeats counterparts. All of this changed when M.I Abaga came on to the scene with his album Talk About It in 2008. For the first time, a rapper had found the perfect balance between first-class lyricism and commercial appeal. Incorporating pop into his songs through his hooks and flows while remaining true to the hip hop tenets like rhymes and punchlines, he pushed rap consumption past the usual market into new demographics. In one sweep, he was loved by hip-hop heads and pop-loving fans at the same time.
Usher in the 2010s. Rap had entered a slow decline, the past decade’s success was tapering out, and the country’s ears were tuned towards a new generation of afrobeats superstars (read: Wizkid and Davido). The only saving grace for hip hop was Oladapo Olaitan Olaonipekun, popularly known as Da Grin, a young rapper from Ogun State. At this point, the country was in the midst of political turmoil while battling the Boko Haram terrorist sect’s emergence, unemployment, and a steadily dwindling standard of living. Among the youth from the lower levels of society, there was growing unrest at the poverty and rawness of life at the grassroots. Channeling this anger, Da Grin became the voice of the streets, speaking up about life in the ghettos and the hardship faced there. The selling point for this brand of hip-hop was his insistence on rapping in his native language.
Rap, already a tool for speaking out against injustice in society, was moulded into the ultimate relatable content with Da Grin’s indigenous flow. He was a beacon of light, telling their stories in their language. In 2010 he released his album CEO (Chief Executive Omota) featuring the hit single “Pon Pon Pon'' to critical acclaim; winning multiple awards and getting massive airplay on radio stations around the country. Although he passed away from a car accident later that year, his legacy was set in stone for all of history as his career gave rise to a generation of rappers not afraid to discard the pressure to spit bars in English; instead, they embraced their vernacular and made great songs with it. Chief of these was Olamide, the heir to Da Grin’s throne. A young rapper from Bariga, a suburb in Lagos State, Olamide was hunger and skill personified; his lyricism and punchlines combined with hard beats set him apart from the rest and quickly elevated him to the national consciousness. His debut album Rapsodi was released in 2011, one year after Da Grin’s, further proof that indigenous rap was not a fad but a genre ready to stay.
While all of this was happening in Lagos, the epicenter of the Nigerian music industry, the Eastern part of the country’s rappers were coming into their own. Actual pioneers of the indigenous rap brand, but without the fortune to properly cross over into the mainstream, Igbo rappers were finding their feet. Building on the foundations laid by Nigga Raw, MC Loph, Ruggedman, and leveraging on the mainstream success of Igbo acts like Flavour, Igbo rappers slowly but surely infiltrated the industry. In 2012, Chibuzor Nelson Azubuike, known by the moniker Phyno, completed this takeover with the release of his single “Ghost Mode” featuring Olamide. A triumph for Nigerian hip hop, the track showcased two of the country’s finest MCs going back and forth in Igbo and Yoruba for four straight minutes. An instant hit and modern classic, the song, and its surrounding buzz propelled Phyno straight to the upper echelons of Nigerian music. The rest, as they say, is history. Now we can barely remember a time when all our rappers did was rhyme English words.
The primary reason for the existence of language is communication. The importance of conveying information, ideas, feelings, and emotions supersedes all other considerations when speaking a language. Music is an extension of language and, as such, a means of communication. Hence, rap in an indigenous language is essential; for easier communication and understanding, for the representation of different cultures in the national space, and as a tool for preserving languages while sharing them with non-speakers. The seeds laid by Da Grin, MC Loph, and their peers have grown into beautiful flowers. Long may they bloom.