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The Illustrious Rise of Urban Highlife in Nigeria

Before Nigeria's independence, highlife was a mainstay; seeping into our country's roots from Ghana. Although the genre's popularity dwindled in the past – thanks to Afrobeats' meteoric rise – highlife is slowly but steadily making a comeback, with some contemporaneous updates. We chronicle the rise of urban highlife in Nigeria and spotlight some of the genre's biggest torchbearers.

Witnessing the reinvention or growth of a pre-existing sub-sound is a process not many are privy to, even if it happens right in front of us. Time creates avenues for a known quantity to be reupholstered to suit a different era. The term golden age is used to describe a period in which the art produced is so immense, it overshadows what used to be considered mainstream. While that may not yet be the case for the modern blend of highlife that is being created, the current crop of artists who either have always been users of the sound or have grown to incorporate many of its key elements into their already existing sub-sounds, all have a part to play in the advancement of the genre as a whole.

Historically, highlife music emanated from Ghana. African traditional music idioms often characterize the genre. The assortment of highlife in question here is Nigerian highlife, but more specifically, Eastern highlife with some of the genre’s musical pioneers, including Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, and Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson (arguably one of the greatest Nigerian highlife musicians).

South-Eastern Nigeria is the homestead of the country’s Igbo populace. At 12 million strong, the population is a clear cross-section of Nigeria’s, with the age groups of 18–40 being the most occupied. This Nigerian music market has a few genres that receive mainstream attention; Afrobeats and its offspring, Afropop and Afrofusion. Twenty years ago, Highlife and Gospel would have had a shot at the same top three, but as tastes and opinions shift, so does the market’s attention. Bastions of these genres never attempted capturing the entire market; their records would occasionally permeate different tribes and religions (Sir Victor Uwaifo’s “Joromi” and Osita Osadebe’s “Osondi Owendi”). This is a clear contrast to the efforts of modern-day Nigerian artists; Davido and Wizkid records play all over the country. Artists who speak Nigerian languages (Yoruba, to be precise) such as CDQ and Olamide have records that are played countrywide. The same can be said for artists from the East, but it is also worth noting that representation is somewhat skewed in proportion to the region’s population.

Certain regions have always been synonymous with certain sounds and genres but in no way have they ever been exclusive. Odumodu and Were were respectively South-Western and South-Eastern genres, formulated and practised within those ethnic groups. Just as Juju and Apala were traditionally South-Western genres, Highlife and Afrobeats were more national genres in the sense that there were practitioners across the country. Igbo highlife gained its voice in the 50s. By the 70s the sound had begun to shift down South where Fela’s spin on the sound was gaining more traction against the decreasing colonial backdrop.

Modern-day artists from the South-Eastern region such as KCee (formerly one-half of KC Presh) and Phyno have all, at a certain point, dabbled into multiple genres – highlife included. KCee helped create a distinctly Nigerian version of pop-R&B records alongside his long-time collaborator, Presh. However, since the duo split he has found a number of new homes, his most recent being his Cultural Praise compilations with the Okwesili Eze Group. Phyno’s rise was aided by his alignment with a flock of South-Western artists, but none bigger than Olamide with whom he made a slew of Yoruba and pidgin English tinged songs. The interchange of (native) tongues served an unexpected purpose of making the music more relatable to the general Nigerian public. No longer alienated by records they heard all the time, the presence of representation on non-exclusively Igbo records played a huge role in unifying the markets. More recently Phyno’s attempts at more than just rap records in Igbo have been refreshing to witness. He has attempted new things, from his take on amapiano, to more highlife-inspired records like the Umu Obiligbo single, “Culture”. A cornerstone of the Eastern market, his once-a-year stadium concerts have been a hallmark of his presence in the industry since he broke through.

Umu Obiligbo are of a slightly different ilk. The pair perform solely in Igbo but dabble in multi-cultural offerings as evidenced by some of the records they are featured on. Preferring the familiarity of their own language, they have not been held back by what many might perceive as a barrier to the mass market. High profile appearances alongside artists like Davido, Larry Gaaga and Flavour have helped cement their status as contenders for a new age of Highlife. Their unique blend of catchy hooks and exotic percussion have won over pre-existing listeners of the genre and helped to reel a host of new ones in.

Flavour is another Eastern artist who had to challenge many of the values his core audience might have associated him with in order to evolve. Originally a gospel-inspired artist, he has transitioned from hip-hop, Afrobeats, and full circle into an artist that makes a unique fusion of Highlife. Hailing from the predominantly Christian South-East, the expectations of the audience are often skewed towards two extremes for artists from the region; the ultra-religious gospel records made with distinctly Eastern percussion and the super-secular Afropop records that could be made anywhere else. He found this balance on his Uplifted album, marked by a conscious shift towards him creating what I refer to as “Urban Highlife”. He married multiple genres with his earliest influences. Them project over-performed commercially and critically, helping cement Flavour as one of the modern carriers of the Highlife torch.

The brand assumed by Highlife artists in the 80s and 90s was one deeply reflective of their heritage. Nigerian Highlife singers and their bands would perform in traditional garb. Steeped in Catholic indoctrination, the bands and choir groups employed in the genre are a direct result of the religious connotations in the culture. The subject matter they crooned about mirrored the listeners’ realities to a tee. Songs about life, love, and death were sung within the context of the social and economic landscape of Nigeria at the time. The relatability of these records played a huge part in their acceptance. Highlife helped represent a creative West African response to the modern world.

While the genre might have become relegated to the sidelines of popular culture within the new generation, it is no less as poignant as it was forty years ago. Through the efforts of artists attempting to utilize the key elements of the sound to keep it alive. While the subject matter might not be the same for all of these artists, the intricate drum patterns and exotic instrumentation give it the familiar feeling of the genre they are drawing from. KCee (who made “Limpopo” in 2012) has more recently made a more niche version of the sound – Gospel Highlife.

Globalization changes the way we experience familiar forms of art. From the use of live instruments in music to its substitution with computer-generated synths, down to the kind of enunciation that is acceptable on certain records or in certain films, it is clear that concerted efforts have been made to appeal to a global market.

While this is generally a positive occurrence, the core values of every genre need to remain intact to provide a tether. Whether it is to a reinvention of the sound or the creation of a sub-sound from the original. The Cavemen are a great example of how this can be achieved. On their debut album, ROOTS, the duo strikes an interesting balance between their use of English, Western instruments, and contemporary Igbo Highlife. Released to rave reviews and spawning a number of COVID-compliant shows, the album’s reception has catapulted the band to the ears of a much larger audience. Featured on the compilation album by legendary Nigerian comic, Basketmouth, their understanding of the sound and their implementation of it shone through on the posse cut, “Hustle”.

With the efforts of some of the artists named above and some others, there are glimmers of hope surrounding the state of Igbo Highlife in a new era. The ability of these artists to continue to reinvent and infuse the key elements of the genre into the music they make today will be more important in keeping the genre alive than the market’s current tastes.



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