Artists need to reevaluate their execution of live performances and deliberately commit to providing experiential ways of connecting with their audience.
On an etymological level, the word “performance” derives its existence from the old Anglo-French word “performen”, used around 1300, which means to "carry into effect, fulfill, discharge, carry out what is demanded or required." Its usage expanded to include interpreting or rendering art on stage from the year 1600. By definition, the word performance is an act of entertainment specially prepared for an audience. The earliest known depictions of musical performance are from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, made around 2400 B.C.E. However, musical instruments made out of the bones of primordial creatures, such as mammoths, have been discovered by archaeologists, dating back to 3000 B.C.E.
Different cultures use musical performances for spiritual and religious purposes, aiming to elevate their relationship with God through music. Among the Fuke, a Japanese Buddhist sect, beggar priests (known as “Komuso”) play the “shakuhachi“, a flute-like instrument which is considered a spiritual instrument that assists whoever is playing to reach divine enlightenment. In West African cultures, drums and chants are a standard part of various ceremonies and rituals such as burials, naming ceremonies, religious sacrifices, etc. These early customs and traditions placed the musician in a special role in society as one who could communicate with God and assist the community in reaching a specific spiritual goal. Later on, the concept of music as pure entertainment evolved, leading to music performance as we know it today.
As opposed to its spiritual predecessors with their strict rules and guidelines on how music was to be performed to reach God, music performances for entertainment depend purely on the imagination and innovativeness of the musician and the level of technology available to them at the time. As a result, concerts have become ways for musicians to make statements, interpret concepts expressed in their music, and create experiences to last a lifetime. In addition to providing memories for fans with such spectacles, these artistes build on their reputations as masters of their craft. In modern-day music critique, this has led to a distinction between good musicians and good performers, with the latter known for their ability to command a stage.
One of the greatest musicians of her time, Beyonce, is also widely regarded as a great performer, and with good reason. Her Coachella performance in 2018 – nicknamed “Beychella” – set the bar for live performances and exposed their potential to be inclusive and defining. With a hundred dancers, guest stars like Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child and Solange Knowles, the two-day set was impactful for its various themes, including a tribute to historically black colleges and black feminism. Recognising the essence of the performance as intensely pro-black, Tina Knowles-Lawson, Beyonce’s mother, admitted she had concerns about how it would be received by an audience that was not in touch with black culture. Allaying her fears, Beyonce responded, explaining that given the platform she had achieved in her career, she felt "a responsibility to do what's best for the world and not what is most popular."
Houston rapper Travis Scott is another artiste whose performances are larger than life. From bringing Lebron James on stage, to the use of props like fire hydrants, screens, pyrotechnics and even a large metal bird, he constantly reinvents ways to make his performances more iconic than before. His “ASTROWORLD: Wish You Were Here” tour included novel theatrics throughout the entire trip, even redesigning the United Center into an amusement park, with the rapper riding a copy of a Ferris wheel and a rollercoaster. In typical fashion, he took advantage of the Covid-19 lockdowns to organise a virtual concert. Partnering with Epic Games, the company behind popular game Fortnite, he held a virtual video game concert to promote and release his new track, “THE SCOTTS”. Complete with his own playable character and five different performance sets, the event had a whopping 12.3 million viewers, a figure that could not have been possible at a physical venue.
Live performances in Nigeria pale in comparison to their counterparts abroad. These mostly consist of the songs blaring from speakers around the venue and the artiste pointing his mic at the crowd to test if they remember the lyrics. This caricature is repeated endlessly across various shows and events, leaving the fans with sore throats and memories of their favourite artistes jumping around a stage holding a white towel. Real fun. Although this tried and tested method works superbly due to our preference for party-style celebration, a variety in live show content will be beneficial for the ways we connect with music.
The amount of thought and care put into a performance is a crucial aspect of any live show. The artiste’s methods of interpreting his music and creative nous heighten the listener’s reception as the songs previously heard as stand-alones transform into something else and take on a life of their own. Performances are for the fans and should be designed to satisfy them and to present the music to them in a way they have not connected with before, instead of the usual crowd work. Without a physical audience, performances are crafted to maximise the artiste’s talent without the pressure that comes from instant feedback. On stage, boos or cheers let you know how good or bad you are, but when the only people with you are cameramen and producers, the atmosphere is free of tension, and the musician can focus on delivering their message in the way they want it. Ironically, this is more intimate as the listener is also released from the accidental hivemind pressure that comes from being in a space with hundreds of other people trying to evaluate art in seconds. On your own in the living room or kitchen, phone in hand, it is easier to appreciate the direction the artiste is trying to take.
Shows such as NPR’s Tiny Desk and COLORS have proved to be game-changers in this regard, providing a new avenue for artistes to express themselves and for fans to enjoy. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have meant that the formula behind these shows has been replicated at other levels, most especially award shows, historically centrepieces for great live performances (see Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 MTV Video Music Awards performance). As audiences were relegated to viewing from their houses, musicians and video directors stepped up the ante to provide performances that could transfer the same energy through television screens. In particular, Lil Baby and Burna Boy had electric performances fans around the world enjoyed.
These virtual performances have been replicated here for our local audiences, albeit with not as much success. These struggles link to the glaring lack of a performance culture and difficulty adapting these platforms in a Nigerian context. But this is not a condemnation of the process; new things take time to perfect, and the road to delivering quality is gradual, not instantaneous. Also, we have had successful examples such as the Afrovibes Studio Show, Budweiser Smooth Kings Remix, and the Gbedu Awards, which point to the fact that we are on the right path regarding the evolution of live performances in Nigeria. Despite the niggling problems like lousy camera work, off-sync lip-syncing, and the tendency of musicians to ignore the microphone meant to amplify their voices, there is still some hope.
While we applaud the valiant efforts of few entertainers in furthering their art, the bottom line is we need to reevaluate our understanding and execution of live performances as well as deliberately commit to redefining the ways we connect with and experience music.