February 04, (THEWILL) – Everything happening to Nigerian music today has happened before. This aspirational flight of our music from local studios to international audiences, via global music corporations and their local operators, is in its second coming. ‘Afrobeats to the world ‘, as I love to call it, isn’t new. It’s history repeating itself — a collective deja vu for our creative class and the ecosystem that supports it.
We have seen this before. Our ancestors — your parents and their parents — have been here before. The influx of new cash from global music corporations. The growth of the industry is stimulated by value generated from overseas capital. The boots on the ground, emerging from connecting flights with big dreams about cornering market shares in Lagos. The cross-cultural mixers overflow with the elite of the music industry. Fluid cultural exchange crystallised as cross-market artistic and brand collaborations. The tours, concerts and performance circuits that graciously open their arms to our ‘new’ sounds. Today is yesterday, only garnished by Tiktok and our global pop acceptance.
Nigerian sounds have always pushed beyond Lagos. The history books, where we can find them, reveal this. But to this new generation of creatives, industry operators and consumers who lack an awareness of the past, we are in unfamiliar territory. One that has promised and delivered giddy highs, imbued a global sense of pride in our diaspora communities, sprayed cash advances and their attendant contracts around the city and altered the landscape of the music business in Nigeria. We currently have a creative class, deeply ensconced in foreign markets via a plethora of deals that formalise these partnerships.
And while the mood in Lagos is a cross between novel wonder and hyperactivity, it reminds me of our past when we experienced something similar from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
From the late 1970s, through the1980s, Nigerian music experienced a cultural explosion. Same as we’ve had from the late 2000s to this point, using the same formula of creativity. Music hopefuls and would-be stars embraced and redefined foreign pop and traditional sounds from the US, UK and our neighbouring countries, creating a fine blend with our local sounds and peculiar interpretation of music. The end of the civil war firmly in our past, the creative scene from Lagos to Enugu and Port Harcourt flooded with legendary musicians who mined their reality across the nation to create hits. From the mid-70s, music movements sprouted all around the country, with Highlife (drawn from Ghana), Funk, Rock, Psychedelia, Disco, and many others played in live venues by locals who had found a local spin to accommodate global trends.
With Nigeria being the most populous country in Africa and Lagos being a truly international city, many dance floor-orientated genres – Afrobeat, Afro funk and Afro disco—flourished there in the 1970s and ‘80s. Despite its bloody colonial history and terrible dictatorships after 1970, there was still rich cultural exchange between Nigeria, the UK and US. A huge live-first market, bands made a killing by playing across clubs, venues and concerts all around the country. These were the glory days of Nigerian classical music giving us a retinue of stars including Orlando Julius (Afro-disco), Fela Kuti (Jazz and Highlife, later Afrobeats), Segun Bucknor (soul, pop, funk), Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe (Highlife), Oliver De Coque (Highlife) and more.
The 1980s also brought us an explosion of Reggae, a genre from Jamaica, minting local stars such as Ras Kimono, Evi Edna-Ogholi, Majek Fashek, and many others. Check the books, Nigeria has a long history of producing stars with a focus on reimagining foreign music concepts to create local hits.
And the foreign companies came in to do business. Yes, they all did.
Look through the discography of all our music heroes past, and one common denominator in how many conducted their music business was their dealings with global music companies and their subsidiaries.
Take King Sunny Ade, for example. The ‘Wizkid’ of his time attained pop success at levels that draw parallels to today. Sunny Adé introduced the pedal steel guitar to Nigerian pop music. He also introduced the use of synthesizers, clarinet, vibraphone and tenor guitar into the jùjú music repertoire, such as dub and wah-wah guitar licks. After Bob Marley died in 1981, Island Records (Universal) signed KSA to their books to fill those shoes.
Famed French producer and journalist, Martin Meissonier, introduced King Sunny Adé to Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder), leading to the release of his major label debut album, Juju Music in 1982. Billed as “the African Bob Marley,” he gained a wide following with this album. Two Grammy nominations in, he left the label because he refused to allow Island to meddle with his compositions and over-Europeanise and Americanise his music. He didn’t want artistic tinkering for a larger audience, and Island looked elsewhere.
Fela Kuti signed to Arista (Sony), Polygram (Universal), EMI (Universal), MCA/Universal and more during his storied creative run that moved from Jazz and Highlife to Afrobeats. Prince Nico Mbarga was born in Abeokuta and is famed for his ‘Sweet Mother’ classic. His first record deal came via EMI, but he was dropped because of his band’s inability to crossover. ‘Sweet Mother’ would later invalidate that analysis, after it sold 13 million copies worldwide.
Segun Bucknor, made soul, pop, funk and a version of Afrobeat. During his brief career he released records under Afrodisia, the local label launched in 1976 by Decca West Africa in Nigeria. The label released several albums by Fela Kuti, as well as several other artists and bands, e.g. the Oriental Brothers International Band. How about Majek Fashek and his Interscope Deal?