By Yinka Ibukun
ABOVE PHOTO: Nigerian singer D’ banj holds up his artist of the year award during the MTV Africa Music Awards in Abuja Nigeria Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008.
LAGOS, Nigeria – Nigeria’s most talked-about hip-hop video exhibits all the excesses of its American counterparts — beautiful, scantily clad models, a mansion and a bathtub full of hundred-dollar bills.
But the biggest surprise? America’s own Snoop Dogg playing back up to Nigerian star D’banj, embracing him as his nephew and taking a Nigerian passport before leaving the rest of the remixed “Mr. Endowed” to the Yoruba-singing heartthrob.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 150 million people, long has been a leading cultural influence across the continent. Its low-budget “Nollywood” films can be found everywhere, while its music plays in taxicabs and minibuses far beyond its borders.
Now, however, Nigerian artists who once mainly imitated U.S. hip-hop proudly include African beats and their local languages on their own energetic songs. That combination appeals to both Nigerians, who are now proud of so-called “Naija” music, and to a growing foreign following as well.
“The beauty of music is that you don’t need to understand it,” female rapper Mo’Cheddah recently told The Associated Press. “Our music is traveling.”
Like American hip-hop and pop music, Nigerian hip-hop uses samples, and also borrows from dancehall, house, and even zouk beats. The languages used are mainly Nigerian, with a predominance of Nigerian Pidgin English, as vocalists either sing, rap, or blend a combination of the two. It’s is mostly upbeat, feel-good music, and the message usually optimistic. It’s hugely popular, represents the youth culture and has become part of the mainstream Nigerian sound.
Satellite television networks like MTV Base, Channel O and Trace that transverse the continent cemented the reputation of Nigerian urban music in Africa. Songs by Nigerian artists like 2Face, P-Square and MI feature prominently at nightclubs in neighboring Ghana and as far away as Uganda and South Africa.
With a growing Nigerian population in the United States, Europe and Asia, the appetite for the tunes has only been growing.
“When I started out in the ’90s, I struggled to play Nigerian music, but now I find it difficult to play anything else,” Nigerian DJ Jimmy Jatt told the AP after recently returning from a trip to Malaysia.
“People are feeling our sound everywhere,” he said. “I try not to be selfish but the moment I move away from our stuff, the party slows down. Music from other countries is also good, but it’s just that ours is high energy.”
While irresistibly danceable beats and the use of local languages and slang have become defining traits of Nigeria’s urban sound, it also carries with it a nationalistic pride sometimes missing in the diverse nation. Home to more than 150 ethnic groups and even more local languages, Nigerians of different origins are still learning to live together 50 years after the West African country gained independence from Britain and some 40 years after the end of a bloody civil war.
Nigeria’s best-known artists offer a united identity for a fractured nation. Rappers like Naeto C from the country’s Christian southeast borrow words from the Hausa language of the Muslim north and the Yoruba language in the southwest.
“We’re representing our country to the fullest,” said Mo’Cheddah, the recent winner of the MTV Africa Music Awards’ Best Brand New Act award. “We’re putting our country on the map on a positive note. It’s not just about the bad things, fraud.”
It’s also catching an international reputation as Nigerians put more of their music online. A French music executive late last year approached Audu Maikori, CEO of the Nigerian record label Chocolate City, to license a song.
“At first I thought, what would a French guy want this? But, that’s what social media does,” Maikori said. “People can now share. … The traditional revenue streams have died but there’s a whole new audience for your music.”
Those new ways to earn money remain incredibly important in Nigeria, a nation awash in pirated movies and music. Pirated CDs remain much easier to come by than original ones hawked in Lagos traffic or hanging in market stalls. Now, artists no longer expect to make profit from albums. At an average price of $1, the records are only meant to promote their act.
Nigeria has had a long musical tradition with artists such as IK Dairo honored by the Queen of England as early as 1963. Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti fought against the injustices of military rule in Nigeria and inspired a Tony Award-winning Broadway show long after his death.
But Nigerian hip-hop is more social than it is political, often addressing the challenges of everyday life while delivering a dose of optimism that Nigerians can overcome them. There’s also a strong element of nationalism, as videos make generous use of the Nigerian flag and its green-and-white color scheme.
Now, the new generation too is paving the way with its own musical traditions.
“When you see this, Africa, you know, believe in yourself,” D’banj said in a video clip showing him sitting next to Snoop Dogg. “Believe in the future.”