By Peter Akinlabi—

Most Nigerians of my generation have often found one reason or the other to define or defend themselves in the context of assigned social perceptions. From music to Literature, to educational achievement, we have had to be measured up against standards of the past, quite unfairly, I dare say, given the facts of times. Naturally we rebel, sometimes to emphasise difference and, sometimes, for the fun of it. Of course, every generation views the one after it with a kind of critical suspicion bothering on nostalgia for a time gone by; and the one before with an impulsive desire for departure. It is the impatient nature of this desire to depart from the “old,” this will to clear a definitive space of identity and representation that incidentally ruptures what should have been a fluid passage of time. Dr. Abati’s piece in his column “Crossroads,” in The Guardian on Sunday of June 21, on the crisis of identity and contemporary Nigerian music, kick-started a debate coloured with a lot of generational tensions. But it is good that Dr. Abati has inaugurated this debate. After all, hip hop in the USA, where it originated from, has created its own distinctive critics, criticism and journalism. Naija hip hop needs this kind of critical engagement for its own health and sanity.

But every generation defines its identity and cultural orientations, and mine- this Yahoozee generation – is defined, largely, through the cultural cognition of the hip hop practices. Well, that is a break in tradition, as Dr. Abati rightly pointed out in his critique of Nigeria hip hop scene, since the generation before mine did not produce hip hop music.

These musicians ‘of soulful, meaningful tunes’ of the 70’s and 80’s, who Abati so romanticized, however, did not inscribe any coherent musical tradition as it were: They practiced within different and diverse genres; there is hardly any homogeneity of aesthetics, a structure of rhythm or political ideology – indeed, no identity of passion to define their works as a tradition aside the fact that they inhabited same space of time. So there seems to be no tradition to be broken as such. Unless we can honestly bind artistes as different as Tunji Oyelana and Haruna Ishola, Salawa Abeni and Rex Lawson, with a recognizable artistic or aesthetic umbilical cords! On the other hand this generation of hip hoppers operate within a rich and vibrant tradition that boasts of impressive ancestors as Work songs, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Black Arts and other African-American cultural practices.This tradition is best not alienated from its African roots!

Hip hop movement began under the conditions of deprivation and poverty. And maybe if men and women of my generation had had a tiny bit of opportunities and resources (relatively stable economy, stronger educational sector etc.) that the generation before it grew up with, maybe we would be more mainstream in our cultural practices, maybe we would pay more attention to orchestra and musical notes and boardroom dances, maybe we would be less conscious of poverty mentality in our creative productions and sing of beauty of Tafawa Balewa Square and glittering lights of Abuja nights, instead of Kokolettes and Barcadi. But this is a generation twice dispossessed, hopeless except for the succour of creative vistas opened up by hip hop, stand up comedy and hip hop-influenced fashion industry.

Let us also remember that hip hop is very much aware of its nature as a youth culture, as ‘street’; it is aware of its own outside-ness and rebellion which have always marked it down for the margins in terms of power and tolerance. If the earlier practitioners had not embraced their cultural disenfranchisement from the main stream (much the way the earliest practitioners of Jazz did) with aesthetic sense of its internal identity, the industry would not have had a culture of entrepreneurship so successful that hip hoppers now occupy places in world millionaire list.

I think it amounts to self contradiction to admit these young people are practicing hip hop in one breath and accuse them of ‘irreverent and creative’ language use and imitation of western clothing style and attitude, in another. Hip hop as a part of urban culture operates as a mesh of styles, attitudes and variegated representations. Designer labels are as integral a part of hip hop register as is expensive liquor; so is the attitude of clothing. Olu Maintain or 9ice does not have to be an alcoholic to praise the status drinking Moet confers on the drinker: it is a prop for “bragging rights,” merely, a verbal swagger. It borders on what Rha Goddess called the “idea of struggle, of being able to tell…and live a rags-to-riches story.” You would hear it in Olu Maintain’s “Story of My Life,” in Ajasa/9ice’s “Fe nu won so,” in D’banj’s “Mo bo lowo Won.”

Irreverent creativity of language use by Nigerian hip hoppers is better contextualized in the idea of the ‘community of meaning’ in popular culture. Meaning in hip hop, as in Afro Beat, is generated through a process of signification that reflects complex systems of codes, tropes and ‘lexical approximation, easily recognizable to those who belong in the community.’ Hip hop language is as irreverent as Ginsberg’s was when he wrote Howl, a book that inspired the upsurge of Beat tradition of poetry in America, and influences the incantatory output of poets of Black Power Movement like Amiri Baraka.

It does not really matter whether Nigeria is reduced to naija, what is important is how “naija” is projected to the world. Naija is a term of endearment; a term we variously used when the “elderly” law makers throw chairs in the hallowed chambers or when the “young” Chimamanda wins a literary prize.

Naming, especially, is aesthetics. Public Enemy, D’banj, Africa Bambata, Lord of Ajasa: do we not sense a kind of desire to transgress identity here? What would it profit his music if King Sunny Ade was known as Isola Adeniyi Adegeye? How much aesthetic identity does “Barry” enjoy when his music is being praised among his fans that are too impatient to mouth his longer real name? Orlando Owoh does sound better to me than Owomoyela on the album jacket!

And contrary to the opinion that Nigerian hip hoppers merely ape western artistes, it is important we “notice” that there is a way that Nigerian hip hoppers can lay claims to a nationalist aesthetics in that process. The texture and meaning of Lord of Ajasa‘s or 9ice’s music, for instance, will make it difficult to conclude they ape any foreign influences in their compositions. 9ice’s linguistic innovations, for instance, is almost unprecedented: to some of us who are witnessing the regression of artistic purity of language use in contemporary Fuji and Juju, 9ice’s songs surely appeal to some tribal memory lost with “Alawiye” texts. Hip hop is supremely aware of its space, its place in wresting meaning out of the street of its experience. That is why Kwaito in South Africa and Genge of Kenya speak the world wide vernacular of hip-hop, though their significations and references reside in these countries.

Despite the lamentable incursion of international capitalist agenda into hip hop industry which “globalises” hip hop music more as commerce than art , some hip hop artistes all over the world can still lay a claim to the pristine tradition.

How unfair it would seem if 50 Cent and Talib Kweli, Lil Wayne and Lupee Fiasco, Durella and Djinee, Bigianno and Etcetera are tied together in a critical blame. I believe, like a lot of other right-thinking young men and women of my generation who listen to hip hop that the industry has a lot of “unreflective” artistes, but to associate names like 9ice, Banky W, Sound Sultan or Tuface (yes Tuface) to “meaninglessness” is failing to grasp the psychology of a generation.

Hip-hoppers are moieties of diverse creative tempers or orientations and it will be critically unjustified to reduce them to curious pieces outside the normative board.


First published in Saraba magazine’s Music Issue. Photo courtesy the author. Photo: Courtesy

Peter Akinlabi lives and works in Ilorin, North Central Nigeria. He holds a B.A. in English from University of Ibadan and a Masters in English and Literary studies from University of Ilorin. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sentinel Quarterly, NT Lit.Mag, Saraba, Savannah Review and Sentinel Nigeria. He was shortlisted for first African Poetry Prize of University of Brunel, UK. He is the winner of Sentinel Quarterly Poetry Competition in 2009.