By Ahumuza Muhumuza
While the rest of the world is just discovering Nigeria now, the West African country has had Africa’s music industry in a chokehold for almost a decade now, from the days P Square and 2Face hogged radio and TV play, to the days when Mr Eazi, Runtown and Maleek Berry ruled nightclubs from Kampala to Conotou, from Dakar to Dar es Salaam. Nigerian musicians are now flying Africa’s flag higher than it has ever been on the global stage. Wizkid recently sold out his O2 Arena concert in London in a record-breaking two minutes after tickets were released. Fellow Grammy Award winner Burna Boy also recently performed in front of a sold-out crowd at the O2 Arena. Tiwa Savage was the first female African artiste to sell out the massive arena, a feat for any international entertainer. Along with New York’s Madison Square Garden, filling up the 02 Arena is a measure by which any global superstar worth their salt is measured.
Although the success of Nigerian musicians has been a long time coming, Ugandan singers, producers, managers and other key members of the entertainment industry are scrambling to look for reasons to explain this unprecedented success. It is like we cannot help, but – in the pan African spirit – feel happy for them, cheer them on. Yet at the same time one can feel a creeping sense of jealousy/envy from some of our musicians. For them, it is like watching a sibling’s meteoric rise to success – you genuinely celebrate their success, yet at the same time there is a grudging sense of resentment. The feeling of “I am just as good, why isn’t it me that made it?”
Maybe that is the reason for the vast disparity in response from our musicians. Some of our artistes have embraced Nigerians, imitating their sound, integrating their pidgins in their lyrics and seeking collaborations with them. On the other hand, others such as Bebe Cool have taken the low road – controversially calling for a ban of their music from the airwaves in favour of Ugandan music (as if that is practical in this internet age of YouTube, Spotify et cetera).
Last year, Bebe Cool even went as far as vowing to fight tooth and nail to sabotage the concert of young Nigerian sensations Omah Lay and Tems, eventually getting them arrested, a move which unfortunately backfired for him. Omah Lay and Tems are young artistes, age mates to Bebe Cool’s son, you would expect him to nurture them, not fight them.
Others resign to assign it to fate – Ugandan rap veteran Navio subtly diminished Nigerians’ accomplishments by putting it down to numbers, saying Nigerians are able to fill stadiums in New York and London because they are the most populous African country with, consequently, the largest diaspora.
Myth one – Nigerians fill stadiums in New York and London because they are the most populous African country with, consequently, the largest diaspora
Following Navio’s logic, Indian musicians, who have a larger diaspora, should have the most appeal worldwide. (China should be a close second as they also have astronomical numbers ?). But musicians from these two Asian countries do not fill arenas in many places, because when they perform abroad, it is mostly members of the Indian (or Chinese) diaspora who attend their concerts.
Jamaica, on the other hand, has a population smaller than greater Kampala’s. Yet their artistes fill up arenas in places thousands of kilometres away where they have no diaspora such as Kampala, Nairobi, Harare, as well as in Europe and North America. Even Nigerian musicians fill up arenas in other African capitals where there are few or no Nigerians.
My point is that it is not just Nigerians who swell the numbers in these overseas concerts – there is a large number of diaspora Africans, Caribbean and African Americans who are ardent followers of Nigerian music; that is an important demographic which should not be downplayed.
Navio ignores the versatility of Nigerian artistes and the years of hard work they spend building their appeal. You look at a global star like Wizkid who is collaborating with the likes of Beyoncé and forget that years ago he was grinding hard, collaborating with so many artistes in obscure countries (including Uganda ?). For each hit they produce, there are hundreds of thousands of Nigerian songs, even from Nigeria’s superstars, that are doomed to oblivion. Nigerian artistes are not afraid to venture out of their comfort zone and that is one of the biggest ingredients to their success.
In contrast, South Africa, for example, on the other hand, has the numbers, the economy and the good quality music. Their artistes may be big, but they would be bigger on the continent if they did not only look at conquering the South African market and that of their few neighbouring countries.
South African stars do not seem to have the hunger, the fire in the belly, that Nigerian artistes do. Many Nigerian stars will not think twice about jumping on the next flight to perform in an African city they have never heard of. Many South African stars, on the other hand, would be more eager to go perform in the US than in some obscure country they know little about. They do not jump at the opportunity to collaborate with singers from other African countries the same way Nigerians do. If Nigerian artistes only concentrated on the Nigerian market and performed for their diaspora, they would not fill up arenas with the remarkable speed at which they do.
Myth two – Nigerian artistes are big because they sing in English and can, therefore, reach a wider audience
Ugandan singer Zulitums attributes Nigerian musical success to using language in a way that makes it more universally palatable. I have always been reluctant to buy that argument because I feel music transcends language. For decades until the 1990s (and early 2000s perhaps), the most popular music in East and Central Africa was a form of Congolese rhumba we colloquially call Lingala. The majority of the audience, I daresay, did not understand a word of this music they so dearly loved. Nigerians, if we are to return to them, are as huge in countries where English is not widely spoken, such as in Francophone and Lusophone Africa – their music also dominates in those nightclubs where revellers do not have a clue what they are singing.
Remember when Oliver N’Goma dominated the airwaves of African capitals? How many could understand a word of what he was singing? Yet his music would strike a cord in people’s heartstrings, bringing tears to people’s eyes. Oliver N’Goma’s iconic albums are the soundtracks of many African childhoods, both continental and diaspora. When I was about 12, coming of age in the early 2000s, the most popular contemporary urban music in East Africa was Bongo Flava – we played that music all day and sang along to lyrics that meant so much to us and yet meant so little.
To drive the language point home, Ugandan artistes with the biggest international appeal, those who rack up mind-boggling numbers across Africa and in places as far off as South America and Australia, are not singing in English, but in Luganda. In a bar in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was shocked to see a sea of revellers dance to Ugandan hits, in Luganda of course, some of which I had never heard.
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You look at a global star like Wizkid who is collaborating with the likes of Beyoncé and forget that years ago he was grinding hard, collaborating with so many artistes in obscure countries (including Uganda ?). For each hit they produce, there are hundreds of thousands of Nigerian songs, even from Nigeria’s superstars, that are doomed to oblivion. Nigerian artistes are not afraid to venture out of their comfort zone and that is one of the biggest ingredients to their success
American stars past and present are just as huge in so many countries where English is not spoken – they have achieved iconic status in countries in South America, Asia and non Anglophone African countries. I remember seeing huge graffiti of Rick Ross all over Maputo in Mozambique at the height of his fame in about 2010. Young people could rap his catalogue word for word, despite not understanding what they were singing (I think music sounds even deeper than it actually is if you do not understand the lyrics ?). Nicki Minaj fills arenas in Beijing, China. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
I think this is because (at the risk of sounding corny) we ‘feel’ music with our hearts, not hear it with our ears. That is why if you sit down and listen to the lyrics of many of the biggest hits around the world, they are either shallow, or have no meaning at all. Even when they are deep and contemplative, it is not necessarily the lyrics that draw in the crowds of adoring fans.
A case in point African reggae icon Lucky Dube at the height of his superstardom. Millions were drawn to him because of the relatable yet invocative stories he told in his music. Millions more of his fans across the continent and overseas, however, knew little to no English at all, yet were just as deeply moved and impacted by the positive vibrations oozing from Lucky Dube’s music.
We may not be at Nigeria’s level, but Uganda’s music has grown in global appeal by leaps and bounds, it is not where it was 10, 20 years ago. Our stars such as dancehall queen Cindy and Radio and Weasel had the numbers to hold successful shows in the countries that share our borders. Even young artistes like Ykee Benda and Spice Diana have significant pockets of fans in countries both near and far. Part of this is due to technology flattening the landscape – some random girl in Colombia can come across a track of John Blaq on YouTube and be drawn in by his voice. Ugandan artistes should, therefore, chart their own path. At the end of the day, music is art and you cannot force people to like your genre of art. All you can do is work hard, make good art, get the right team around you and when the stars align, you just may breakthrough nationally and internationally.