Nigerian Pop Comes Full-Force to Brooklyn

Wizkid, at the forefront of Nigerian pop’s rise
Wizkid, at the forefront of Nigerian pop’s rise
Courtesy One Africa Music Festival

At first, the song wasn't even the main hit on Wizkid's album, released locally in Nigeria. "Ojuelegba," an ode to the 26-year-old rising pop star's neighborhood in a working-class part of Lagos, was a midtempo gem with a loping pace and an evocative video filmed in the city, but it didn't have the makings of a typical international club banger.

But then Drake, the hip-hop superstar, and Skepta, the British-Nigerian grime artist, showed up on a remix, each adding a new verse and tastemaker cachet. Propelled by these guests, "Ojuelegba" arrived last year on U.S. radio, earning favor from influential DJs such as Hot 97's Ebro Darden.

It was a breakthrough for Wizkid, who now features on "One Dance," the Drake hit that has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since May. But it also served notice of the rise of a wave of Nigerian artists who are making Lagos one of the world's most dynamic music hubs today.

"It's been a long time coming," says Jidenna, the Nigerian-American singer of last year's hit "Classic Man," who grew up between the two cultures. "Ten years ago, there was still a delay. There was latency between what I knew was hot and what was happening in Lagos." Now, he says, "America is finally dipping into music from the African continent. And artists in countries like Nigeria know exactly what is cool in the U.S. and U.K."

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On July 22, Jidenna and fellow Nigerian-American MC Wale join a rich roster of Nigerian stars — including Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, and Flavour — for a show at the Barclays Center that doubles as an arena-scale coming-out party. The bill also includes Stonebwoy, from Ghana; Seun Kuti, son and musical heir of Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti; and, in a nod to Brooklyn's Caribbean identity, Trinidadian soca star Machel Montano.

The lineup aims to impress. "I don't like small things," says Paul Okoye, the Lagos impresario who organized the show, billed as One Africa Music Fest. "If I come to New York, I need the best place where Africans can showcase themselves."

The new Nigerian sound, plus a smaller parallel scene in Ghana, is known as Afrobeats (with an S) — a slightly confusing term that old heads dislike, since the current music, with its samplers and backing tracks, deviates from the large-band, jazzy Fela legacy. Less political and more popular, it's the most ubiquitous sound across the African continent — like coupé-décalé ten years ago, or Congolese soukous in the Nineties. Artists like D'Banj and the duo P-Square (with their 2011 mega-hit "Chop My Money") opened the doors for the twentysomethings who now rule the scene.

A similar effect is under way in Britain. "You're not throwing an event with black people if you're not playing Afrobeats," says Tola Sarumi, a London-based music critic, of the current U.K. scene. She credits the immediacy of the internet and the coming of age of Nigerian-British millennials, who are imposing their tastes. She also notes that Nigerian artists have grown more sophisticated. "Wizkid is well-liked on the grime scene," she says. "He stepped up and made contacts with the leading urban acts in the U.K."

In the U.S., outside venues with an African focus (like Shrine, in Harlem), Afrobeats has been slower to pierce through. But in the arts more broadly, America is having its Nigerian moment. Following Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's success, publishers have snapped up new authors like Chigozie Obioma, whose The Fishermen was a Man Booker finalist last year. Njideka Akunyili Crosby has seen her collaged paintings installed on the wall outside the new Whitney Museum, while author Teju Cole, filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu, director of 2011's Restless City, and visual artist Laolu Senbanjo, who did the body art that appears in Beyoncé's Lemonade, are all ascendant in their fields.

It's no surprise, then, that pop music is catching up. And the American market is taking notice. The singer Davido, who'll perform at Barclays, signed a deal with Sony Music in January and appeared on the cover of the Fader in February. Back in April 2015, in one of his rare Twitter utterances, Jay-Z announced that his "cousin just moved to Nigeria to discover new talent." (Coincidentally or not, singer Tiwa Savage is reportedly in talks with Jay-Z's Roc Nation for a management deal.)

The true promise of the Nigerian scene, of course, lies in the quality and range of the music itself — singer-songwriters (Asa, Ayo, Keziah Jones, Nneka), rappers, even rockers. Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly outdoor party in Lagos that joins old-school Afrobeat and highlife artists with young alternative acts, is one of the world's best music events of the moment.

But pop is finding its sweet spot, as recent hits like Olamide's "Bobo," Skales' "Shake Body," Wande Coal's "Baby Hello," or Patoranking's "My Woman" demonstrate. The sound is both cosmopolitan and distinctly Nigerian, with musical references to earlier local styles and lyrics in Yoruba, Igbo, and Pidgin. Singer Banky W., the One Africa concert's emcee, likens its appeal to that of dancehall reggae. "It's familiar enough but it's different enough," he says. "People feel they can get with it even if they don't understand all the words."

Jidenna notes that recent American hip-hop has moved closer to African music, whether through the lyricism of a Lil Wayne or Kanye, or by shifting from 4/4 rhythm to more complex time signatures. "It creates a more natural synergy," he says. For him, the "Ojuelegba" remix signals a greater presence ahead for Nigerian music on the pop scene. "When I heard it, I knew it was a turning point. I knew which way the wave was going, and I was thrilled that it was coming toward us."


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