If you have an email address, you’ve probably received at least one poorly written message that promises you a cut of some large sum of money if you’ll just be so kind as to help out with a quick loan that will pay some of that windfall’s processing fees. These attempts at fraud—known as “419 Scams”—have been in existence for centuries; the modern version arose in Nigeria in the 1980s, and was given new life when bulk emailing made it easy to send millions of solicitations to suckers worldwide.
419 scams’ financial success in Nigeria is perhaps impossible to estimate. A 2006 report estimated that up to £150 million a year was stolen from UK residents via this sort of robbery, though the report did not specifically break down how much money went to Nigeria. A 2000 U.S. court case found evidence that at least several government officials were involved in a scam that defrauded one U.S. national of $5.2 million, though the same case found that the U.S. national was unable to sue the Nigerian government since he knowingly entered into a criminal enterprise. But they have come to loom large over Nigeria’s pop culture. The resulting films and songs let outsiders know that what might seem like a joke to Westerners (like those people who correspond with 419 scammers as a way of whiling away an afternoon) can fuel revenge fantasies, enable lifestyles, or serve as a source of national embarrassment elsewhere. Three tracks are below.
Osuofia, “I Go Chop Your Dollar”—unembeddable; be warned that the comments contain some pretty blistering language, even by YouTube’s bottom-plumbing standards
On the 2005 track “I Go Chop Your Dollar,” actor/musician Nkem Owoh sings about the 419 scam as a game with winners and losers. A certain amount of distance comes from the fact that it was recorded for the soundtrack of the Nollywood film The Master, in which the singer plays… a very effective 419 scammer. Owoh has disavowed 419 culture, but he’s also been arrested for participating in one of the variations of the scam. Either way, “I Go Chop Your Dollar” is a gleeful, sunny, reggae-tinged piece of Afropop that genuinely revels in its amorality while indicting those people who think that they’ll get something for nothing—like those Westerners who’ve expropriated wealth from their colonial holdings for centuries. The song’s accompanying video feels like a low-budget version of Glenn Frey’s 1985 clip for the coke-era fable “Smuggler’s Blues.”
Kelly Hansome, “Maga Don Pay”
If “I Go Chop Your Dollar” comes across as giddily amoral, Kelly Hansome’s 2008 “Maga Don Pay” (“The Victims Pay”) comes off as a reflection of bling-focused American hip-hop. There’s an off-the-shelf beat, overuse of Auto-Tune, and lyrics about flaunting wealth; the boast “I’m living large on my criminal lifestyle” rings like hollow braggadocio, and it’s flanked by assurances that he can buy his listeners anything they want. His only problem is that he has too much money and no clue how to spend it. It’s an entirely forgettable track made relevant only by its subject matter.
Banky W, Bez, Cobhams, MI, Modele, Omawumi, Rooftop MCs, and Wordsmith, “Maga No Need Pay”
Still, “Maga Don Pay” was popular and powerful enough to inspire a coalition of Nigerian R+B artists to record the response track “Maga No Need Pay.” It’s the most well-intentioned song of the three presented—extolling Pan-Africanism, morality, the dignity of hard work instead of crime—and it’s about as fun as you’d expect. It’s certainly better than any iteration of “We are the World,” but it suffers from all the same defects that generally make group sing-a-longs for a cause sound better on paper than on tape. Rather than one performer writing effectively, you’re stuck with a grab-bag of performances that very wildly in style (R&B; rapping in international English; rapping in Nigerian patois), and that’s capped off with a large group singing, repeatedly, that victims don’t need to pay for you to make money. I’m not sure how effective this track was in reaching its target audience of young Nigerians who might be attracted to international cybercrime, but if similarly well-intentioned tracks like “Sun City,” “Self Destruction” and “We’re All in the Same Gang” are any indication, this track probably made the artists involved in its making feel really good about themselves.