Culture journalism in Nigeria is bogged down in a lack of skill, professionalism and basic appreciation for the quality of the craft, writes TIA culture critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
A pop star shows up for a podcast hosted by a journalist and his website editor and (rightly) derides a piece written by the journo. Instead of owning up and acknowledging the clichéd sentences, imaginative "facts" and all-round bad writing published on his website daily, the editor hollers a defence.
That a person whose business is rap cares more about constructing quality sentences than a journalist and an editor says enough about contemporary Nigerian culture writing.
M.I. Abaga was the pop-star guest, the journalist Ayomide O. Tayo and the editor Osagie Alonge. The website is Pulse Nigeria, which really should be renamed "Loose Writing Nigeria", after its Loose Talk podcast. Abaga made an appearance after he had responded harshly to a piece Tayo had written in the much abused "open letter" format. As the conversation progressed, Abaga revealed that he intended to criticise Tayo's writing.
"I was going to take your articles," Abaga said, "like three or four that I don't like, and ... you know how we used to grade English papers?"
"You'll give him all As," said Alonge.
"No, no, no," said Abaga, looking sad. He turned to Alonge: "If that's your actual meeting statement to him, then that's a problem because the writing has to get better."
Think about it: A rapper felt the need to treat a journalist's article the way your English teacher treated your compositions back in the day. And Abaga would have done the script justice. His verses may be playfully poetic, but the best of them suggest some fidelity to the rules of English grammar. In a different clime, the mere possibility of a pop act having to do this to a journalist's work would result in a query or a suspension.
Fortunately for Tayo, Abaga let it go, but he drew attention to Tayo's first line. "What's popping," he read out, with a look on his face that said, Really? You call this good writing? At a later point, Abaga indicated how he could have helped in private: "Here, you could have written this sentence better. Here, the words you used were wrong." For anyone who cares about writing, Abaga was a delight.
Alonge mostly defended his man, but, to his credit, he also said, "I agree... We are constantly growing." One hopes this is true, but don't hold your breath. Few people would say that Pulse Nigeria cares about quality writing. And the idea that a band of writers who can be schooled by a rapper on syntax and sentences are, as the podcast puts it, "curating history" is frightening. If Pulse prose is what this generation presents to posterity as culture writing, then we are in trouble. We might as well declare Chuey Chu a great documentary filmmaker. But this is possible only in Nigeria, a country where the aggressive promotion of mediocrity is proof of importance.
And the rot is not limited to Pulse Nigeria...
One expects an editor to get to his or her position because a love for words has seen them read, re-read, work and re-work pieces of writing for much of their professional life. Not in this country. The Nigerian editor is a speedy uploader with a fancy title. He or she is looking for quick copy but is unwilling to make it better because they have no love or skill for it and there is no time. Their journalists never rewrite. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but that is no reason for a journalist to turn in a first draft.
Journalism may be the first draft of history, but that's no reason for a journalist to turn in a first draft
Vulgar journalist versus articulate artist
Abaga's confidence in his ability, which contributed to making him almost certainly the best rapper of his generation, was on display. Sure, he would rather the press became a part of his promotional team; pop stars typically feel entitled to good press. By the end of the podcast, he had come across as articulate, mature, informed and aware -- apparently he reads and appreciates the quality of writing in the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
The Pulse men were defensive and Alonge, in particular, was rude. Many of the clips that have been shared on social media make for viral entertainment but they are also evidence of bad behaviour. A few people have said that the hosts misbehaved because they were passionate. But passion does not preclude common sense or good manners. You do not host an artist on a show, swear at him repeatedly, say his work is "wack" and directly insult one of his acolytes. Doing any of the three is bad enough; doing all three is unprofessional. The only thing that exceeded the hosts' obnoxiousness was the tolerant attitude of their guest.
Abaga tried to soften the guys up by calling them OGs, but they do not deserve the tag. As Abaga said, Tayo's piece had many problems, including the misuse of the term "shelf life". Neither he nor his editor admitted to the faux pas. But they did touch on something that may be applicable to today's culture writers: The older newspapers in Nigeria have not given critics enough support through training, proper payment, publication or praise to entrench critical writing in popular culture. Speaking broadly, today's critics can hardly write and potential readers can barely read without considering a well-argued negative review as stemming from a personal quarrel and a positive one as being evidence of schmoozing.
Abaga had the solution to one part of that wretched equation: "Our articles are terrible. The same expectation you have from us musicians to raise the bar - raise your fucking bar."
"Go and read those [Rolling Stone] articles. Elevate yourself. Write articles that other writers can look at and be put to shame. Because, today, there is no writer whose work makes other writers say, 'I've got to clean my shit up.' It's all the same banality across the board."
In a better world, Nigerian journalists (and musicians) would not have to look outside the country for examples of decent writing, but here we are. In any case, there are a few writers in Nigeria who strive to write well from sentence to sentence and insight to insight, be it within positive or negative articles, and Abaga is looking in the wrong place if he is looking for it at Pulse.
It might be helpful to compile an annual Best Nigerian Culture Writing anthology or an award for criticism to encourage those in the field. Perhaps a rigorous writing workshop for critics might help.
If that workshop worked out, perhaps one day Pulse and the rest of Nigeria's culture writing platforms might avoid embarrassment at the hands of a determined rapper. Who knows?