The popular idea that Nigerians no longer like rap music was given a blow on the night of April 27 when the Castle Light Unlocks concert was headlined by J. Cole in Lagos.
Prior to the American taking the Eko Hotel stage, the show's organisers had run with that idea by arranging the line-up of local acts to begin with rappers and then end with pop stars. Such little faith did they have in the genre that the line-up's best rapper--MI Abaga--was the opening act.
Abaga reminded fans of his past, performing songs from his first two albums. But even his selection seemed to be his own tactful admission of the waning influence of hip-hop, as his remarkable last album Rendezvous found no place throughout his 10minute set. Last year, MI Abagahad asked for Nigerian rappers to fix up their lives; this year, they might have told him to update his set-list.
"When J. Cole gets on stage," he said, "I want you to tell him there is a rapper called MI." But by having him up first at what proved an overlong concert, it was hard to imagine that most would remember his message.
YCee succeeded Abaga, representing the somnolent, catchy brand of hip-hop that is for many today's real face of hip-hop. Going through remixes of 'Jagaban' and 'Who's Your Daddy', he cut a figure of the commercial state of hip-hop where success might mean an ability to exist somewhere between the percussion-heavy sounds of 'Jagaban' and the pop melody of 'Juice'. He ran over the allotted time but insisted on offering a freestyle rap. This action seemed aimed at reminding fans of his quality. It was decent but still came off as personal note: A Nigerian rapper telling himself that he was at a concert headlined by a lyricist.
Falz's performance marked the end of the appearances by artists otherwise known as rappers and then the popstars took over, DJs Neptune, Jimmy Jatt, Lambo and others playing before, around and in between artists. The hosts for the night South Africa's Pearl Thusi and radio man Do2DTun danced and hyped and danced, propelled by the music as well as by their hosting fees. The concert stretched on and on and could have been mistaken for a festival.
Wizkid took his time arriving onstage, giving hints of his postponed and then cancelled show at Coachella. Finally coming on around a half-hour before midnight, he proceeded to chastise the organisers. "Na nonsense sound dem carry come do show for here," he spat. His hits followed.
Although not a particularly memorable performance, it showed why Wizkid is loved: he has big hits, he is almost preternaturally free onstage and, given his smallness, he conveys an outsized sense of joy. The duration of his set was double that of the rappers before him.
During the performances vendors bearing alcoholic jet packs dispensed Castle Light to watchers. The VIP section got free cans; the non-VIP attendees could get a plastic filled with the liquid for 500 bucks. Behind the stage a large screen showed a stitched video consisting of scenes from the artist's music videos on loop.
Following Wizkid, a gymnast worked mid-air stunts, her skill at twirling limbs around two rolls of white fabric attached to the roofs of the Eko Hotel venue kept her from a broken neck and certain death. Her thrilling but unconnected-to-music display added to the show's duration.
A subtler stunt brought on Davido. He emerged from the floor, ferried rather slowly by a contraption that looked like stiff petals. The sound production was bad, but, powered by hit songs like "Gobe", "Dami Duro" and "FIA", his performance was well received but there were hints of fatigue from the audience.
Fortunately, whatever sensory tedium there was was banished by J. Cole, whose crew spent a while fixing stage and sound. The American slouched onstage, wearing a jersey in Nigeria's green and white colours, his beard, hair and face lending him the façade of a footballing Jesus.
He opened with "A Tale of Two Citiez" few minutes past 2am. Although not released as a single, the song still had the crowd singing along. It was perhaps at this point that the American and his team recognised their error.
"I guess I was f**king up by not coming earlier to Nigeria," Cole said. He appeared surprised.
The sense of late arrival would get worse. By which I mean J. Cole's reception only got better. He followed up with "KOD", saying he wasn't sure people would know the lyrics since the track is from a week-old album of same name. Once again, the audience sang what appeared to be every line to the song. This became a running joke throughout the performance: J. Cole opening with a charming sceptical spiel about the popularity of his own songs; his Nigerian fans proving him wrong by rapping along each time.
For hip-hop fans in a country that had once had a hit song claim that rap had to be local to sell, it could have been disorienting to see so many Nigerians--I was told tickets sold out--singing ferociously along with a rapper who in recent times has avoided the radio-friendly pop music route. While the set was accompanied by a drummer, DJ, keyboardist and two barely-heard singers, the attention of the crowd was squarely on the man with a microphone. In a bid to test the audience, J. Cole went back to an older song, and sure enough the crowd followed. Cole collaborator Bas even got some love for his own clutch of verses. If his appearance evoked Jesus, the success of J. Cole's performance was like feeding a crowd with the rap equivalent of a few fish.
But while the organisers would be happy with the reception, the question for hip-hop heads in attendance was how come there are hardly any Nigerians rappers in English with a fraction of Cole's followership in the country. Local language rappers Olamide, Phyno and Reminisce are the most played rappers in the country and all three frequently resort to singing high-life or Fuji songs with the ready-to-deliver excuse that rap music doesn't pay. MI Abaga, perhaps the most successful of all English language rappers in Nigeria, invited all three to his penultimate studio album The Chairman. Several commentators pooh-poohed the album's strange direction but somehow it clung to the iTunes chart for years.
All of this has weakened the psychological infrastructure of Nigerian hip-hop, so that today, not many young hip-hop acts spend time honing their rap skills before seeking a pop hit. And it has been some time since a new act found mainstream fame by releasing rap songs. The frequently proffered reason is the small number of rap lovers in Nigeria. But as J. Cole's concert showed, rap loving fans remain in Nigeria. It is possible that Nigerian rap fans prefer their English rap imported.
As Kel, a rapper who enjoyed a fair bit of the spotlight years ago, asked on Twitter: "After witnessing J. Cole perform last night with a basic band and DJ and two backup singers, and seeing so many people rapping along to old and new songs ("KOD"), I'd like to ask, why exactly do we have a problem with rap music in Nigeria?" There were no real satisfactory answers to her question. But what seems clear is that Nigerian rappers will have to be brave for English hip-hop in Nigeria to thrive.
As for J. Cole, if his first Lagos concert provoked some soul-searching for the genre in Nigeria, he might come to be seen as forerunner. "It won't be long before I see y'all," he said, bringing his hour-long set to an end.
His earlier words might have caused some contemplation, but these last ones sent his grateful fans on an exodus out of the venue.
- This article first appeared online at MusicInAfrica.net
---Aigbokhaevbolo, the West African editor of MusicInAfrica.net, writes from Lagos