Nigeria’s Alte music: Why the deafening silence? – Jerry Chiemeke

When I want to listen to good music, and by that I mean, listenable music wherein there is more meaning and less noise, I don’t bother to tune in to the regular cable TV channels, and that’s simply because I do not trust the playlist shuffle to be comprised of anything other than the usual radio-friendly, chart topping, Top 40 dross. Patience is a virtue I am still struggling to cultivate, and I am not masochistic either, so I save myself the torture of having to watch Lil Pump (or Lil Yachty, or any of the other Lils that populate the countdowns), and march off to Youtube. There I can, with a huge sense of satisfaction, listen to John Mayer shred a guitar while haunting my tear ducts with the lyrics of “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room”, or Seinabo Sey flaunt her sass while screaming “I Owe You Nothing”, or Rex Orange County serenade his girlfriend on “Sycamore Girl”. My music tastes have always been unconventional, and a friend once referred to my playlist as “funeral music” after going through the music player, but the Youtube and Spotify comments help me see that I am not alone.

At least the likes of Daniel Caesar, Kali Uchis and H.E.R manage to get some love. I can’t say the same for those who sing the “odd stuff” on this side of the Atlantic.

Now and then, you’d stumble on tweets or Facebook posts complaining about popular Nigerian music, in spite of how much our exported sound is well received. The usual source of discontent is the repetitive nature of the lyrics (where they exist, that is), and the undue emphasis of production and beats over meaning (never mind that the sound complained about is the same that is danced to every other Friday). The outcries usually end with a plea for more decent song writing, and for a different kind of music, but when that comes, do we care enough to listen to it? Heck, the question should be, do we even know when it drops?

Over the past couple of years, we have had artistes who approach the airwaves with a flavor of musicality that is different from what obtains in regular Afro Pop (beats) . Post-Chocolate City, Brymo has tried to woo us with his soothing lyrics; Bez has come at us with his acoustic guitar, Santi has lunged in with his reggae vibe and hedonistic retro videos; Clay occasionally reminds us of Evanescence’s Amy Lee; Johnny Drille invaded our ears with his folksy sound; Odunsi the Engine has tried to take us back to the days of New Edition and Prince; Nonso Amadi’s vocals are stuff for night-time radio; Tems makes you notice her energy, while Wurld vaguely reminds you of Seal.

One look at the Youtube channels of these artistes, or even the comment sections of music blogs whenever they put out new music, is enough to deduce that in spite of how hard they try to serve up musical content that is significantly different from the monotonous “jollof music”, they are simply not getting the publicity, the reach, or even the credit they deserve. The engagements across various music platforms are abysmally poor, and one wonders if people don’t know, or they simply can’t be bothered to check out the material churned out by these guys. When they perform at The Backyard and Muri Okunola Park, crowds cheer and sip palmwine, and then what?

Yes, the issue of consumer demand is a horse that has been flogged to death, but it is no less valid. Years ago, someone tweeted along the lines of “Nigerians experience enough hardship already, we can’t add to the pile by trying to listen to blues.” People in these climes have been more inclined to download and bop their heads to feel-good music, sound that eases tension, even when you have heard the same bass line in more than five songs previously, and one line is refrained across a listening time of three minutes.

The radio stations have not been exactly innocent either, when it comes to analyzing the scourge of poor promotion of alternative music. Sure enough, there is the concept of consumer priorities, but it is telling that there are hardly any chart shows dedicated to non-conventional music. In a space of five hours, the chances of hearing as many as four songs that are not exactly Afro Pop are as high as watching Lionel Messi lift up a World Cup trophy. The on-air personalities may have their instructions and preferences, but to provide virtually no airplay? Come on!

A little push by more established acts would be useful too, but that hardly plays out here. It is no secret that the respective profiles of Joyner Lucas and Jesse Reyez have risen since they were both featured on different tracks in Eminem’s “Kamikaze” album. Yes, the vibe of the song may be different, but there’s always room to accommodate a hook here, and a verse there. MI Abaga’s effort in this regard is commendable, having included Nonso Amadi on his “Rendezvous” EP and Tay Iwar on his “Yxng Dxnzl” album, but how many other A-listers have followed his example?

There are those, however, who claim that the quality of the music may just not be good enough, and that the Alte community is pretty self-absorbed, from the fashion to the events to the content. A content writer once described artists who make up the Nigerian alternative sub-genre as “pretentious cool kids who rely on the apparent novelty of the sound to cover up horrible lyrics.” Further ammunition for critics of the new school is the fact that Tay Iwar’s debut album “Gemini” and Santi’s “Mandy And The Jungle” – both released in early 2019 – were treated to mixed reviews. Santi’s project was actually described as “mid” (mediocre) in a tweet. In truth, Odunsi’s “Rare” and Lady Donli’s “Enjoy Your Life” are two of the few full-length projects that have been treated to positive critical reception in the past sixteen months.

We hope that these shining stars who save us from the cacophony of the norm stay true to their craft and not sell out, but it is difficult, considering that the route to fortune and fame appears longer for them than for those who take the “broader way”, ask Iyanya, ask Praiz.  

Applause at Bogobiri Lounge, Prest Jazz Club or Hard Rock Café won’t populate the trophy cabinet or even pay the bills. The road not taken usually makes all the difference, and for them, it’s hard not to feel that it leads to coffee house obscurity.

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