Music has always been a time-stamp for me. Most songs that bubble to the surface of my consciousness remind me of very specific places and times. Panam Percy Paul’s Bring Down Your Glory reminds me of the most devout time of my life, in secondary school. When I hear Diana Ross’s Touch Me In the Morning, or Do You Know Where You’re Going To, I see my mum a much younger lady in my mind’s eye. I hear Dynasty’s Holiday or Midnight Star’s No Parking on The Dance Floor, and I see my dad, who’s pushing 70 now, busting moves. Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane was the soundtrack to my NYSC. Missing You, the Puff Daddy tribute to the Notorious BIG puts me firmly in Kuti Hall, UI, when you would hear at least five different rooms blasting different portions of the song at any one time. Michael Buble’s Home reminds me of my bittersweet time as a perpetually broke masters’ degree student in Southampton. And so on.
Perhaps the way I consume music has also contributed to the time-stamping factor. I want to hear the layering of the instruments and vocals and hear how the producer changed the beat at the hook or the bridge. Most of all, however, I want to hear each and every single lyric and try to figure out what was going through the composer’s mind when he wrote the song. Since we got Google, rather than merely looking for the words, I also search for the background to the songs, and you’d be surprised how much history you might come across in that endeavour.
For instance, if you research the song Layla, made popular by Eric Clapton, you will find that it was inspired by his love for Pattie Boyd, who at the time he met her was married to George Harrison of the Beatles. Boyd would later divorce Harrison and subsequently marry Clapton, although the latter union did not last either. Boyd is also said to have inspired another of Clapton’s critically acclaimed hits, Wonderful Tonight. More surprising though, was the fact that she did not really return Clapton’s love, reportedly leading him into the spiral of acute drug and alcohol addiction. With some other songs, like Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis, you find that the composer was so spaced out of his mind during writing, he had no idea what the song was about.
And, contrary to what the preface might suggest, older local music also held its allure. Kris Okotie (now Reverend), Felix Liberty, Harry Mosco, Majek Fashek, Sunny Okosuns, all wrote enduring songs. Music was an art, that required dedication, nurture, time and talent.
Advances in technology have democratised everything however. And, armed with nothing more than the same laptop on which I’m publishing this piece to an international audience, anyone can make and publish music much more easily today. It is not certain whether this dilution in production requirementsalso led to the dilution in song writing but Nigerian music is in a song-writing crisis. Of course, it wasn’t always so.
After Nelson Mandela was freed and conscious music died in Nigeria, we all just trudged along for a while. Blackky, Alex O and Alex Zitto flew the flag for a while, Emphasis’s Which One You Dey? and Junior & Pretty’s Monica probably set the tone for indigenous rap around that time. Eedris AbdulKareem of The Remedies then took “rap” to the twilight zone but redemption, for me, came in the persons of Styl Plus. Personally, I don’t believe the story of today’s music in Nigeria can be told without mentioning the absolute game-changers that Styl Plus were. We once again had real lyrics, unprecedented vocal harmony and cutting edge music production. Their Olufunmi remix featuring Da Capo was without doubt the reset button for Nigerian hip-hop and rap.
I’d like to say the rest is history, with all the international superstars we now have but the lyrics lover in me says no. If we had charts in Nigeria today, I don’t think very many songs would be top 10 for more than 2 weeks. The very generic sound of most songs, poor production, similarity in lyrics and gimmickry all make for a very short-term hits market. And, at the end of the day, it seems most artists want to make a hit rather than good music. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that music should not pay its creators but hit music here is frequently not very good music, and I think this is why most songs have a 2-week top 10 shelf-life or perhaps even less.
The music mostly doesn’t even sound great unless one is intoxicated either by the ambience of a crowd or the infusion of alcohol and I would argue that it isn’t distinctive enough to stamp anyone’s time or memories. Too many artistes are either asking the girl to “whine am down low” or “follow me go” or just stringing words together in unnatural sequences.
I have argued before that this sort of music isn’t the type that will pay artistes into their old age. Music doesn’t always have to make sense but it should sound original and artistes cannot be releasing albums where 7 of 12 tracks sound alike, or 4 tracks out of 11 sound lie you’re recycling your old hits.
Or perhaps the reality is that age brings with it a growing disconnect from the music of the day. I remember my dad not getting the point of expletive-laden rap, with its monotonous basslines, but you try throwing on a few Biggie and Tupac joints at a wedding reception or stag do today and see what happens.
Let’s encourage artists to pay more attention and devote more effort to writing, and let’s support those who make the effort by buying their music. If the legend that is 2face Idibia could finally give in and include a Go-Down-Low line in Go, the opening track to his latest album, I would suggest it’s because we did not reward him enough for Only Me, Rainbow and all the other lyric-laden smash hits on his previous one. There’s no greater incentive than putting our money where our mouths are.