Music and Lyrics

music

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.

Nelson Mandela’s Musical Legacy

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How will I remember Nelson Mandela? It will be in the music that was made about him and his role in the struggle to smash apartheid. There are many reasons why. As a child of the 80s in Nigeria, we didn’t have political programmes dedicated to the struggle – it would have been hard and perhaps a bit hypocritical, seeing as we were under the thumb of the military for the greater part of 1980-1990.  There was no CNN/cable television for us until the mid to late 90s, no internet, no news breaking globally in an instant. No. My initial education on South Africa, apartheid and Nelson Mandela was from the music of the day.

I remember Majek Fashek’s Free Mandela, from his album I and I Experience. The song spoke of the man who had been in jail for 27 years, who “left his wife and his children for the sake of Africa”. The song also reminded us that Nigeria had been independent had been independent for 29 years but Nigerians were still dependent. Majek begged Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Frederik De Klerk to free Mandela; it begged Babangida to free Nigeria and it begged colonial masters to free Africa. During the Fela-rites-of-passage years that all Nigerian men in universities go through, I would later hear Fela Anikulapo-Kuti point out the absurdity in Thatcher and Reagan, who he said were friends of Pieta Botha, go to the United Nations to press for a charter on human rights.

I remember Ras Kimono’s Kill Apartheid. He sang, “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and Pieta Botha/All of them come and join together/They want to be the blacks’ masters/So, kill apartheid, we have to kill apartheid…” I forget the musician’s name now, but I also remember “The whole world is saying: stop this apartheid; Africans are saying free Nelson Mandela! Oh yes! Liberate South Africa Now!

I remember Paul Simon’s Graceland  concert, with which he launched his African-flavoured album of the same name. Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba (God rest her soul too) did a duet – Bring back Nelson Mandela, brick him back home to Soweto, I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa TOMORROW! Bring back Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto, I want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela…” Apart from Masekela’s hypnotic trumpeting, there was something about that simple plea that plucked at my young heart.

I remember Onyeka Onwenu’s tribute to Winnie Mandela. “Winnie Mandela, sould of a nation, crying to be free…they can take away your man, take away your happiness, but they can’t take away your right to be free…”. I remember Nel Oliver, who resurfaced recently with the wedding hit “Baby Girl”, do a song on apartheid as well. “We must refuse segregation, we are born to live together. Open your hearts and sing in harmony, Apartheid in South Africa…” [Update: I’ve since learnt that the song was called “Upheaval”. I also found the video…]

There were so many more songs celebrating Madiba and his struggle. I’m sure I will be reminded of a few. I remember being in boarding school the day he was released from prison. We all gathered round the TV they’d brought into the common room just for the occasion. I suspect that the gravity, the significance, of the occasion was lost on the prepubescent gathering. For me, it was that this man I’d heard so many songs about was finally free.

Rest in peace, Madiba.

NB.

I’ve been told that it was sacrilegious to omit Asimbonanga by Johnny Clegg. I hope the powers that be will forgive me for this oversight, as I’ve sought to correct my error by embedding a keeper. Madiba joins Clegg on stage at this performance of Asimbonanga. Enjoy.