Drug use and Nigerian music are linked together, each depending on the other in a supply-and-demand relationship.
Picture this scenario: A young teenager spends all his time in the studio recording a song. That song becomes a hit in the country, and the shy teen has to come up on stage and perform it to a crowd of people.
He has never done this before, he is scared. As if on cue, beads of sweat begin to line his brow, his arms are sweaty and he undergoes a panic attack. His heart is racing, nausea joins the party, and he breaks down with stage-fright. Out of nowhere, someone on his team offers him a pill to make that feeling go away. He swallows, feels it go down into his stomach and enter his bloodstream, his apprehension and panic vanish like lightning and he feels super-charged, ready to take on the crowd and give you the best performance ever.
Welcome to the world of Nigerian music, where the consumption of illegal substances aka hard drugs fuel creativity.
From the recording process in studios across Lagos to the creation of live experiences, the Nigerian music industry is bedevilled with a drug problem that is almost never acknowledged nor dealt with.
The creators of music depend on these substances for inspiration and escape from the stress, the industry practitioners illegally enable the supply, and there’s a healthy black market that makes getting any substance as easy as ordering food from a roadside Buka. You request, submit your money, and it comes to you as soon as possible.
On Sunday, October 8, 2017, HKN disc jockey, and friend of Davido, DJ Olu (Born Oluwagbemiga Abiodun) and a friend Chime, were found dead in his car parked in the garage of his residence at the high-brow neighbourhood of Banana Island. DJ Olu is the son of Nigerian business mogul, Dapo Abiodun, who is the CEO of Heyden Petroleum.
According to a report by Punch, a source said that preliminary physical examination suggests that they died of drug overdose, claiming that they both vomited blood from their mouth and bled from their noses too.
"They were found dead in the car and blood was coming out of their noses and mouths,” the source said.
“A doctor was also at the scene. Physical examination of the bodies indicated that the victims must have died of an overdose of substances suspected to be hard drugs. The substances were found in the car," the source said.
Four days before the deaths of DJ Olu and Chime, another Davido affiliate, Tagbo, collapsed and died after a drinking spree involving excessive tequila shots.
The conversations online have inevitably found its way to the relationship between drugs and Nigerian music.
Drug use and music go hand in hand, going as far back as the 1930s. References to recreational drug use in various forms have been common as the modern record industry developed, particularly in terms of popular music genres such as pop rock singles, dance releases, and more. Social, cultural, legal, and economic challenges to the existence of music referring to recreational drugs have prompted several studies on the link between such references and increased usage among teens and young adults.
Multiple musical artists have attracted a public image associated with neutral to positive depictions of drug use in their releases, while others have created works with negative depictions of drug use that condemn individuals such as dealers and suppliers. These issues cut across lines of nationality, age, race, gender, and musical genre.
In Nigeria, drug use has always been a part of the music. From the public marriage of Fela Kuti and Marijuana to the decline of Majek Fashek, (blamed on consumption of heroin and cocaine), drugs have played a role in our music.
There have not been many documented cases of artists expressly falling down and losing their lives to the use of drugs. But Nigerian legend, Majek Fashek recently came out of rehab, after almost losing his life and career to addiction. Pop singer Runtown in 2016 decided to stop smoking marijuana.
Still, despite the growing awareness of the side effects and health concerns related to the abuse of drugs, many popular musicians continue to use it, but also love to showcase the practice on their social media. The nature of art allows and encourages musicians to explore various interpretations of personal strife, and substance abuse appears to be one of the most visible issues.
But addiction has always been something which the Nigerian music industry has, in the main, been happy to sweep under the carpet. Only Marijuana has received a number of references in music, but under the surface, there are stronger substances that dominate. According to sources who spoke with Pulse, Cocaine, Loud, Codeine, Tramadol, Ecstasy, Methamphetamine, and more.
During her fight with her husband in 2016, pop singer Tiwa Savage accused her husband, Tunji ‘Teebillz’ Balogun of consuming cocaine, a discovery which surprised her. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. According to sources who spoke with Pulse for this story, drug use is a norm in the industry and can be found in many corners.
“It’s almost as common as the music itself. Almost all the people you know are on it. It is cultural,” a musician who asked not to be named said.
There are a number of reasons why musicians use drugs in Nigeria. The most common reason is to fight depression.
Depression is a key part of the music industry. A 2016 study conducted by Help Musicians UK in conjunction with the University of Westminster has found musicians may be three times more susceptible to depression and anxiety than the general public. 71.1% of people involved said they have suffered from anxiety and/or panic attacks while 68.5% said they have suffered from depression.
Musicians offered up a few main reasons behind the high levels of ill mental health, mentioning poor working conditions (difficulty of sustaining a living, anti-social work hours), lack of recognition for music and pressures of being a woman in the industry.
According to the website MetalSucks, "Depression isn’t a symptom of the music industry—it’s one of the music industry’s foundations.”
Many artists would rather use drugs than go through with other forms of therapy. It’s easy to access and does not come with the added expense of paying for sessions. Also, it provides instant escapism from the rigours of creating music, marketing, and dealing with fans, and middlemen profiting off careers. An artist told me that the only time he feels truly free and weightless is when he is under the influence of a substance.
Performance enhancement is also another reason why Nigerian artists indulge in drugs. For popular artists who play numerous shows on the road, drugs provide an artificial boost of energy that these artists utilise in creating live performances, and dealing with the exhaustion.
“You can’t travel from London to Nairobi to Amsterdam, to Accra, to Kampala, to Port Harcourt, to Kaduna in two weeks and not break down. How do you think a lot of us have the strength to deal with performing at events every week, especially at festive periods?” A pop singer once told me. “We are humans, not machines.”
Cocaine is a drug many musicians use. In small amounts, cocaine does seem to enhance confidence, which, depending on how much preparation you've put in, could be a good thing or embarrass you. Nigerian musicians who use it while performing, but they are a tiny minority.
Musicians also use Beta-blockers, a form of chemical which aid with stage-fright to perform. It is a class of heart medications that treat blood pressure, angina and migraines. Since a 1965 Lancet article explored their use for stage fright, they've also been widely prescribed for musicians, public speakers, and even surgeons who must steady their hands. One popular beta-blocker which is available in Lagos is Inderal.
Some other musicians use it because of its availability in their circle of friends and peer pressure. When their entire squad is ‘popping a pill’, why shouldn’t they do it too? Others say the recording of music and performance cycle gets too ‘numbing’. Drugs help create a spark in their heads.
“It’s the only time I feel something,” a rapper says. “When you record music for too long and perform shows at some point you would stop feeling things.”
The deaths of DJ Olu and Chime might not change anything in this culture. If anything, many drug users would rationalise that they overstepped the boundaries of use and so, overdosed on what should have been ‘beneficial’ on a night out.
Drug use and Nigerian music are linked together, each depending on the other in a supply-and-demand relationship. These links are not breaking down anytime soon. Sadly, the only party who might continue to experience any sort of breakdown is the musician.