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Odunsi, Tay Iwar, Lady Donli Why today's alternative artistes can be the future of Nigeria's music

Because everything is alternative until it becomes pop. If Nigeria fails them, the world is there to conquer.

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Yes. The headline reads like a prophesy that may never come true. Especially when you consider how the careers of acts like Blackmagic and Brymo have panned out in recent years.

They are all talented artistes that have consistently put out high-quality music over the years, yet they have never really convinced the mass audience. Except for critical acclaim, and the loyal following of a few devoted fans, they have not attained the success to match their ability.

As Joey Akan so eloquently put it, it is a real struggle to survive as an alternative artiste in Nigeria.

In the end, the creative and artistic side of being a musician is kept alive when the financial end is in order; when record sales, show fees and other deals bring in the money.

But that is not even half of the entire picture.

It starts with the way we approach and view alternative music.

play If talent is the measure, then Falana should be somewhere around the top (Pulse)

 

It is the umbrella where we put anything that sounds experimental and unfamiliar. As soon as any song comes on and the average Nigerian cannot box it into one of the usual genres; rap, pop, RnB, Afro-beat, Reggae, then it becomes alternative.

Platforms and award shows have been doing this for as long as they’ve been in existence.

Nigerian blogs have been calling Adekunle Gold, a man who has carved a niche for himself with folk and highlife as an alternative artiste since he released ‘Sade’. 

There’s also the Headies, that perennial award show that somehow decided that Darey’s “Wait for Me” and Simi’s “Tiff” are alternative songs.

Let’s be honest; there’s no definite explanation for what alternative music is.

Whatever you see or hear will imply that it is music produced by performers who are outside the musical mainstream that is typically regarded as more challenging than most popular music

Adekunle Gold play Adekunle Gold's music evokes the rhythms and melody of juju and indigenous yoruba folk music (Pulse)

 

As far as reality goes, Alternative music is simply deliberate genre-bending; mixing elements of different genres and approaching regular topics from new standpoints to create a unique sound.

It is what Odunsi does with RnB, afro-pop, soul and afro-fusion. It is what Tay Iwar does with soul, hip-hop, rock and pop.

Which brings us to the next point. 

Afro-pop is undoubtedly the main sound of Nigeria, and the room for 'genre-bending' is still a niche.

But time has shown that trends in music come and go across the years like fashion and it is those in the adjacent, the artistes we call alternative who come to define the mainstream sound.

Everything is alternative until it goes pop.

play Odunsi Bowo is one of the genre-benders on the edge of breaking the mainstream (Odunsi Bowo)

 

Let us go outside our shores for a little history.

It was true from the mid 70s to the 90s when punk rock stars like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and later Green Day, reshaped what mainstream rock sounded like.

It was true (and still is) when a subculture created by african-americans in the South Bronx produced Hip-Hop, and global artistes like Drake and Kendrick Lamar. 

It is the same here at home.

When acts like Naeto C, MI and Banky W introduced themselves to the Nigerian audience in the mid-2000s, they were so different from the run-of-the-mill pop of the preceding years that they seemed like outsiders, but that didn’t last, because their music was in tune with the times — the economy was looking up, western influence was getting stronger and so, the audience could soon relate.

In 2012, after honing his primary sound with reggae, Burna Boy made ‘Like to Party’, something fresh that he called afro-fusion, and everybody else called ‘alternative hip-hop/reggae' (amongst many other less imaginative things). That song launched a career and a re-think of our sound.

Burna Boy play Burna Boy's Like To Party ushered in the amalgam of grime, funk, pop, reggae and afro-pop that we now refer to as afro-fusion (Aristokrat)

This is how new music emerges. It will be mundane for us to expect that experimental artistes will continue to remain on the fringes of the mainstream because they don't make afro-pop.

But even with all these, most people believe that the music of the new genre-benders does not represent the pulse of the streets, they do not speak the language of struggle and heavy drum beats.

Simply put, they are too woke to appeal to the mass audience, aka the people outside Lagos, and that is why they will never achieve mainstream success.

But this will soon lose its value as an excuse, because this new crop and artistes like Odunsi and Minz are growing with their audience. In many ways, they are a reflection of how their generation is interpreting their society and the circumstances that surround them.

Young Nigerians under 30 are disillusioned; they have seen things get worse over the years, so instead of combating, they do things on their own terms, in spite of their environment.

It is in the hope that the success that they find, in art, business or tech will inspire the change that they want to see.

Even their peers in the mainstream make very little music that speaks about the realities of life as a Nigerian.

play Tekno makes an attempt at being socially conscious on 'Rara' but he loses the plot very quickly (Tekno/Youtube)

 

Nigerian music generally encourages you to look away from all the turmoil and focus on you. Focus on getting money, focus on catching trips, focus on light-skinned women.

As Odunsi said in an interview with Pulse’s Abiola Solanke, “it is just a result of the environment we grew up in, the things around us, it’s not as if we’re trying to be different, it’s just who we are”.

When these artistes put out songs, the sound is usually very unfamiliar but the content can and will be.

It will happen gradually, in bits and pieces, because of the subject matter, samples, slang, trends and pop culture, but those baby steps will be important ones.

There is a day when the people will come to accept this music as their own.

But it will be a mistake to think it's that simple.

When you have to make a choice between what is familiar, the typical sound, and what is new and experimental, there are unspoken factors that keep people on the side of what they know.

Like how we just like music that gets us dancing.

play With the music he has put out, Minz shows much promise for the future of afro-pop (Culture Custodian)

 

And at this point, there lies the major key.

It will take time, a lot of time, before the new ‘alternative’ becomes accepted and it gets its shot at becoming mainstream and pulling serious weight.

In an interview with the Zone 68 show on the UK’s Reprezent Radio, RnB/Soul singer Lady Donli spoke of how this is a fact that she is already coming to terms with.

“ … a lot of times, I record a good song and I expect that people are going to love this song, and I suppose I shouldn’t have this in mind because I always end up disappointed” she said, “because it’s like people love the song, it’s not just recieved the way I like

“I’ve been making music for a long time, at the point I’m in, I’d like for it to show a bit more; I’d like to go on my Soundcloud and see that if I was getting 10k listens yesterday, today I’m getting 20k. It ‘s not really like that but I understand what I have to do, you have to be patient, because it takes a lot of time”, she continued.

Lady Donli and her peers may have to wait even longer than they expect.

Consider this for context, any list of the four biggest artistes right now would have Davido, Wizkid and Tekno in it.

They are the guys filling out venues and taking the major money home.

Most Nigerians look to radio, music television and DJs to serve their needs and tell them what to listen to, and the pop acts dominate these channels.

play Two projects and a couple of loosies in, Lady Donli has eyes on her from home and abroad (Lady Donli)

 

As of now, there aren’t relatively many outlets pushing new sounds or Nigerian phones with Soundcloud on them. Which is why it makes sense that these guys are looking outside of Nigeria.

If the dreams are big enough and the music is premium, the people will come.

The data suggests that there’s already some attention brewing: artistes like Odunsi, Santi and GMK have been featured on Apple Music’s OVO Sound Radio (that iconic radio arm of Drake’s OVO empire).

Nonso Amadi crossed the one million stream mark on Spotify with very little knowledge of him on this side and ‘Lady Donli’ made Complex UK’s ‘10 new songs to watch out for’.

There’s enough to think that if they keep at it, the numbers will follow.

They can exchange their country for the world.

A lot of the new acts are artistes in their 20s. Young, impressionable and largely passionate, their music reflects a willingness to experiment and try out new sounds. 

It is only natural that in half a decade, very few of them will sound like they do now.

Some will have found their individual voices, learned from their stumblings and matured into more nuanced and well rounded artistes, and created or owned their own specific lanes.

By then, these blurred lines will be clearer. 

Then, it will be very difficult to call them alternative, especially when they manage to break the ceiling and make that often-elusive transition into the mainstream.

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