If Tiwa Savage will perform "Diet" at Nigeria's biggest music awards show, then musicians must take responsibilty.
This time, in a dimly lit hall, dim enough for small brown bottles to be passed around, DJ Enimoney's "Diet" blares on the speakers as revellers at the young end of 21 — some still in their early teens - give meaning to the song’s lyrics.
The scene is a small hotel in Surulere, Lagos, but in 2018’s Nigeria, it could well be in Kano, Benin, Abuja or just about anywhere.
Many factors have been blamed for Nigeria’s drug crisis. Experts and commentators have pointed fingers towards obvious roots such as the country’s porous borders or the weak regulation in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry as reasons for the scourge.
Yet, in recent times, Nigerian musicians and their music have been mentioned with remarkable frequency in the same sentence as codeine and the budding problem of drug abuse.
Earlier this year, the lyrics and subject matter of Olamide’s “Science Student” were brought into focus as the indigenous rapper scored yet another wildly popular street hit.
While the song built on the shaku-shaku sound, lyrics like “There are no herbs, there are no shrubs; they’ve made “Omi Gutter”, they are science students” had many listeners and commentators confused as to whether Olamide, in his infinite street saviour mercies, was endorsing or decrying drug use.
It was why not many people were surprised when the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation banned the song.
For all the conversations that followed, Olamide’s Science Student was not the first song to tether so close to the subject of drug abuse, and it was certainly not the last.
After a number of artistes had dropped a slew of street hits leveraging on the popularity of shaku-shaku, Olamide’s brother and disc jockey, DJ Enimoney released his own contribution to the fold, a delightfully danceable posse cut unfortunately titled “(Codeine) Diet”.
Despite rising to the top of charts, the song has been criticised for its blatant appraisal of codeine use.
On the hook, Slimcase asks listeners to slow down, spend lavishly and receive money “on a codeine diet” before calling the names of the featured artistes.
As if to drive the point home, in the visuals for the song, DJ Enimoney is seen holding one of the small brown bottles in which codeine-infused cough syrup is often sold.
The word “DIET” are written near the top of the bottle, and near the bottom, you may notice, in much smaller fonts, the message “Say No to Drugs”. It’s obvious which one first grabs the viewer's attention.
It’s nearly illegal to hold a party in Lagos or most Nigerian cities for that matter without playing “Diet”.
While the nearly everyone (including the NBC) has basically ignored the song’s theme, there was widespread disappointment when Tiwa Savage, an artiste adored by thousands of young girls, chose to perform the song at the recently held 12th edition of Nigeria’s biggest music awards, the Headies. For support, she had Reminisce, who many claim to have appeared intoxicated on the night.
In another world, this indiscretion may have been forgiven. It wasn’t the first time Tiwa was performing the song; what was different was that it came days after the BBC published a jarring expose on the codeine epidemic in the North.
Titled "Sweet Sweet Codeine", the documentary revealed the depth of codeine abuse in certain states, the efforts of law enforcement agencies to stem the scourge and rehabilitation centres struggling to deal with addicts.
The documentary had sparked heated conversations about drug abuse in Nigeria while off the internet, the government’s agencies and pharmaceutical companies shuffled to put together a response.
Tiwa Savage and Reminisce couldn’t have picked a worse time to perform a song about slowing down on codeine. There is no doubt that her performance was insensitive, yet that a song about drugs is one of the biggest in Nigeria speaks to a much bigger problem.
Music is a reflection of culture, and in a society where internet fraud has found its way into music, it was only a matter of time before the most popular songs began to reflect the reality of the people who make and listen to them.
Artistes also know that among their target audience, the largest demographic is the group of young people who attend parties, revel in the night and dance feverishly with loyalty to their favourite songs - the same demographic is reportedly now consuming millions of bottles of codeine a day.
Thus, for a good number of them, it only makes sense to make music that resonates with or at least references their habits.
In a different time and place, these references would be harmless but the circumstances are different.
Considering the influence that Nigerian musicians enjoy among fans who are often so eager to emulate them, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that Nigerian musicians have played a role in the drug crisis and now more than ever, they need to take responsibility.
Changing the tone of the music to reflect what is needed would be a good place to start.
There is a dire need for pop culture content that makes it cool to be safe, sober and drug-free, and no one has the power to do this more than musicians.
One would expect that the Nigerian government and its institutions would be the first and strongest force against the drug problem, but yet again, it has proved that it lacks an understanding of the problem and the people most affected by it.
NAFDAC has recently ordered the closure of production facilities belonging to three pharmaceutical companies who were mentioned in the BBC documentary, effectively taking almost a week to respond in the worst way possible.
Within the millions of plays that they hope to amass, there is an opportunity for our music stars to do something much larger than themselves and possibly save the lives of the fans who follow them with such dedication.
Nigerian artistes have been criticised for being shallow and dodging important issues. A rare chance presents itself now; it remains to be seen if anyone will go off the usual diet and step up to the plate.