As traditional Hip-hop continues to dwindle on the African continent, top musicians continue to bend its rules in creating a new fusion sound, that is deeply African, can connect, and grow in influence.
Over the past three years, rap music in Nigeria has slowly been on an evolving trajectory, as audiences shift their focus and tastes from lyrically-driven content to rhythmic dance music. The top players of the genre, have had to adapt their art, to stay relevant, and commercial. As a crucial survival strategy, popular rap has internalized many of the structural facets of Afro-pop music, and many rappers have helped keep the genre afloat in the mainstream.
In 2017 alone, Olamide released 5 singles including ‘Update’, ‘Wavy level’, ‘Summer body’, ‘Wo’, and ‘Love no go die’. Of all of these, only ‘Wavy level’, can be classified as a true Hip-hop record. By the end of the year, he released an album, “Lagos Nawa,” and only two song has him rapping. The rest were mixed versions of sing-rap and outright singing.
It’s rather telling that even he – arguably the Hip-hop’s most prominent pillar, enlisted the help of pop music, and street sounds to create his latest body of work.
Olamide isn’t the only example of mainstream Hip-hop musicians who have utilized the gravitational tug of pop music to bolster their own success. One need not look further than the list of hottest singles in 2017, to find numerous adaptation of singles by rappers, to conquer the commercial market; Falz’s ‘La fete’ and ‘Jeje’; Phyno’s ‘Augment’ and ‘Zamo zamo’; Ycee’s ‘Juice’. Such strategy begs the question: Have the mainstream section of Hip-hop merged with pop music completely?
These examples point towards what has become the meeting point of pop music and Hip-hop in Nigeria. Certain parts of this are coincidental, but their unification has become so mainstream that it cannot be ignored, or wished away by Hip-hop heads.
When you mention the name Hip-hop in Nigeria, the first things that come to mind are Olamide, Falz, Phyno, Ycee and a few others. Due to how prevalent their current pop-fusion music has become the norm. Look through their recent records, and you will find that they are more given to pop, but sometimes utilize their Hip-hop skillset to layer the music with lyrics.
This has created a divide within the industry and the standards of classification. Are these rappers who make pop music still rappers? Can they truly be called rappers, when all the art that they promote and profit off from, are essentially more pop than Hip-hop? Or do we as an industry, need to generate a new classification or sub-genre of music to properly document and file these mutant creations?
Rapper Falz believes that Hip-hop is an evolving genre that does not belong to Africa, but rather should be plugged into our interpretation of music.
“But who defined Hip-hop for us?” he asks. “Hip-hop as far as we are concerned in Africa is what flavour that we add to it. The original Hip-hop we imported is not the way we are doing it. It is very important as an artist not to tie yourself to any genre. You are just going to kill yourself. If you have to sit down every day and think about being straight hardcore stuff, it’s not really going to help you.”
Falz is more realistic and accurate in the classification of Nigeria’s current mainstream Hip-hop climate, and he is reaping rewards. His 2017 headline sold-out concert – The Falz Experience – packed crowds from all over the country.
As core rappers have seen their influence and fanbase drop, and concert-goers gravitate towards myriads of fusion styles that Hip-hop music offers, more people are beginning to embrace the genre.
It’s almost impossible to define the new mainstream Fusion Hip-hop broadly represented by our elite rap musicians. But to put it simply, it is any music that has moved on from the hardcore and traditional production and sounds of adopted Western Hip-hop, aka – the boom baps and its likes, - to more danceable, club-heavy, sonic definition. Much like the original Hip-hop, the Nigerian fusion Hip-hop offers numerous different subgenres, but it generally represents a local-thinking, production approach than the usual Western Boom bap, Trap, and others.
In many instances, “Afro-Fusion Hip-hop” is simply mainstream local rappers infusing their personal rap characteristics and elements into traditional African dance music; Phyno’s ‘Fada fada’ (Highlife), Falz’s ‘Jeje’ (Hiplife), Olamide’s ‘Wo’ (Fuji), and a few others.
Many would point to Olamide and Phyno as the two leaders of this movement, who set the tone for this collective, who are competing and thriving favourably in the pop scene. The two acts, who were at the top of the Hip-hop scene, gradually moved away in 2014/2015. By 2016, the biggest song of the year was ‘Fada fada’, which was a collaboration between them. Just recall that four years before ‘Fada fada’, Olamide and Phyno created an iconic Hip-hop collaboration in ‘Ghost mode’. That song actually introduced Phyno into the market.
Phyno is a great example of how to move between the lines. The difference between his two studio albums – 2014’s “No Guts No Glory,” (NGNG) and 2016’s “The Playmaker,” is stark in the way he delivered. On NGNG, he utilises Highlife sounds but raps through the verses. “Playmaker” has him doing the singing and rapping sparingly.
“I blew up as a rapper, but before I was a rapper, I was a producer for 8-9 years,” he told HipTV in a 2017 interview. “Don’t call me a rapper, call me a musician. If I want to sing, if that is the vibe I’m feeling, I do it. There’s no switching.”
Stanley Enow, a Cameroonian rapper who won the Best New Act in the 2014 MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA), says Hip-hop is no longer in vogue. Speaking about continental Hip-hop, he says “Every other Hip-hop scene, except for South Africa is shrinking.” He also believes that rappers have to adapt to get into the ears of the public.
“Rap don do. It doesn’t work anymore like it used to do before. You can see new kids coming on the block and performing in places where a rapper can’t perform, and they are making more Gs (money),” he says.
“With the new sound, the capacity to be able to infuse the Afrobeats, it appeals more. Now it is a little different, the sounds that are blowing are different, and if you really want to make it to that end, you have to be able to twist sounds.”
A key element in Afro-fusion Hip-hop is production. And one of the leaders of that school is Sess Tha Problem kid, who has been in charge of the past two albums for Falz. After meeting the rapper in 2014, the “two broke and hungry” guys, as he recalls, decided to connect and make music that defied Hip-hop standards. Together they have made two albums, “Stories That Touch,” (2015) and “27” (2017).
Sess’s sounds are fresh, modern and rooted in pop, with songs such as ‘Jeje’, tapping into the then ‘Pon pon’ wave to become a hit. Thus his role in crafting the sound of Falz is pretty much the core of the creative process. Such innovative behaviour is one of Afro-Fusion Hip-hop’s characteristics.
“For us, it’s all about getting people to connect, he says. It’s not genre-defined, we just want to interpret a song, and let people connect.” Sess says.
“You cannot undermine the sound that is around now, because people like what they like, that’s the reality of things. You want to create your own sound and be different as possible, but you have to also take into consideration, what the people like. Music is all about the elements, and understanding the vibe of the sound. If you are able to work around that, you would always be commercially acceptable,” he explains.
But you will ask: Is this not Afro-Pop? What separates them from the numerous people making ‘tungba’ music such as Davido, Tekno and Wizkid?
The difference here is in the lyrics. Afro-Fusion artists tend to have a richer flow, better songwriting, and an abundance of punchlines. Listening to them is akin to listening to Hip-hop, only with more melody and no spoken-word.
Another artist who has found success in creating Fusion-Hip-hop is Ycee. His debut EP, “The First Wave,” contains the smash hit record ‘Juice’. On that song, Ycee, sing-raps through his verse, on a melody that incorporates the ‘Pon pon’ Highlife sound, and features Maleek Berry, a pop act. The other parts of the project contain R&B and more sing-rap, in a lazy, laid-back manner. Although he’s balanced it by releasing Hip-hop records, much of what he does is inspired by pop.
All these artists have experienced growth in many ramifications. By avoiding the constraint and limiting ideals of Western Hip-hop, they have built loyal fanbases, grown their bottom lines, and increased their businesses.
Quite possibly, the largest indication of a shift in the tides is the level of influence. Olamide is the face of the ‘Shaku shaku’ trend. Falz’s brand continues to attract the biggest businesses, Ycee concluded a tour of the UK in January 2017, Phyno filled a stadium in the East.
As traditional Hip-hop continues to dwindle on the African continent, top musicians continue to bend its rules in creating a new fusion sound, that is deeply African, can connect, and grow in influence. With Afro-fusion Hip-hop, there would be no evolution; just a never-ending loop of Western infiltration, and nobody – except your strictest Hip-hop head – wants that.