Naira Marley and Zlatan are rappers: Examining Hip-Hop purism in Nigeria

The people who say Naira Marley and Zlatan are not rappers suffer from a condition that we will call ‘Hip-Hop Purism.’

Naira Marley and Zlatan are rappers: Examining Hip-Hop purism in Nigeria. (Ripples NG)

‘Mafo’ is a Lagos-Yoruba street language/colloquialism that means ‘don’t fret.’ ‘Fo’ is Yoruba for, ‘break’ and ‘fo’ is also a metaphor for collapsing under pressure. So, in essence, Naira Marley was telling people not to fret. In this context, Nigerians living in diaspora are the target of his message.

As a recently returned Nigerian who spent over 10 years in the UK, he could attest to the joys of living in Nigeria and what ‘home’ truly means. He tells his fellow Nigerians living in diaspora not to fret about coming back to Nigeria. In a world where the Nigerian dream is tweeting one’s love for Nigeria from an American colony, his verses were social commentary.

Standards of symbolism, poetry and storytelling definitely vary, but this is in no way dissimilar to anything Kendrick Lamar, Future or Kurtis Blow make or made. Naira Marley makes rap music and he is a rapper.

The only problem is that people didn’t listen - some don’t understand his language of delivery. For a lot of those who understand his language, their minds are set on what a rapper should be and not what a rapper is. A major problem is that a lot of these people don’t understand what a rapper is.

They project the standards of the rap they like, the rap they grew up on and make it the sine qua non standard - by definition. In their minds, you can only make rap music if you sound like Nas, Jay Z or at least 50 Cent or Chingy. Their minds cannot process evolution of rap music and neither can it process the delivery of rap music in a different style or a different language than English language.

Thus, across the world, the term ‘rapper’ has always been a problem when it’s used to describe certain people in this current day and time. For a long time, Americans suffering a bout of juvenoia denied that ‘trappers’ were rappers. They even made fun of those kids. The same set of people also made fun of British rappers, their accents and their electronic/garage/grime/drill sounds.

In Nigeria, the people who embody this truth have continued to argue on Twitter NG that artists like Naira Marley, Zlatan, Lil Frosh, Danny S and so forth are not rappers. Like their US counterparts, they are about as logical as dry leaf that thinks it can survive Nigerian dry season on the branch of a tree without falling - it’s not going to happen.

Rappers like Olamide and Phyno were all faced with these problems in their earlier days. DaGrin and Reminisce never faced it because they sound like archetypal rappers. The only problem a Reminisce faced was that despite being an excellent MC, he was constantly overlooked for his English speaking counterparts.

They all suffer from a condition that we will call ‘Hip-Hop Purism.’

The answer is simple; Hip-Hop purism is the state of trying to make rap remain the way it was in the 90’s by way of sound, flow, topics, cadence and fashion. Its proponents are Hip-Hop purists. Sometimes, a lot of them are Hip-Hop heads.’

This is in no way dissimilar to how Kung-Fu custodians in old China reportedly criticized Bruce Lee for taking the art to Hollywood and watering it down. To them, it can only be Kung-Fu if it is done in the traditional way and by traditional standards. They were so desperate to hold on to the traditions and customs that they failed to realize that nobody can police art and culture.

Art has failed if it cannot evolve, be transported and be learned. Kung-Fu can still be Kung-Fu even if it is practiced in the US and by white people who know nothing about its roots. It can be a reduced, evolved or watered down, but it is still Kung-Fu. This same argument applies to Hip-Hop.

Now, I get the argument that says that a piece of art should not be watered down to an extent where it loses its core values. Asides the fact that evolution can make a piece of art lose its ‘core/traditional values/traits,’ and still won’t stop being that piece of art, but only to be more commercial viable/appealing to a larger audience, Hip-Hop has not really lost its values.

If anything, Naira Marley and Zlatan like Olamide, Reminisce, Phyno, Zoro, Elveektor and others embody what Hip-Hop is.

Hip-Hop is a genre of music that emanates from black culture. Primarily, Hip-Hop is a product of slavery. Africans transported abroad used to sing praises like ‘rara’ or ‘Ijala’ in form of panegyrics. Due to how they lost connection with their roots, they watered African praises down and added random sounds to them.

If you know African panegyrics, you would know that they sound like melodious spoken word. Over time and as an incidence of disco/funk, Hip-Hop became a voice for the oppressed and maligned. It also became yet another creation of blackness. But in its early days, Kurtis Blow and the earliest rappers created it as feel-good music on uptempo, danceable beats.

In Nigeria, Ron Ekundayo who is one of our earliest rappers created his album primarily on uptembo/disco, danceable beats. But as Hip-Hop grew into the mid-to-late 80’s, the beats got slower and more methodical. It also had elements like DJing, B-Boying, MCing and graffiti writing.

But these days, only two of those elements are still relevant; MCing (rapping) and DJing. To a large extent, MCing is the more relevant of those elements. Some of the greatest rappers like Jay Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Nas, B.I.G and current heroes like Kendrick Lamar or J.Cole are not big on the other elements. They are rappers - MCees.

In consequence, Hip-Hop only left some of the other elements behind due to evolution which modern Hip-Hop purists are rejecting. 90’s rappers were also seen as watered down versions of the art. They were seen as commercial artists as they went back to the danceable beats and even started rapping on R&B samples - not soul.

But like the times do, the Hip-Hop purists of that time were made to sound irrelevant. History mostly remembers the ones who evolved - not the ones who chose to stay ‘real.’ Since the 90’s, which has since become the template for ‘realness,’ in ‘Rap/Hip-Hop,’ the art has only become identifiable with a few elements; Poetry, rhythm, discernible cadence, identifiable flow scheme and sequence.

Your poetry could either be a well-articulated story or a well-arranged tale of braggadocio - it’s up to you. What is important is that your poetry has a sequential rhythm that can be followed in an identifiable flow scheme. Sometimes, it could also involve street lingo.

However, with the heavy influence of crime and racial chatter in rap in the 90’s, that became the ‘standard’ for Hip-Hop because the message was largely relatable in the black community. As such, rappers like MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice and DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince were looked down upon as not ‘real.’

These commentators of the 90’s failed to understand that the origins of the culture, as dipped in slavery as it is, on of its most tangible origins - like Kurtis Blow - is dipped in playful wordplay on uptempo dance beats. To them, crime and racial chatter became the standard for ‘real Hip-Hop.’

To them, you have to be ‘hard’ and sound like Nas or Rakim to be a rapper. They were wrong, just like Nigerian counterparts.

Nonetheless, they ignorantly failed to realize that they were also another speck in the evolution of the genre and not the standard. To people before them, 90’s rappers made ‘commercial rap.’ So, how then are commercial rappers trolling other commercial rappers?

The problem with all of us in this genre is that were are pointing fingers with our standards of what the genre should be and not what it is. We don’t seem to enjoy it for what it is.

If you understand what Naira Marley, Zlatan, Olamide, Reminisce and so forth are saying, you will understand that they embody the tenets of what rap is and not what hat rap should be.

They spit poetry with a sequential rhythm and discernible cadence that can be followed in an identifiable flow scheme. Sometimes, they also have wordplays and metaphors. How is Naira Marley rapping, “04, 14, 94 but iwo mafo…” on ‘Mafo’ different from Jay Z rapping. “H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A...” on ‘Izzo (HOVA)’ different?

How is Naira Marley’s documentation of reliance on crime in the UK on ‘Japa’ different from Kendrick Lamar’s different tales on To Pimp A Butterfly? I’ll tell you what, the only argument you can have is that quality differs, but they are both rap music with storytelling. Even that argument on ‘quality’ could be a product of bias towards English-rap.

They are both poetry with a sequential rhythm that can be followed in an identifiable flow scheme. Sometimes, they also have wordplays and metaphors. How can the same people who respected legends like Eldee, Lord of Ajasa, Eedris, Nigga Raw, 2shot and others argue that Naira Marley and Zlatan are not rappers?

How is Naira Marley rapping on ‘commercial’ beats different from what Kurtis Blow did? How is it essentially different from what Notorious B.I.G did on ‘Juicy’ laced with R&B samples - a taboo at the time?

How is it different from Jay Z rapping on ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulders’? How is it different from Modenine on the commercial ‘Nigerian Girls’? How is it different from Kendrick Lamar going ‘trap’ for ‘Humble’?

Again, the only argument we have can stem from ‘quality,’ but even that might be childish. What we can veritably say is that is a different type of Rap/Hip-Hop, but it is Rap/Hip-Hop. Naira Marley and Zlatan are rapping in their language in their own respective styles and with lingo peculiar to the language they rap in. They cannot sound like Erigga, Kendrick Lamar or Jay Z.

Naira Marley is the master-purveyor of vulgarity and insensitive lines. But even on those insensitive lines, Naira Marley tells stories about different Nigerian enclaves.

Soapy’ is about sexual frustrations in Nigerian prisons. ‘Am I A Yahoo Boy?’ is socio-political commentary. ‘Opotoyi’ represents our darkened minds once we step away from the bright lights and hypocrisy of Twitter subculture. This is not dissimilar to what Snoop Dogg would do in those racy music videos back in the day.

All these purists are just products of engineering. Sadly, they are also victims of what they ingested and they cannot seem to depart from it - for that, it’s not their fault. A lot of human beings struggle to unlearn the ‘truths’ they grew up on. That is why feminism struggles with its cause in the face of entrenched patriarchy.

What is their fault is the inability to see the inevitable evolution of ‘rap music’ and ‘Hip-Hop’ beyond what they recognize Rap/Hip-Hop to be.

They have also not been helped by their American counterparts who consistently spat on ‘trappers’ in the early days. But unlike their American counterparts in Hip-Hop purism, they have not accepted the evolution of rap music.

But then, the issue gets weird. A lot of Hip-Hop purists rate Reminisce, DaGrin, Erigga and others yet spit on Zlatan, Olamide and Naira Marley.

Rappers look and sound a particular way. When it comes to music, we all have our biases. The bias of most Hip-Hop lovers is the tendency to rate what remotely sounds like a 90’s rapper in vocal texture, flow or topic.

Reminisce and DaGrin have the crisp flow, cadence and vocal texture of archetypal rappers - especially Reminisce. They also have the style of the archetypal 90’s Rapper. Thus, it’s easy to identify with them over Olamide who has a thinner voice or Zlatan whose flows are different.

With Erigga, it is weird. Erigga who raps in the nationally understandable pidgin is not a victim of language barrier. His voice is thinner to Reminisce’s or DaGrin’s, but he has the markings of the archetypal rapper. He has the methodical flows that Naira Marley and Zlatan lack, he is a better storyteller and he has heavier bars/quotables.

However, that’s where it gets weird. This year, no Nigerian rapper has more quotables and maybe even more resonant bars than Naira Marley and even Zlatan. The only problem is that their bars/quotables are not delivered in the atypical methodical flows with crisp cadences.

Thus, instead of calling them ‘different,’ would-be purists and other ignorant people say they are not rappers. This brings me to my next point; one problem with Hip-Hop purists is not just that they just don’t know what rap is or the fact that they expect rap to only be made in a certain way, they subconsciously discard people who don’t come across as ‘excellent lyricists.’

In their minds, if you cannot be a ‘good rapper’ by their standards, you are not a rapper. So, it’s not necessarily just a problem of definition, it’s both a problem of definition and rating.

In Nigeria, Hip-Hop purism and Hip-Hop heads represent the sum of how a lot of rappers cannot earn off their craft. These rappers are so desperate not to deviate from the ‘real’ definition of ‘rap/Hip-Hop’ to allow themselves appeal to a larger audience. They are so desperate not to be called, ‘sell-out’ or not to be accused of lacking ‘realness.’ So, they would rather starve.

For this reason, Hip-Hop has struggled in Nigeria. In this day and time, Hip-Hop purism continues through people who still think Naira Marley, Zlatan and others are not rappers. While Hip-Hop purists are sometimes needed as ‘watchdogs’ who can help us all retain some sanity and ascertain quality assurance in this genre that we all love, they are impediments to the growth of Rap/Hip-Hop.

The reason is simple; no genre of music is measured by success of ‘realness.’ It is measured by its ability to penetrate the mainstream of most demographics and be a breeding ground for financial success. In 2019, 90’s Hip-Hop will not help anybody garner a market share, nor will it get any mouths fed.

Most people will not be MI Abaga or Ice Prince - most people don’t have their understanding and even Ice Prince had to make a lot of pop music. MI Abaga had to dumb it down, rap in pidgin and on commercial sounds to really crack the mainstream.

For Hip-Hop to grow in Nigeria, rappers like Naira Marley, Zlatan, Erigga and the likes are needed. They possess the right amount of relatable messaging, appealing commercial sound, relatable language (dialects and pidgin) and social knowledge to help rap gain a market share. If rap will ever grow in Nigeria, the people we have called ‘indigenous’ must be accepted.

When former Pulse Senior Editor, Ayomide Tayo was still with the company, we were having a conversation on the state of Hip-Hop in this country. We both agreed that Hip-Hop can have a foothold subject to the infusion of our DNA, pop culture references, inner-city realities, language and cultural monuments into the culture.

That day, Ayomide Tayo showed me a documentary on Noisey’s YouTube page. The media platform did a documentary on South African Hip-Hop through Cassper Nyovest. While watching the video, I understood how important Soweto really is to South African Hip-Hop. ‘Gusheshe’ that Cassper Nyovest rapped about is the local name for a BMW saloon car.

If Americans had B-Boying and DJs, Soweto had Gusheshe drivers who would drift and become stars. They had a group of dancers who infused local dance steps into Hip-Hop based heavily on local dialect. In Nigeria, we spit on our ‘indigenous’ rappers.

If ‘Parte After Parte’ proves anything, it’s that Rap/Hip-Hop can be successful in African countries. The song blew because it’s built on a commercial beat with a hook that’s cut from a viral clip across African social media channels.

At his peak, D’Banj was sometimes rapping and so was Durella. People just didn’t understand the reality at the time to include ‘rapper’ as part of their occupation. Is Beyonce a rapper? Not really. But if you call her a rapper, will hell break loose? To the sensible people, no. Since she dropped some Bangladesh-produced songs off I Am… Sasha Fierce, she has been rapping.

For large parts on Everything Is Love, she was rapping. It is left to us to know what we will call Rap/Hip-Hop when it becomes successful and not trying to hold on to unrealistic. fickle standards that will crash and burn in the face of history.

As expected, some people will argue against my point of view that genuine penetration and success of a genre is down to its tendency for commercial success. It will be understandable.

What will not be understandable is trying to say ‘Money is not everything.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Hip-Hop is being taken for granted because it is a peripheral genre of music to a large extent - mostly because people have refused to acknowledge the successful rappers as ‘rappers.’

No genre is truly successful without commercial success. Everyone who makes rap music makes it for money. As Jay Z told The Breakfast Club in 2015, “I don’t do this for money is a load of crap.” If you’re not making it for money, reduce the music to your family.

Nobody is successful of gratification. Sentiment and loyalty to ‘realness’ won’t feed families.

We need to wake up in 2020.


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