Can indigenous artists ever make it to the global stage?

Nigerian music has worn several hats since the pop evolution of the late 90s.

Olamide and Phyno are two of the biggest indigenous acts [Instagram/Olamide]

Davido and Wizkid are two of Nigeria's biggest names on the international scene who have successfully swung wide open the door upon which the likes of D'banj and 2Baba knocked.

While the likes of Tiwa Savage, Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, Patoranking are also enjoying a fair measure of recognition on the global stage.

It is a good time to be a fan of Nigerian music, but as we all know, Nigerian music did not get here overnight. 

There was a time when rapping in a language outside English was a monstrosity and one that would earn you the 'wack' tag. But all that has been revised and the most successful Nigerian rappers in recent times all rap in their 'mother tongue.'

It is 2019 and another indigenous rapper, Zlatan, is fast emerging as the latest revelation in the industry, with the likes of Davido and Burna Boy recognizing his impact and already scoring collaborations with him.

These indigenous acts have seen the dance styles they introduce year after year celebrated and replicated on major stages.

It has become cool for people to dance to 'shaku shaku' and neglect its origin or outrightly ascribe it to someone else, while also doing the Zanku and showing less excitement about telling the stories of the man behind it.

A lot of waters have been crossed in this journey, the sound has had to undergo major changes, the pace of the music has evolved, genre lines have been blurred and styles have had to be shed to arrive at this point.

What the earlier named artists, however, all have in common is that their music is largely delivered in the English form, with a sprinkle of pidgin or local language infused in some of their lines.

However, outside Davido and Wizkid, a top 10 list of the most influential Nigerian artists in the last couple of years will be incomplete without the names of two of the major indigenous acts, Olamide and Phyno

But while the former are shutting down 20,000 capacity arenas and making an impression on global charts, same cannot be stated for the latter duo.

These indigenous artists; they have major followings especially on the streets, with their slangs becoming the mecca lingual from which the top acts grab inspiration and have consistently defined the form of the music.

But while they influence the culture at home, it seems as though they are mere followers subjected to the crumbs that fall out of the success or popularity of others who have made the breakthrough on the bigger stage.

Why has this not happened yet?

Olamide recently announced the return of his concert to the London stage, another attempt at taking his music beyond the Nigerian shores.

However, critics are of the opinion that indigenous acts have struggled to transition from street heroes to international superstars.

A number of these artists have been accused of seemingly having little ambition and are content catering to their 'local fans.' 

''At times it looks like there is an unspoken rule between these artists not to bother pushing the boundaries of their art,'' says Mike, a music critic/blogger, ''It is as if they are as local with their aspirations as they are in the music.''

There may be some truth to this thinking, especially when you see the individuality to their brand or reluctant concern for things that take center stage in modern music conversations such as streaming numbers.

Mike continues, ''With the center buzz of someone like Olamide as the flagship artist of the sound, despite being the most successful and consistent on the scene, I doubt if Olamide has ever embarked on any South West tour, or a well planned international tour.''

One genre that perhaps adds some form of credence to this assertion is the recent spotlight from the foreign media on the rising 'Alte' genre.

In under a couple of years, the genre which is still at its embryonic stage is already getting decent curation and the secret is not far fetched. 

The individuals are putting actual work beyond the music in documenting their journey, creating an identity out of what they do and making themselves accessible.

For Urban Central in-house writer, Kwame-Okpu Aghogho, the reasons why this is yet to happen cannot exactly be narrowed to just one factor.

''It is yet to happen because of numerous reasons. Let us consider contemporary Latino music (Latin Trap, Reggaeton etc). Like Afrobeats, contemporary Latino Music is an amalgamation of styles- Hip-hop, traditional or indigenous music, dancehall, calypso- the primary mode of conveyance involves rapping or singing of lyrics that are predominantly in Spanish.

Latino Music enjoyed brief spells of popularity in the late nineties and early 00’s but in the last three years it has become immensely popular and today has a huge presence on the Billboard 100. We just recovered from the Despacito craze.

Some of the biggest reasons of this was that Latin Music in the last 3 years went fully mainstream because Major artists started leveraging on their style and the business of music changed.''

He opines that Nigerian artists don’t know how to leverage when collaborating.

''They don’t have a plan for expansion, domination and growth, they refuse to move from the mind state where they create music solely for consumption.''

But it will be grossly unfair to generally conclude on them having a lack of global ambition.

Olamide has ambitions, even if limited, if not he won't bother jumping on a record with Wale or Charlie Sloth delivering his verse in English and he would not have taken the third edition of his OLIC concert to the UK or be about to make a return to the Indigo stage.

So how much of a limitation is the language they use?

Irrespective of the various other factors that come into play, the biggest barrier to this happening is the language by which they express themselves.

Singing purely in Yoruba, Igbo or whatsoever traditional language comes with a rein. 

Despite how big Olamide is in Lagos, there is a ceiling to his popularity once he steps into the non-Yoruba speaking cities, Phyno has successfully packed out stadiums in the East, but question marks remain if he can replicate this in a place like Lagos.

And as expected, this usually plays out throughout the global regions where placement for TV Shows, commercials and events would be given a second thought because of the minority of those who will understand and appreciate the music worldwide.

Quartz writer, Yomi Kazeem agrees, ''Making music in an indigenous language is an obvious limitation to global fame, but examples of artists like PSY getting a global hit with a Korean song shows it can happen.''

PSY's 'Gangnam Style', released almost seven years ago despite being performed entirely in the Korean language became a global anthem, setting a Youtube record and becoming the sixth most viewed video with over 3.2 billion views. 

But as history has shown us, that is a case of the exception rather than the norm, even though the exception is beginning to happen a bit more frequently.

Talent manager, Oreoluwa Peters, however, thinks the language should not serve as a barrier, ''Music is a universal language and it just depends on how you communicate it across. They don’t have to taint their originality.''

It is tough choosing to play local and aiming to become global, and despite Afrobeats dominating conversations globally with a fast-rising fan base and foreign interests, there are fears that this progression is one that the indigenous acts are not destined to become a part of.

''Language constitutes like 50% of the barrier to their chances.'' Kwame states.

''Has Olamide gone on a tour of Brazil or other pockets in the world were Yorubas are a mainstay? Has Phyno taken his music to China, to throw a concert for the South Easterners who populate those parts? All these shortcomings are barriers to major success.''

So what are the chances that this will eventually happen?

''It’s possible.'' Peters explains, ''I mean look at the Latin community going mainstream and even bringing in more streaming numbers than major International artists. Look at the K-pop community too. 

''All we need is just enough support from the diaspora and the artistes knowing their true worth and understanding they have to invest in their careers. 

Feed your home base, explore and integrate other cultures and reinvent your brand. The West loves new and exciting things. Let us take advantage of that,'' he adds.

An opinion that Yomi acknowledges, ''Given the steady growth of Afrobeats as a genre, there's a chance that the vibe and beats of the music can open doors where the lyrics don't.''

Kwame, however, does not share their optimism, ''I am unable to ascertain their definite chances at achieving success on the global stage.

Who is to say they can’t for example get “one feature” this very moment. The feature that would change their lives.

There is also the possibility that it may never happen, who is to say they haven’t peaked and will only serve as legacy acts henceforth?''

Ultimately, as much as language is a barrier, it is clearly not the in-collapsible wall to making the music prominent on the bigger stage and success, even if marginal can only happen when these artists create a framework around their art that makes not just the music a selling point but their entire brand.


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