music under lockdown

2020: A great year for Nigerian Afrobeats?

By Dami Ajayi

Posted on January 20, 2021 15:37

BET Hip Hop Awards 27 Oct 2020 © Burna Boy; BET Hip Hop Awards; Credit: Photo by BET/Shutterstock (10976557em)
Burna Boy; BET Hip Hop Awards; Credit: Photo by BET/Shutterstock (10976557em)

The year 2020 will not be forgotten in a hurry. A leap year ushering in the Covid-19 pandemic which has claimed millions of lives globally and has left the world’s economy in tatters.

If any industry is almost exempt from the decimating effect of Covid-19, it would be Nigeria’s expanding contemporary music industry. The qualifier ‘almost’ is critical, in view of the leaps and bounds of growth that Afrobeats experienced in spite of the dire constraint of the times.

Local lockdowns meant restrictions on movement and a crackdown on gatherings. Consequently, there was a massive reduction in income for practicing musicians who rely on performing at concerts, tours and social events.

READ MORE Nigeria: Our 7 biggest stories from 2020 – Sanusi, Covid-19, Davido

Davido, one of Nigeria’s Afrobeats stars, cancelled his North American tour for the album A Good Time in March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 disease as a pandemic. He returned to Lagos and began recording songs for his fourth studio album, A Better Time. 

© A sell-out gig at London’s O2 Arena for Davido in January 2019/ MATT CROSSICK/PA WIRE/ABACA

Album releases

Davido was not the only musician who utilised the time afforded by the pandemic to tap into his creativity. This was the experience of most Nigerian musicians if the explosion of album releases in 2020 are anything to go by.

READ MORE Music: Nigerian Afrobeats star Wizkid is getting serious and having fun

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year that brought albums back into fashion, the first wave of its kind in about a decade since the zeitgeist shifted in favour of singles. The album, which had all but become an archival vestige, returned to the front burner in either the long play (LP) or extended play (EP) format.

‘Vibes and Insha Allah’ is trendy slang for ‘cruise control’ aptly describing the ‘whatever happens happens’ mood occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also the name of rapper Reminisce’s EP, which he personally produced in his home studio.

Those who left us

Although the death of octogenarian highlife maestro Victor Olaiya in February predated the Covid-influenced lockdown, the death of his younger colleague, Majek Fashek, happened in the murk of it. The deaths of Cameroon’s Manu Dibango, Democratic Republic of Congo’s Aurlus Mabele and Mali’s Mory Kanté hit close to home, leaving big shoes to fill in the ‘world music’ scene.

New things and old ones too

It seemed timely for highlife duo The Cavemen to release their debut album Roots in the same year a highlife legend passed. Their intimate rendering and reimagination of Igbo heartland guitar-driven highlife is easily the most accomplished resurgence that highlife has enjoyed since Flavour N’Bania sampled Rex Lawson.

R&B crooner Chike, not quite a newcomer, released his debut album with the dodgy title, Boo of the Booless. What this album lacks in titular savvy, it makes up for in the troika of Chike’s vocal range, lucid lyrics and naijaspeak.

Surprisingly, fuji/hip-hop fusionist Qdot Alagbe side-stepped his predilection for singles and made a lunge for the more sustained gaze of a self-titled LP.

Golden transformation

Perhaps the most astounding transformation of the year is Adekunle Gold’s complete makeover. Better known for his passionate rendition of Yoruba ballads, Adekunle Gold redefined himself as the poster boy of woke affection with ear studs, cornrows, trendy clothes and a brand new sobriquet – AG Baby!

His third album, Afropop, a title depicting both his new persona and artistic direction, is a worthy occupant of a top 10 slot on The Lagos Review’s Top 50 Music Albums of 2020 alongside Wizkid’s long-awaited Made in Lagos, Tiwa Savage’s Celia and Olamide’s Carpe Diem.

Bella Shmurda, already on the rise with his dazzling breakout single Vision 2020, deepened his gains with his assist on Triumphant a standout song on Olamide’s Carpe Diem. His addled but addictive ditty Cash App may have become a street anthem over the Christmas season but his overall impact was dwarfed by the dazzling effect of Port Harcourt-born newbie, Omah Lay, who released two acclaimed EPs, delivered the most inventive quatrain of 2020 on Olamide’s Infinity and still managed to end up spending time in a Ugandan jail.

Handcuffed and angry

In December, Omah Lay, alongside alté chanteuse Tems (whose debut EP For Broken Ears was a major revelation) were arrested after their concert in Kampala, for flouting government regulations regarding Covid-19.

Images of them being paraded in the courtroom in handcuffs precipitated a heated exchange between Nigerians and Ugandans, especially on Twitter. Thanks to the timely intervention of diplomats in both countries, both rising stars were released and repatriated to Nigeria. It is safe to assume that their Ugandan fans will not be seeing them anytime soon.

Afrobeats has always been regarded as dance music, portent for its ephemeral escapism, but a new dimension to the music emerged in October. Disturbing videos of brutal killings by members of notorious Nigeria’s anti-robbery squad, SARS, ignited a hashtag-driven social media protest (#EndSARS) which spilled into streets all over Nigeria.

End of SARS and beginning of a new era?

Nigerian musicians lent their voices to the protests online and made physical appearances at protests both within Nigeria and at the Nigerian High Commission in London. Davido appeared in the protests in Abuja while his single FEM became an anthem for protests elsewhere. Wizkid pushed back the release date of his Made in Lagos album to honour the #EndSARS protests.

READ MORE Nigeria: Low turnout in Lagos election shows #EndSARS impact

In Lagos, the Lekki Toll Gate was occupied in the most organised protest Nigeria had seen in decades. The atmosphere had a carnivalesque feel with free food, music, games and comedy, until Nigerian soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters on the evening of 20 October.

This saddening incident is the basis of Burna Boy’s 20.10.2020, a song detailing the events of that evening, which the Nigerian army continues to deny in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. By the single act of immortalising the martyrs of the #EndSARS protests, Burna Boy won back the adoration of teeming fans with whom he had had a tiff on Twitter about his perceived apathy in respect of the protests.

The year ended on a positive note with Burna Boy’s fifth studio album, Twice as Tall, clinching a Grammy nomination in the ‘world music’ category, his second nomination and hopefully, his first win.

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