"We Want Solution, Mr. President!"
Mention Nigeria and certain clichés immediately come to mind: oil dollars, Afrobeat, dodgy "investment opportunities" in your email inbox. Very few people will think of rap music. But what began ten years ago as a genuine underground movement – a counter-culture in the old-fashioned sense – has developed into an increasingly important branch of the Nigerian music industry.
On every third street-corner in Lagos, 2Face smiles down at passers-by from gargantuan billboards; and this street-smart shooting star and darling of the ladies has a message for the world: "Discover real Smoothness". He's talking about a beer brand. In November last year, 2Face was named Best African Musician by MTV, and the major Nigerian label Kenny's Music is now hoping to sell his latest CD to Sony.
International recognition for local culture
Jay Rutledge is adamant: "This is going to be a really big thing". A committed journalist from Germany, he also runs his own small label, "out/here-records", and he's travelled to Lagos in the hope of signing up artists for the fifth CD release. Most Nigerian rappers have never been heard of outside their native land; yet Kenny's response to Jay's enthusiasm is a tired smile.
Is he expected to be thrilled just because someone from the North takes an interest in the music of the South? That wouldn't fit in with Kenny's idea of business. Anyway: How big is a really big thing? Is it enough to be a local hero or should you aspire to be an international star? These are virulent topics here.
And that's why there's no track by 2Face on Rutledge's recently-released sampler, "Lagos - Stori Plenti" – and none by the Danfo Drivers, who are equally big names in Lagos and who have already sold more than a million records. The masked rapper Lagbaja is also notably absent. One star who does put in an appearance is Eedris Adbulkareem. Brought up in the Muslim fundamentalist north, Eedris is the very embodiment of the rags-to-riches story, the poor boy from the ghetto who achieves fame and fortune.
At the end of the 90s, he wrote the first big Nigerian hip-hop hit, "Shakomo", and was signed up by Kenny's Music. Last year, though, he turned his back on the major Nigerian label in no uncertain terms: not only did he form an Aids charity; he also established his own label: La Kreem.
Throwing down the gauntlet to Nigeria's President
Somewhere along the way, Eedris gained the reputation of being the Nigerian hip-hop scene's enfant terrible. His huge hit "JagaJaga" was a belligerent challenge to the President; the title is Yoruba, and it means something like "messed up". This is Old School rap in the best sense – an effective, popular and vehement expression of opinion.
Eedris never tires of stating his mission. To him, hip-hop is a kind of evening school, an adult education college in musical form: "I want my song to open people's eyes. There are about 150 million people in Nigeria, and only six percent of them get an education. In other words, most people have no access to education at all. But we can educate them through our music. I draw my inspiration from my surroundings – and I give it back, so that the people can grasp what's really going on."
With his last album, "Letter to Mr. Präsident", Eedris addressed Olusegun Obasanjo in words the country's leader could not fail to understand: "We want solution! My people die across the nation."
However frustrating the legal wrangles and the vanities of some people involved, "Lagos - Stori Plenti" does constitute an impressive sample of the local music scene. Among the artists represented are Terry tha Rapman and Modenine, boys from the middle class with university degrees. Their ambitious, sophisticated lyrics have won them their reputation as a kind of Rap Intelligentsia.
While most of their colleagues rap in Pidgin, a local slang that's hard for outsiders to decipher, these artists perform in almost-perfect BBC English. Terry's "I am a Nigerian" is a highly impressive, ironical reworking of Eminem's "My name is". And Modenine's "419-State of mind" deals with a national trauma: 419 is not just any old numeral; it denotes a new anti-fraud law designed to stamp out Nigeria's notorious email scams. These are dreamt up in countless Internet cafés, mainly in Lagos, and they still provide a sizable income for their unscrupulous but imaginative authors.
Modenine cites extracts from original emails and laughs at the greedy and gullible victims, before giving his listeners some simple but sensible advice: "Next time be weary of the internet deceit. / If you see a strange email, my guy: / press delete!"
Malcom X's Plagiarist
He also likes to quote some very different writers, from William Wordsworth to Malcolm X (indeed, the rapper's last album was entitled "MALCOLM IX"). Modenine's favourite question is "How to drop science?" He's preoccupied with the task of bringing knowledge into circulation, although he does go about it in a less openly didactic manner than his colleague Eedris Abdulkareem.
Then there's JJC, who plays a different game with Article 419, and who is currently being touted as the most successful Nigerian rapper in London. A native of Kano in northern Nigeria, he moved to England at the age of 14. His initials stand for "Johnny just come" – a play on Fela Kuti's "JJD", or "Johnny just drop". Kuti was describing the experience of many Africans who arrive, naïve and ill-prepared, in countries such as England, and who struggle to find their feet there.
JJC first gained fame under the name "Skillz", before recruiting his own crew (Smokey, S.O. Simple and M.P.) to form JJC & 419 Squad. Far from celebrating the email scams, they want to combat prejudices and clichés about Nigeria – and they're going on the offensive to improve the world's image of their distant homeland.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan