by James Eze
If you are young and gifted, this is your best time to be a Nigerian. And this is not some patriotic prattle.
It’s hard to admit it. What with electricity supply still as it was twenty years ago. What with airplanes dropping off our skies every now and then and sudden death stalking our streets and highways in fatal crashes and bomb explosions. Yet, never before has the Nigerian youth found himself suddenly capable of so many things.
The young Nigerian has finally cut himself loose from the throes of exasperating hand-wringing that drove his uncles and older brothers to Europe and America as economic exiles. This is his finest hour.
After years of begging to be given a little space in the Nigerian milieu, the young Nigerian has finally carved a pathway to his own self-realization. He has weaned himself from the comfort zone of habitually blaming his misery on crass political leaders who are cosmopolitan enough to know what is best for their people but lack the grace to bestow it on them. He has gazed inwards and discovered his unbridled power and infinite possibilities. He has discovered that in blessing him with lousy leaders God had made things up by blessing him with amazing gifts that would make a way for him. He has quickly taken back his life with a burst of creativity that has astonished the world.
It is not certain that most Nigerian youth know it but the future is finally here. Nigeria has always been the home of diverse artistic creativity. Many first generation Nigerian writers have won global acclaim with the offerings of their minds. In fact, much of what is known today as African literature began with them.
Ben Enweonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo gave contemporary Nigeria the visual direction to her arts. Before them, the carvers of Ife and Benin bronzes, the terracotta arts and the ethereal Nok Culture as well as the Igbo Ukwu Bronze had bequeathed us a heritage of unmatched artistic excellence. Before them too, the Ejegham people of present day Cross River State and the surrounding Efik and Igbo areas of the South East had demonstrated astounding craftsmanship with the evolution of Nsibidi writing which dates back to over one thousand years. Glorious as these proud beginnings seem, they counted for nothing in the intervening years of military adventurers in governance.
It is not clear whether there’s any correlation between the stifling atmosphere of military dictatorship and shriveling artistic production but there was a problem with the Nigerian imaginative field under the military rule.
In the mid-80s to early 90s, Shina Peters, Majek Fashek, Ras Kimono and Daddy Showkey all made dramatic entries into our national entertainment space but the glory days were far in coming. Their hold on the music scene was tenuous if it existed at all. America’s stranglehold on the entertainment scene remained strong with the flowering gangster rap and its gun-culture, fuelling gang-wars between rival cults on Nigerian campuses. Out of this miasma sprung icons like Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls (the Notorious BIG) and Snoop Doggy Dogg. The latter’s numerous misogynic tracks fanned the murderous embers of many campus killings in Nigeria.
So did African-American movies like Menace II Society by the Hughes brothers and Juice by Ernest Dickerson among others. These films brought home vivid images of gang-related crimes in inner city America which caught on with the Nigerian youth. The scenario was further deepened by the East Coast – West Coast rap wars in the United States with lyrics that glorified gun violence and deep contempt for women.
Interestingly, as families mourned the loss of their sons cut down in the poisonous atmosphere induced by this American pop culture, the yearning for a Nigerian version of street reality began silently in some circles. People wished for rhythms and lyrics that had resonance with the Nigerian experience. It was helpful that a silent fire had already been lit in a corner by Kenneth Nnebue whose classic movie, Living in Bondage had captured popular imagination and was gradually wrenching attention away from bootlegged Hollywood films that flooded the Nigerian market. It was also helpful that the rap duo; Junior & Pretty had softened the ground for the emerging hip-hop scene with lyrics that captured popular idioms and codes of the street. It was in this social and cultural ferment that the musical rupture, Innocent Idibia, Tuface, emerged on the Nigerian entertainment scene.
We must of necessity, acknowledge the power and influence of music on popular culture. Of all cultural vehicles, music has the most advantage of spontaneity and resonance. Movies, dance and fashion don’t quite match the pace and sweeping enchantment of good music. Little wonder therefore that the fledgling mosaic of Nigerian comedy and movies of the early 90s sired by Ali Baba and Kenneth Nnebue had to wait for the vocal grace of Tuface to gain wider acceptance in Nigeria and across the world.
It is hardly debatable that looking back to the last fifteen years, no Nigerian act has defined our popular culture like Tuface. His entry into the entertainment scene represents a ground-shift in much the same way as Chimamanda Adichie’s grand entry into Nigerian literature. Tuface’s sweet innocent looks, unassuming personality and extra-ordinary vocal gift animated public conversations across Nigeria. His vulnerabilities each time he fell to the wiles of young women echoed our collective humanity. These all swelled his legend and hoisted him firmly on the saddle of almost universal accolade and stunning financial success. Tuface made young Nigerians realize that they could take charge of their lives through music, that what lay inside them was far stronger than the limitations of their environment. With African Queen, his awesome classic, he forced many international windows open to Nigerian music and waltzed his way into Hollywood when the song was chosen as the soundtrack to Phat Girls, a 2006 comedy movie directed by Nnegest Likke, starring Mo’Nique and Jimmy Jean-Loius.
A lot of hugely successful artistes in Nigeria today owe their courage to ride the rough waves of musical career to Tuface. The monstrous success of African Queen flung wide the floodgate of creativity, spanning music production, music video production, make up artistry, artiste management, endorsements, brand ambassadorships etc.
Interestingly, the comedian, Ali Baba exerted almost the same influence on Nigerian humour. It is doubtful however, that Ali Baba would have had any real impact at all without the entrepreneurial vision of Opa Williams whose Night of a Thousand Laughs offered a pioneering platform for the entrenchment of the comedy culture in Nigeria and the birth of the Nigerian humour. The sprouting of home grown stand-up comedians and the resilient evolution of Nigerian humour with a heavy slant to the Warri outlook on life helped force Nigerians to recognize the hidden beauties of the Nigerian pidgin English which all along had dangled between total acceptance and outright scorn. Nigerian humour has now taken a firm position in our cultural tapestry, along with our music and movies. Nigerian comedians have continued to pack audiences at shows in London’s 02 Arena, Johannesburg, Accra, Kenya and across many states in the US.
And from Kenneth Nnebue’s ground-breaking 1992 film; Living in Bondage that laid the foundation, Nollywood has cast a spell on Africa and the entire black Diaspora. The phenomenal success of Nollywood is such that Nigeria is known to the outside world solely through the magic lenses of Nollywood. Today, Nollywood actors and actresses are outstanding sex-symbols across the world. Quite naturally, the blossoming of the local entertainment scene also necessitated the emergence of a high street fashion industry to match the eclectic tastes of the music and movie stars
Although the world might not know it or accept it, this is Nigeria’s defining moment. This is finally the moment when the motherland begins the fight back for a gradual repeal of America’s cultural dominance through music, movies and fashion with the sudden explosion of popular youth culture which shatters provincial slurs and stereotypes to mainstream acceptance. Growing up in the 90s, urban Nigeria looked up to America to define social trends and street ethos through music, dance, fashion and movies. Today, the shoe is on the other foot – American cultural icons look forward to playing shows in Nigeria and collaborating with Nigerian stars.
Nigerian jeweler, Chris Aire is a Hollywood celebrity designer. Frontline Nigerian acts are in serious creative and business partnerships with their American colleagues. Wizkid and Dbanj are signed on to Akon’s Konvict and Kanye’s G.O.O.D Music while PSquare and Tuface have done duets with Akon, Rick Ross and R. Kelly respectively. The exchange might not have attained the desired level but it is gratifying to know that it exists at all.
Besides, the real fascination of Nigeria’s emerging cultural super-power status is the fact that its creative energy is forceful enough to compel acceptance in distant places. Critical alliances with American and the cultural icons of other countries are important but not necessary. Nigerian acts do not need American influence to capture African, European and Asian audiences. What we have is authentic and infectious enough to capture the imagination of diverse audiences.
In recent times, nothing perhaps, is as gratifying as the growing acceptance of Nigeria as a cultural force across Africa and beyond. It is now common to hear Psquare’s Alingo boom out of the woofer speakers of a pimped up BMW saloon car in down town Johannesburg and bounce to the rhythm of Tuface’s Implication in a club in Dubai just as it is common to walk into a Mudi shop in a Nairobi high street or listen to Zimbabwean children innocently mime the lines of Flavour’s Ashawo Remix without knowing its explicit meaning.
It almost gives a heady feeling to recall that there was once time whthe world had only one narrative on Nigeria – 419. With our entertainment industry, Nigerian youths have saved Nigeria from the dangers of a single story. No longer will a cynical foreigner smirk at us and remind us about 419. We can always retort that, yes, there’s 419 but we have Tuface, Psquare and Dbanj too and that Genevieve Nnaji was on Oprah Winfrey’s Meet the Famous People in the World show the other day; that in our own time, Nigeria has become a tale of two narratives – the good and the bad; just as is the case with most countries of the world.
Another most gratifying thing is that with the plethora of talent hunt reality shows and musical festivals in the country, the production line that will supply raw materials to this industry will continue to rev.
Naturally, what may be hard to accept to most cynics is the fact that in our own time and with our peculiar limitations, young Nigerians have in one huge splash of creativity, reversed the cultural imbalance between Nigeria and America, the world’s cultural behemoth and imposed the Nigerian way on the world. In all honesty, it is difficult to find a better time to be young and Nigerian.