Africa: How Olamide Transformed Lagos with his Music and YBNL
Dami Ajayi celebrates the eclectic sound and success of Olamide, arguably Nigeria’s most popular rapper, who has flipped the script that dictates the lingua franca of the genre.
Kicking the “despotic reign” of American-style lyrics and sound to the curb, Olamide cut a clear path for rap that is reflective of what it means to be Nigerian.
It is almost 4am and the year is 2015. Olamide’s yearly concert, Olamide Live in Concert (OLIC), is the most star-studded concert in Lagos. The end to a celebratory December, the organisers of the second edition of OLIC pace feverishly around the famous Eko Hotel. Hours before, traffic snarls around Victoria Island, the expansive parking lot of the hotel is full, and touts are parking cars on the streets for exorbitant fees. Not to be outdone, bootleggers hustle over-priced tickets at the hall entrance.
Within the hall, a mammoth crowd fills out different tiers – premium, regular, VIP and VVIP. The stage has a pier that stretches deep into the audience.
The concert begins at midnight, six hours later than slated. The night has eased into the wee hours of the morning, aided by great Nigerian music performed live. Ycee, Pasuma, Phyno, Chinko Ekun, Lil Kesh, and Falz grace the stage, punctuated by the timely appearance of Olamide.
At 4am, the music is put on hold and the audience falls quiet in anticipation. There is some rhythmic movement of a column of people ambling towards the main stage. Olamide stands at ease in the middle of the stage wearing a yellow buba and trousers with sandals.
It is soon obvious that the moving column is a march past of boy scouts in ebullient uniform. The column stops a few metres short of Olamide and a senior official comes out to decorate him with a neckerchief, after which he is given a plaque, courtesy of Boy Scout Worldwide for achievements as a boy scout.
As the column files off the stage, the crowd cheers as the introductory piano keys of Olamide’s biggest hit yet, “Bobo”, fills the room. The cheer grows louder when Olamide shouts the song’s opening line, “Eyin omo wobe”. As the song proceeds and Olamide raises one leg in the dance that goes with the song, the crowd does the same. Then he is joined on stage by his cohorts, for a choreography of the raised leg move.
Six years ago, no one would have imagined that Olamide would bring Lagos to a standstill. In fact, the name Olamide would have drawn blanks on Lagos streets. Six years ago, no one would have imagined that rap in Nigerian languages would become the zeitgeist. Olamide’s story and song are both testimonials to the possibilities of due diligence and good timing.
Around 2009, the entire Nigerian soundscape was being invigorated with a new ethos. The despotic reign of American echolalia that dominated our sound was gradually replaced by songs imbued with Nigerian culture and tradition.
Since Lagos was the cultural hotspot for Nigerian music, it was only a game of numbers that Yoruba, the dominant language in the city, would become the vehicle. In 2008, 9ice released an album called Gongo Aso, with an eponymous hit single that reverberated around Africa. Wande Coal had also released his From Mushin to Mo Hits, produced under the auspices of the remarkable bassist and hit-maker Don Jazzy. D’Banj had also released his classic third album, The Entertainer.
Gongo Aso was produced by ID Cabasa, a soft-spoken musician who owned Coded Tunes Studios. ID Cabasa’s acoustic production was in demand and he seemed more interested in building artists from scratch than putting his craft into commercial endeavours. He had worked with the likes of Reminisce and Lord of Ajasa, whose use of Yoruba English seemed to go along with Cabasa’s ideology of promoting both Nigerian culture and sound.
Coded Tunes was a Mecca of sorts for aspiring musicians lurking around to learn a few skills from the established musicians who recorded in the studio booth. It was not impossible that these chaps, often derogatorily called studio rats, would be sent on errands and menial jobs by the accomplished musicians.
One of these chaps was a slight rapper with a drooping right eye who went by the stage name G-Dogg. He could have been summarily dismissed as one of the boys in the hood up to no good. G-Dogg lived in Ladilak, one of the working-class neighbourhoods in Bariga.
Bariga is a densely populated Lagos suburb lacking basic amenities. As expected in the absence of municipal governance, drainages are clogged, roads fall into disrepair and youths in the environment become disillusioned about schooling and often take to crime.
The music played in Bariga is predominantly fuji music, that spare music that evolved from the Islamic Ajiwere tradition in the late 1970s and became famous in the hands of the late Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister in the 1980s. Fuji music is arguably our equivalent of hip-hop because it carries the youth along, unlike juju music. Unlike the conservative Christian tradition from which juju evolved, fuji music had a place for sparring. In Bariga, fuji musicians were elevated to a level of superstardom, evidenced by their posters and pictures clipped onto danfo buses.
Nigerian hip-hop, which resurged in the new millennium, had not significantly permeated the streets. It was a new form that aped the foreign music played on the radio. It was music almost entirely performed in English (but for the small exception of chorus in local languages) and perhaps this was the limiting factor. Talent shows dotted several locations in Nigeria and street ciphers had crowds of hip-hop faithful listening to fledgling rappers who spat 16 bars or more into mics to become the underground princes of the night.
There was the prolific Mode Nine, London-born “conscious” rapper, perhaps Nigeria’s equivalent of Talib Kweli. Naeto C, the emcee with the MSc, was dropping songs that dwelt more on swagger and attitude than they did on Nigeria’s harsh socio-economic realities. Pioneer rappers of Trybe Records were bowing out of music one after the other, save the energetic and chubby Sasha, who added a P to her sobriquet. Like the American R&B sensation Carl Thomas, Mr Incredible (MI) released an album titled Let’s Talk about It, in which he famously bragged that “Mr Incredible doesn’t use vernacular/doesn’t have to either, ’cause his flow is so spectacular.” Nigerian rap music seemed to be in the good hands of the English language. G-Dogg was the thoughtful observer assimilating these dynamics, but he was handicapped. Even if he was talented, he did not have a voice, studio sessions or a record label contract.
Then, Da Grin happened. The man who would change the lingua franca of Nigerian rap did not look anything serious, especially with his silly bleat of a laugh and his face set in a self-absorbed grin (perhaps how he got his MC name).
The buzz about Da Grin began after he featured on YQ’s “Efimile”. His verse, delivered in Yoruba, was reminiscent of 50Cent’s in “Heat”, and Da Grin’s calm delivery was nothing short of humorous.
The album that shifted the soundscape was his sophomore record, Chief Executive Omo-Ita (CEO). CEO took over the streets from Lagos all the way to Lokoja. The album embodied the dreams of every hustler, speaking to the stark realities of urban poverty and lingering on the small mercies of the libidinal pleasures of marijuana, liquor and prostitutes.
Tragedy struck when Da Grin’s car crashed into a stationary vehicle in 2010 and he slipped into a coma. He died days after from severe head injuries.
Lovers of Nigerian hip-hop culture were thrown into sack-cloth. The grief was palpable. Da Grin was only 22 years old and his star had only begun its ascent. Not the first rapper to record rhymes in Yoruba (Lord of Ajasa and AY being early examples), he was nevertheless the biggest. Da Grin’s burial rites shut Lagos down. The well-attended candlelight procession had the texture of a sombre cipher: industry bigwigs, friends, fans, families and well-wishers wore the customary black T-shirts bearing the print “RIP Da Grin”.
There was also an outpouring of tribute songs. Under the aegis of Coded Tunes, a rapper called Olamide released a tribute song voiced over an ID Cabasa beat and which fused the popular tune of the Scottish poem “Auld Lang Syne” with some heavy percussion. Olamide had dropped his initial sobriquet G-Dogg for his first name, perhaps because he wanted to relate to the streets on a first-name basis.
Olamide released his debut album, Rap Sodi, under Coded Tunes in 2011. Produced by ID Cabasa, it is exemplar of Olamide’s talent for mixing English and Yoruba semantics. The album title borrows from the English word “Rhapsody” – which in this context is an improvisational musical composition. He switched it to the Yoruba “Rap Sodi”, literally meaning “rap to the wrong side”. Figuratively, this meant flipping the rap game.
On “Eni Duro”, the most acclaimed song on the album, Olamide starts his first verse in English, “Olamide is here/just like the first day of the year”, and then lapses into Yoruba. Deep into his rap, he mentions Obesere, a popular Nigerian fuji musician and the principal influence on Olamide’s syntax, and the US group A Tribe Called Quest, in the same breath. Olamide does not just rap in Yoruba, he uses Saje, a slang Yoruba that was created by Obesere to both speak lewdly and disguise it.
Then Olamide delivers his most profound couplet about Lagos: “Don’t cry me a river baby/cry me a lagoon”. His early genius, in the span of ten words, imports Justin Timberlake’s lazy lament and situates it in the context of Lagos.
Rap Sodi was a modest commercial success, thanks to the Wizkid-assisted “Omo toh shan”, a proposition love song in which Olamide’s verse borrows lines from Da Grin’s “Kondo”.
Deciding to go it on his own, his sophomore album was self-released on his Yahoo Boy No Laptop (YBNL) Nation label – also the title of the album. This album showcases the ways in which Olamide not only flipped the Yoruba/English rap script, but also how he found ways to incorporate and elevate his Lagosian musical immersion.
The Pheelz-produced “First of all”, Olamide’s first single from YBNL, became a huge hit and staple for club DJs with its Ghanaian Azonto inflections. In “Jale”, Olamide tries for a gospel song with an intensely percussive beat almost reminiscent of the praise intermission in between prayer sessions at Nigerian Pentecostal churches. Apparently, when the dire need for money became intense, Olamide resisted the temptation to steal. On “Owotabua”, he calls money by its Yoruba name, humorously inviting it to join him for drinks.
Barely five months after the release of YBNL, Olamide released the single, “Durosoke”, for his third album. Another production by Pheelz, “Durosoke” features local Yoruba percussion poetry at its core, which is matched by Olamide’s rap in the same language.
“Durosoke” was followed by a slew of singles – “Turn Up”, “Yemi My Lover” and “Eleda Mi o” – so that when he released his third album, Baddest Guy Ever Liveth (BGEL), with cover art that had him dressed like a Roman senator shaping his hands like pistols, it was clear that Olamide was ready to move beyond Nigerian rap audiences.
If Rap Sodi was about testing waters and YBNL was about asserting claims and territorial markings, BGELwas about establishing mastery and crossing over. Between sheer humorous delight and relaying harrowing realities, Olamide catalogues himself on the album as a product of all his influences and leaves nothing unrecorded – from the Nollywood songs of his childhood to the realities of being Nigeria’s fastest rising rap star.
For its crossover appeal, this album comes from a deep reflection on what it means to be Yoruba, Lagosian and Nigerian. Ingraining this encompassing ethos requires that Olamide be at his most experiential and experimental on this album. To take the song “Eleda mi o” for instance, he flirts with juju music in the mellow, easy-motion manner in which the song segues. Midway into Olamide’s assured rap, he rehashes lines from the sequential curses King Sunny Ade sang on his 1970s classic “E Kilo Fomode” and by so doing, Olamide garners fans from another generation.
In the intimate and elegiac “Anifowoshe”, he samples a hook from one of fuji’s biggest exponents, King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal 1. This song is an ode to his rough childhood in Ladilak, Bariga. Olamide undertakes the painful journey of remembrance over a solemn percussion reminiscent of Yoruba Nollywood film scores. “Yemi My Lover” is also reminiscent of 1990s Nollywood tropes, this time a love saga between man and mermaid.
Attempts to create a new dance are foiled on the humorous makossa-tinged “Position Yourself”, which also concurrently runs a narrative on the “expensive shit” of Baba Suwe, a slapstick comedian and Yoruba Nollywood actor who was in trouble with the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency on account of allegedly smuggling narcotics. This would have been the funniest moment of the album had he not sang “Gbadun Arawa”, an insouciant love song on which he spoke his ancestral Ijebu accent when he wanted to trade in boutique designer frocks for the more indigenous “Knicker-burger ati Buba”.
However, with his provocative lyrics, Olamide was always a likely candidate to catch social media flak, and with the song “Story for the Gods”, a wickedly percussive song about a sexual conquest, he finally did. His songs, especially on the Street OT album, demonstrate scant regard for consent, and for women. On the crunk-inflected “Up the Club”, he raps after the irreverent hook: “Gbogbo owo mi to na/ma gain e laye/ma gain re l’orun/Bo bere lasan/bo l’ohun m’omi ninu fridge/ma ko fun/Bo ti n wo inu kitchen/bo l’ohun dana/ninu kitchen, ma ko fun”. The literal translation reads: “All the money I spent on her, I will gain on earth and in heaven. If she squats to take water from the fridge, I will sex her. If she saunters into the kitchen to cook, I will sex her”. Again, on his insouciant “Falila Ketan” – which roughly translates to “Falila opened her legs”, in an exhibitory fashion – Olamide’s remarks about how Falila’s frocks are a catalyst implicitly for coitus.
It is difficult to disregard the fact that these songs promote at least the objectification of women. Despite the echo of this kind of misogyny in other artists’ work, and despite Olamide’s popularity, there was a decisive campaign against “Story for the Gods” as a rape manifesto. Unfortunately, as with most anti-rape campaigns, though some awareness was raised about consent and respect, Olamide lost little of his following and in fact may have gained some street cred.
Thus, unperturbed by the social media backlash and critical bashing of Street OT, Olamide was back in the studio for back-to-back releases. Prior to the arrival of his fifth solo LP, Eyan Mayweather, sound waves were agog with resplendent play of his promotional singles. “Bobo”, “Lagos Boys”, “Melo Melo” and, to a lesser extent, “Matters Arising”, had become hits. “Bobo” succeeded where “Position Yourself” failed, incarnating a popular dance called Shakiti Bobo. “Bobo” is based on a popular rhyme sung by Nigerian children, which Olamide hijacked and used to celebrate the value of diligence.
Eyan Mayweather is an unusual album especially if viewed through the lens of the eponymous introductory song. Here Olamide brags, not quite in the manner of “Eni Duro”, but no less artfully – the most important credentials being the recurring successes of his sold-out concerts in London, Malaysia, America and Lagos, pointing to the far-reaching influence of Nigerian rap. It is also unusual in its move away from rapping; instead, Olamide sings, fuji style, on most of the album.
YBNL Nation, his record label, has also diversified. There is Lil Kesh, the shoki master; Viktoh, a rapper from mid-western Nigeria who raps in Esan (he started out as Olamide’s dancer). There is Chinko Ekun, who has left the label to focus on his law degree. There is the highlife/folk singer, Adekunle Gold, a graphic designer whose work features on some of Olamide’s albums. Temmie Ovwasa, the only female on the label, was signed about a year ago. Davolee, an upcoming rapper, also recently put pen to paper.
A year after the massive OLIC 2015 event, Olamide released The Glory, his sixth album in as many years. In it he responds with “Awon Goons Mi” to those who believe his rise is tied to the death of Da Grin. For those who also felt that his first album, Rap Sodi, was a flash in the pan, well, “cry me a lagoon”.