On February 28, 2018, third-year PhD student Gabriel Bámgbóṣé organized a talk on Nigerian hip hop for his class. This is a review of the event by one of his students, John O’Meara.
As a mathematics student born and raised in New Jersey and of almost entirely Irish descent, I walked into this discussion with virtually no knowledge of Nigerian music and/or culture. However, aided by the exploration of African myth and the study of duality and synthesis of humankind and the world, it became evident that music is a universal language and that, despite geographical boundaries, there are many subtle connections between what I have grown up with and the topics discussed in the lecture by Michael Tosin Gbogi, a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics at Tulane University, New Orleans. The distinctiveness of Nigerian hip-hop notwithstanding, cultural markings, emceeing, deejaying, and breakdancing remain global markers of the genre. Gbogi’s main argument is that Nigerian rap/hip-hop is a reappropriation of the musical form that was originally domiciled in the Africa and became globalized after transplantation through the Middle Passage. In a thorough exploration of the social and cultural signatures of Nigerian hip-hop through cultural, literary, and linguistic lenses, I was able to see both the vast divergences and the many similarities that exist between both Nigerian and American styles of music and the visual stimuli that they present.
Nigeria hosts the second-largest hip-hop scene in the world, both in the mainstream and in the underground counterculture. The genre was first heard in Nigeria in 1981. However, by 1985 with the military regime and the economic crises of the structural adjustment regime, art suffered greatly because of the continuous violence that lasted until 1998. Many artists left the country to seek greater opportunities and found their own success elsewhere while paying homage to their homeland. The hip-hop scene reemerged with the first mainstream song “Shako Mo” by the Remedies. In this piece, the rappers feign an American accent, which might be an effort to gain a larger audience through relatable features to American English.
Gbogi questions the idea that Nigerian hip-hop music is very vapid and almost completely limited to “dance music” that partygoers may enjoy while in the club. He argues that the art goes much deeper in terms of context and meaning; Nigerian artists adopt hip-hop as a sonic instrument of agency, featuring mostly artists from poor or working-class backgrounds. Additionally, Nigeria is a heavily stratified society with respect to class relations. The youths therefore take inspiration from hip-hop in their yearning for an escape from the trying times of poverty. In Reminisce’s (feat. Olamide and Phyno) “Local Rappers,” the term “local” means poor. Thus, there is a sense of duality existing in the word, defined as both of lower socioeconomic status and grafted at the same time with a sense of belonging to the artists’ community. This demonstrates the highly effective reaction of hip-hop music (as a cultural binder and a means for success) to social problems.
However, the counter to this point of view is that globalization reduces one’s authenticity: the ability to “keep it real.” Gbogi introduces this second dimension as the use of language by one group to achieve hegemony over other groups. This suggests that language as a concept incorporates into its focus such issues as language norms and general cultural beliefs. For example, the Nigerian rapper Ruggedman incorporates Nigerian slang (pidgin) without imitating an American accent in order to maintain the sense of national belonging. In a similar manner, the song “Ehen” introduces themes of pushing back against the music of previous artists through a fusion of language and grammar of the “mother tongue” with languages often representative of the lower class.
Slang is generally described as an oppositional language that members of a minority group use to mark their difference from both established order and a more established diction. Onomastics, ethnic “shout-outs” to ghettos/neighborhoods, furthers this theme of relating to the audience. This is defined as “ghetto naming,” which exists as a method of class crossing as displayed in Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba,” named after the low-class neighborhood in Nigeria. Wizkid creates a narrative that states that he is a part of his people, though he finds a way out of poverty and achieves success despite his initial condition. Although there exists some narrative that consigns the past to the past and presents current events in the immediate present, it still follows that leading principle best outlined by Lord of Ajasa: “You can’t be doing hip hop if you’re not true to yourself, if you are not real.” With the synthesis of all these exploratory findings, I was able to leave the lecture far more enlightened and worldly, understanding that we are all truly one on this planet through the scope of intercultural traversing by music.
About the author
A first-generation American on his father’s side, John O’Meara will be the first in his family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree. This May, he will earn his BA in Mathematics, as well as minors in English, Computer Science, Music, Economics, and a certification in Recording Arts. In his spare time, he loves to read, particularly the works of medieval writers focusing on the topic of dissent; his favorite work of the genre is Piers Plowman by William Langland. Additionally, John is an avid songwriter and poet, performing in the many underground scenes throughout the city of New Brunswick. Upon graduation, he hopes to attend graduate school for Financial Mathematics and continue in his effort to become a certified Associate of the Society of Actuaries. While in school, John is a bartender at the local restaurant, The Stirling Hotel. A lover of all gin, his favorite cocktail to sip after a long day is a Tom Collins.