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Inside Nigeria’s booming music industry: ‘The world needs to listen to us’

Phenomenal success of Nigerian artists is bringing both opportunities and criticism

It started almost as a joke. Nigerian celebrity musician David Adedeji Adeleke, a 29-year-old popularly known as Davido, posted on Twitter, saying he wanted his friends to send him 1 million naira each to clear his Rolls Royce from customs.

“If you know I’ve given you a hit song, send me money,” tweeted the man who has been referred to as the modern-day “king of Afrobeats”. His friends obliged. Within 31 minutes, he had 26 million naira (€57,000); in six hours he had more than 100 million naira.

The callout provoked a fierce debate on social media about whether people should be adding more wealth to one of the country’s richest people, rather than helping the many poor who struggle every day across Africa’s most populous country. Davido eventually announced he would be giving the eventual tally of 200 million naira (€440,000) raised, plus 50 million naira of his own, to orphanages.

But the storm also highlighted something else: the huge and growing music industry in Nigeria, and the phenomenal success of the country's artists, who are experiencing a boom in popularity both across their own continent and the rest of the world.

Inescapable songs

One of those who donated to Davido was Patrick Nnaemeka Okorie, popularly known as Patoranking. The 31-year-old has been creating music for more than a decade, releasing bangers including Abule and Suh Different.

He was a mentor for two seasons on The Voice Nigeria television programme, has done paid endorsements for brands such as Skyy Vodka and Hennessy, has 7.9 million Instagram followers, and is said to be one of the richest musicians in the country.

Patoranking's songs – which are sung in English or pidgin English, appealing to a broad fanbase – are inescapable across Africa: I've heard them blasting everywhere from rural Uganda to Sierra Leone.

We meet at his recording studio in upscale Lekki Phase 1, which is separated from the main bustle of Lagos by a stretch of water. Patoranking arrives late, but offers me food and drink and then asks me if I’d rather do the interview with the lights on or off – I tell him I’d like them on, as it would be difficult to take notes in the dark.

He tells me it is "normal" that there is competition between musicians for wealth, even in a country where the World Bank says 40 per cent of the population survive on less than $1.90 per day. "Nobody needs to tell you how to live," he says.

When Patoranking was young, he sold rat poison on the street and worked as a bricklayer to support his family: “Two things out of the thousands [of jobs] I did... I was the first child, and there’s a responsibility that comes with it.”

Starting out in music was “tough”, he says, because of his background: many of Nigeria’s successful musicians come from money or can easily access financial backing. “I was trying to tell people that I was a big deal. They didn’t get it... I remember when I was just praying to God: ‘I need somebody to be my backbone. I can take this dream further.’”

He attributes his success to working hard and networking well, and says he has never felt under pressure to change his music for an international audience. “I can’t be boxed . . . I just go with the flow.” But he argues that African musicians deserve more global attention. “The world needs to listen to us.”

In the future, Patoranking says, he expects to be "bigger" than Bob Marley, but success has its pros and cons. "They say if you pray for the rain, be ready for the mud. Okay, so pray for the fame, be ready for the crowd . . . Am I winning? Yes, I am today."

And he sees Nigerian musicians taking over the world. “I don’t want to say in Nigeria alone, [it’s] Africa right now,” he says. “For Nigeria, it’s great, because we have been able to move at the speed of light.” Music has even cut crime, he adds. “Coming from the hood, the ghetto, everybody wants to become a musician, [they’ve] seen one of their friends becoming a star, [anyone can be] inspired thinking he can do it. So it has really changed a lot.”

All Africa Music Awards

Days after our interview, Patoranking performs at the All Africa Music Awards at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, one of the city's most exclusive venues. The night is a celebration of all it means to be African.

During one performance, a yellow "keke napep" tuktuk, a regular means of transport in west Africa, is driven on stage. "Africa is vast," says the event's co-host, South African actor Pearl Thusi, apologising for not being able to speak in all of the continent's more than 2,000 languages, but saying everyone is welcome.

Kenyan singer Shanah Manjeru, a 13-year-old who will end up being the youngest-ever winner of an award at the event, appears on stage. Radiant in a glittering gold outfit, she says she is excited because “the future of Africa looks like me. Young. Female.”

The theme of the event is “still, we sing”, with organisers pointing out that although Africa, along with the rest of the world, has been through two gruelling years of the Covid-19 pandemic, music has the power to lift people. Winners from across the continent are announced, including Morocco’s Dizzy Dros, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Fally Ipupa, Mali’s Iba One and Gabon’s Shan’L.

Before the awards kick off, the red carpet outside is awash with African entertainment hopefuls, as well as a range of businesspeople and politicians, including a provincial culture minister from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who says he is very excited to attend.

“We’re all trying to create content,” says Nigerian YouTuber Dayworldwide, asking if I am willing to be pranked on video.

But many of Nigeria's biggest stars are not there. These include Omah Lay (24), a producer and performer whose early release Bad Influence was the most streamed Nigerian song on Apple Music in 2020; and Wizkid, a Grammy-winning 31-year-old who has been releasing music since he was 11, and has collaborated with Drake, Calvin Harris and Justin Bieber.

Wizkid – who wins three awards, including artiste of the year – is in the UK, ahead of a performance in the O2 Forum in Kentish Town. So is 26-year-old Temilade Openiyi, or Tems, who also wins for her collaboration with him, Essence, as well as being nominated alone for “breakout artiste of the year”.

The absences are a sign of the reality of how many African artists feel: that success, and the money that comes with it, is a bigger prize abroad than at home.

Teething problems

In a coffee shop on Lagos's Victoria Island, I meet Titilope Adesanya (29), a former journalist and radio host-turned-music executive who works as a project manager for US-headquartered label and distribution company Empire, managing a range of famous young African musicians, including Fireboy DML, LAX, and Kizz Daniel.

In Nigeria, there has always been a “richness” of music, she says, although there was historically a focus on live performances. “We have a huge party scene across weddings, birthdays – there’s always a live band.”

Fame might have come when musicians paid distributors in Alaba market, a large electronics market in west Lagos, to put their songs on to CD compilations. "That was the distributor we knew before Apple and Spotify, " she says. "They'd press really big quantities so your music would be playing everywhere, every taxi driver would have it, every tavern you go into."

In recent decades, the increasingly global success of Nigerian music has led to “growing pains” on the business side, because of the lack of systems in place to make sure artists receive their dues. “Lots of people are making music but people are not getting paid,” Adesanya says. “The structural part of things is now playing catch-up.”

Across much of Africa, music is shared or sold on USB keys by profiteers who collect money only for themselves – a lack of enforceable intellectual property rights is an issue. That means it can be hard to measure the popularity of certain artists. While Spotify and iTunes might have been expected to help with that, Adesanya says those platforms pay musicians based on where their listeners are; having predominantly African listeners generates less money.

Another issue has been big international corporations offering contracts to musicians with little understanding of what they are signing. “In the last 10 years you might meet a lot of Nigerian musicians or labels that have gotten into the worst deals that could ever be,” Adesanya says. “The education part of it has been lacking, but people are wising up.”

When African musicians do get offered opportunities abroad they can face difficulties getting visas. Even where there is a contract from a festival, or the backing of a promoter, a visa can be rejected for no clear reason, or granted only at the last minute. In recent years, there has been a growing backlash against this, particularly in the UK. In 2018, Chris Smith, the organiser of Womad festival, went public on this issue, saying many musicians had begun rejecting performance offers because of how "difficult and humiliating" they found the visa process.

For those who travel, their visa is often tied to a promoter, who might be very controlling of what the artist can do, not allowing them to connect with friends, do independent media interviews or hold meetings.

African artists also face racism, with some telling me that promoters even used the wrong name or a photograph of someone else to advertise their gig. Adesanya says bigger artists are more insulated from this, because they travel with a team surrounding them, but “there’s always something they’ve experienced personally... For the most part if I want to be generous I’d say it’s ignorance and the lack of zeal to care for what’s not yours.”

Rich history

In the Kalakuta Museum in Lagos, the rich history of Nigerian music is on display. This was the home of Fela Kuti, the famous Afrobeat pioneer and critic of Nigeria's military junta in the 1970s who lived with a harem of women and once nominated himself for president.

A statue of Kuti without a head (because he didn’t like being deified, his son tells me) stands on the road outside. Kuti died in 1997 at just 58, but his clothes, including the colourful bikini briefs he was famous for, hang on display beside his still-preserved bedroom, while photographs of his legendary performances can be seen across the walls.

In a recent documentary broadcast by the streaming service Hulu, Paul McCartney described hearing Fela Kuti perform in the early 1970s as “one of the greatest music moments of my life”.

Kuti's youngest son, Seun, has partially taken over his mantle. The Grammy-nominated 39-year-old plays saxophone and sings with his father's former band, Egypt 80. But today Seun can also take full advantage of social media to get his music heard and his views seen globally.

On my way to interview him, when I tell my Uber driver where I am going, he grows animated, describing the scandal Seun Kuti caused that morning by saying on Instagram that his wife was his personal God (Kuti regularly posts and goes live on his Instagram page, @bigbirdkuti, to 279,000 followers).

“I don’t really care about religion much,” Kuti tells me later. “Organised religion globally has negative effects... I don’t think there’s anything positive that religion adds to the world, not even [in] Nigeria.”

When I meet him, Kuti is on day two of a three-day juice cleanse ordered by his wife Yeide, a chef, although he has continued smoking weed, which he worries is giving him the munchies. Standing outside his property, he says it is full of friends, so we drive to the Kalakuta Museum and sit in a bar on the roof.

Kuti says the increase in international attention for Nigerian music is noticeable. The expansion into Africa of international outlets such as MTV means “we’re able to broadcast African talents globally”, he says. The large Nigerian diaspora also helps, although sometimes he questions whether music is being used to subdue or distract poor people from rising up.

“We have business and political elites that invest more in entertainment than in education,” he says. “[Yet] iTunes has made a big difference in music by making sure artists stay poor. The... percentage they pay artists by listen is the reason why artists really have to pimp themselves as brands to corporations.”

Kuti, who is wearing shoes beaded with the shape of Africa, studied classical piano up to grade 5. He learnt about European culture and believes Europeans should do the same without thinking “that one culture is classical and superior”.

During our interview, he quotes 18th-century economist and philosopher Adam Smith in speaking against the "masters of mankind". He says he is running for chairman of the socialist political party that his father set up, the Movement of the People, which he has resurrected. They hold a meeting downstairs as we speak.

Even though Kuti makes his living as a musician, he is also keen to question how the music industry is run. “Fame everywhere in the world is controlled by consumerism and materialism,” he says, before criticising fellow artists for making their performances inaccessible for the average Nigerian.

“You’ll find that many artists in Nigeria charge exorbitant fees. Our minimum wage here is about $60 [a month]. You’ll find the gate fees [for concerts] are $40 for the cheapest tickets... You see a lot of young African musicians wearing gold chains. Even our cousins are dying in the Congo, in Liberia, in Senegal, in Sierra Leone to mine these stones almost in slave conditions. But these are the same things that we want to show we are successful.”

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