Sunday 25 September 2022

Lagos' street slangs lifting Afrobeats, Afropop music, globally

Lagos, divided naturally, by waters into three: Mainland, Lagos Island and Victoria Island.

"Lagos is by far the most important town in West Africa," wrote Harold Bindloss, in 1898.

OVER 123 years after Bindloss made that statement in one of his books, Lagos is still the most important city in West Africa. In fact, in evolution of African musical contents, Lagos has created a strong cultural hub from where Africa, and the diaspora, in the past and currently, have attained global appreciation. 

Among the strengths of most languages, across traditional and contemporary usages, is the street value and expression. And in music, across generations of the past 60 years, the Yoruba lexicon of street slangs – rooted in Nigeria's Lagos –  keeps finding strong lyrical rhythm in Afrobeats and Afropop.

Every generation of Nigerian musicians, interestingly, creates amazing slangs from which big hit songs build their successes, not just within the country, but across the black diaspora. Lagos, a city state and West Africa's economic and cultural hub of over 150 years has been playing the pivotal part for over half a century musical renaissance. By ancestral origin, Lagos is Yoruba, but as a city state, it is 'home' to the Nigerian ethnic diversity.

Consistently, music has been playing key role in amplifying the Yoruba pop culture values. For example, the popular Nigerian phrase 'owambe' (it's there), according to some sources, used to classify social gatherings of celebratory kind with music, derived its name from sensuous attitude of men towards women at parties, back in the 1950s/1960s. According to the sources, the then men, while dancing with ladies always liked to feel the waist beads of their dance partners. And once satisfied that a lady had the waist beads, the man signals to his male counterparts: "owambe." Other sources disagreed with the sexy contents origin: 'owambe simply came from the availability of many assorted foods and drinks at a party' it has been argued. Whatever the origin, as musicians kept using the phrase in their lyrics, nearly every elaborate social gathering or party, eventually got christened as 'owambe'.

From the indigenous Yoruba genres such as Apala, Sakara, to Juju, Fuji, Awurebe, among others that reigned for almost a century, quite a number of themes have inspired the next generation of musicIans to amplify the street slangs of Lagos. Such beneficiaries cut across native Yoruba genres, Afrobeat, Highlife and pop music that emerged later.

For examples, from a prominent Apala exponent, Haruna Ishola's 'Soyoyo' (fair skin beauty, recorded in 1970s, but remixed by his son, Musiliu in 2003); Fela Anikulapo Kuti's 'Shakara Oloje' (bully for nothing) and 'Roforofo (Muddy) both hits released in1972; King Sunny Ade's Eja Osan', 1988; as well as Mike Okri's Omoge (damsel) in 1988, among others, the Nigerian music industry had blossomed greatly from the rich Lagos culture of street slangs, in the past 60 years.

And to assert the connection between the older generation and contemporary musicians, Fatai Rolling Dollar (1927-2013) whose career dated back to the 1950s returned to the music scene with the hit song 'Won Kere Si  Number Wà' (They Are Unequal To Us Numerically), in 2004. The Rolling Dollar's JuJu/Highlife hit was actually inspired by the old street phrase of the same title, which was commonly used on the streets of Lagos several decades ago, but faded out of vogue until the 2004 return, inspired by the late musician.

The last 20 years of contemporary genres such as Afrobeats and Afropop seemed to have amplified the Lagos slangs more than ever before. From musicians such as Tony Tetuila, Maintain, 9nice, Rugged Man, D'Banj, Wande Cole to WizKid, Olamide, Davido, Dr Sid, Don Jazzy, Burna Boy, Kizz Daniel, Tiwa Savage, Simi, Rema, Adekunle Gold, Teni, Asake and Portable, among others, the energies of the Lagos' Yoruba slangs keep radiating within Africa and the diaspora. Perhaps, the loudest in that context is 'Buga', the mega-hit song by Kizz Daniel, featuring Tekno. Released on YouTube and other streaming platforms at 4pm on June 22, 2022, 'Buga' garnered over 10 million views in just six days, with stats showing audiences from across the world. As a single, 'Buga' was first released in audio on May 2, 2022 and turned out to be the most shazamed song in the world, in less than three weeks. 

Like most hit songs that have Yoruba slangs as the pedestal on which their rhythm were built, Lagos always played a strong factor. Lagos, a former capital of Nigeria, is the most cosmopolitan of all cities in the country. And as one of the 36 states in the country's political structures, it falls into the southwest region. 

There is no doubt that the city's commercial and cultural hub status provide a space for the creative industry to thrive, across The Arts economy. And as a commercial hub, Lagos has been the most attractive city to business interests from across the West Africa coast, in the past two centuries. The city's status as a centre of attraction in West Africa inspired a nineteenth century sailor and author's observation: "Lagos is by far the most important town in West Africa," British colonial era author, Harold Bindloss wrote in his 1898 book 'In the Niger Country'. From the "town" that Bindloss knew in 1898, Lagos has grown into a megacity divided, geographically, by waters into: Mainland, Lagos Island and Victoria Island.

And the fact that some economists argued that "if Lagos were a country, it would be rated as fifth or sixth largest economy in Africa", perhaps adds to the historic role of the city in giving lift to the Nigerian music industry. Lagos is also the birthplace of Africa's largest film industry, Nollywood. But the country's music industry, largely concentrated in Lagos, is far older than Nollywood.

For Kizz Daniel, the journey through Yoruba street slangs, in generating hit songs dates back to the artiste's first major big outing titled Woju, in 2019 and later 'Eko.' Daniel's Eko falls into my list of top songs about Lagos. Quite a number of artistes, across generations, have sang about Lagos. Among such popular hits came from late Chris Ajilo (1929-2021), who sang 'Eko O Gba Gbere (No Redundancy in Lagos).

Without prejudice to the Portuguese origin of the name 'Lagos', the city is naturally expressed by Yoruba language speakers as Eko, its original native name. The Portuguese-christened 'Lagos', subconsciously, is always not recognised, hence, nearly all the songs about the city by musicians have been expressed in the native name, Eko. And when Daniel, in his 2019 hit song 'Eko' sang: "Eko Ile, Eko akete (Eko is home), the mentality of not bringing the Portuguese identity into the Yoruba language expression was very conspicuous through out the lyrics.

Interestingly, quite a number of musicians whose lyrics have celebrated Lagos and its pop culture, have no roots in the city. For Daniel, though, he had most of his growing up and schooling in Abeokuta, Ogun State – his native home and birthplace – again, like most young people in Nigeria's music culture realm, he is also mentally and creatively attached to the Lagos scenes. Real name is Zikirullah Olwatobiloba Daniel Anidugbe, the artiste in him has brought a hybrid of identity; Kiss Daniel of his former record label to Kizz Daniel of the current identity. Perhaps, also reaffirming his Islamic root, Daniel named his triplet Jamil, Jelani and Jamal. Sadly, he lost Jamal four days after birth.

Before Daniel's 'Buga', among other hit songs of his that celebrated Yoruba street slangs was 'Woju', (look at a face), a romantic hit in which he calls his girl 'Sisi Agbarigo'. In Yoruba street slang, a damsel or sister is referred to as 'sisi' while 'agbarigo' is a name given to rugged lorry. Interestingly, in the 'Woju' song, 'buga' was used. 'Otun mo pe o de wa pa, O wa fe ma buga si emi', (you know you are pretty, then you want to puff (buga)' for me.

The first line in the latest hit, Buga's lyrics, which says 'Gbadun e to ko e je,' is also significant in the growing lexicon of Yoruba slangs, in the past two decades. The phrase came into prominence, most likely towards the end of the last century; roughly late 1990s. The phrase 'Gbadun', simply means 'enjoy' in Yoruba, but the 'ko e je' (enjoying you) was made popular on movie screens by late comedian, Babatunde Omidina (1958-2021) otherwise known by his stage name as Baba Suwe.

The meaning of the central theme of Daniel's song 'Buga' is close to a derivative from 'ru iga', an old Yoruba slang that means raise your shoulders. And as pop culture in the Lagos metropolis evolved, the generic word 'ru iga' gradually became 'bu iga' or 'buga'.

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Another phrase that features in the 'Buga' lyrics is 'Kala gb'owo yẹn l'ọwọ dealer...' (Be bold to collect your money from the dealer). The key word here that celebrates an old slang is 'kala' (be bold). The word 'kala', unlike most Yoruba slangs, has no direct link to traditional words like 'igboya' (courage), but it has been on the streets of Yorubaland for as long as over half a century or more.

Between the period of Nigeria's independence from British rule till date, quite a number of street usage of Yoruba words have found their ways into musical lyrics. And what about slangs like Wúgé (chestout), Jàpá (escape abroad), among others. In fact, japa' is most commonly used now among Nigerians across ethnic diversity, in expressing how the country keeps losing more people to the greener pasture syndrome.

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For Daniel's 'Buga', it appears like another global brand that may grow beyond what other big Nigerian exports like late Fela and others have recorded with their hit songs. And just when the international music scene thought that Daniel was the biggest thing to emerge from Africa in recent time, Asake's Terminator buzzed in.

Heavily Fuji music-flavoured, Àsàké's Afropop style appears like a phenomenon. It shouldn't be a surprise that Àsàké is making such a huge success in short period. It's important to note that Fuji music, which is largely native in lyrical rhythm, monopolised the Lagos Street slangs for over 50 years before the genre's slide on Nigeria's music graph, in the last few years.

In its old form, Fuji music is no doubt going out of circulation. However, quite a chunk of the lyrical contents of musicians like Olamide, Àsàké, Naira Marley, Adekunle Gold, Mayorkun, among others are heavily Fuji in lyrics.  

-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer on The Arts. 

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