Everyone loves a level-playing field.
Very few illustrations are more indicative of fairness than a level-playing field and as such, it is traditionally clamoured for. However, in the context of the Nigerian music industry, this theoretical level-playing field can be said to have diminished in importance in the past couple of years. A good number of A-list artistes have abandoned needle searches in ground-level haystacks for flag-mounting conquests in outer space, the latter of which obviously has more weight and recognition. In simpler terms. it currently appears as though no one rates local accolades anymore.
It was not always like this. Between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s, local music award shows were anticipated with fervour and relished by Nigerians. While regional award shows like the MTV Africa Music Awards (the MAMAs) and the Nigerian-Ghanaian crossover, the City People Entertainment Awards (divided into City People Music Awards and City People Movie Awards in 2017) were held in equally high esteem and created a lot of buzz, the Nigeria Entertainment Awards and The Headies (originally known as the Hip Hop World Awards) hit differently. The fact that the Nigeria Entertainment Awards traditionally holds in the United States may be the major contributing factor, but The Headies eventually became the most renowned Nigerian music awards show. Maybe ever.
In some quarters, The Headies has been audaciously referred to as the Nigerian Grammys. The difference in quality between both awards is staggering, but that does not take away some truly iconic moments in the show’s fourteen-year history: D’Banj performing with a towel wrapped round his waist at the first Headies, Olamide and Don Jazzy taking shots over The Headies 2015’s Next Rated Award and Wizkid’s unforgettable snubbing of Eva Alordiah’s then-fiancé, Caesar, at The Headies 2016. The show has also been hosted by notable celebrities such as Darey Art Alade, Rita Dominic, Falz, Adesua Etomi and Reminisce. Sadly, internal undoings and trend shifts have contributed to the show’s reduced popularity, and by extension, the reduced popularity of music award shows in Nigeria.
Starting with the show’s failings. The most recurring frailty of The Headies is the subpar audiovisual quality when viewed on TV, primarily on its parent/affiliated channel, HipTV. Year in year out, fans who are unable or unwilling to secure tickets for the show are made to sit through an average of four hours of poor visuals and a slightly more tolerable audio quality. Perhaps, there is only so much that even the most patient demographic can endure, and it goes without saying that the ‘Nigerian Grammys’ tag falls hard on this ground alone.
Another internal frailty is the show’s arguable inability to recover from the controversy of its 2015 edition. The YBNL camp, like most people, felt Lil Kesh was more deserving of the Next Rated Award than Reekado Banks, who was signed to Mavin Records at the time. Olamide, the YBNL label’s boss, was not shy of words on stage (come on, we all know this story) and Don Jazzy had a few of his, too. All in all, the controversial choice apparently cast a shadow of doubt on the credibility of The Headies and the criteria behind the selection of winners, especially those of non-voting categories.
The 2016 Edition, which was hosted by rapper Falz and actress Adesua Etomi notoriously had a poor turnout of A-list artistes. After no show was held in 2017 and that of 2018 was largely unscathed, The Headies 2019 was obliterated, 8-2 style, by Wizkid’s StarBoy Fest in London O2 Arena, which held on the same day as the award show and had a couple of industry heavyweights present, notably Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Olamide, Runtown and Reekado Banks (Olamide and Reekado Banks, who would have thought?).
When Naira Marley tweeted that StarBoy Fest was bigger than The Headies 2019, he was not wrong. The show’s lingering issues also played a part in sealing the equation.
Moving away from internal failings, recent trends in the Nigerian music scene have just not been favourable for local music award shows. As Nigerian music gradually gained global reception and marketability, especially towards the end of the 2010s, it was only natural for the ambition of Nigerian A-listers to tilt towards international recognition and international music awards. The BET Awards has been lurking in the shadows for many years, but the real turning point came after Wizkid won his second Best International Act Award: Africa in 2017 and called out the show for its practice of giving the award backstage. Davido won the Best International Act Award the year after, Burna Boy clinched it twice after that and the level-playing field became more inadequate. When one factors in the increasing popularity of the Soundcity MVP Awards Festival and the All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA), as well as the nomination of Burna Boy’s 2019 album, African Giant, for the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, the popularity of local music awards can easily be said to have died a natural death.
However, given the tough climate of the Nigerian music industry and the economy at large, awards still offer a means of validation and motivation for many Nigerian artistes. Hence, it may be argued that we may be distracted by the likes of Wizkid (who has 9 Headies), Davido (who has 8 Headies) and Burna Boy (who has 3 Headies, but then, his history with the Headies is well documented), who are simply aiming for bigger challenges and wider recognition, having done it all locally.
Music awards are still of global relevance and a triumphant return to form by Nigerian music award shows will most likely be warmly received, as long as the shotcallers and direct stakeholders go back to the drawing board and take cues from global best practices: superb audiovisual quality for TV and online viewing, well-rehearsed performances, exciting award categories, credible criteria for meriting awards, effective publicity and ultimately, proper branding.
Cover image credit: Headies Awards