10 years ago I was living my best life at Preston, my beloved secondary school. It was a boarding school with a lot of land and “ethos”. On Saturdays, we would wake and work out for an hour. Then we would have breakfast. Then hostel inspections. Then afternoon prep. Then lunch. Then siesta. Then sports. Then dinner. Then I would have choir rehearsals because I was music director… It was all scheduled you see. But it didn’t always work like this. Sometimes, the timetable would fall apart right after breakfast. On some Saturdays, my friends and I would leave our hostel for the school area. There, we would sneak into the English studio. The studio had chairs and tables, decorations, a TV, a DVD and a music player. Four or five boys would tiptoe through the door in sportswear and Nike slippers. Somehow, Owen always had the key. We would crouch and whisper.
And guess what we would ultimately do?
Insert a CD of course. And in seconds it would be playing…
Anoti by MI!
Those. were. the. days.
Can I talk about MI?
MI Abaga happened to us, to me. He was the most defining artist of the last decade. Simply, there was no one before MI and no one after. I mean, if we are talking about Nigerian hip hop. Do you feel that immediate love for a new sound? That conviction that you would find the artist and devote yourself to their entire discography? I heard Safe and knew right away.
All of us, we wanted to be MI. I always already rapping by 2005 so 2009 was perfect timing for an idol. We would play Let’s Talk About It over and over. We had never heard anything like it, no one had! When Action Filmwas released in 2010, I remember buying the CD from a store and taking it to a cyber cafe. There, I inserted it into a CPU and plugged my earphones. I spent browsing time on music! Meanwhile, I had a DVD at home. But there was no power that hour and I couldn’t wait a few more. So many archaic words here and it’s only been 10 years LOL.
Hype aside, MI is legendary. It hurts, personally, how underappreciated he is. I hate to see the disrespect. MI has put out 8 rap projects. MI 1—Talk About It, MI 2—Action Film, MI 3—Chairman. In between, three Illegal Music mix-tapes were dropped — free projects with incomparable rap, entirely made from samples. And MI has sampled everyone—from Nina Simone to Beyonce. Then there was Playlist, a playful mix-tape (or album?). The tracks were wavy and flowed in planned succession. Then there was A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl. MI rapped about bottom things like loneliness and depression. He inserted notes from his session with a therapist. An entire artist!
He is one of those people who have to die before there’s some consensus as to their superiority. In Not Just Ok/Savage, an exasperated Jude blurts “Do I have to die before they say I’m the best to live? Switch to God mode, bring y’all pestilence?” Later he simply says “if you make a rap list… leave M off of it.” Yes. There has been no close second. But we are human. And humans, especially the unintelligent, must compare. Unintelligent people are often unable to appreciate brilliance in isolation. They must introduce a comparative. They are too intellectually lazy to read about aeronautics, so they can only conceptualize the wonder of airplanes if they compare them to birds. And what did they do recently? They mentioned Vector. Vector! It hurt.
Nigerian hip hop is underrated. First, someone is always talking about how the rap game died. No, it didn’t. You stopped listening! Rappers are always rapping. Good rappers. What? SDC has been here the whole time… Ladipoe is made of punchlines and you have to respect Falz’s versatility. Of course, MI told rappers to fix up their lives. But he can do that, can’t he? He is the only one who can, as progenitor, the “one they look to”. And boy he’s done enough for the culture. He has put so many artists on. Praiz, Ruby, Iceprince, Wizkid, Milli, Loose Kanyon, Khaligraph Jones, Pryse, Ckay, Tomi Thomas, Chillz, Lady Donli, Boogey, Hench… There is a long list of artistes that MI introduced to the Nigerian mainstream.
Second, Nigerian hip hop is underrated because these days we rate Nigerian artistes by how accepted they are internationally. It is flawed thinking but it is what it is. Our artistes slave themselves, they pay for international features but give themselves for free. Just for rep. So Drake muted Wizkid on that One Dancesong, then left him dancing alone in that Come Closer video, then named his album after that Burna Boy’s song, that he didn’t use. And Beyonce would not give Sarz credit for Spirit. I need to know if she paid any African artist for the work on Lion King.
There is so much talk about who paved the way internationally. Why does it matter if Americans or Britons love our sound? It is our sound and we love it! I love Afrobeat and nothing is better. Why does a Grammy matter so much? It is obviously an American award! It tells the American story. The USA is another country. There are only about three categories available to us, categories we share with most of the world! The award does not even pretend to be be encompassing.
As a people, we suffer inferiority complex. We aspire to become our colonizers, to receive their validation. We leap in joy when they do the least. Oh Cardi B came to Nigeria! Oh Coldplay sampled Fela! Oh Lil Wayne says he’s some percentage Nigerian. We are still poor and oppressed. We are still not in charge of our own story. These PR strategies do not improve our lives. There is no good reason why they should matter.
So, Lionheart sweat over that Oscar nomination. Sympathizers wanted the Oscars to edit their own criterion so that Lionheart could fit in. Haha. Is it not their criterion? And is the nomination by force? The Oscars are notoriously Male White American. Perhaps we should invest in the AMVCAs. Unrelated—Lionheart was a disappointing film, excruciating to watch. Admittedly, our movie industry suffers wondrous mediocrity. The writing is bad and we have guest appearances from actors who are not actors. And which movie won the controversial category? Parasite. Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. An incredible Korean film that won four Oscars in total! If we must win, we should at least try. Again, unrelated.
Africans have won/been nominated for Grammies though. Say Angelique Kidjo and Seun Kuti. Why? These artistes are great, but their music does not share similitude with the Nigerian contemporary sound. So why? Because even art can be politically discriminatory. With art, the west has expectations of us. At every point, there are indigenous art forms they are willing to accept and indigenous art forms they will refuse to recognize. At least, at the start of its development. There are stories the west prefer to see written. There are preferred themes. For a long time, African writers were persuaded to write about suffering and struggle. African painters were persuaded to tell similar stories. The late Ben Enwonwu wrote significantly about the challenges facing African artists. He expressed concern that “African artists were often pigeon-holed and expected to produce traditional ethnographic, not modern and global, African art.”
It is the same way American film awards prefer to see black women portrayed as oppressed in movies. They accept this narrative—they award these movies and these movies only. Notice how Africans in American movies have the same accents and problems. I cannot stand those. No, my English does not sound like this. And if I ever came to your country I would be legal, thank you. Notice how our countries are underdeveloped, how we are often brutish. Notice how our leaders are always despotic. Notice how white men always save the day. It is genius racism. You choose a narrative about a group of people and use the media to reinforce it on them. And they stay that way. Because a people can only dare to become the things they have seen, the things they consider attainable. The rest of the world develops expectations of them too, as shaped by media. And you know a stereotype is a tough nut.
Believe me, some art forms, roles and themes are reserved for white people. A white man can play anything, sing anything to win anything. No one else can. Lil Nas X Old Time Road is country music, yeah? At the time of its release, its immediate popularity caused so much uproar in Western America. The song was pulled down from the Billboard Country charts. Why was a black man topping charts with country music? It wasn’t his art form to exploit. He was too black. Months later, a remix was released featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Weeks later, Lil Nas X was gay.
Okay here is my point. The same applies to our music. Afrobeat is starting to win. Burna Boy was nominated for a Grammy. Who are the Nigerian artistes winning? Burna Boy and Wizkid — Afrobeat campaigners who tie their roots to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a symbol of… wait for it… struggle and oppression! When Wizkid is not referencing Fela, he is trying too hard to sound Jamaican. You know, like Bob Marley or something. I don’t know. You get the point.
Wizkid’s last album was titled Sounds From the Other Side. Burna Boy’s nominated album is titled African Giant. The previous album was titled Outside.Jidenna’s latest album is titled 85 to Africa. Sauti Sol’s last album was titledAfrikan Sauce. African artistes (who have never been to Egypt) try to encompass Africa in titles. Everyone is saying yo, I am African and I am desperately trying to sell you that original African weed. Try it. Doesn’t it taste very African?
It is the most “African” artistes who gain international recognition—the artistes who make music that sounds “African”. What is African music? No one is sure. Whatever the definition of African music is, it isn’t broad enough, it cannot be in these circumstances. African music should simply encompass both music made by Africans and music with African origins. Instead, it is one sound. Is Afrobeat African music? Err yes. Is African music Afrobeat? No! Welcome to the pigeon-hole. Simply, African artistes cannot exploit other genres and win internationally!
Who cares anyway? We are exporting to people who still refer to Africa as a country. Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi, Tekno are “African” artistes, all featured on Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift album, a loveletter (that no one asked for) to Africa. Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy did songs in Yoruba. Then there was this other song where people kept yelling “don’t jealous me!” Psst. I only accepted Brown Skin Girl and Power. Those sounded original. This African album featured artistes from three African countries—Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. There are 52 countries in Africa! And Lion King is supposed to be Kenyan!
Now, Kendrick was featured on that album, Jay Z too. But the west will not call our rappers great. Why? Because Africans are not supposed to rap. Not yet. It is not part of our identity yet. It is not African. It does not fit into the timeline. MI and co are from the future. Today, rap is still for Black Americans and Eminem. Full stop. Until recently, British rappers were not even winning.
So the disrespect for MI continues. If he were American, he would be in GOAT conversations. Some day, Nigerian rap would have paid enough offerings and would finally be called great. But MI would be long gone. And some kid would be tweeting about how no one paved his way. Nigerian rap is undoubtedly great. We suffer another disadvantage with our themes. We necessarily have a different story to tell from American rappers. Less about guns and drugs perhaps. But until the appreciation of art allows people tell their own stories, it is discriminatory. And discriminatory appreciation is no appreciation at all!
Home-based Nigerians disrespect ours too. We too have been brainwashed into thinking that rap is reserved for Black Americans, and indigenous rappers are below par prima facie. It is pathetic. We pretend to understand Migos, we say Travis Scott is “relatable”. Even people that have never stepped out of the country. LOL. It is a great part of the inferiority complex we suffer as Africans. Our understanding of western pop culture is even made a test of intelligence! You listen to Kendrick and you watch the Daily Show. So boom! You are intelligent and it takes intelligence to understand these things. We aspire to grasp western things. Duduyemi Shakirat from Ikorodu finds an obscure American artist on Deezer and becomes a die hard fan. It is not always because they enjoy the music, it is sometimes because it is an obscure American artist! What taste is more elitist?
You must forgive me if I am being careless with these assertions. But in some cases, they are unfortunately right.
Again, Nigerian rap is great. And MI is the greatest. MI convinced me that words are important, that if I learnt how to coin them, I could tell any story, communicate any feeling. I could convince and inspire. And MI is wondrously brilliant. I wake up some mornings and a punchline I heard years ago finally clicks. MI is an entire vocabulary. He is the last of the poets. He is deeply inspiring.
Half of the rhymes I post are my words, half are MI’s.
“Don’t stop, never second guess yourself…”
“And my message is, that its really you…”
“As long as we live inside of a country where no one is safe, no one is safe! We only evade…”
“Do I move you?”
And if you ever love my own my lines, save a kiss for MI. I have never met the nigga, but I have read his texts, I have listened to his teachings, my passion is renewed.
All love, from the tribe of Judah.