by Peter Akinnusi
There’s this bewildering mindset we seem to have adopted these days that sort of allows an artiste who had previously raised the bar with a song or album to generally monkey around well below that very bar. It’s acceptable for “pioneers” to put out mediocre music between here and the distant future because they have after all “paid their dues”. That’s why it’s acceptable for the likes of _________ and ________ to release slug music and we’ll all coo collectively out loud even if our brains have alarm bells ringing. God forbid that you happen to be the naysayer who cries foul while everybody panders to the “bosses” like the monarch from The Emperor’s New Clothes.
This brings to mind a recent back and forth I had on twitter with a friend who felt equally dismayed by the trend. We both lamented the spate of lukewarm albums from certain Nigerian “legends” that had come out recently. From complaining about the monotonous instrumentals accompanying the frankly horrible lyrics to the hubris with which the artistes in question were peddling their (lack of) craft or even the fact that South Africans have this thing called music figured out and they’ve had themselves sorted out for longer than a decade now while we continue fiddling about like Mr Bean at the top of his game. It’s surprising we didn’t break out into dirge singing and sackcloth wearing that day. It did end up with us pining for the regularly referenced “good old days” when the music was much more than a gimmick or the theme music for toothpaste ads. That may be some unrealistic nostalgia seeing how priorities have shifted from art to well, “stomach infrastructure”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not from the school of thought that claims an artiste owes it to the listener to starve while ensuring his music is top notch artistically. If at all there are rewards to be reaped from putting in honest work then they should by all means be gotten. Profit is not a taboo at all. It is however tragic to see that art is sacrificed on the altar of currency these days so much so the billowing smoke from these so called “hot jams” has choked the airwaves. What happened to the days when we could honestly connect to what was being said in the music? The days when we could relate to the quality we were being fed? The days when the balance between grooving and thinking properly wasn’t hard to find? Is the bleak outlook one that is here to stay forever?
To try and be as simple as possible art is expression, it is what the artiste decides to share with whoever cares to interact with him that’s why the spectrum is so wide it ranges from the King Sunny Ade to Beethoven to Royce da 59 to Don Moen to name a few colourful acts and the different things they all have to say. While we establish art as expression we must however ask ourselves what exactly is being expressed. We need to realise that art is also education and has been teaching for so many years; if you doubt this I implore you to visit literally any primary school and check to see what has a bigger influence on pupils – the music or the lessons from their classroom teachers. Art is also culture, it is actually a way of life as evidenced by the rise of hip hop in the 70s or John Lennon and the Beatles in the 60s or to bring it home Fela to this very day. If this is the case why are we so lax about what is being said in the music? What is learnt and practised by the faithful disciples of the art form? Do we really assume that we can ignore our art forms and somehow spark change within society? For an answer to that I think we had better look to the Renaissance for example; Europe’s emergence from the Dark ages was driven by or at least linked to an explosion of beautiful art. Don’t we think that can be the same for us here in Nigeria?
Gradually we’re seeing the rise of the vulnerable artiste across several genres especially hip hop acts like Drake and Kendrick Lamar and while some may dismiss this vulnerability as weakness in stark contrast to the culture of boasting we should actually see it as honesty and a form of strength to be able to share true feelings which could otherwise easily be masked by petty and superficial lyrics (which still happens with some of these honest artistes anyway). Can we perhaps learn to reach for the truth in our songs? Our music would go a long way to provide convicting and honest social commentary interspersed with the “fun” tracks we’ve come to crave and binge on. By the way I’m not asking our musicians to lead the nation into the wilderness of depression with gloomy numbers but at some point we do have to stop lying, don’t we? We don’t always have to trip over each other trying to be the source of the next in vogue dance move or club banger or toy with dangerous reptiles and what not. It would be really swell if we could hear some intelligent thought provoking music every now and then. Andrew Fletcher the Scottish politician famously said “Let me write the songs of a nation, I don’t care who writes its laws” and even though I have my reservations about ignoring law-making I do understand his desire to impact culture through the power of music. We really need to start making songs that are genuinely honest and actually address the things are that are really important. Am I being a daydreamer on a quixotic quest while I hope for all this in Nigeria? Maybe, maybe not and I think Time will tell, if reaching for perfection seems too far then I’m sure we can at least dwell around excellence.
Image from lifehacker.com