Hip Hop Music: Art or Obscenity?

The Reuben Abati’s piece “A Nation’s Crisis of Identity” which has generated the music discourse of all time in The Guardian newspapers of June 21st 2009 was long overdue. The interest showed by Nigerians confirms the seriousness of widespread informal discussions that have been going on about the hip hop genre in the Nigerian music scene. Abati’s piece only helped in putting the issues in proper perspective.

The piece was scathing, no-holds-barred and unsparing. It was vintage Abati. Who else could stir the hornet’s nest and take the sting than the muse himself? In 2007 when Olu Maintain dropped the “monster” hit Yahooze, which glorified internet scam, my piece titled “Hostage to Obscene Lyrics”, published in the 30th October 2007 edition of the Punch newspapers condemned the track for corrupting the minds of our youths and endorsing internet scam done through phony emails and credit card hacking.

That track sold like hot cake, worst still the artist also entertained the guests of the President in Aso Rock when he hosted the victorious Under-17 World champions of 2007! The President even danced to Yahooze! Shocking? Later on in 2008, on my visit to Germany, some young Germans who had heard the Yahooze song on YouTube had asked me in a presentation about Nigeria in Goethe Institut the meaning of the song. Now that was a tough task! A week later after that encounter, I was proud to see Asa perform to a packed hall of largely excited European audience at the Cologne Coliseum. The difference was in the lyrics, the substance.

But the Yahooze songs and other permissive lyrics came at a time when the EFCC was having a hard time combating cyber crime in which case millions of youths converge in cyber cafes to send spurious mails to would be victims and raising Nigeria’s status as scammers’ haven. This is not about Olu Maintain, but it is a good reference point, because since then, lurid, lewd and senseless lyrics have dominated the airwaves.

Now the music scene is a complete bedlam and like all situations in our country, it has spun out of control. Bum shaking, women bashing, the F-word, explicit and sexually violent lyrics have become the order of the day. Forget it, the regulatory bodies can only bark.

If a person was born anywhere between the 1980’s to the 1990’s, he or she is considered a part of the “Hip Hop Generation”. Music is a gift that has been given to us, but the question is, “where is Nigeria hip hop music going?” Hip-hop is now one of the biggest and fastest growing businesses in the world. It’s creativity in sound, and its lyrics have impressed and empowered many of today’s youth. It can be a tool for a positive, social change in our country if properly harnessed.

But is hip-hop music taking today’s youths where they need to be? Lyrically, some of hip-hop’s most popular songs and musicians have negatively influenced violence, drugs, alcohol, sex, disrespect for authority, and disrespect for women. For many young children and teenagers, this type of music can create an environment that can become detrimental to their lives and education.

Parents teach their children especially boys to say no to drugs and respect women (not as bitches) but the rappers whom children look up to are rapping about using drugs, degrading women and imply that it’s okay to use them. Therefore, children will listen to the side that has the most influential power to them. Many who constantly rewind a song and memorize the lyrics, are equally influenced just as if they were placed directly in front of the violence and sex and observed them.

Music appeals to the mind and soul and has the ability to effect change. The scourge of HIV/AIDS, debasement and discrimination of women, corruption and other social ills can be fought with good music. Hip-hop culture, with its street rhythms and strong lyrics, is said to be more relevant in advancing civil rights today than the peaceful messages of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yes we are beginning to “create our own thing”, there have also been successes in all fronts in the Nigerian music industry. Sales of albums are booming, musicians and producers are smiling to the banks in spite of the evil of piracy. Of course we all admire the Awards, the swagger; the air plays even on MTVs and Channel O. Our youths are reveling and making success of their talents. Corporate bodies have crashed in (reaping where they did not sow!), creating a huge industry out the ruins of the recent music hiatus.

And we also have to admit it, Nigerian youths have been resilient. In the face of current hardships, unemployment and government corruption, they have risen to harness their talents to create a market for a fast growing genre that has provided employment for thousands of youths in the music industry. But like every areas of our lives as a nation, there has to be some control and order. And that was what the Abati’s piece was about.

A lot of the responses to the opinion expressed by Abati (especially the ones from Banky W and Eldee) have been largely personal, if anything, constructive criticism like that will help re-direct the hip-hop scene and the entire music industry to recognize our peculiarity as a nation and not Americanize the entire music scene. But hip artists like Sound Sultan and even Eldee have dropped lyrically relevant tracks that have addressed our socio-economic and political realities.

Bollywood, the successful Indian movie industry took root from American Hollywood but in content and form, it is still essentially Indian. The entire Franco-phone African countries music industry has also been a massive success in Europe but they have also retained their African culture in beats, lyrics, rhythms and performances. Kudos to the guys now on the driving seat of the Nigerian hip hop music industry but enough of lewd lyrics please. We need substance. Originality should be the name of the game.

Hip-hop is like a strong tornado that constantly sweeps us up and spits us back out. But whom it’s sweeping up are the ones who cannot handle the fall once they are thrown back out. Hip-hop will become better once the artists and producers not only think of their pockets but their listeners, who after all, are listening the most! The regulatory authorities should add more bites to their barks.

Written by
Bayo Olupohunda
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