The Three: September Edition

Every month, I write about the books, music, movies, and other cultural happenings that interest me. Previous editions here and here.

Moral Clarity and Nigerian Popular Culture

Do you remember the 2017 spat between 9ice and Falz? 9ice had just dropped Living Things, and Falz around the same time used an interview to condemn Nigerian artists who glorify Nigerian scams. Falz got a fair bit of a heat for his comments online and off. It was no different two years later in 2019 when Naira Marley, a rapper who allegedly is a scammer alongside, got arrested for criminal activities and social media was full of young people defending these activities (he’s free for now).

Praise singing for scammers is not at all new. Olu Maintain’s Yahooze about the kind of partying that follows a successful scam came out in 2007 and was so popular that he got to perform it with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dancing along. D’Banj’s “Mobolowowon” came out in 2004. We can even go further back: Ayobami’s account on Twitter @dondekojo got suspended after he did a thread of all the scammers Fuji musician King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall (KWAM I) exalted in his music way back in the ’90s. This is not to single out KWAM I, though; heaven knows that a majority of these highlife musicians would shower you with praise if you waved a wad of cash at them. Even back then, condemning scammers was to enter ambiguous territory; to a lot of people, these are just a bunch of young guys who live an aspiring rappers’ dream with money that was stolen, yes, but not from anyone you’re likely to know. And if you did, then you’re fair game anyway.

Hollywood’s many anti-hero films celebrating successful thieves — from Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ “Entrapment” to Edward Norton and Mark Wahlberg “The Italian Job” — show us how and why people root for criminals. I watched Ocean’s 8, the all-women heist film, in a cinema with friends in Abuja. In the opening scenes, Sandra Bullock’s character steals expensive toiletries and perfume from a department store before scamming her way into staying at an expensive hotel for free. She’s quick on her feet, pays attention and knows how to use society against itself — she’s a white woman at ease in wealthy spaces, which helps reduce suspicion and ensure that the receptionists and salespeople she encounters will be intimidated into not asking too many questions. By the time Sandra Bullock’s character was soaking in a hot tub with expensive toiletries she didn’t buy and ordering room service on some company’s dime, the cinema erupted in applause.

Throughout the film, Bullock’s character Debbie and her seven accomplices don’t steal from any actual individuals; the heist at the Met actually involved stealing from a faceless institution. That taught me something important about the difference between 419 scammers (for whom a lot of people hold a fascination) and armed robbers or kidnappers (who we rightly condemn) in the popular imagination: while the latter target people and families we can relate to, scammers tend to go for institutions and companies, entities who don’t have faces. Even the white people who end up falling prey to “romance scams” are “over there,” so it still allows us to have the some level of remove. Also, because Nigeria is a country with huge inequalities and not nearly enough economic opportunities, we largely understand how people, confronted daily with what they do not have, tire of dreaming and simply reach out and take it. Of course, wealth is a relative thing, so a middle-class existence in Nigeria does nothing to insulate one from thievery. Add to this our lack of strong law enforcement and trustworthy judiciary, and you have a situation where Nigerians see people who do bad things walk free all the time, a police that is not there to help you, and a judiciary that can easily be bought. The only difference between the collective affinity for 419 scammers and the appreciation of these heist films is that what draws our morbid fascination in the films is the painstaking attention to detail it takes to pull off a successful heist. For the scammers, though, it is the end result only — a sudden attainment of ridiculous amounts of money.

Pop culture is culture, so it makes perfect sense that our music echoes our country’s lingering amorality. Just this year, a governor who was caught shoving bundles of ill-gotten dollars into his pocket accused someone else of corruption with his chest. A lawyer got named a Minister-of-State, serving alongside a former governor he was investigating for corruption. A pastor known for taking routine sexual advantage of his female congregants with rape and sexual abuse used the instruments of the state to intimidate the woman who accused him of rape and her husband, as well as protesters outside the church building, and returned to the pulpit weeks later. What is right or wrong in this country is very much determined by who is doing it, and whether one stands to gain from this person or what s/he represents. One is likelier to be “right” if one is on the winning team or the wealthier team, and the latter is a subset of the former. The goalposts of right and wrong shifts so often that the most important thing is to simply not be in a position where one is poor enough for the balance of power to swing against you.

If you’re wondering why “Dangote still dey find money”, that’s pretty much it.

In the music industry, as in the larger society, this amorality is helped by the lack of institutional structure. It looks healthy from the outside, but the music industry really isn’t much of an actual industry in terms of its mechanics. There are very few supporting structures to protect artists from copyright infringement or help facilitate collection of royalties. Banks do not do much investing in small businesses in Nigeria as a general matter and record labels are not exempt, so little surprise that what investment does happen comes from individuals with questionable means of getting their money. If these folks are the ones driving investment in the music industry, then it makes sense that a lot of fledgling artists find Yahoo boys among the few oft-dubious “angel investors” that can help power their rise. If there is little private sector investment, how else are upcoming artists going to foot the bill for the payola radio and TV stations often demand for their music to hit the airwaves? This, coupled with an absence of right or wrong, further swings the control of narrative to those with money, however it is gotten.

Nigerian music journalist Joey Akan wrote a piece in the South African Mail and Guardian about this exact phenomenon, and quotes a section of an interview with a cybercrime boss named Jide who invests in the music industry.

“Nobody gives these kids funding,” Jide said. “Look around you: the country is hard, hunger is everywhere. It’s the least I can do. I love their music. Why not support them?” Although he doesn’t want artists singing his praises in their music, because it will attract “too much attention”, Jide grinned from ear to ear when he was name-dropped on a past hit song. “Not bad,” he beamed with pride.

Nigerian society is too often a trick mirror that you have to avoid peering too hard into, lest it begin to truly reflect you. It facilitates a magical thinking that is only really sustainable within the bubble of Nigerian society and simply does not hold water anywhere else. Nobody asks where sudden wealth comes from because we actually know, so crime will continue to pay in Nigeria and any moral handwringing will be seen as a privilege only afforded to the privileged.

A lot of the young people who have amassed wealth in credit card scams will likely follow the example of the previous generation of politicians among whom used money from shoddy business deals to fund runs for political office that would then help them wipe their slate clean. Still, the recent bust of L.A.-based Nigerian scammers — it’s going to be crazy when they do Atlanta and Houston chapters — was an important reminder that the ends do not, in fact, justify the means; and that much of the behavior that helps people thrive in our current environment does not travel well.

Jidenna, Goldlink, and Diaspora Sounds

I confess that as a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria, the idea of a “highway to Africa” is a bit corny. Nigeria is an insular multiverse of a country, and our galaxy does not bump up against others’ until we zoom out and see other immigrants navigate their own worlds in the shared space of the new cities in Europe and North America we claim — or are in the process of claiming — as home. In spite of my eye-roll, I checked out Jidenna’s new album and found a lot of things I liked.

In a lot of ways, I think Jidenna’s new album extends a conversation that Burna Boy’s started, which is an explicit exploration of music in the larger African diaspora. In “85 to Africa”, Jidenna trades verses with Goldlink on “Babouche” and rhymes over a Seun Kuti instrumental on “Worth the Weight”, gives trap vibes on album standout “Tribe”, and plays with soca and highlife on “Vaporiza” and one of my favorites “Pretty and Afraid”. He kept it short and sweet at 11 tracks, and his experimentation with highlife and soca felt inspired and playful. My favorite thing about “85 to Africa”, though, is the range of the influences he used in the album’s larger narrative. It belied an understanding that the African diaspora is more than just one thing, while taking himself just seriously enough.

Another artist who has jumped into that exploration is Goldlink, who also dropped a strong album in 2019 drawing from the same well of inspiration. I first heard Goldlink in his feature on Christina Aguilera’s lead single “Like I do” off her 2018 Liberation album. He dropped an album in 2019 called “Diaspora”, with tracks like the very London “Joke Ting” with Ari PenSmith, the afrobeats-flavored “More” with Ghanaian-Brit Lola Rae. The collaborations with Maleek Berry on “Zulu Screams” and “No Lie” with Wizkid sat comfortably alongside collaborations with Pusha T and Tyler, The Creator. Besides his album, Goldlink also featured on the track “Maria” on Santi’s “Mandy and the Jungle”.

Contemporary pop music on the continent is currently in a great place. A lot of the music coming out of Africa right now has a strong identity, and this allows for people who aren’t in the orbit to curate and navigate the music better. This leads to better quality collaborations and cross-overs, because folks can be a lot more deliberate and therefore less cliché and boring. We see this dynamic at work in Burna Boy’s collaborations with Jorja Smith and Future, Davido’s recent collaboration with Chris Brown, and even Beyonce’s song with Wizkid on her recent compilation The Gift.

Afrobeats is definitely having a moment, but Burna Boy, Goldlink and Jidenna’s albums show that afrobeats (I hate that term, but hey) has earned a space in the larger context of the Black diaspora. It assures that even when the moment passes — and it likely will — it will still come back around.

Aside: Di’Ja’s Awesome New Video for ‘Wuta’

How cool is this? My Hausa is barely there but I like the song a lot. I was really excited to learn through her Instagram posts that she was going to Zaria to make the video for it, and was eagerly anticipating what the video would look like. It doesn’t disappoint.

Actors and Craft

I don’t care much for celebrity gossip, but I absolutely love conversations on craft and thought process for writers and actors. That is why one of my favorite things to watch is Hollywood Reporter’s interviews with actors, whether it’s the group interviews for the Actors Roundtables (this one was cool) or the Actors on Actors ones from Variety Magazine.

Beyond the glitz of Hollywood, I find these interviews to be a solid reminder of everything that we bring to the work of our lives, the shaping and chiseling into something real that others can hold on to. Teju Cole once said of writing: “Writing as writing, writing as rioting, writing as righting. On the best day, all three”. I believe that is true beyond writing, that if you believe the work you do contributes in some way towards a larger good, then on some days you will catch glimpses of its importance beyond the day-to-day drudgery and see how it becomes a sun that warms waters far beyond your own.

But I digress.

Sandra Oh has had a phenomenal last couple of years. Four years after leaving her career-defining role of Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, she landed the title role in Killing Eve, a cat-and-mouse spy thriller of a series from the amazing Phoebe Waller-Bridge. PWB has also had a helluva last two years writing two very well-recieved series Fleabag (the second season is some of the best television writing I’ve ever seen) and Killing Eve. I’m a little obsessed with PWB, so my love for her deserves its own post. Maybe next month. Maybe.

I Like the concept of “active waiting” Oh discusses in this video, where you finally get to a point in your career where you can say no and decide what feels right to say yes to. In a way, she says, it’s like falling in love after when you have had some dating experience and know exactly what you’re looking for in a partner. “Active waiting” then becomes not opting out, but simply honoring the ability to choose.

I thought it was a cool concept that is adaptable to different spheres of one’s life. Check out the full quote here.

Until next time.

Occassional writer. Music lover. Book reader. Point-and-laugh-er. Doer of things.