By: John Eriomala
As Nigerians, one of the things that tie us together, alongside the powerful Naira and our collective faux hatred for Ghana Jollof, is music. We are a people bound by the curse of rhythm and the thirst for an unending stream of sweet, drowning melodies. And for the most part, our music primarily serves one purpose; as fuel for dance. We dance along to songs at parties, in the comfort of our rooms, in celebration of sports wins, and acquisitions, and even when conducting traffic; yes, traffic! However, celebrations and dancing are not all that we use music for.
Even dating back to the ancient kingdoms of Benin and Oyo, music has served other purposes. For instance, it was –and still is – used in worshipping deities, for educational purposes, information dissemination, raising societal awareness, and several other unsung functions. There also existed systems of communication built on the shoulders of music, in several tribes.
In modern times, our people have retained the dance-first approach to music. This year alone, literally, all the records that can be qualified as ‘Song of The Year’ material are groovy, danceable, numbers; mainstream jams that have youngins busting out unique dance moves, as in the case of Asake’s slew of hits, and even the ‘Mamas and Papas’ raising their arms to Buga, as Kizz Daniel’s raspy voice blares from speakers.
A little categorization would also show that they belong to genres like Afropop, Street-Pop, Dancehall, Amapiano, etc. which are either products of older mainstream genres (Hip-Hop, Fuji, Disco, House) or new creations that have been popular from scratch.
However, not all Nigerian music is gbedu for gbedu sake. There is a certain genre that exists, which caters to most of our other needs, except for religious use. Sometimes, songs here even lean in a religious direction. This genre is known as Alternative music. This serves as an umbrella for music outside mainstream/popular music. Unlike foreign Alternative music, which is just Alternative-Rock/Alt-Rock, Nigerian alternative music is more of a blend of different, less-popular genres like Soul and Neo-Soul, Folk, Highlife, RnB (especially post-2000s), Jazz, Palmwine Music, Funk, etc. It’s also characterized by the independent/indie nature of artists, although a few are signed to major labels and possess mega distribution deals.
Now, to the question posed at the top of this article; “Why Alternative Music?” For many exploring new sounds, in particular, and even regular music heads, this is a valid question. What’s so special about Alternative music? Why shouldn’t one just click on the Top 100 Nigeria playlists or download them according to MTVBase and SoundCity recommendations? Well, for a variety of reasons.
For starters, the overall quality of the music is exceptional. If you’ve been on Twitter long enough or participated in a couple of music conversations offline, you must have heard a variation of the “Mainstream Nigerian music lacks substance” argument. Personally, this opinion isn’t one that I agree with. It’s shallow and doesn’t take context into account.
Regardless, that’s not the main point here. In those conversations, individuals are quick to point out artists like Brymo, Asa, and The Cavemen, as those making ‘good music. The thing is, they aren’t wrong. In terms of songwriting and lyricism, alternative artists are the absolute cream of the crop. They can weave emotions, stories, and concepts into songs and entire albums; in a manner that mainstream musicians mostly can’t manage.
Also, the nature of production on their projects is usually well-tailored to suit their styles, including encouraging experimentation. Producers like BigFoot (The Cavemen’s Roots, Brymo’s Theta), Cobhams Asuquo (Asa’s classic, Asa), and Spax (Show Dem Camp’s Palmwine Music series, Funbi’s Serenade) have helped shape new sonic landscapes across two decades of the genre’s existence.
Not surprisingly, the production styles of the Alternative music scene have also been adopted by mainstream acts and producers alike. If one were to pay attention to a lot of songs post-2019 and The Palmwine Express, one would notice the increase in the use of horns on records and a subtle attempt at replicating the Palmwine Music sound. Also, as a result of continued criticism, songwriting has been taken more seriously, with Alternative acts like Moelogo contributing to quite a few records.
Furthermore, Alternative music addresses societal issues and explores aspects of day-to-day living in more detail. Projects like Nneka’s sophomore LP, No Longer At Ease (2008), Asa’s Beautiful Imperfection (2011), Blackmagic’s Blackmagic (Version 2.0) (2013), Ajebutter 22’s What Happens In Lagos (2017) and Seun Kuti’s Black Times (2018) house records that address everything from infidelity to poverty, war, class struggles, moral decadence, false prophets, etc. That’s asides from singles and standalone tracks released in response to specific events and happenings.
For the most part, alternative acts have a level of creative freedom that those in the mainstream can’t afford. This is reflected in the sort of collaborations they can come up with. Projects like Nonso Amadi and Odunsi’s joint-EP War (2017) and the two Make E No Cause Fight EPs by Boj and Ajebutter offer a blend of styles that often time, can only be seen in Hip-Hop; a genre that hasn’t enjoyed as much success in a while. Even in terms of song collaborations, alternative acts are more likely to hop on each other’s songs than those in the mainstream. It’s little wonder
why their projects feature such a variety of sounds and yet, more cohesion.
Finally, the alternative music scene plays an important role in artiste development, perhaps second only to the church-to-superstar pipeline. Its interconnectedness means that artists often get to interact with past Industry OGs, producers, show promoters, industry execs seeking new talents, and individuals on a similar chase. Often time, as in the case of artists like Adekunle Gold, Simi, Tems, there’s a transition to the ‘big time’ that works out just perfectly.
So, now that you’ve been exposed to the relevance of Alternative music, you might be wondering where to start. For one, you could begin with the projects and EPs mentioned in the course of the article. Also, you can check out the discographies of artists like Ric Hassani, Chike, Bez, Lady Donli, Amaarae, Tay Iwar, Sute Iwar, Johnny Drille, Tomi Agape, Cruel Santino, Remy Baggins, etc. as well as others mentioned elsewhere in this article, on streaming platforms. While on these platforms, you could also check out playlists like ‘Altè Cruise’, ‘Altè Lifestyle’, or any containing the word ‘Altè’.
Yes, I know. You’re wondering what difference there might be between ‘Altè’ and Alternative Music, and why both can’t just be interchanged. Well, for one, Alltè is more of a sub-genre of Alternative music cum cultural movement than it is an actual genre. It encompasses music, fashion, arts, and lifestyle, among other things; the bulk of which would require an entirely different piece. So, stick around, as we just might be exploring the DRB Lasgidi-named Altè movement soon.