The Republic of Nigeria declared independence from British colonial rule on Oct. 1, 1960. Although postcolonial Nigeria has been marred by political instability and corruption, one thing has remained consistent for the West African nation: its prodigious cultural output. Nigeria has gained international attention for its achievements in literature, film and perhaps most famously, music.
On Friday, Oct. 5, a group of local promoters will be honoring Nigerian Independence Day by celebrating the nation’s rich musical legacy. I spoke with event organizer Walle Mafolasire and featured guest performer King Ola, an Atlanta-based Nigerian DJ who has found success as one of the top African music DJs in the United States.
Since the arrival of percussionist Babatunde Olatunji in the ’60s, Nigerian music has maintained a percolating influence in the United States. I asked Mafolasire and Ola to speculate on why Nigerian music has persistently captured the attention of American audiences.
“There’s just something about Nigerian music, the way we sing and play that attracts people. I hate to use this word, but I think the Nigerians have a certain swag.” says Ola.
Mafolasire identifies Nigerian music’s unique propensity for cultural fusion as a key factor in its popularity.
“I think Nigerians have been welcoming of outside influences. Our ability to embrace other cultures and blend it with our own music has allowed us to create a niche,” says Mafolasire. “You don’t necessarily have to be Nigerian to enjoy the music.”
This Nigerian tendency toward cultural fusion gave birth to one of the country’s greatest musical innovations, afrobeat. Created by activist-musician Fela Kuti, afrobeat is a riveting blend of Nigerian rhythms with American jazz and soul.
“You can definitely see Fela’s influence today in Nigeria in the work of artists like D’banj and Wizkid,” says Ola.
But Fela’s influence has stretched far beyond the borders of Nigeria. Once a minor cult figure in the United States, Fela is now the subject of a hit Broadway musical. Mafolasire attributes this to Fela’s universal message of social justice.
“Fela was someone who wanted to change the political atmosphere of Nigeria in his day. Fela confronted the injustice that was being perpetrated in our society. In some cases he was able to get enough attention to draw in government intervention,” says Mafolasire. “For someone like Fela to be celebrated, it represents a lot of changes that are happening in the U.S. The things Fela sang about can be related to some of the cultural struggles the U.S. is going through now.”
Lately Nigerian music has been enjoying an unprecedented level of international success as a new generation of musicians embrace hip-hop and R&B influences.
“It’s exciting; Akon has been signing artists like Wizkid to his Konvict Muzik label. Kanye West signed D’banj. You now have Nigerian artists performing with major American stars, like P-Square working with Rick Ross,” Ola says.
Ola anticipates that Nigerian music will continue to gain popularity in the U.S. The DJ speculates that it may one day become a fixture of the American pop music landscape in the same way Jamaican dancehall music has.
This new breed of hip-hop influenced Nigerian music will be on heavy rotation at this year’s Independence Day party. I asked Mafolasire to tell me more about the celebration and its significance to the Nigerian community.
“In Nigeria, it’s a three-day celebration, there’s a lot of parades and parties. In Indiana, we haven’t had much of that going on, so we started this party three years ago. For the Nigerians here, it’s the one time of the year that they get to enjoy some of the things they had back home. It’s a chance for us to enjoy the kind of party we would have back home in Lagos,” says Mafolasire. “For us to able to do this in the middle of Downtown during Circle City Classic weekend speaks to the popularity of this event and the influence of African culture in Indiana.”
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features classics from Nigeria.
1. Solomon Ilori - Igbesi Aiye (1963, Blue Note)
2. Olatunji - Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (1960, Columbia)
3. King Sunny Adé - Sunny Ti De (1982, Mango)
4. Fela Kuti - Gbagada Gbogodo (1971, HMV)
5. Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey - Baba Lo Ran Mi Wa (197?, Decca)
6. The Funkees — Akula Owu Onyeara - (1975, HMV)
7. Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band Of Aba — Alabeke (197?, HMV)
8. Fela Kuti - Viva Nigeria (1970, EMI)