Nigerian music is changing. You can see it in the streets of Lagos this December, as eager young people from the diaspora community flood the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, lugging backpacks and suitcases through the arrival section and into the promise of a fun-filled holiday. A diversity of accents fills the air as phone calls are made in the heat of the afternoon. Excitement is in their eyes as cabs ferry them into the madness that they came to be a part of.
Locally, that madness is called Detty December, the de facto name for the holiday season in Lagos, which is a cocktail of hedonism, multiple headline concerts, and incessant partying. Never mind that the city will be held to ransom by omnipresent traffic jams, and that the crime rate spikes; Lagos can offer enough happiness to make the cons feel insignificant.
The major draw here is the music. All around the globe, Afrobeats—a Western moniker used to classify the dominant pop sound from Nigeria—is taking root. You can hear it in the fun circuits of London and through the nightclubs of Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York. Online, viral dance videos featuring the latest hits from Lagos continue to spread the sound. In December, you get to experience the music live, as headline concerts spring up in every corner of the city, representing every genre that has had a successful year.
It’s a great time to be in Nigerian music. Nigerian stars are filling up venues across the world. In 2018 and 2019, singers WizKid and Davido—luminaries of the local scene—packed the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena in London, respectively. Another musician, Burna Boy, received a Grammy nomination for his 2019 album, African Giant. All this in the same year he played a headline set at Coachella in April.
“The music comes from a deep place, where we just try to satisfy a lot of the people’s needs,” says Runtown, a multi-award-winning singer who released an EP in 2019. Titled Tradition, it explores different states of romantic seduction, using polyrhythmic African melodies and samples to drive the project home. “We are a soulful people, led by our passion and the need to escape. Anyone who can artistically meet people at the point of their reality while also giving them an escape wins heavily here.”
Contrary to the dominant narrative in the West, Afrobeats isn’t really a thing back home. No one refers to it by that moniker. The history of Nigerian music contains multiple narratives across different timelines and eras. They all inevitably lead to this point, where there are subcultures running through the city and projecting to different territories.
From the pioneering political activism of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat in the ’70s and ’80s, through the religious intersections in Ebenezer Obey’s music, down to the retrospection in Cardinal Rex Lawson’s highlife, every genre today exists as a fusion that presents itself as contemporary Nigerian pop music.
At the heart of that fusion is Burna Boy, the 28-year-old singer, whose grandfather once managed Fela Kuti. Regarded as the most popular Nigerian artist of 2019, the singer credits Kuti as his main influence, drawing samples from old records and blending them with modern production for hit records. His latest album—African Giant—presents an expansive take on African unity. Signed to Atlantic Records in 2017, the singer has spent 2019 carrying the conversation about African music forward with a crossover campaign in the US.
Another artist who credits Fela Kuti for inspiration is Lady Donli. Born in Ohio, raised in Abuja, and currently splitting time between London and Lagos, Donli’s appreciation of Nigerian music history is anchored in Afrobeat. She believes Fela Kuti was more than the music. “Fela represents freedom, and he represents a revolution for what music is in Africa and what music is in Nigeria or what could be actually,” she tells me.
Her debut album, Enjoy Your Life, is a reflection of her influences. The project offers a reinvention of classic African melodies, with an expansive twist that brings it closer to the younger generation. To create the project, Donli spent months running through African music archives, gleaning inspiration, and reworking it for a modern audience. It’s a process she says she enjoyed.
“I really wanted to create a Nigerian album. I wanted to create an album I felt was a Nigerian album. I also wanted to show people that there’s so much more to Nigerian music, because I went back and I listened to all this music and it’s like coming from a time when you have people singing whatever they felt like singing,” she says.
Donli identifies as a member of Nigeria’s Alté community, a group of creatives working against convention to make counterculture art and aesthetics in Lagos. The music is made in hundreds of studios in Lagos, which is home to a large youth population and innovative creators, leading to experimentation and the creation of new sounds and subcultures. Birthed by discontent among diaspora young Nigerian creatives, Alté music blends elements from ’70s and ’80s funk with traditional genres to create a new take on pop music. Together with friends Odunsi (The Engine), Santi, Wavy The Creator and more, Donli sits at the centre of the new wave, in a subculture that continues to offer an alternative narrative.
“We are creating something that would outlast us, something that future generations can pick up and run it in diverse creative ways. That’s legacy. That’s why we do this,” she says.
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You would be forgiven for thinking this is a college reunion. It’s a random, regular night in December, but the human traffic at Hard Rock Cafe in Victoria Island was anything but tame. Singer WurlD climbed onstage, waving back at the crowd predominantly packed with young women screaming their voices away amid giddy declarations of love. “We love you” rang out periodically, as he launched into “Contagious,” a song that blends Fuji music with melodic pop synths.
Born Sadiq Onifade, the Afro-Fusion artist has had an inspiring journey, moving from the streets of Mushin in Lagos, to the US, where much of his music was created. The complete creative embrace of that cross-cultural influence has become his strongest point, with songs such as “Show You Off” and “Contagious” offering a unique angle on his sound. WurlD navigates genres, hanging on the intersection between eras.
It is that sound that has found a strong following and packed this venue for this concert. WurlD held them enthralled with a curated set lasting nearly two hours.
Outside the venue, people scattered. You could hear them hurry into the night, as they made phone calls asking for a new party location. A lady in a green dress accosted me by the door, recognizing me as WurlD’s friend. “Please, I am in December to turn up, and I want to appear at every WurlD concert,” she says. “Can you give me all the dates? I want to make sure I get enough of him before I return to France in January. Do you have that information?” she inquired. I shared what I could and wished her well.
“Have a Detty December,” I offered.
“Thanks, that’s why I am in Nigeria!” She turned away before mumbling into her phone. I could hear her asking a friend to meet her at an open-air Major Lazer party happening a few kilometers down the road. Detty December is in full swing.
Joey Akan is a music writer and A&R/Media consultant in Lagos.