The absence of a large off-mainstream music scene in Nigeria has also meant a lack of languages outside of radio's top 3 languages: English/pidgin English, Yoruba and Igbo. In roughly that order.
Because Nigerians speaking one, two or all three of these languages are a large group, popular music in Nigeria caters first to these ones. Even before an artist gets to the recording booth, the targets are clear. So when an artist coming into the scene chooses to title and pad her music with a minority language, she could either be supremely confident or foolhardy or indifferent. I'm rooting for the first in the case of 'Uwe No', the first official single from A'rese.
Born Agharese Emokpae, A'rese won the first edition of the singing talent show The Voice, where she was a member of a group selected by Waje, one of Nigeria's belters-in-chief. During her run to the prize, A'rese belted songs like 'Skyfall', the soaring Bond theme song by Adele.
Her first single sees her release a song highlighting her vocal gifts. 'Uwe No', a love song, makes a simple declaration: the title means, "You are the one" in Edo, a language outside of Nigeria's big three local languages—Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa—and found among an ethnic group in Nigeria's south-south region. "This is love," she sings in the chorus, adding "I love you too much" in her native language.
As with the typical love song, the sentiment expressed is a simple declaration of affection, spoken, as you can imagine, by a narrator in the first flushes of that complex emotion. The song's instrumentation, horns here, strings there, soft percussion backdrop, are non-verbal evocations of that simple declaration spoken in A'rese's alternately feathery and steely voice. The various parts of the song's production are wingmen on a courtship mission attending the song's hook:
That last line speaks of a love that would not be satisfied until it possesses both the object of affection as well as the community. As the writer John Updike once observed, “An affair wants to spill, to share its glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause.”
By the song's end, a brief rap tells us that this affection is reciprocated. Two things are notable about this part. First, performed by Poe, the rapped verse tempts the alert listener to think of parts of it as sequel to 'Adore Her', a song from the Collectiv3 self-titled EP released in 2015. There he said, "...You’re gonna leave that church with my name." Here he concludes with the words, "The story of how we fell in love—I save my speeech for the reception." Second: If A'rese's verses are coy, removed as they are from considering the erotic nature of heterosexual love, Poe's suggests that physical attraction is a component of love between the sexes. "There's lips, legs, thighs and of course that waist," he says.
Both Poe and A'rese, a rapper and a singer, are working in a music scene insistent on shoving their sound to the margins, almost to that famously queer genre, "alternative". Maybe they'll bend in the future? We hope not, for the Nigerian pop scene deserves alternatives of this quality. And yet, the possibility of a compromise happening in the future is one reason we should savour their existence right now. A way of doing this is to push repeat on this love song—while we wait on the debut album from A'rese.
Buy Uwe No by A'rese on iTunes