When a few years ago, the relationship between Nigerian producer Don Jazzy and his friend, artist and business partner D'banj fell apart, the Nigerian audience picked sides. It was D’Banj or Don Jazzy. Nigerian radio was the main victim; still the national audience looked for an embodiment of that loss. Whose songs would suffer? Whose melodies would inspire yawns? Who would fall off the face of the pop scene? For months it was unclear who was going to win.
In time it became clear: The devil may have the best tunes, but Don Jazzy is not quite far behind. On the other hand, with each D’Banj release came the question: Would he regain his glory? It seemed unlikely.
But it is the Nigerian comeback season. After the relative disappointment of rapper MI Abaga’s last studio album, he has regained the magic with his last single ‘Everything’. Wande Coal got his shine back on the recent Leriq single ‘Wishlist’. With the release of ‘Emergency’, it appears D’banj’s redemption is nigh.
Everyone, especially pop musicians, forgets the best way to ask for forgiveness is not via interviews or red carpet appearances but through the music. Give the audience a good song and you have some reprieve. D’Banj may have thought so but the stars won’t align, the hits wouldn’t show up—everything since the split heard across the continent seemed inferior compared to what came before. With new song ‘Emergency’, which video has only just been released, the man may have found a way to remove himself from pop’s purgatory.
The song takes elements of early D’banj and slathers those features with Fela and sophistication. In the case of the former, he has synthesised Fela’s sound and filtered it through his own sensibility. Interestingly the song was not created by any of the usual producers the famed artist uses.
"I'm meeting him for the first time," D'Banj said in a video that surfaced online showing the artist and a producer called P Loops shake hands and embrace. "I haven't met him before...In fact, he sent the beat through Olu Maintain."
Credit to D’banj for realising the potential of a beat acquired from a producer he has never met. So that ‘Emergency’’s creation presents quite a story of contrasts: Although he has channelled Fela, the ancient maestro of afrobeat, the song has come about through that most modern of inventions: the internet. To paraphrase the song’s refrain: you never see these things coming through. It is an effective ploy. As not only is D’banj taking from his earlier self, he is doing what, in the imperishable words of Picasso, great artists do: steal. He may have been copying Fela in the beginning; now he is stealing. He may be leaving the realm of good to that of great entertainment.
D’banj, of course, has always had his Fela fascination—early on it was the skin-fitting costume. But since his colleague Wizkid got the Femi Kuti co-sign on the song and video of ‘Jaiye, Jaiye’, incorporating the dancing girls, the Shrine, and facial decoration in the process, it has become acceptable for any number of contemporary acts to take it all. So while the sound is very clearly based on a Fela-inspired beat, the video transposes the girls from the Afrika Shrine to the Hard Rock café setting of the ‘Emergency’ video. While the video’s dancers enact an excellent choreography that sees them doing the shoki, the reigning Nigerian dance, D’banj stays behind doing his Fela impression in Fela’s costume surrounded by girls embellished with the same paraphernalia of Fela’s dancers. Once again the ancient and the modern come together. Like song, like video.
Perhaps the apogee of D’banj’s Fela incarnation is how the video ends: Fela had his many women; and in the video, despite the strenuous mating dance of the two gentlemen who are respectively indulged by the female, it is the singing Fela avatar, with his sideways hip thrusts, that leaves with the girl. The energetic suitors never saw him coming through.
With regards to the song’s sophistication, the sexual content that has always found place in D’Banj’s work is here, but subtler. Witness the invitation that forms the hook: “Baby, come to the floor…” Sure, he is using the floor for bedroom substitution that has been used by every pop star. But the earlier D’banj would have found a spot in the lyrics to insert his manhood.
Always a quirky songwriter, he says the lady’s backside is thunder—the mixed metaphor reduces the impact of what is otherwise a vulgar come-on. (He follows this with the standard line of many a dishonest lover: “If I catch you na forever.” [If I get you, we’ll be together forever] Fans would recall that on 2008’s Entertainer, D’banj sang about ‘falling in love’, put an acclaimed actress in the video, gave her a ring, sang ‘I wanna make you my wife,’ to her, sparking rumours of a possible romance, and months later silence. The romance was never confirmed but that it didn’t lead to matrimony is without doubt.)
To impose his own identity on a song with a clear Fela influence and a video made around a company for which he’s ambassador, D’banj brings back the harmonica, long lost—and found only in spots since his first few singles. This gives the impression that even as the song is about a man wooing a woman, it is also about a pop star and his audience. “I did this,” D’banj is saying. “I can still do it. Take me back.”
The Nigerian audience has always loved D’Banj. But in contests structured like the Don Jazzy-D’Banj match, there had to be a clear winner. Don Jazzy’s streak continues. But with the contest now over, who is to say the Nigerian audience can’t embrace two embodiments of great pop music?