The Falz paradox

For now it appears the only area of culture dominated by Nigeria’s lower-income class is hip-pop/pop music (‘lower-income class’ and similar phrasings are used loosely). Olamide's success is the subgenre’s definitive story. His pals Reminisce and Phyno, the other local rappers, and protégés Lil Kesh and Viktoh, are in line.

Rapper Falz in 2014
Rapper Falz in 2014

By contrast, in Nigerian literature there's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole, both partly foreign-schooled (in time we’ll see the impact of recent novels by the ‘home-schooled’ trio of Igoni Barrett, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim). In Nigerian film, protagonists are mostly well-off; and only few films with lead lower-class characters reach the country's cinemas.

Local rappers are indeed dominant on the pop scene. But over the past few years, Nigeria has witnessed returnee musicians—encouraged by money, fame and a personal drive—prove that they, too, have a stake in pop’s pie. They have employed diverse methods.

Banky W came on the scene with the remix of a popular US tune. MI mixed Nigerian pop songs brilliantly on Safe. Burna Boy—in partnership with the electric, eclectic Leriq—produced a funky new sound that was also a throwback. Seyi Shay invited the reigning pop princes Timaya, Olamide, Patoranking, Iyanya etc. on her debut Seyi or Shay.

In 2015, none of these artists was as celebrated as Falz. And he is happy to tell you himself: “Mummy, I’m popular!” he says on Stories that Touch. His method is peculiar.

From first incarnation as a regular rapper to his comic skits as Brother Taju to his artful blend of both, Falz is quite an invention. A young man from a formally cultured, well-educated background, his now famous persona is of a lower cultural class with attendant symptoms: Yoruba accent and rather shifty ambitions (he craves a celebrity girlfriend and wants to be as rich as a Nigerian politician.)

 

Falz (Folarin Falana) is Nigerian and Yoruba so he is welcome to all of the culture and foibles of his country and countrymen. But here’s the question: Since in the Nigerian imagination the local accent is lower-class, could Falz’s act be one of class appropriation?

No easy answers there. What is certain is that if his act wasn't so funny, Falz’s persona would be more readily questionable. What is certain is that it would be impossible for an actual individual from the Nigerian lower-class to put up a similar display without derision from the same audience celebrating Falz. You laugh at the person who can’t help but be razz; you identify with the person who knows better but insists on putting on a show. In this way, Falz invites his audience to note its own hypocrisy. But because that invitation is backed by a beat it is easy to miss the accusation.

Rap may have thrived on some idea of authenticity but that is not what attracts listeners and critics alike to Falz. Besides his inventive rhymes, what keeps watchers entertained by Falz is a winking knowing shared by artist and audience. But this collusion of credulity isn’t something an audience extends to every artist.

How so? There is the curious case of Vic O. His outfits aren’t quite as stylish as Falz/Brother Taju’s but his English is marginally better—if only because his accent isn’t as recognisable. Yes, the man’s lack of music talent complicates the case, but it is worth thinking about: Why does everyone laugh so much at Vic O?

— It can’t be the lack of talent. There are several hacks in the industry.

— It can’t be the posturing. Pop acts have huge egos.

— It can’t be the craving of celebrity. He shares that trait with more than half the world’s population and with Falz/Brother Taju in particular.

The Nigerian audience knows Falz isn’t for real and applaud him. But it asks of Vic O: Is this guy for real? The country's response to these pop culture figures says as much about these figures as it does about the country. The audience are in on the joke and so don’t question Falz. As for Vic O, the moment the audience is certain he is for real may be the moment it stops indulging him.


 

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