Why you should care

Because these young Nigerian men and women are taking on the world, one song at a time.

When Idris King produced a song titled “90s Baby” while attending college in the U.K. in 2014, the aspiring Nigerian musician had hoped to reach a few hundred listeners relying on online platforms like SoundCloud. His best bet to boost numbers a bit, he concluded, was related merchandise, which he sold on returning home to Nigeria after completing his studies.

But “90s Baby” grew into a brand that now hosts a radio show and events. King’s return home coincided with a dramatic churn in the way the West African nation’s youth consume music, defined by a growing network of concerts and parties where young Nigerian artists perform before their peers without support from big studios, instead relying on the power of the internet.

The choice of the medium isn’t what is unique to young Nigerian musicians. Around the world, the opportunity to record music and videos and share them online has drawn millions of both genuinely talented and wannabe singers. What is different is the response Nigerian artists have received. Success stories elsewhere have been individual, led by American rappers like Post Malone and DonMonique. In Nigeria, a much wider base of success is giving birth to a movement of what are being called “new age” or “new wave” musicians.

I feel like this year was stage one of our careers.

Idris King, musician

“Gangsta Fear” by rapper Santi featuring singer and producer Odunsi was one of four songs from Nigeria featured on the April 1 episode of OVO Sound Radio, founded by Canadian hip-hop star Drake. “Tonight,” a single from 21-year-old Nonso Amadi, garnered over 1 million streams on music app Spotify in April 2017. In December, “Situationship” by Odunsi featuring AYLØ was listed as among the most viral tracks on Spotify USA. And in May 2017, American music site Complex.com included “Ice Cream” by Lady Donli featuring Tomi Thomas — both major Nigerian stars now — in a list of “10 Dope New Songs You Should Be Hearing.”

“I feel like this year was stage one of our careers,” says King to this writer, in a room facing the foyer of the African Artists’ Foundation, a building filled with art in Lagos. Kickback, a special Halloween concert organized by 90s Baby, is scheduled to begin there in two hours. “People actually knew these guys are here, and that ‘new wave’ tag came about,” he adds.

For many young Nigerian musicians, the opportunity to use online platforms to make a name for themselves is also helping them dream of a future otherwise almost impossible. Nigerian teenagers in high school and universities around the world are creating music on their laptops and sharing it online.

“I had a lot of people who decided to support me based off my online presence and listening to my music online,” says Lady Donli. “I don’t know how much of an artist I would be without those platforms.”

To some, the desire to prove critics wrong was a vital source of motivation. Product designer and graphic artist Tomisin Akinwunmi had organized RADAR (Raising Awareness for Domestic Abuse and Rape) in December 2015, a well-received event in Lagos where young people gathered to have conversations about mental health, when she decided to also help out friends in the music industry. Many of them were frustrated, she says, because people kept telling them this “‘SoundCloud generation’ can’t prosper, because Nigerians won’t buy into the music.”

Akinwunmi organized the Lemon Curd concert in August 2016 to offer a platform for young Nigerian artists she knew and had met online to see their fans in the flesh, and repeated the event this year. The concert not only helped introduce artists to audiences, but it has taught her how to manage people, deal with no-show contractors and accommodate late-coming artists.

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While events like Akinwunmi’s or King’s are good for young artists, they’re not always as good for their audience, says music critic Edwin Okolo. “The organizers of these events are learning on the go,” he says. “And there’s also the Nigerian factor, where nothing works out the way you planned.”

Online platforms have also helped these new-wave musicians and entrepreneurs connect with each other. Lady Donli, who organized the Wallflower Experience, a concert in Abuja, became friends with Akinwunmi online because Akinwunmi’s blog promoted her music. Through the internet, Donli also met King, who she discovered had once been her neighbor. “Collaboration — that’s the most important thing,” says Akinwunmi.

That camaraderie will be challenged once labels start picking up some of the artists, driving competitive expectations, predicts Okolo. And already, these artists are chafing against the tags thrust on them. Lady Donli calls the new-age narrative limiting and exclusionary. “New wave — that word needs to die off in 2017,” says King. “It is sort of a box, with a connotation of what it’s meant to sound like. We’re talented artists who have international appeal. No one calls Drake new hip-hop. It’s hip-hop.”

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These artists are dreaming big. King hopes artists like Canadian singer-songwriter Daniel Ceasar will listen to their music and visit Nigeria — and not just to make an Afropop single. Lady Donli is working on her debut album and hopes to go on a world tour in 2019 — nothing grandiose, but with hopes of pulling an audience of at least a hundred people per destination.

Akinwunmi hopes to take the Lemon Curd concerts to other cities in Nigeria and even countries like Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania. “I want it to be as big as Coachella, somewhere where you want to showcase your talent, represent your country and show the rest of Africa that ‘Yo, over here in Nigeria, we have some dope music and dope artists and we can connect you with the dopest people.’”

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