By Udochukwu Ikwuagwu
Sometime in April, I was at a friend’s place, bored and without company, I decided to run through his magazine shelf, and picked up the latest issue of The Economist. Flipping through pages, one particular article, “Everyone’s a critic”, caught my attention. Sure, the title was striking: was it in praise of the critic’s important- unfortunately often vilified and under siege- role in art, or out to trivialize and make mockery of the critic’s work, à la Percy Shelley dubbing them a “noteless blot on a remembered name”.
This and Omoni Oboli bashing of a critic who panned her works were on my mind following the Yemi Alade expletive-filled rant towards ‘dumb’ fans and ‘shit’ critics. Once again, Yemi Alade had won a major award, and ‘good’ music lovers had had enough of her godforsaken, more-sounds-than-actual-words, crappy music getting on podiums and notching recognition. She had just snatched the “Best Female Artiste” prize, besting compatriots Tiwa Savage, Cynthia Morgan and Simi, at the recently-concluded 2016 Soundcity MVP Awards. She had earlier in the year carted the MAMAs in the same category—and even that win got fans riled up. It then appears at every good turn Ms Alade makes, her ‘haters’, waiting at the corner, viciously hit her with the big stick. She drops “Bottom Belle”-styled “Ferrari”, she gets the stick. She switches to EDM-flavoured “Want You”, drop-kicked by e-humans. She wins an award, trouble. She doesn’t win an award, online outrage (case in point: 2016 AFRIMA, where her lost to Aramide was attributed to her terrible lyrics). So, following one of those episodes, a visibly pissed Ms Alade took to Snapchat to vent: I don tire for all these self-acclaimed critics in this Nigeria—they don’t do any form of research, they don’t listen to the artist’s song. Then they just say shit. Sorry for some people that call themselves critics. Uhm, I’m smiling to the bank, you’re not. Be there questioning my lyrics, but you will not question the lyrics of the boys… All the biggest pop songs that are like American or British they are (sic) very simple lyrics- very basic- so dumb people like you can know.
Are critics doing the most? Are they picking on Yemi Alade because she is female? Is she insinuating her fans are dumb, and can only be satisfied by empty songs stuffed with trite lyrics over up-tempo beats? Who are these so-called critics she is referring to? Should music lovers stop bothering about nonsensical lines?
Before those questions are answered, let’s talk about the evolution of Yemi Alade. 27-year-old Yemi Alade kicked-off her career after winning the maiden edition of the Peak Talent Show in 2009, later signed to Bayo Omisore-run Jus’ Kiddin’ label. But it wasn’t all sunshine for the Abia-born singer following her win as she had to juggle schooling and music. She was one a few songs, here and there, that didn’t pop, save for her excellent feature alongside then-label mate, Efa, on DJ Klem’s “Farabale” back in 2011. She signed to Taiye Aliyu-run Effyzzie Music Group the following year, releasing “Ghen Ghen Love”, “Uche Face”, “Show Me” and “Bamboo”. Sadly, only the latter managed to be a mild hit in an afro-pop-dominated music industry. Ms Alade’s brand of urban R&B perhaps was too sophisticated for the market, and many ignored her talent. Surprisingly, it took a feminine version of Wizkid and LAX’s hit, “Caro”, for her to hit gold in the crowded industry. Released late in October 2013, Selebobo-produced “Johnny”, which was intended as a humorous freestyle and tells a tale of one showing wild oats and breaking hearts on the way, became her breakthrough song. That “Johnny” experimentation birthed the French version and the spin-off, “Tangerine”. Who would blame Ms Alade for milking the “Johnny” cash cow to make more hits and cheddar? Alas, it was what the fans wanted: simple lyrics, catchy hook sung over up-tempo production. “Johnny” put a previously-obscure Ms Alade on the map and got her thousands of fans in and outside Africa. Off one mega hit, she toured from Congo to Ghana to Zambia to Togo to France to Germany to Italy to Switzerland, shutting down stadiums and selling out shows in her wake. She went from not-noticed to superstar— her up and coming status switched to Africa’s hottest music export.
Since then, Yemi Alade has stuck to her winning formula of dropping catchy pop and dance songs—and gone further, borrowing musical styles from Ghana’s hiplife, Côte d’Ivoire’s coupé décalé to Kenyan pop to South Africa’s kwaito. Her new music may not be big among her Nigerian fans, but those outside the shores of the country are not complaining. In my review of her curiously-titled sophomore album, “Mama Africa”, I wrote on the new Yemi Alade-brand of music: She sticks to achieving one thing: a dance album that incorporates sounds from her journeys. So you find Kenyan pop, azonto and a variant of hiplife from Ghana, Swahili-titled song and references to cater to the East African fanbase, coupé-décalé from Côte d’Ivoire for her francophone audience, Nigerian highlife and juju and fuji and afropop crafted for the home crowd… Yemi Alade’s African aspirations shouldn’t be taken wholesomely as the “diary of an African woman” subtitle suggests. Her sophomore album should be taken as a collection of sounds [from] across the continent.
Unfortunately, there are fans that don’t get these new Yemi Alade aspirations. They forget she no longer caters to the needs of only Nigerians, but also, fans from Cluj-Napoca (Romania), Budapest (Hungary), Hoogeveen (Netherlands), London (UK), Washington (USA), Accra (Ghana), Nairobi (Kenya), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Freetown (Liberia) and hundreds more on the internet who dance to her music, even the questionable “Tumbum”. So, are critics, especially ‘good’ music critics, doing the most? What most ‘good’ music critics fail to understand is, dance, as a genre of music, isn’t supposed to contain deep lyrics—people just want to dance. No one listens to dance or dance-pop or pop or electro to be lost in thought—they listen to be lost on the dance floor. And that is the genre of music Yemi Alade does. ‘Good’ music fans are snobbish in their approach to music other than alternative, rock, traditional R&B, classical, soul or jazz. That snobbery makes them thrash dance music, calling it ‘empty’ and ‘lyricless’. Ironically, these same proponents of ‘good’ music refuse to understand that dance and pop can either be thrash or good. These same ‘good’ music lovers will be caught pants down listening to David Guetta or Martin Garrix or “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat” or Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” or Psy’s nonsensical songs or Taylor Swift screaming “Shake It Off” or any Madonna anthem. All these are dance songs—so why slate Yemi Alade when she does hers?
These ‘good’ music lovers claim they support ‘good’ music, but never got J’odie’s “African Woman” or Brymo’s “Klitoris” or Bez’s “Gbagyi Child”. No, they don’t know who Etcetera or Threadstone or Estar or CON.tra.diction is. These same ‘good’ music lovers always complain about senseless songs and crave ‘moral’, inspirational songs, but no one wants to think about humanity and its crisis when they are in the club. Face it, even the so-called good music never got off the shelves. Ask the guys performing at Jazzhole or Bogobiri or Freedom Park how album sales are. 9ice succinctly explained this on “Life Drama”: No club song, you no go popular. Though, the concerns of ‘good’ music lovers shouldn’t be discarded because of their snobbery. Dance and pop genre shouldn’t be brainless, even with simple lyrics. Yemi Alade has her faults. Take her “Tumbum” song, which premiered on New York-based, The Fader, and has garnered over 3 million views on YouTube within a month. Also, listen to “Koffi Anan” off Mama Africa or “Sugar” off King of Queens. These three songs, for example, could get critics throwing up at the horrible-sounding songs packed with trite and meaningless lyrics even her biggest fans would throw in the towel. She does have her faults in poor songwriting on those joints and some others, but don’t get it twisted: when Yemi Alade decides to write, she gives “Temperature” or “Nakupenda”.
Is Yemi Alade being picked on because she is female? Ms Alade was merely playing the gender card, and we are not buying that. Hardly a Wizkid, Davido or Olamide song premieres without scathing remarks by fans. In doubt, check your favourite music blog for evidence. I still remember vividly when Davido’s “Dami Duro” dropped on a popular site. “Dami Duro” had been promoted for days on the site before it dropped, and when it did, the hundreds of commenters were far from pleased with the rich kid who wasted everyone’s time and data. Wizkid’s “Ayo” album dropped a couple years ago, though half the songs turned out to be hits, fans panned the album. Why is Ms Alade now playing the gender card? The boys she referenced get harsher treatment from fans and critics. Let Lil Kesh release a song today, and watch how things go down. Are critics always right? Are critics sometimes biased? The answers will be found buried in reviews, but we sure as day need criticism especially in the art. Criticism itself isn’t wholly objective, how much more in a subjective field like music? Critics are needed for when artists go astray from their purpose and block our ears with stale music or when they fail to advance music. Critics like albums and songs matter, and should not be despised. Yemi Alade’s pedestrian argument on making more money than critics and getting a Grammy invite, therefore validating her work, should have been binned. So what if you’re making money? Money isn’t all that art is about. Once the average artist gets criticized, the next thing they do is fling the “do your own’ retort. Same thing Yemi Alade did. Same thing Omoni Oboli did. We all can’t be artists as some of us will be critics (good or bad).
In the end, we may all be ‘dumb’ fans who love ‘dumb’ music as long as we are not caught outside the club singing along. Perhaps we deserve whatever ‘dumb’ music artists throw at us. Maybe Jay-Z was right when he rapped: I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars, they criticized me for it yet all yell “holla”.