It was my second night in Lagos, Nigeria, and once more I was in a room of clinking glasses and rumbling bass, a room filled with Nigeria’s upper crust bouncing to indigenous Afro-pop. Everything was washed in hot pink. Beams from a bank of rotating lights glinted off gaslight chandeliers and mirrored ornaments behind the bar. Bottles of Dom Pérignon set in buckets of dry ice left vapor trails as they streamed from the bar in the arms of statuesque African beauties conveying them to booths manned by oil or telecom executives, real estate developers, entrepreneurs and their guests.
Many of them, still in their 20s and 30s, were already millionaires, and all of them were hustlers. This was Lagos (pronounced “lay-gos”) after all, and one conceit is that everybody here has three hustles: An oil mogul may also own a restaurant while bankrolling a recording session with an up-and-coming MC. On the street level it’s no different. In this export-dependent, corrupt, dangerous city, whether you’re living high or low, one job never feels like enough.
And the never enough is why I was there. The truth is, I was the jaded traveler incarnate. I’d been to 45 countries on six continents, reporting, adventuring and partying. The road was alive, and each destination had its own distinct flavor. Whenever I’d sacrificed comfort, I typically earned a double shot of authenticity and inspiration.
Then, sometime in the past decade, authentic flavor became hard to find. The 21st century travel landscape has morphed into a dreaded sameness in the form of ubiquitous craft cocktails, gourmet small plates and high-tech hostels designed to look and feel like an MTV wonderland. Canopy walks are no longer an exotic promise from a singular lush rain forest but an expectation too easily realized. The bars, the beaches, the hotels, the city streets, the adventures seem attuned to the collective globalized culture rather than rooted in their own timeless traditions and natural gifts. All of which is only augmented by too many Google Earth views and TripAdvisor consultations.
But Lagos, for all its money, glamour and status as the world capital of Afropop, seems immune to all that. Thanks to its crime-riddled reputation, it has become the dark frontier of the global party circuit, a place of cognac-washed clubs, B-boy block parties and Afrobeat root systems. There are no carbon-copy full-moon raves or overly organized pop festivals featuring homogenous EDM robots with $100 haircuts. Instead Lagos offers the elusive electrical charge that all travelers crave: the authentic, even if that means having to watch your back on the street at all times.
Out in front of Sip Lounge, blinged-out revelers, the ajebotas (“butter eaters,” Yoruba slang for rich kids) stepped from tinted Range Rovers and Lexus SUVs amid nearly invisible beggars—the disabled, the orphaned, the displaced. Along the way they kept their eyes peeled. It wasn’t the beggars they were concerned about, nor was it the overt presence of danger that raised their antennae. It was the potential for mayhem.
Every privileged soul I met in Lagos had at least one story about staring down the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife (the poor and working class are mugged and robbed just as often), and there were few better targets than the players heading to Industry Night at Sip Lounge. Lagos is a city of approximately 20 million people where some 9,000 millionaires float upon a sprawling mass of ajepakos (Yoruba slang that roughly translates as “twig eaters”). According to estimates, more than 4 million are unemployed and millions more earn low wages on the black market, which means lurking on the poorly lit streets are countless desperate people who may resort to home break-ins, carjacking and kidnapping rather than beg for spare change to make ends meet. Precious few of the established players in Nigeria’s booming music industry offered any penance as they streamed in to mingle with the gilded business class and an occasional hopeful Afropop upstart.
In recent years, a handful of Afropop artists have hit the popular charts in the U.S. and Europe, and remixes and collaborations—Wizkid with Drake and Skepta, and P-Square with Rick Ross—pop up on YouTube and SoundCloud. Major Lazer may sample a polyrhythm and a Yoruba lyric from Burna Boy, while Wizkid adopts a Lil Wayne swagger. But in Africa the music is everywhere. Lagos is the laboratory and the loudspeaker, conjuring and blaring Africa’s continental soundtrack to all 54 countries of the motherland.
At two a.m. one of the biggest stars in the room, Burna Boy, stood in his booth, wearing a straw hat and a gold medallion over his white T-shirt. He took a long pull from the Hennessy bottle in his right hand and reached for the mike with his left. The hype man set the mood. All heads turned. DJ Obi, a Lagos mainstay, laid down a beat, and Burna Boy launched into his hit “Like to Party.”
Imagine hitting the clubs in Toronto or New York and seeing Drake or Jay Z grab the mike. That rarely happens, but in Lagos clubs, when artists turn up—which they often do—they almost always deliver. The promise of priceless impromptu performances and ostentatious displays of wealth are two reasons the Lagos club scene is world-class.
As the giddy clubbers moved en masse to the dance floor, many of them holding up their phone to capture their Burna Boy moment, mine vibrated in my pocket. It was Bizzle, the most unlikely of industry power players and a respected influencer in the Afropop multiverse. All around me his colleagues trickled in; the party was peaking, but he told me to meet him at Club 57.
I found him there at three a.m. in his peach Ankara outfit, laser lights darting over his head, women everywhere. The music was so loud it was hard to hear, but every few minutes another old friend or acquaintance, or a music manager with a demo, stopped by to deliver a pitch or offer an invitation.
“He’s got a good spirit,” said musician Seun Kuti, who was dancing in a nearby booth and is the youngest son of the legendary Fela Kuti. “Everybody who has come across him has something good to say about him, but most of them say hello because they need him.”
Bizzle, born Abiodun Osikoya, is the 30-year-old A&R manager for Mavin Records, and like so many successful Lagosians, he was born rich. When he was in high school, a wave of “returnees”—children of the Nigerian diaspora educated overseas and tired of bashing their heads against the European and American glass ceilings—came home in search of real opportunity and a chance to shake off the anxiety of racism.
As far as many of the returnees were concerned, the old stories of Africa—the ones about war, poverty and corruption—were outdated. It was a new Africa now. Mobile-phone technology wired the continent, investment and entrepreneurship were flourishing, and Nigeria, with its oil wealth and energetic population—a significant portion of which was under 35—was poised for unprecedented growth. Lagos even had a new sound.
If you were to track Nigerian music on a historical graph, you would see a spike in international interest and record sales around the heyday of legendary highlife acts such as King Sunny Adé, defined by joyful guitar licks, and Fela Kuti—the rebellious political activist and progenitor of the infectious, brass-heavy Afrobeat sound. Both became international stars in the 1970s, but beginning in the 1980s, Nigerians gravitated toward Western music. By the time Bizzle was in college, however, not long after the millennium, Nigerian music was back on the upswing. Independent record labels flourished, and MTV took notice, setting up a cable channel that streamed primarily Nigerian music videos 24/7. Copycat channels soon followed, and Bizzle and his contemporaries were hooked on the new Nigerian sound. When he went to Liverpool for college, he brought the music with him. A superfan, he combed the internet each night, and whenever he discovered a fresh track or video, he’d post it on Facebook, where he grew a cult following. His time came after he graduated from college, and Storm Records, one of Lagos’s top independent labels at the time, offered him a job. He moved back home to become the label’s social media and road manager.
“In the past six years, the music has changed a lot. People came back, bringing new influences and a new lifestyle,” Bizzle said, citing Burna Boy, Davido and Tiwa Savage as examples. But it is the power of social media that has made Nigerian music the sound of the African continent and helped it find listeners in Europe and the Americas.
Of course, Lagos being Lagos, Bizzle has his own hustles. In addition to his work with Mavin, he has become a successful club promoter and co-hosts three club nights a week. He does well, but he isn’t satisfied. The trappings of true wealth in Lagos include a fat yacht and a mansion in Ikoyi. Bizzle craves both and is angling to open his own clubs to get there. “Owo ni koko,” he said. “That’s Yoruba for ‘Money is the main thing.’ ”
What’s true for Bizzle is true for Lagos.
The next day I met him at a late-afternoon pool party hosted by another of Bizzle’s partners, Quilox nightclub. The pool, set in a private entertainment facility, was lined with curtained cabanas—the type you see in Las Vegas—and the event lured heavyweights from across the spectrum of Lagosian arts and industry. Despite the flash, though, the venue itself was unfinished. The view from the bathroom overlooked construction rubble. We were partying steps from a dirt parking lot off the thrumming Lekki-Epe Expressway, which connects the residential neighborhood of Lekki with Victoria Island—home to hotels, restaurants, banks and oil company offices. Somewhere beyond the party, countless Lagosians dealt with hunger, maddening traffic, corrupt cops and intermittent electricity—not to mention an ominous existential bogeyman, the Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria led by bloodthirsty Boko Haram.
Well after dark, everyone reconvened at Cova, a nightclub on the top floor of a mall in Victoria Island. In the small hours I found myself pinned in a VIP space next to the sound booth where DJ Caise, Lagos’s premier Afro-house man, was on the decks. A spliff was sparked. It found me, and I inhaled new African Zen while a big hitter across the room ordered bottle after bottle of champagne. The hype man counted them off but had trouble keeping up. A procession of waitresses passed by as the number climbed into the teens.
“Seventeen bottles, 18, 19 bottles! Twenty mothafuckin’ bottles!” DJ Caise cut the music. “What the fuck, nigga?” The hype man paused, momentarily speechless. The crowd laughed in collective disbelief. “This ain’t a party. This is a mothafuckin’ movie!”
Lagos is certainly cinematic, but it isn’t pretty. A massive jigsaw of moldering concrete with almost no greenery, it is the largest city in Africa by population. Although it incorporates dozens of neighborhoods, the city breaks into roughly two sections: the Island and the mainland. The Island is set across a wide brackish lagoon from the mainland and connected with three separate bridges. Although just one landmass, it’s home to several neighborhoods, including Victoria Island, Lekki and Ikoyi, where the high-end nightlife and shopping happen, as well as some tough neighborhoods, including Lagos Island, home to the city’s largest market and its roughest red light district.
While the Island features steel-and-glass skyscrapers, posh boutiques, ample space and wide, paved roads, mainland ghettos are jumbles of tin-roofed cinder-block walk-ups and spiderweb electric lines sagging over often unpaved roads running parallel to open sewers. Unemployment is rampant, health services are woeful and emergency services are nonexistent. If someone collapses from heart failure or a robbery is in progress, Lagosians have no reliable number to call. People die every day from treatable illnesses and kids learn early that life on the mainland is cheap, which is why most grow up dreaming of one day making it to the Island to claim a piece of the good life.
But if you trace the roots of the music that saturates Island nightclubs, they always lead back to the mainland—that vortex of struggle and wellspring of Lagosian soul. That’s true in a spiritual sense as well as musically. What makes Afropop great is its foundational rhythms and melodies. Defiant and buoyant, they recall Nigerian music of decades ago, namely the works of the legendary Fela Kuti, pioneer of the Afrobeat sound and an icon on the level of Bob Marley and James Brown.
Fela’s songs were anthems, his rhythms gathering storms of rebellion. He sang out against political corruption and in favor of social justice. At one point he created his own mainland commune, Kalakuta Republic, where his son Seun grew up.
“It was a community of people from every walk of life,” Seun said, “from ex-cons to lawyers and accountants to electricians. It was a vibrant place. There was no seniority. Everybody was equal.” What attracted them to Fela was his music. “Afrobeat is a voice for the people,” Seun said.
It’s also electrifying and funky. Fela lit up recording studios and dance halls from Lagos to London to Los Angeles, and if you listen closely to his tunes, you hear not the roots of Nigeria’s future sound but the seeds of today’s EDM trance anthems.
At his peak, Fela was as rich as any oilman in the city. He would carry around trash bags of money and buy multiple cars at a time. A marijuana enthusiast of the highest order and an early dab king, he made his own hash oil and carried a jar of it around with him. He built his own concert hall, the Shrine, and played inexpensive shows to audiences filled with the disenfranchised. Whenever he could he would challenge the generals, charging them with corruption in the streets, which explains why the military government considered him a problem. They arrested Fela multiple times and burned the Shrine and Kalakuta to the ground in a raid that killed Fela’s mother.
Former General Muhammadu Buhari, one of Fela’s jailers, was elected president in March 2015 after a campaign in which he promised to clean up government once and for all—a dubious claim from someone many citizens suspect bilked the country of oil wealth decades ago. Thanks in part to Buhari, Fela died broke in 1997.
Seun now lives in Ikeja, a mainland neighborhood not far from the old Kalakuta and the New Afrika Shrine, which his older brother, Grammy-nominated artist Femi Kuti, built and where he performs once a month. Seun rents a large townhouse, though it’s not in great condition, and drives an eight-year-old Mercedes. Femi is a better earner and lives in the Lagos outskirts, but he supports a big family, and both artists must also provide for their large bands, which include as many as 16 musicians. They’re celebrities, but they are also firmly entrenched in Nigeria’s middle class. In a city as expensive as Lagos, that often means a paycheck-to-paycheck livelihood, and they are as unlikely to pop bottles in the clubs as they are to rave about the new Africa and all its progress and opportunity.
“Don’t believe the hype,” Seun said. “People who have been poor since I’ve been a kid are still poor today.”
When I caught up with Femi in the recording studio, he told me he thinks people who talk about a new Africa and a growing economy “have sold their soul.” He added, “Health care services are bad, the roads are still bad, the poverty level is bad, and just because a handful of people are benefitting from the stolen money”—referring to suspected government embezzlement—“you say the economy is improving? Yes, a few people are doing well, but generally speaking Nigeria is very sick.”
Seun and Femi take after their father. Their music is political, entrancing and immersive, and has an audience both at home and abroad. But like Fela’s, their songs can stretch to over 10 minutes, which means they aren’t hit makers, and when young Nigerians dream about becoming pop stars, they don’t imagine themselves as Fela’s kids. They want to be Wizkid.
One of Nigeria’s biggest pop stars, Wizkid grew up hanging out on the street corners of Ojuelegba—a working-class Lagosian transport hub teeming with beat-up canary yellow minivans and tricked-out three-wheeled keke napep (Nigerian tuk-tuks). It’s an all-hours marketplace, rife with petty crime and prostitution. That’s where he spent his free time, rhyming and dancing for hours on end, checking out the girls and absorbing the struggle. At night he hung out in low-rent recording studios and eventually laid down some tracks. His stardom was immediate, and local kids across the city don’t just dream of following in his footsteps, they’re hustling to get there.
Over the 10 days and nights I spent in Lagos, I sought out every party I could find. One night I wandered down a narrow lane near city hall, in Lagos Island, and found a block party. A crude stage had been set up, flanked by enormous speakers and covered with a carpet remnant opposite a soundboard set against a wall of the local bar. The neighborhood, Campos, in the Brazilian quarter in Lagos Island, was so named by freed slaves who settled there after returning from Brazil and Cuba in the late 19th century. Lagos has a long history of returnees.
On this night, three generations of their descendants sat at plastic tables, drinking Orijin Bitters and oversize bottles of Star beer and watching the young people dance and perform original tunes. Toward the end of the night, Dreamchaser, a lean 26-year-old MC, let loose his infectious raspy flow. His Yoruba and pidgin English poetry was supported by an Afrobeat rhythm as teenagers and 20-somethings rushed the stage, break-dancing and twerking in the beams of oncoming headlights.
“It’s all about a girl I want to love but cannot because I don’t have the money,” Dreamchaser said afterward. His song is his truth. A barman in Lagos Island, he’s lucky if he earns $300 a month. Though talented, he has been hustling for more than eight years and hasn’t made a dime. In fact, he saves his pennies for months to spend the necessary 50,000 naira (approximately $250) anytime he wishes to record a track, yet he remains undaunted. “I still believe I can make much money in what I am doing. I believe that for real.”
His words echo those of Sanue Chemeka, 27, a college student I met in a fast-food restaurant in Lagos Island. He was working the register, and near closing time he and his buddy were entranced by an Ice Prince video strobing on the flatscreen in the dining area. Their eyes lit up as Ice Prince and his homeys posed around sexy dancers and drove high-end sports cars. It was aspirational eye candy for a couple of guys struggling to get by on less than $200 a month. While pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and holding down a job, Sanue’s third hustle is his music.
“They call me Rude Boy,” he said. “I have some tracks.” I smiled because his vibe was more pie-eyed and warm than rude-boy cool. I asked him what he loved about Afropop. He paused to listen to Ice Prince and said, “The sound is sweet. It’s ours, and they can’t take it away from us.”
So much of life in Lagos is a struggle for the average guy and even more difficult for poor Nigerian girls growing up in cramped confines where sexual violence is commonplace. Credit is extraordinarily difficult to obtain, and even my own credit cards were cut off after one or two charges in Lagos. As a result, the city runs on cash, which makes it almost impossible to transcend poverty. That’s why you see Lagosians of all ages selling anything and everything they can find at roadside intersections and even on the expressways when traffic grinds to a halt. One industrious little girl alternated between doing her homework on the curbside as traffic roared and slaloming among moving cars to sell bags of groundnuts when it slowed enough for commerce. Meanwhile, plenty of Lagosians, caught in their city’s unforgiving economic grip, stray toward crime instead.
“Put yourself in the shoes of those who are committing crime,” Femi Kuti said. “I have two children, I have no money, I can’t get a job, and someone invites me to steal a car. Maybe one of my children is sick. In this country, people die because of 1,000 naira”—approximately $5—“and you expect this guy not to rob and steal?”
Good middle-class jobs are so hard to come by in Nigeria that when the government announced it was hiring fewer than 5,000 people in March 2014, close to 500,000 showed up to apply. The resulting stampedes killed at least 16 people.
That cocktail of desperation, corruption and income disparity has earned Nigeria a reputation. I’ve traveled to my share of hazardous countries and reported from minefields and war zones, but I never received so many warnings as I did when I told friends who had never been to Nigeria that I was headed to Lagos. Yet despite the city’s crime and poverty, I rarely felt in danger. In fact, I felt taken care of, whether I was at a nightclub or a block party. I started to believe those well-meaning warnings were grounded more in unconscious racism than in reality.
The Lagosians I met were almost all hard-working, optimistic and warm, fueled by ingenuity and a belief that things can get better. For them, Afropop is a source of pride. It’s homegrown, combining Nigerian roots music with hip-hop influences that were once banned from radio play and could only be heard underground.
“The music symbolizes hope,” said Nseobong Okon-Ekong, a lifestyle and entertainment editor for ThisDay, one of Lagos’s top newspapers. “Hope that it is possible to transform from nobody to somebody.”
Seun Kuti enjoys Afropop, especially when out with friends. “That’s what the music is for,” he said, “to go out and have fun, which is why the brand is growing.” Still, he wonders whose dream the artists are selling and who it serves.
“I don’t like to judge people,” he said, “but it’s a shame that most of our art in Africa is glorifying cheap consumerism. We cannot measure our own success by the amount of things we can afford. Everybody wants the status symbol of Gucci, of $250,000 cars and $2,000 shoes, basically giving up all we make to buy things we do not produce in Africa, and art in Africa is promoting this lifestyle. This makes it difficult in terms of development of Africa as a viable economic power. Our dream has to be the African dream—the dream of economic liberation, to control our resources how we want and develop our societies in a way that benefits us first.”
Seun and Femi Kuti are doing their part to further their father’s message rather than chase dollar signs. When I met them, Femi was in the studio finishing up his 11th record, independently financed, of course, and Seun was preparing for his Halloween show at the New Afrika Shrine with Egypt 80, which was his father’s band. Seun has been leading it since he was 14 years old, when Fela died.
Not long before midnight on the night of the show, they took the stage, and the cavernous, tin-roofed, concrete-floored dive that is the Shrine filled with the soulful thunder of Afro-beat. Though not to a packed house, Seun’s performance was masterful. Trim, glistening with sweat and with his FELA LIVES tattoo visible across his shoulder blades, he sounded eerily like his dad as he blew his alto sax and sang his raw vocals in call-and-response with two beautiful backup singers and dancers, their beaded hair, sashes and skirts flaring and shaking in time. By the end of the night, the crowd, almost all of whom lived on the mainland, was shouting and singing along with him. They high-fived him and threw their fists in the air, and I thought back to what Femi had told me in the recording studio a few days before.
“We have no education, no electricity. We can’t put three square meals on the table,” he said of his resilient countrymen. “After slavery, coming out of years of corruption, for us to have accepted and survived this turmoil, we must be a great people.”
On the long drive back to my hotel, Femi’s words and his brother’s music lingered in my mind. It takes 45 minutes to get to the Island from Ikeja, without traffic. When gridlock snarls, which is often, it can take four hours. High on Nigerian kush and feeling perfectly at home as we cruised the dark empty streets at four a.m., I was dreading my flight out the next day. I wanted more music, more Lagos. Then, out of the shadows, she came toward the car. A slender mocha-skinned beauty in one broken heel and a tight white dress splattered in blood. Her lower lip was busted open, and she staggered toward the driver’s side, banging on the window.
“Help me,” she gasped. The driver swerved, narrowly missing her. She spun and fell to her knees on the asphalt.
“What the fuck,” I yelled.
“It’s a trap,” the driver said, accelerating and leaving her in the dust. “I’m telling you, it’s a trap. If we go back, there will be a mob of men who will rob us and maybe kill us.” My driver had once been held up by a mob in the street and was eventually locked in his own trunk. “They could have automatic weapons, those guys.”
I turned back. Aside from the girl, the street was completely empty. Was he right? Was she bait, or was she the one in danger? I’d like to say we went back to check, but this was Lagos after all, so we kept driving.