PIDGIN MAKES ITS BIG COMEBACK IN NIGERIAN MUSIC “...Nigerian Pidgin is a uniquely Nigerian brand that has catalysed the renaissance of Nigerian popular music,” writes Celestine Chukwu.
Nigerian music artistes are smiling more, complaining less and enjoying the positive effects of improved cash flow. There are more Nigerian hits on the radio now than at any other time in history; Naija Hip-hop rules the nightclubs in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. It’s a renaissance of sorts, and a certain word seems to be behind this renaissance: Pidgin.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti exemplified the movement that popularized the use of Pidgin in Nigerian popular music, a trend going all the way back to the early Highlife artistes. However, it took a while for even Fela to arrive at his ‘Pidgin epiphany,’ as he had earlier in his career written and sung in either straight English or Yoruba, his native tongue. Eventually though, the songs that came to define his career, Lady, Suffering and Smiling, Zombie, Water No get Enemy, Shakara, ITT etc., were all rendered in Pidgin.
One suspects that artistes in Fela’s generation consciously shied away from embracing Pidgin as their primary mode of expression and must have found it more acceptable to be regarded as singers in English or indigenous tongues. The reasons? To begin with, there was the notion that singing in Pidgin limited one’s audience to the uneducated, thereby immediately compromising such an artiste’s commercial appeal. This was a wrong notion - though forgivable, since Nigerians were, and still are, educated in English. The second reason for the apparent ‘Pidgin reticence’ of that generation’s artistes was the fear of being dubbed underachievers for deigning to communicate to a mass audience in an informal medium - a hangover of the British colonial experience the country had just emerged from.
As if in collective tribute to the Afrobeat legend, the post-Fela generation resoundingly demonstrated that the above-stated reservations were unfounded, as Pidgin has now risen to become the most commercially viable medium of expression in Nigerian popular music. Fela’s son Femi Kuti has been successful in staying true to his father’s Pidgin credo, and artistes like Tuface, Faze, Eedris Abdul Kareem, D’Banj, P Square and Ruggedman amongst others have established stellar careers on the back of singing or rapping in Pidgin. Singers like the bespectacled guitarist Asa and the honey-voiced 9ice have espoused a rich blend of Pidgin and Yoruba idioms interlaced with English to produce an interesting musical style that is uniquely theirs.
As this author wrote in the first ever compilation of Nigerian colloquialisms, A Dictionary of Nigerian Pidgin & Slang, Pidgin is “to all intents and purposes our colloquial lingua franca” and “...it is a ‘broadstream’ medium boasting a catchment area anywhere from the loftiest mansion to the meanest hut.” As the only linguistic medium that cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic divides in Nigeria, Pidgin’s use in social intercourse is widespread and it is immensely popular for conducting informal business. With such a huge and ready audience, is it any wonder the Pidgin platform is the most rewarding out there today?
Every African country with a colonial past, Anglophone or otherwise, has its own Pidgin, which may bear some similarity to the Pidgin of other countries, thereby creating an avenue for cross-linkages between the popular music markets of Nigeria and Ghana, for example, and making it possible for a Tuface or a P Square to perform to sell-out crowds in South Africa and for Ghanaian Hip-hop ambassadors V.I.P. to do the same in Nigeria. Such market cross-linkages have expanded the possibilities of Nigerian artistes, some of whom go out to make their careers in other African countries.
On a cautionary note, Pidgin was never, and will never be, a safe haven for artistes of questionable talent, nor is it a fail-safe medium for lazy expression. Artistes are required to put in as much hard work, if not more, to communicate effectively in the medium. The creative process of a musician depends as much on character as it does on the cultural environment that nurtures it. Nigerian artistes have learnt that to be successful, they need to be assiduous and true to the natural rhythms of their environment - as embodied in Nigerian Pidgin - and the market itself has proven to be hugely receptive to such creative sincerity.
In conclusion, Nigerian Pidgin is a uniquely Nigerian brand that has catalysed the renaissance of Nigerian popular music. Creatively blending Pidgin and indigenous language idioms is at present the sure-fire recipe for market-savvy expression in Nigerian popular music. It is a recipe that has been market-tested and found to be to the market’s liking - a recipe that Nigerian artistes are not likely to abandon anytime soon!
Celestine Chukwu is the author of the first ever dictionary of Nigerian colloquialism, A Dictionary of Nigerian Pidgin & Slang [published by Poets of Africa Resource (tel: 0806-350-1793)].