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West African Music Is Much More Than Just Afrobeats

The alté community is attempting to reinvent popular culture.

by Aanu Adeoye; photos by Baingor Joiner
22 July 2019, 10:30am

(L–R): Producers Higo and Le Mav; Musician Dami Oniru; Musician Odunsi (The Engine). 

Afrobeats is everywhere. From domination in west Africa itself, Nigeria's version of afropop – a mash-up of styles and language and heavy rhythms – became an international phenomenon. It's now blaring out at the top of global streaming charts. Drake's 2016 song "One Dance", featuring Nigerian artist Wizkid, rose steadily to become the second most streamed song on Spotify ever, providing a glorious moment of recognition for afropop. And British grime artists know the power of Nigerian pop, too – Skepta and Dave have both put on Wizkid and Burna Boy in the past year.

But this only tells half story of the cultural wave coming from Africa's most populous country. Beyond afropop, a number of artists make radically different sounds from the mainstream, leading their own wave. They’ve been dubbed "alté" – as in 'alternative'; alien to the traditional cultural landscape. And they're reshaping music conventions while ascribing to a particular, gender-play aesthetic: think bucket hats and oversized, Technicolor retro shirts.

As with most things pop culture in Nigeria, you've got to start in Lagos, a city with the incessant pace and noise to facilitate people toying with new ideas. The most visible alté musician is Odunsi (The Engine), a softly spoken 23-year-old whose 2018 debut album rare. deftly mixes R&B, funk and African rhythms. On the day we meet at a Chilean restaurant in a Lagos suburb, he's in an oversized black Janet Jackson T-shirt and adorned in jewellery.

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Odunsi (The Engine), in the studio

Alté had to exist to pull away from the afropop sounds that had "saturated" the music industry and held it "almost to a ransom" for the better part of a decade, as Odunsi puts it to me. “With a couple of new artists, we found a way to express ourselves in other ways, and gratefully, it started to take off and got more attention. We were able to diversify styles." And that diversification matters. There is no specific alté sound, or way of dressing. It's more a community of like-minded kids doing different things.

According to Lady Donli, a 23-year-old singer whose single "Ca$h" made huge waves, being alté means "freedom to express yourself without the regular constraints that the industry puts on you". She exemplifies the open, genre-less heart of alté: "Today, I can make soul music, tomorrow I can make R&B, the next day, hip-hop, afrobeat. I’m just creating based on how I feel and what inspires me at the moment."

It takes a fairly straightforward formula to make music in Nigeria: studio session, radio airplay, and then having your record sold through a distribution network at the famous Alaba Music Market. In lieu of a regulated distribution network, piracy and bootlegging are rife. But Al Gore’s internet has disrupted pretty much every industry going, and Lagos' alté community harnessed SoundCloud to propel their music outwards.

"SoundCloud was my testing ground," says 22-year-old Dami Oniru, the singer behind old-school R&B-inspired EP Bri’s Lounge. "Without monetising it, I wanted to know what the reception was going to be. It was great and wasn't what I was expecting." Meanwhile, Odunsi emphasises how variation in sound lends alté part of its appeal to audiences who may be hopping from track to track online.

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Odunsi

Spend any time talking to alté artists and you learn how well they've lifted textures from the music of their childhood. Lady Donli for one recognises that none of this is new, and that music is cyclical. The musicians of her childhood, she says, would be considered alternative in an industry that is now ruthlessly dominated by afropop.

"Why do they think what we’re doing now is so far-fetched?" she asks. "When I look back at the music that I listen to – Nigerian rock, funk and pop music from the 80s – and I listen to some sounds that I make, I’m like 'damn, this is contemporary.' This scene that we're doing has existed in the past and it will exist in the future, and history will keep on repeating itself," she says.

She's right. Nigeria has harboured outliers who were considered weirdos; those who dared to stick their heads above the parapet to try something different with their music or fashion, or both. Charly Boy, a highlife musician and TV personality, with his bazillion rings and constantly changing outlook, is perhaps the grandfather of alté. First disregarded and mocked for being different in the 80s, he has now become part of the furniture – so much so that he has a bus stop in Lagos named after him.

Around the same time Charly Boy was producing albums in the 90s, attacking the then-military government, Obesere was shattering what's expected of Fuji – a genre associated with praise-singing and laced heavily with beats willing you on to dance – as on his seminal 2002 album Apple Juice. Nobody would ever accuse a Fuji musician of being alternative. But Obesere was, in his fishnet shirts and sequinned blouses (when he could be bothered to wear a top at all).

Ultimately, alté transcends music. You'll see Odunsi often decked out in vintage jewellery or occasionally in colourful boots, subverting stereotypes of how a Nigerian male act is supposed to act and dress. Nigerian music is typically loud and hyper-masculine; its stars are expected to follow suit. Instead, Odunsi finds that “When you look around and don't see something, you eventually become that thing that you don’t see. I've always admired styles and fashion and clothes since I was little, and it just came from not really having much to wear."

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Singer and artist Dami Oniru

The model for women to succeed in music here is the same as it tends to be around the world: be flashy and sexy. But the women of the alté community do things on their own terms. "The first thing for me is being comfortable," Lady Donli explains. "I hate feeling restricted."

Dami Oniru adds that she wants to "break out of the cycle where the normal perception is that as a woman in the Nigerian music industry, you have to have sex appeal or be a sex symbol."

Edwin Okolo, a Lagos-based writer and fashion insider is skeptical about how much social change the "disruptors" can effect in a traditionally conservative society, though. Still he believes the alté aesthetic could end up helping Nigeria's LGBTQ community, who still face frightening levels of discrimination in society. "It has allowed LGBT persons to skate under the radar, because mainstreaming gender fluidity and the subversion of gender identity is how people in these minority groups have always moved in the world, and having heterosexual musicians with significant influence co-opt these ideas has been beneficial to their cause."

Nigeria is still a deeply religious and socially conservative nation, where societal norms dictate that you follow the convention. You aren't meant to want to be weird. And so on social media alté artists have been referred to as dressing like homeless people, their music dismissed as a gimmick. "When the movement started there was an air of condescension from people," Lady Donli says. "Initially people called us SoundCloud artists. They didn’t refer to us as real musicians or artists. We’re all artists, just doing it in a different way."

Music producers Higo Le Mav by Baingor Joiner 2019 for VICE
Producers Higo and Le Mav

For Dami Oniru, the initial skepticism came from her family who wondered why she wasn’t making the afrobeat they grew up listening to, or pursuing a conventional career path. "Nigerian culture instils some sort of fear in you," she says. "And you’re told to become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. If you’re not, you’ve basically failed in life." She says she struck a compromise with her mum who needed a little bit of convincing. "I went to university, just so I could focus on my music now that I'm done.”

Le Mav and Higo, producers who've worked extensively with musicians on the scene, say an ongoing shift towards a more collaborative industry could help alter perceptions of the community going forward. "Thanks to Santi’s album, international artists are starting to pay attention," says Le Mav, of a project he and Higo worked on. Higo added: "People are asking us to make demos for them. It’s like they want a piece of this. They want that kind of sound.”

For all of its recent rise, alté music is still essentially a niche segment of the music industry. Will a nation so endlessly thrilled by the wonders of afropop be willing to give something different a try? Lady Donli certainly thinks so: "Nigeria is big enough for alté and all other genres to thrive in." And beyond the confined spaces of Lagos, Odunsi hopes their music goes global, following in the footsteps of afrobeats, their more illustrious sibling.

@aanuadeoye / @bailikedubai