In Nigeria, hip-hop is fighting for its dear life. Once a huge part of the local music industry, Nigerian rappers dominated the continent, with rap music produced all over the country’s creative capital, Lagos, and beyond. Today, it is a relegated culture, currently playing second fiddle in the mainstream market as a less desirable cousin of Afrobeats and local dance music, genres that continue to squeeze the life out of it as they ascend.
But it hasn’t always been so. Rap music has a rich history in Nigeria. The country has produced generations of great MCs who were once revered and supported by both the industry and the market. From the legend of Modenine, through the combatant days of Ruggedman, down to the emergence and domination of M.I Abaga, hip-hop thrived at the heart of the country.
Times have changed. At the highest levels, hip-hop struggles to make a dent, and where it has survived, rappers have had to make a compromise by fusing their art with elements of local dance music to maintain a semblance of existence at the top. The genre is also experiencing a hard time keeping the market’s interest to generate financial gains.
It isn’t all gloomy. Hope resides in the country’s underground where the culture continues to shine. Young rappers who have been influenced by the greats of the US, and their earlier local counterparts, are staying true to the art and mining new ways to generate value far away from the glare of pop spaces. Using self-built platforms, via independent guerilla-style campaigns and releases, they are leveraging off social media to build audience bases and power back the genre.
Here are 10 of the best Nigerian rappers you should know.
M.I Abaga is the most important rapper the country has ever produced. In the mid 2000s, M.I found the perfect intersection between local language and American delivery to produce a democratized hybrid of rap that powered him to success. That experimentation and adaption continue to be the formula for his work in this era. His latest albums, Rendezvous and A Study On Self Worth: Yxng Dxnzl, contains futuristic sounds from Nigeria’s growing Alte movement. His earlier projects and studio albums are essentials of Nigerian hip-hop.
Away from the front-end, M.I’s work extends to the backend of the business. He has held executive positions at his record label, Chocolate City, providing a launch pad for new artists. In 2019, Chocolate City sealed a partnership deal with Warner Music Group to expand their work in Africa to seek, groom, and export talent from the country. M.I plays a pivotal part in this arrangement; he is both artist and artist enabler.
Whether he’s rapping his heart out and giving inventive freestyles on social media or sprinting over a pacy dance beat, Vector holds respect as one of Nigeria’s most visible and skilled rappers. Within three studio albums and two mixtapes, Vector has traversed just about all the iterations of Nigerian rap.
Born and raised in Lagos, Vector worked his way out of the hood on Lagos Island. His formative neighborhood, Lafiaji, is a place he loves to romanticize as the birthplace of all his talent. You can experience this sentiment on his 2016 album, Lafiaji, an ode to home, spinning a rich tale of everyday life. Signed to Universal Music Group Nigeria, subtle activism is embedded in Vector’s lyrics. You can find his campaign against local police brutality in SARS Is Around.
Local purist hip-hop heads will turn their nose up at the thought of Zlatan Ibile being a luminary of the culture. He comes from the “street” – a term used to describe the low-income neighborhoods – where the music possesses a rawness to the sound. The past three years have seen street music influencing a huge part of Nigerian pop culture, and Zlatan Ibile is in the frontline that push.
Green-haired, swashbuckling, and a skilled dancer, Zlatan popularized the Zanku dance step, which has globally exploded thanks to the internet. Zlatan’s most popular records are more suited for dance rather than introspection, but he offers hood gospel when he can. He mostly raps in the Yoruba language and is never lacking for new slangs or “Lamba.”
Falz the Bahd Guy is many things to many people; rapper, comedian, actor (he has won two AMVCA trophies, the highest screen honor in Africa). Born to a Human Rights activist father, Femi Falana, the singer with a law degree from Reading operates out of Lagos with a potent blend of humor, conscious lyricism, and an ear for great beats.
Outspoken and with a nonchalant delivery, Falz has increasingly come under fire from fellow countrymen for the conscious content of his music. Much of that polarizing art is contained in Moral Instruction, his 2019 LP, which draws inspiration from the great pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti.
With Blaqbonez, you never know what to expect. You can be ushered into a bars-heavy rap session featuring unending braggadocio or a story-telling experience laced with dry humor. You can easily get lost in the wit of the pink-haired rapper whose juvenile disposition is a breath of fresh air. These are the qualities that have made Blaqbonez Nigeria’s latest entrant into the rap limelight.
After years of solid work in the trenches of underground hustle, Blaq’s 2018 EP, Bad Boy Blaq, and the 2019 follow-up, Bad Boy Blaq Re-Up, depicts him as one of rap’s most exciting voices on the rise. Tracks like “Accomodate” and “Consent” show his Western trap influences, while “Play” is a proper summer earworm, fit for endless raving in the sun.
Showdem Camp is kept alive by the enduring balance of Ghost and Tec, who are the founding members of the group. In 2009, the duo hit the ground running, and have consistently elevated the rap space with a consistency of projects. While older rap fans can find their juice on Clone Wars, a three-volume mixtape series that is deeply rooted in commentary and wordplay, their relatively newfound pop momentum is housed on their Palmwine Music series containing sunny tropical vibes.
Ghost and Tec represent the duality of Nigerian rap; there is dance in abundance and plenty of material for escapism. But you can also find conscious messages on their darker stuff which has a strong appreciation for the underground.
YCee is a pleasant conundrum to Nigerians. He broke through as a tough rapper with “Jagaban” before incorporating more melody into his delivery. Right now, he’s leaned heavily on dance music for consolidation of his place in the culture. Club bangers such as “Juice” and “Omo Alhaji” have made the 25 year-old a favorite of mainstream attention. YCee’s sing-raps – a lazy, syrupy inaudible drone – have also inspired a core base of followers. He has been described as a drive-by artist; that is, he makes music that is best enjoyed cruising in your car with your windows wound down and the wind caressing your cheeks.
There’s a lot of YCee to go around. If diversity is your thing, enjoy his soothing joint EP with ex-label mate, Bella Alubo, Late Night Vibrations, where he is extensively portrayed as a lover. But he truly comes alive when he is weaving narratives and coasting through his mid-tempo efforts such as “Balance” and “My Side.”
The Lost & Found (Boogey & Paybac)
Comprised of rappers Boogey and Paybac, The Lost and Sound are the product of collaboration in Lagos’s underground scene. Boogey is a veteran rapper whose rap career is a deep dive into the complexity of the human mind, while his partner Paybac offers a relatable balance with storytelling that is woven into cohesive projects. Both rappers have a relatively thriving career in niche spaces, but when they come together, their gifts are amplified.
Their latest offering, Alternate Ending, carries offers a window into the workings of independent rap artists, as the duo share a spectrum of musings from their journey; working through the pain, agony, and periodic glimpses of victory. It’s quite a relatable work, with lyrics that pierce your heart whether you’re a rapper looking for your big break or an intern at the local law firm.
Very few artists can match A-Q’s lyrical dexterity. Carved out over years of incessant releases, the rapper approaches music like an independent artists’ dream come true; he’s organically built a niche following by progressive marketing and offline event curation. This organic fanbase is what has driven him to create saturated projects.
A-Q is most comfortable when he is against the world, but his most rounded work is on Rose, which begins the start of the embrace of his pop sensibilities. A-Q, like many Nigerian rappers, has had the option of incorporating more dance into his music. When he has taken it, the result (although beautiful and moving) still pales in comparison to his grittier material.
Wherever Ladipoe has offered a verse, it comes with the highest quality. His obsession with lyrical perfection is so comprehensive that he is discussed with reverence in every mainstream hip-hop conversation in Lagos. After years of pressure by fans to release a full-length, his 2018 debut album Talk About Poe (TAP) offered a project to house his sublime talent.
On TAP, he traverses multiple genres with finesse, interweaving traditional hip-hop instrumentation with fusions of dancehall and Highlife. You can embrace his swashbuckling best on “Double Homicide,” which features Ghost from Showdem Camp, or enjoy some crossover vibes with Seyi Shay on “Red Light.”
- Words: Joey Akan