Lifestyle, Music, Music

Rock music in Nigeria: Still the devil’s anthem?

Rock music in Nigeria: Still the devil's anthem?

Why has rock music in Nigeria never been an acceptable trend? I mean, right from time, music has always been a very important element in the fiber of Nigeria’s society, radiating through Nigerian life and its numerous cultures. Nigerians enjoy afrobeat, Afropop, highlife, jazz, juju, and reggae on a global scale, with the first two dominating the mainstream Nigerian music scene.

Yet the rock genre, along with its companions alternative and metal, has always been shunned. Not only shunned even but ostracized. These three genres are not as popular as the other music genres in the country; looking for their songs in today’s Nigerian music charts can be likened to searching for a grain of rice on the beach.

Nigerians treat them practically like the plague, going as far as to label it The Devil’s Music. And this is an ironic label because Christian worship music is no different from rock music. Haha, didn’t see that coming, did ya? And if that shocked you, then trust me, you ain’t ready for this next bit.

Rock music in Nigeria was once a thriving scene. Yep, you read that right. Your parents, those same people who are the current prosecutors of rock music, once vibed to it.

The Golden Age of Rock Music in Nigeria

Now, I want you to close your eyes and imagine a scene like this; young women in colourful printed dresses and dangling earrings, along with young men in bell bottoms and permed afro hairstyles, all moving their bodies with wanton abandon to music with a raging guitar solo and a thrumming bassline. The drummer is on fire, sending the crowd wilder and wilder as he paints a fine tapestry of beats with his sticks, and the lead singer is screaming his throat raw, his energy both feeding the crowd and feeding off it.

Now, if you’re pretty much boxed in with your taste in music (hence, a typical Nigerian), you might find it hard to picture such a scene since it looks like what you might find at an ’80s rock concert in San Francisco or New York. Even I, a rock aficionado, would have made such an assumption. However, this place is none other than Lagos, Nigeria, in the ’70s.

E shock you, shockn’t it? You thought I was lying when I said that rock music in Nigeria was once a thing? As Americans and Europeans bobbed their heads to their rock artistes, Nigerians had their version of psychedelia known as Afro-rock. And before I go on, let me just point out that, from my point of view, this shows that those people we call old actually had more taste than we do.

Afro-rock came from a heritage of traditional music, spirituality, and political discontent, among other things. Between the late ’60s and the early ’70s, Nigeria experienced an explosion of musical culture that came about in the form of charged, chaotic, and raw psychedelic music, partly due to the brutal Biafran Civil War and pent-up political frustrations.

However, to understand where these sounds came from, it is important to understand the context of the political turmoil surrounding the rise and fall of rock music in Nigeria.

Rock music in Nigeria against the backdrop of the Civil War

Before the secession, Nigerian highlife, a rhythmic, dancing type of music that had originated from Ghana, was the reigning popular music, with popular artistes like Victor Olaiya and Oliver de Couque. Highlife, however, represented Nigerian patriotism, nationalism, and duty, and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1967 suddenly disrupted that.

This left a void in the music scene, and the remaining musicians in Nigeria adopted a more contemplative and soulful sound in contrast to highlife. However, the Igbo musicians who fled to Biafra during the war and endured life in brutal combat zones saw their sounds change drastically into a raw, rugged, and incomplete sound as the musicians struggled to find instruments and played as soldiers.

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When these musicians returned to Lagos, they came back with an entirely new sound; a heavy, chaotic, raw, and grungy sound that conveyed the experience of war while at the same time attempting to ease the pain they had endured. This blend resulted in a more psychedelic and experimental sound.

Music was seen as a way to escape the horrors of the civil war, a humanitarian crisis the likes of which had not been since in recent memory, and rock music offered them such an escape. Even after the end of the war, the music remained a funky, messy mix as the country tried to heal itself from an unsatisfying and needless war and reentered international politics.

This mixture of identities and movements led to interesting, expressive music with a distinct and complex rhythm usually associated with Afro-Cuban music but then tempered and flavoured with Nigerian funk rock. Hailing from Ibadan, Ofo and the Black Company revolutionized the genre with ‘Allah Wakbarr’, which was described as “a screaming, proto-metal orgy of ecstasy exploding around the traditional Islamic exhortation of the Creator’s greatness”.

OFO The Black Company
Ofo and the Black Company

Other artistes drew inspiration from James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, especially for the sound of their guitars; they also drew heavy inspiration from Hendrix’s guitar solos and Brown’s and Otis Redding’s funk. Bands inspired by The Beatles took the same setup for their lead, bass guitars, and drums.

Hence, rock music in Nigeria came alive with other bands like The Funkees, Grotto, The Hykkers, and The Lijadu Sisters, who graced the musical decade with psychedelic rock, funk, and lyrics.

The Hykkers in the 1970s
The Hykkers in the 1970s

Throughout the ’70s, rock music in Nigeria evolved into a deeper and funkier sound, drawing youths’ ears, and this discourse cannot be complete without thoroughly appreciating one of its biggest superstars: Fela Kuti. And while Fela’s sound was an offshoot of highlife dubbed Afrobeat, he was still a vital influence on the ’70s rock scene.

The decline of the Golden Age of rock music in Nigeria

Rock music’s decade of popularity started its decline with the advent of the Second Nigerian Republic in 1979 under Shehu Shagari. With educational reforms already in stride after being propagated by the Olusegun Obasanjo military regime, the country was deemed to be ‘healed’ from its Civil War scars, hence the bandages could be cast off.

It was also around this time that rock music began to evolve in America and Europe, with metal and its multiple subgenres (black metal, doom metal, death metal, etc.) appearing. Due to the controversial images that these new genres brought along, coupled with their grittier and heavier sounds, they were seen as dark and occult, and this was where the trope “The Devil’s Music” stemmed from.

And so did the Nigerian rock revolution come and go, becoming quickly forgotten as the country sought to put the horrors of the previous decade behind it.

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Modern rock music in Nigeria

All over the world, rock and metal music are often associated with non-conformity and rebelliousness, and due to its themes and certain imagery…

Devil's horns
Such as this, known as the Devil’s horns

…it has been related to darkness, evil, and even Lucifer himself.

Now imagine something being labelled satanic and occult in the West, which is as liberal as liberal can be. What chance does it have in Africa? Or, in particular, Nigeria, the home of superstitions? Negative stereotypes are automatically attached to anyone who dresses in dark gothic clothes, which is another misnomer because not everyone who is into rock and metal expresses themselves in this way.

A personal account

I can still remember the day I first heard rock music; it was an evening in early 2014, my cousins were visiting, and we were all gathered in the living room watching a drama series, Switched at Birth. Well, they were watching; I wasn’t, because if it ain’t action, adventure, comedy, fantasy, or sci-fi, I’m not really interested.

Anyways, I was trying to ignore them and focus on the novel I was reading when a particular scene comes up where the characters are playing poker, and then this song comes up. And I have no idea why, but it caught my attention instantly, so much that I immediately hit Google to search for it. It was Kick in the teeth by Papa Roach; I downloaded it, listened to it again, and I found out I liked it. Very much. So I sought out other songs and checked out similar bands.

And just like that, I was Alice, falling down the rabbit hole.

Now, eight years later, I am a certified metalhead (which is very much different from listening to just rock music, but I can’t go into that now), but the journey has definitely not been easy. Because remember the negative stereotypes that I mentioned above? I have been subjected to them all.

I don’t dress in leather jackets or gothic attires (Nigeria is already trying so hard to kill me without me assisting it by suffocating myself in this heat), but I listen almost exclusively to rock and metal music. My taste is pretty streamlined, and usually, it is the heavier, the better, and while I am not ashamed of it, I wasn’t always so confident.

Imagine going to a party, and your friends ask you to connect your phone to the Bluetooth speaker, and the next thing that comes blaring out is Slipknot. Or worse, Lorna Shore. Nobody will probably say a thing after the initial screaming of “Jesus! What was that?”, but you’ll no doubt see what they’re all thinking on their faces: “Should we call a priest for an exorcism?” Everywhere I go, and people get a snippet of what I’m listening to, I can always see the judgement in their eyes.

And this is just the external battle; there is also the internal battle. I was raised in a churchy household, RCCG to the core, and while my parents were not particularly strict with me concerning what I listened to, I had to fight that battle myself, especially when I dived deeper into the depths of rock music and encountered more, for lack of a better term, hardcore stuff. Here, it became a struggle between what I’d been taught all my life and what I’d gotten a taste for and now loved. Cognitive dissonance at its peak.

I tried several methods of dealing with it, with my most employed tactic simply being to ignore it the same way a smoker ignores the “smokers are liable to die young” label on a pack of cigarettes. It worked for a while, but it always left me feeling kind of guilty, like I was cheating on God or something.

However, the problem was I was taking it literally and, at the same time, viewing it through the lens that my society had held up to my face all my life. It wasn’t until I discovered Christian rock and metal bands like Skillet, Red, Convictions, and Underoath, and I met other metalheads like myself, that I realized that your taste in music doesn’t necessarily have to affect your previous values.

Even as I’m writing this article, my headset is on, and my playlist will definitely make you call that priest for the exorcism. But I’m fine with it.

Rock music in Nigeria: Now a rising trend

The road to discovering rock and metal music for most Nigerians usually starts with transitioning from other genres. However, this discovery is usually followed by satanic panic due to Nigeria’s prevailing inclination toward rock music. I don’t think I’m the only one who was told that demons reside in secular music and can be contracted from there. Oh, how naive we were.

In reality, rock music, or even metal (whether death, doom, black, or even blackened death; yeah, it’s a thing, and it’s beautiful) is no different from any other kind of music. What distinguishes it from other genres is the same thing that differentiates all genres; sound. Not the presence of demons that will possess you the moment the sound enters your ears.

I mean, any demon that wants to possess me has already had eight years to get the job done. Must be one hell of a lazy demon.

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And thankfully, the younger generation is beginning to realize that our parents might have spun a ball of wool over our eyes in the name of religion, and rock music in Nigeria is slowly receiving CPR after almost 40 years of cold turkey. With artistes like Clay, who stylized herself as “Nigeria’s Rock Goddess”; Indie rock bands like The Isomers; alternative bands Threadstone and XTsamurai; and Zainab Sule with slow and soft rock, the narrative is slowly changing.

Clay, Nigeria’s Rock Goddess

For most younger Nigerians, their introduction to the rock and metal scene in Nigeria usually happens via WhatsApp groups and by attending rock concerts. WhatsApp groups like Rockaz World, Rock Republic, and Rock Haven are fun online platforms and communities where new bands, songs, artistes, playlists, and events are debated and discovered amongst different Nigerian rock fans.

In addition, rock events and festivals like Metal and Romance and Rocktober Fest, which are held in Lagos State, are melting pots for fans of the genre from all over Nigeria. No more the devil’s music, rock music in Nigeria is slowly growing to become an acceptable trend, although it may be a while before we find one on the country’s charts.

Check these out

But in the meantime, in case I have piqued your curiosity enough, here are some bands that you can check out to ease yourself into the world of rock:

  • Linkin Park
  • Papa Roach
  • Three Days Grace
  • Nickelback
  • Breaking Benjamin
  • Imagine Dragons
  • Halestorm
  • Underoath
  • Fall Out Boy
  • Alter Bridge
  • Skillet
  • The Warning
  • Within Temptation

And in case you’re the type that just likes to dive off the deep end with no regard whatsoever for your own safety or sanity,

  • Five Finger Death Punch
  • Shadow of Intent
  • Rammstein
  • Lorna Shore
  • Slipknot
  • Brand of Sacrifice
  • Enterprise Earth
  • Humanity’s Last Breath
  • Ice Nine Kills

But whichever way the coin falls with you, whether you get into it or not, just remember, music is an art; it is relative to each individual, and how you perceive it depends on you.

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A couple of unexpected turns in life found Jimmy with a metaphorical pen in hand, churning out content and living in his head so much that he knighted himself the Pen Dragon. He is also an avid reader, gamer, drummer, full-blown metalhead, and all-round fun gi
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