Written by Christopher Johnson
I worked and lived in South Africa for five years only recently having been transferred to my employer’s West Africa office in Abuja, Nigeria. My musical tastes, prior to that transfer were largely confined to underground hip-hop and 70s soul. As any expat should, I’ve opened up to new music since moving abroad.
In Nigeria just about everything in the pop music scene is filled with incredible energy. D’Banj, Rayce, Naeto C, Iyanya, 2face Idibia, and P-Square being just a few of the more popular hit makers. Their fan base is loyal and global. Enough revenue is being generated in and outside Nigeria to attract US based music makers like Kanye West, Rick Ross, and Akon who have all collaborated with the more popular Nigerian artists in recent years. Somehow the Pan-Africanist in me appreciated these artists more from those interactions with African talent, even though I’m cognizant that the profit motive above and beyond any notions of Diasporan brotherhood is driving it. But it’s called the music business for a reason.
Recently, I began to think about the ways in which African-American artists navigate relationships with their African counterparts. Two highly divergent examples come to mind—Nas and Rick Ross.
Channel O (one of the leading African music video networks) recently nominated Somali born and raised,Canadian-based rapper K’Naan in a collaboration with Nas for his song Nothing to Lose (Remix). I have no idea if anyone paid attention to the original version, but its revision was the only one getting any burn in Johannesburg which has shown quite a bit of love to K’Naan since the Soccer World Cup held in South Africa in 2010. His song Wavin Flag became the anthem of the games eclipsing the other event endorsed tunes by R. Kelly and Shakira. South Africans are not widely known for an embrace of Pan-Africanism but plenty of solidarity with this particular son of the soil was on full display during the period.
Nothing to Lose (Remix) is respected for a reason. Nas brought his It Ain’t Hard to Tell as opposed to his Oochie Wally game to this match. But K’Naan has never sounded better with vivid story telling taking the listener as close to the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia as most are ever likely to go. He matches Mr. Jones verse for verse. Nas and K’Naan complement each other so well on this track that the listener could only hope for an LP or at least an EP with these two veterans going back and forth throughout. There is a bit of “whose hood is tougher” machismo flowing through this track, but it’s a very subtle and almost negligible undercurrent. That the political violence in East Africa is characterized as being no different than what is mistakenly projected as apolitical turf wars and petty drug beefs in black America, is the greatest triumph of the track. Somewhere in the value chain of war—of the street, ethnic, or clan variety—is politics. Nas and K’Naan GET that.
And then there’s Rick Ross. To his credit, the brother travels all over the African continent. It seems that tour stops in South Africa secure a prominent spot on his calendar. The display of his in-your face promotion posters was familiar to me from my years as a Johannesburg resident. You saw them on signposts along Oxford Road and all over the M1 Highway. Ricky Rozay’s Joburg promotion team put in work! As a result, I was not particularly surprised to have seen handbills, fliers, and posters for a recent Rick Ross tour date in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos. And Lagos loves this brother right back! But just as I was prepared to fully embrace American hip-pop stars and just a moment before pressing send on that Maybach Music t-shirt order, Rick Ross made me temporarily wish that 50 Cent had won their war for rap relevance several years ago. Or at least he did at my first gander at the latest music video version of his single “Hold Me Back” set in the informal settlements of Lagos, Nigeria.
American music stars “slumming” is nothing new. Michael Jackson famously stomped around Brazil’s City of God in his video for “They Don’t Care About Us.” That was way before the Maybach Music era. But Rick Ross’s video was on well…some other level. It curiously starts with news footage related to the Nigerian Civil War that ended in 1970. At first, I didn’t make the connection to the scenes of Ross traipsing about what is portrayed as a fairly hopeless urban wasteland. I know Lagos well. It’s more multilayered than this short video would have us believe, but it there is more than a little dystopia up in that piece. Real talk. And although I would never claim to be a Nigeria expert, I can say with some degree of confidence that the Civil War which came a few years after its independence has defined the country in more ways than many would care to admit. Maybe Rick Ross and his team were reading Nigerian scholar Toyin Falola’s work. Probably not. But at that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if the apex predator of political hip-hop, Immortal Technique, was announced as the newest associate of Maybach Music and had been draped with a crew chain mid video. Ricky Rozay had hit me with something deep enough in those first few moments to think that perhaps he was going to drift into being a “conscious” hip-hop artist, as troubling as that tag often is.
Amid all on display in what is really a peculiarly fascinating video, Ross doesn’t have time for a recent Lagos history lesson. The city is “improving” under the leadership of its popular governor, Babatunde Fashola, but some of this “progress” is being achieved through the removal of the very communities Rick Ross is driving, boating, and mean mugging through during the course of the video. In its efforts to modernize, the poor people who built the cities are being moved out of them—quickly. Sound familiar American readers? If not, visit DC or other gentrified locales throughout North America. Maybe Ross was on some Marvin Gaye/Curtis Mayfield social commentary.
But come on, this is Rick Ross! What I can tell you is that Officer Ricky or his crew would have no chance against the “Area Boys” of Lagos, Nigeria. But the video sure makes you think Ross has got a shot of taking over Africa’s largest city. One absence is glaring as you move through this clip. Where was Nigerian Maybach music member Wale in all of this? And just when you reason that the social activism sort of embedded in the images is transforming Rick Ross into a solid candidate to be the third member of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s Poverty Tour, the litany of bitches, niggas, hos, and some gynecological madness that I can’t even repeat here, brings the viewer crashing back to reality. The video, linked to a song that doesn’t quite fit, leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.
But Rick Ross is onto something. But surely blaming “niggas” for all of the misfortune in Nigeria is on some warped international Bill Cosby “Call Out Tour” logic. Or maybe Rick Ross is channeling Keith Richburg in a way that doesn’t quite take the viewer on the full journey of Nigerian political realities necessary to halfway prove a relevant point on the issues. Unless “niggas” is a metaphor that conflates corrupt Nigerian leadership with extractive industries companies like Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP. Now with that, I’m really stretching, bending and twisting logic in an attempt to hang with Ricky Rozay. And the profuse sweating generated by that lie will require more than a few sips of 50 Cent’s old Vitamin Water to put me back on track. Maybe Nas and K’Naan can take up Mr. Ross’s incomplete concepts when next in Lagos.
On display in these two music videos are two distinctly different approaches, by three very different artists, navigating their own personal connection to Africa. My sincere hope is that two of the trio keeps moving forward and that one does a course correction as he just might be on to something of value.
About the Author: Christopher Keith Johnson is the Country Program Director for the Solidarity Center, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) West Africa office in Abuja, Nigeria. His written work has appeared in the Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Pan-African Studies, the Encyclopedia of African American History, the Encyclopedia of Black Studies, ThyBlackMan, Racialicious, and Face2Face Africa. He received his Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.