Never mind what you hear about the familial wealth of some of Nigerian pop music’s lavish stars. The pulse of the culture is defined by Lagos’ mainland, which is considerably less affluent than the city’s Island area.
Whether it’s mainland areas like Ikorodu on the north-eastern border of Lagos or Ojo, a sprawling western suburb, the narrative of afropop is shaped by irreverent musicians cooking up street-level hits in the stuffy, barely functional studios that dot their neighbourhoods. Inevitably, the most inventive or commercially palatable elements of their sound are exported to the bright lights of Lagos Island, around which the Nigerian music industry is clustered.
Still, for all their contribution to Nigerian music, the ceiling for artists from the mainland, whose music is often called street-pop, is still decidedly low. Mainland rapper Olamide, for example, had a six-year run in the middle of the 2010s as one of the most culturally dominant artists in afropop, but he never got the Western recognition that peers Davido, Wizkid or Burna Boy (who relocated to the Island from Port Hancourt) have enjoyed.
Thanks to social media and streaming platforms like Boomplay and Audiomack, for the last five years or so, street-pop stars have been able to bypass industry obstacles and have refused to play second fiddle to their Island peers. They have also moved away from the percussion-heavy production and combative lyricism that broke the sub-genre in the late 2000s, experimenting with soul, drill and trap while putting fresh spins on traditional genres like fuji, pala and highlife to bolster their sound.
Against the backdrop of a narrowing mainland-Island schism, this year’s breakthrough, 27-year-old singer and dancer Asake, is the next step of an unfolding story that began with Olamide’s run in the 2010s.
Olamide himself has played a critical role in the emergence of Asake, collaborating with the Lagos-born singer on his breakout single, Omo Ope, which was released back in January. It’s unusual for Nigerian songs to make such a big splash early in the year, as most of the tastemakers in Lagos’ music scene are still recovering from a month of partying during Detty December. But something about Omo Ope’s aspirational themes and serpentine bassline resonated.
Then, following a deal with Olamide’s YBNL in February, Asake, aka Mr Money, released his self-titled EP, Ololade Asake. He’s never shied away from his ambition to soundtrack all types of revelry in Lagos, from club nights to street carnivals and block parties , and Sungba, the EP’s second track, was definitive proof of his hit-making prowess.
Produced by close creative partner Magicsticks, Sungba is the earliest song that fully manifests Asake’s creative id. There are hypnotic log drums lifted from amapiano, Asake’s fuji-drenched hip-hop flow and the signature chanted backing vocals. Lyrically, Asake is determined to convince a romantic interest to let him pleasure her. “Mr Money no dey waste time/Mr Money want to ease your mind,” he croons, before reeling off lustful innuendos in a mind-bending mix of English, pidgin and Yoruba. With Sungba, Asake embraces mainland culture unapologetically (Yoruba and pidgin are the languages that dominate mainland life), playfully teasing middle-class club-goers to get hip to lyrics about his ravenous sexual appetite.
Sungba was an instant hit. Within a month of its release, Burna Boy hopped on a remix, guaranteeing Asake’s upward trajectory in the lead up to his debut album, Mr Money With The Vibe, which was released in September. A month later, he sold out three shows at London’s Brixton Academy so quickly that he had to apologise for not booking a bigger venue.
Since Sunga dropped, you can hear Mr Money’s influence in the chanting choirs and the amapiano-afropop hybrid of many Nigerian songs. Tanzanian singer Diamond Platnumz lifted Asake’s exact flow pattern from Peace Be Unto You for a feature on Mbosso’s Yataniua. Bandz, one half of South African twin music duo, Major League DJz, declared Asake the biggest amapiano act of 2022.
Not only did Sungba put an end to condescending attitudes towards mainland music, it arguably changed the sound of contemporary music across Africa.