Battling the system one rap at a time
In Jay Town – that’s Jos, Nigeria, for the uninitiated – hip-hop talents and enthusiasts converge at Basement Studios. This is the setting for their rap battles and where they record the songs that hardly shy away from social and political issues. The government and political elite may not like the content of the music, but these young firebrands don’t seem to care about anything except telling it like it is.
On a recent weekend, I find myself hanging out with the Critique Entertainment crew. When I arrive at Basement Studios in Kufang, a suburb of Jos, no one needs to tell me it’s all hip-hop with these guys. It’s not just their gear – the sagging jeans, baseball hats and Timberland boots. It’s hard to miss the swag in both tone and carriage as we exchange pleasantries.
In the studio itself, I'm greeted by fiercely delivered lyrics laid on a bassy-sounding track.
“‘Questions’: that’s the name of this song,” says in-house producer Iortom Abiem, more commonly referred to as Tommy Shield. He is busy mixing sounds, his eyes glued to the computer screen. “Here we do it raw, not caring what anyone says or thinks.”
The artist behind ‘Questions’ is Leonard Pizat Lepdung AKA Pizzo da Lyrical Praxis and famous for weaving rhymes and head-banging beats with strong socio-political messages.
“I can’t think of a better channel of communicating with my audience,” he says, nodding to the music. “Rap music speaks across cultures and social classes. The hip-hop culture has penetrated every society and so rap gives one the opportunity to speak to a broad audience.”
Pizzo explains how the track currently in Tommy Shield’s hands is so-named because it raises critical questions about Nigerian politics, elections and the recurrent ethno-religious conflicts in different parts of the country.
As ‘Questions’ fades out, a set of African percussions introduces the next track, a mid-tempo lyrical description of Nigeria’s political culture and all its woes. On ‘Army Arrangement’, the rapper goes for the jugular of the political elite. Pizzo blames the economic hardship that youth face on leadership failure. He makes reference to the late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, who was also very critical of Nigerian politicians and army generals in the three decades following the country’s independence.
Pizzo is known for his explicitness. Discussing 'Rayuwa', a track inspired by the 2010 Christmas Eve bombings in Jos, he recalls hoping a local radio station would air the song “to reach the people” and “to touch their consciences”.
“We weren’t trying to be badass,” he says about himself and his boys, “we were just attacking the issue the way it was, it was just the naked truth.” But the station’s feedback was negative. “They were like: ‘We can’t play the song, the lyrics are too hard, the reality is too much.’”
In fact, the road has been bumpy for Jos-based underground rappers. According to Pizzo: “Because of the nature of our songs, which are mostly critical of the system, we’ve been having difficulties getting our songs on air. Some radio stations have refused to play our songs.”
Just like young black Americans used rap to speak out against racial prejudice and other ills of US society in the ’80s and ’90s, young Africans are increasingly turning to the genre as an outlet. That is, a channel for voicing discontent with their leadership, corruption and a host of other issues bedevilling their communities.
Jos, in particular, is home to many underground hip-hop artists and poets who express their views – notably, disgust – with the system through rap songs and poems.
But Pizzo looks to the future with hope and confidence. Besides an album release, in 2013 he’s scheduled to play a lead role alongside partner-in-rhyme Basics in the TV series ‘Jay Town Hustle’.
Critique Entertainment plans to release its first ‘Mix Tape’ album on 14 February and Pizzo’s album soon after. “We hope it will be well received when it drops because it’s packed with what true hip-hop fans desire,” says company CEO Louis Okopi.
Dr. Flames, as Okopi tends to be called around here, points out that the company is founded on good intentions. “We seek to liberate the average Nigerian from the clutches of ignorance, corruption, poverty and many other sad realities,” he says. “And we’re motivated by love.”