Live performances are immutable parts of Nigerian music culture. The days of avant-garde personalities like Lijadu Sisters, the Hykkers, Victor Olaiya, Bobby Benson, the Funkees, and of course, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti set the standards for live performances and championed them in ways that serve as solid references. From their instrumentals, choreographies, varieties of intricate rhythmic figurations, vocal agility, etc, they supplied in-depth displays of multi-sensory experiences. Fela, himself, included dance, drama, mime, generally, elements of visual and theatre arts in his performances, creating a timeless delineation of Afrocentric onstage performances. Afrobeats has currently been on the rise, gaining worldwide sonic power. However, with the great power of the sound comes the great responsibilities of its artists representing it on different stages worldwide.
Unfortunately, live performance is an aspect of pop culture that many Nigerian artists struggle with. Naira Marley’s Tiny Desk’s show with Zinoleesky created rounds of reactions rooted in deep amusement at their nonsynchronous antics during the show. Now, it’s impossible to easily forget the Kizz Daniel debacle in Tanzania where the artist refused to perform supposedly because of his outfit; or lack thereof. A few weeks ago, a TikTok post where a non-Nigerian complained about Omah Lay’s performance at the Afronation festival circulated the internet. BNXN (fka Buju) also suffered the same criticisms from a number of people online. His appearance at the Afronation festival was labelled as lazy and completely dull. Complaints of that manner are pervasive in contemporary music critique. The oomph, the electric vibe, the raw energy that is quintessentially theirs are overtaken by drab performances of these artists singing over recorded songs, a practice long lamented by the masses who are eager to witness more creative renditions of their favourite songs. In fact, the moniker, “DJ Track 1” is used to categorise and ridicule the lip-syncing romps of Nigerian artists packed into what they think is “live performances”.
Droning over recorded songs while the audience battles to engage in vacuous antiphonal chanting completely negates the whole concept of witnessing these artists live. Such performances strip away the multidimensional interpretations needed for music enthusiasts to engage with and fully appreciate music as an art form. It’s an exhausting exercise in monotony and disenchantment to buy tickets, wait hours way beyond the anticipated start time of the event just to endure few hours of crowd work and sub-par presentations of songs that you could’ve gotten the most of if you’d sat at home with your earphones plugged in. Live performances are organised for people to enjoy other nuanced versions of songs in ways that they have not connected with before.
The ability of an artist to command the stage and the crowd, elevate the spirits of the audience and exhibit amazing vocal energy is what benchmarks them as not just an artist but as an entertainer. The level of work and preparations put into a performance is the foundation of any great live show. It would be a subversion of the truth to totally collect all Nigerian music stars and lump them together with incompetent performance skills. Acts like Niniola, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, Asa, Davido, etc, are among the few Nigerian pop stars who are making efforts to create exceptions to the stereotypical opinions of live performances by Nigerian artists which is held by many. They dominate the massive stages they are accorded and immediately capture audiences with their distinct styles. Burna Boy’s performances showcase his impressive showmanship and his zany dancing abilities. He mirrors the great showman, Fela, by displaying a fascinating technicality to his performances, proving that Fela’s artistry is relevant and unique and transcends generations. These artists are not just doing superbly well at amplifying the genre of Afrobeats with their great songs alone, but are showing that the quality of their live performances matters even more to their careers as music artists.
Providing distinct characteristics of Afrobeats ensemble and harmonious blending of all the parts of the ensemble help to produce qualitative performances. Respecting the audience enough to be punctual and create emotionally-charged arenas is also very important. Nigerian artists are already riding on the huge success of Afrobeats, but stellar performances are what would be responsible for shaping them into true cultural icons.