Is this Nigeria?

A group of esteemed Nigerian thinkers come together and chat about rapper Falz's take on the viral "This Is..." video meme.

Still from "This is Nigeria" by Falz.

Contributors
Ainehi Edoro (AE)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika (SLM)
Wilfred Okiche (WO)
Káyọ̀dé Fáníyì (KF)
Alithnayn Abdulkareem (AA)
Toyin Ajao (TA)
Dotun Ayobade (DA)

It’s been more than a month since the American artist Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) released the song and video for his song, “This is America.” The music video, like the song, a sharp piece of commentary on contemporary US politics, has drawn the most attention. At the time of writing, the video has received more than 219 million YouTube views. It has also been the subject of many remakes, cover versions or parodies. One of those, is “This is Nigeria” made by Nigerian rapper Falz and is crew. It has gained some traction (he’s been on a bunch of TV chat shows in Nigeria, see herehere and here). It has also gone viral outside Nigeria (not surprisingly it has received the AJ Plus treatment).

Falz’s version borrows the original’s hook and some of its lyrics—even imitates the original’s video’s set up—but is a comment on Nigerian political and social life: It opens with Falz claiming “Everybody [in Nigeria] be criminal.” From there, Falz goes on to list and depict some of what he identifies as Nigeria’s major problems: crime, terrorism, Boko Haram, random violence, Fulani herdsmen, Bring Back our Girls, corrupt officials, electricity blackouts, a codeine epidemic, religious hypocrisy, lack of electricity and even the country’s national police commissioner who can barely read. Falz ends the video, standing on the hood of a car in Fela pose. That it was Falz who would make the song and star in the video, is part of the debate. He is not known for political raps and is himself part of the country’s elite: His father, Femi Falana, is a well-known lawyer with access to President Muhammadu Buhari (the president lengthy absences from the country, to treat a health condition, gets no mention). Others don’t take kindly that it was a rip off (Falz calls it a “parody”) of Gambino’s song. As is our custom, we organized an office conversation about it.


WO

In the “Behind the Scenes” video, Falz gives credit where it is due when he says he is taking a page from Childish Gambino and my response is: more like copying the entire book. Having said that, I respect what he was able to put together. As a Nigerian living in Nigeria, I see my struggles and I respond to them. The video basically runs through every trending cultural and political issue we have faced this year; from murderous herdsmen to the kidnapping of school girls and the police boss who cannot read, and I can relate. As art imitating life and involved social commentary, it paints a vivid portrait and the lyrics cut straight to the point. There is always room for music that reflects the times as can be gleaned from the wild popularity of Fela’s music decades after his death, so “This is Nigeria” should land on a welcoming audience.

But I have my reservations. Falz is getting much love for his parody, some of it deserved, but I would prefer that he had a big, emotionally intelligent idea that did not rely heavily on Gambino’s own bold vision. This is something he achieved in 2016 with the long form, Nollywood-esque video for his hit, “Soldier.” On its own, “This is Nigeria” may have been a solid attempt, but compared (inevitably) with the source material, it does not quite match up. Where Gambino made use of subtexts and graphic imagery in equal measure to walk the tightrope of being black in America, Falz dials up the histrionics, trading intellectual depth and genuine emotional impact for applause and obvious social media bait. But perhaps that is the point, it is certainly the Nigerian way.

AA

Curious that the musician with a law degree chose to indulge the prospective copyright controversy of making this video. To sum up my feelings, I would give Falz an “A” for effort, and impact but much less for execution. Because it is obvious, from a social media perspective, Nigerians need more exposure to smarter and diverse material from their musical role models. We do not seem to have a strong habit of intelligent discourse and most people are frankly happy to be in awe of something because they like it, not necessarily questioning why they like it or what the purpose of the work is. Going by the reactions of Nigerian intellectuals in cultural spaces who are labelling the work genius, this is not a trait limited to the masses.

While Falz displays solid lyrical range in the song, the subject matter is not particularly outstanding or contributing any new, nor any interesting perspective to the damages of Nigeria. Rather he rattles off problems on a list. Musicians like African China and Fela Kuti in the past have created works more socially intelligent than this. Especially given that this is a video that is inspired by one with such obvious and detailed intelligence.

However, what I hope the video can achieve is show that Nigerian artists do not need to be afraid to engage with subjects outside of objectifying women and enjoyment. Big-name artists who can afford to take risks like this should use Falz’s momentum and create music videos and songs with stronger messages, not necessarily at the cost of the typical themes.

AE

What Will is pointing out runs deep though. It’s a long-standing aspect of modern African aesthetic tradition. African artists, writers also, expect to get a cookie simply for accurate representation. It’s been the bane of the literary world. And the West, particularly, cheers them on. There is this double standard where art—for African artists—stops simply at getting the picture right. What I hear you saying is that yeah, Falz gets it right the same way a journalist might get it right or an anthropologist. But isn’t art something a bit more? That’s what is so powerful about Childish Gambino’s version—the staging, the attention to the body, the peculiarly unsettling aesthetics of violence, the juxtaposition of dance and death, etcetera. The project draws attention to reality by messing with reality or shifting reality to a different domain of experience. He didn’t just give us a documentary coverage of the hot-button topics in American politics. 

All of this may boil down to the kinds of questions we, as critics of African cultural objects, ask about a work. Perhaps, we need to move away from asking artists how representative of reality is the work, how faithful to reality is the work and, instead, ask what exactly is artful about the work?

AA

This post, by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo on Medium, is a good reference for our discussion.

KF

Good stuff, Will. I will situate “This is Nigeria” in two traditions. The first, of Nigerian musicians addressing Nigerian dysfunction squarely, flows from Fela through Bembe Aladisa’s “Ewa Fun Mi Ni Visa” (Give me a visa!), African China’s “Mr President” and Eedris Abdulkareem’s “Jagajaga,” which General Obasanjo, president at the time, responded to quite vehemently. The second “tradition” is of course “This is America.”

The problem with following Childish Gambino is simple: there’s little that’s on-the-nose about “This is America;” it’s sterling metaphor, the song’s lyrics juxtaposed against action in the video that is juxtaposed against itself. Plus, we have to do the work to tease out the multiple layers of meaning nested within the song’s video.

Even the hijabi wearing Shaku Shaku dancers in Falz’s video, that some have suggested to mean the hypocrisy of the religious, is typical of the serious levity with which Nigerians treat religious issues. While religious hypocrisy is a present Nigerian danger, it’s easy to read Islamophobia into the video, if this take is accurate. And one hopes popular dance is not a metaphor for social vice.

Falz, who, like Childish Gambino, is a university graduate and a triple threat (with significant showings in film, music and TV) has run with the concept without any appreciation for the artistry that has gone into it. This, perhaps, is why he assumes that a line such as “because I’m on TV now/person wey no get work dey look my watch to see if it’s original,” a line descendant from the confounding intellectual shaming in “Way” (another Falz hit), is appropriate in a song that cites Femi Falana. What the fuck has your watch got to do with anything?

Good art elevates its subject beyond the everyday; here we’re firmly mired in it. When you riff off something that’s still so fresh, I think you’re duty-bound to transcend it. To compound the ridiculousness, Falz has been submerged beneath this torrent of adulation that’s frustrating but understandable: we are a very superficial people, unschooled in culture. This really is Nigeria.

TA

Eish, the struggle is real o, neh? Our own Childish Falzino has done a “proper” copycat rendition of “This is America.” Shikena.  I was like, can we be original? But then, it’s the age of parody, why not milk it? I remember Banky W getting famous years back, like ten years now, if my memory serves me right, for his Rihanna “Umbrella” rendition. I think he called it “Ebute Metta.” He did make us revisualize the endless hustles of the metropolitans abi? So no be today.

So, everybody is a criminal, including Falz I suppose? Just wondering what my crime is. Oh, I remember, I am unpatriotic and I bailed out of Nigeria and I am floating somewhere in between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. So all of us, the criminals of a great nation, what do we have to say for ourselves?

To be honest, I think Falz video focused more on the background events than Childish Gambino, who distracted us by his Gwara Gwara prowess and confused us with who the real American supremacists are. To answer the question posed succinctly by Ainehi in this discussion, what exactly is artful about the work? I would think that Falz brought to the fore the commotion called Nigeria, with the background scenes screaming louder than the actual dance by the girls in madrasa uniforms. I even missed the fact that he has tighter abs than Childish Gambino, just saying.

Kayode’s jabs were hurtful in a way that got me thinking about so many things that will be left unvoiced here. But can we say Nigerians are superficial and unschooled though, or just know how to make “better” memes and parodies out of any situation? Even Fareeda alluded to the shifting paradigm this might engender. The need for the 21st century Nigerian artists to go in-depth and relay profounder messages than the usual business of misogynistic videos they continue to blind some of us with. 

Overall, beyond the social media outpoured accolades for the parody, I am looking at all the issues Falz highlighted, such as the continuous sorry state of unrest as itemized by Will, which shows how nothing has changed in Nigeria. Nothing… and my heart weeps.

KF

The weird thing is I was just on Twitter now and saw Dami Ajayi giving Oris knocks for somewhat missing the fact that “This is Nigeria” is a parody of “This is America” (which morphed into a messy cat fight between Oris and Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún). And Toyin has also tagged Falz’s take a parody as well.

The weirder thing is “This is America” is the only parody here—a parody of American racism, American society and American attitudes. It’s an astounding feat of misinterpretation that Falz manages when he weaves such literalism from satire. This is the artistic equivalent of enacting laws against the eating of the children of the poor after having read A Modest Proposal: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled…”

WO

I like the part where Falz gets in trouble with the police and one of the boys is sprung by his rich dad. Nothing best explains Nigerian society quite like so. Privilege and power buys you everything. This is partly why Falz with all of his privilege, is the one person to attempt something like this and not have his career suffer.

It also underlies what people like Falz should be doing with their power. In my estimation, things don’t work so well here because not enough people with power care enough to get involved. #BBOG got traction because someone like Oby Ezekwesili was involved from the get go. Instead of working hard to insulate ourselves from the mess surrounding us, we should think bigger and look towards making things better for those with less. It is naive to expect a music video to change stuff, but I like to think that by “rebelling” so—his father is an elite lawyer—Falz can embolden more of his colleagues to learn to speak out when necessary. Count that as a plus.

KF

Well, Id prefer that he address a press conference or find an original way to rebel his rebellion. This forced kinship with Childish Gambino is not the place. Again, Im wary of rounds of applause for things like this. Shouldnt it be that our reaction is one of revulsion for the Nigeria Falz depicts? Isnt it that we howl our appreciation because we are apprehending this as performance and nothing else? And if were so enamored by performance, shouldnt artistry be our most significant consideration? Ill shut the door behind me now.

SLM

Thanks everyone. I’m enjoying and learning from this conversation/debate. Here are my two cents/kobo…

What I see in Falz’s copycat version of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” is something of a Naija selfie done with speed and spontaneity with mixed results—appealing yet superficial. What Falz has done is to keep the form of “This is America” (empty warehouse, dance moves etc.) while swapping out American content with contemporary Nigerian issues and concerns. This Nigerian version allows us to laugh, cry, kiss teeth and of course debate the merits of this video. But it does so without the depth of symbolism, and possibly the schizophrenia that one finds in Childish Gambino’s. Unlike “This is America,” what you see is what you get. This isn’t to say that what meets the eye in “This is Nigeria” isn’t thought-provoking and important, just that it feels like a missed opportunity that only scratches the surface of the artistry on display in “This is America.”

How much richer this might have been if the depths of the original had been mined either by keeping the original frame or by using a different frame. What if the film had been shot in another location—on the streets of Lagos maybe, rather than the empty warehouse? What if the main dancer had been a woman? What if the link to Black America had gone deeper than a token Wakanda bump at the end?

But look how we talking o! And isn’t this the power of art?

TA

Thanks Sarah. What I am getting from you is that the remake of the video is not the issue but how it scratched the surface of what Childish Gambino brought to the table in “This is America?” So, in that sense, it has some form of resonance with the sad reality in Nigeria but could have been done with more depth? 

Hmm, Kayode, is there a limit to artistry expressions and imaginations, even if it means someone triggered an idea that is built upon? Perhaps, this is a parody of parodies? Perhaps an America satire leading to a chain of events in other climes where people deem it fit to tap into the artistic ingenuity to explore their own reality? Will that be a totally bad idea? 

I guess we have to also be cognizant of the fact that the virtual global village of the 21st century has made possible ripple effects influencing protests, hashtag challenges and radically humorous memes and so forth. It is an unstoppable force. Except we are saying there is a copyright issue to such a thing? 

If not, rebels might continue to rebel their rebellions in all sort of unconventional ways. But, what I am particularly curious about is the sort of conversations these endeavours are triggering? Just face-valued tributes or critical transformative conversations? I do hope for the latter because as I said in my previous contribution, my heart weeps and this is because I care for a better Africa and a greater Nigeria. If I don’t wake up one day and advocate for the scrapping of nation states. 

SJ

It is interesting that this weekend The Financial Mail published a long essay on the increasing relevance of the music video.

AA

I found this post by Abiodun Kuforiji Nkwocha quite humorous and not like the other myriad hot takes.

DA

I arrived late to the office. I have enjoyed everyone’s take on Falz’s work. Below are my initial thoughts:

The first image that came to mind when I learned about Falz’s rendition of Childish Gambino’s “This is America” is that of the Nigerian-made Nike t-shirt with the logo aiming west. Having seen Falz’s video, I don’t think this analogy is entirely out of place. The appropriation of American goods and culture by Nigerian artists and entrepreneurs is not new. But there is something particularly distasteful about Falz’s “borrowing” of “This is America.” 

Let me begin with what I found most compelling about Childish Gambino’s original. Throughout his music video and song, he enacts a delicate dance between gore and joy, managing to seduce the viewer just enough to upset them. His aesthetic choices—bodily and facial contortions, continuous shots, foreground and background action, the juxtaposition of subtlety and bloodletting—all trouble the narrow frames cast around conversations on gun violence, race relations and human dignity in America. His work slices through the ongoing noise (around political scandals, spectacular racism, black death, school shootings) which numbs the mind and refuses coherent analysis. In short, “This is America” provides a compelling reflection of life under President Donald Trump. Yet, it is not faddish art. Childish Gambino tactfully dates his reflections on contemporary technologies for representing American life and blackness to at least the 19th century, to the US’s troubled history of blackface minstrels. This is a reflection only possible from an artist’s critical meditation on their location in time and space. The vision of “This is America” is unique to Childish Gambino, and he succeeds in conveying that vision in an aesthetic form conducive to it. 

The tone, style and form of Childish Gambino’s piece clearly fascinated Falz. But the failures of his “This is Nigeria” overshadow what the video aspires to achieve. Falz’s work exhibits a shallow appreciation of the range of concerns, let alone the overlaps in time, to which the original work addressed itself. Neither does Falz show any deep understanding of how US history, blackness and ongoing political discourse scaffold Gambino’s piece. Perhaps, it was the rush to beat other [Nigerian] artists to the prize that blinded Falz to the need for a critical meditation on the Nigerian condition and what aesthetic form might best convey this condition. Were Falz to undertake a similar reflection that no doubt prefaced the production of the original, his aesthetic choices would, of necessity, differ radically from Childish Gambino’s. In place of a deep enchantment with the imagination, Falz resorts to sprinkling tired clichés of Nigerian-ness (think: internet fraud, religion-inspired massacres, absent infrastructure and an all-encompassing Nigerian criminality [!]) with recent manifestations of official incompetence. These are important themes, but the question remains: what makes Falz’s telling important, different and worthy of our attention? There exists a rich mine of cultural and political cues within Nigerian context that could propel Falz’s re-imagination of Childish Gambino’s work. He opted instead for the faddish. 

Having said this, Falz’s “This is Nigeria” testifies to the will of the young, determined Nigerian artists who worked behind the scenes with Falz, possibly pooling their own resources for little to no compensation. That is the story of many Nigerian creatives. But this groups seemed to have prized grit and speed over the slow, painful and rigorous art of brainstorming, one that might have given flight to their collective imaginations. Brainstorming might even have led them far from Childish Gambino’s very American piece.

Falz is a talented comedian and musician. He should therefore not regard these criticisms as inconsequential. It only takes a little time and stubbornness for him to fully morph into that West-pointing Nike logo.

I will leave the question of potential theft and copyright violations to other commentators.

KF

Great take, Dọ̀tun. I appreciate Ainehi’s take more now that I’ve read how the foreign media have responded to “This is Nigeria.” There’s that laser-focus on sociology with nary a consideration for the art. Not to say that I expect any subtlety of interpretation from those quarters.

On a commute yesterday, I twice listened to “This is Nigeria” over the radio. Divorced from the video and to a large extent from “This is America,” you can understand its overall timeliness and appeal. But I first found “This is Nigeria” on Twitter and every reaction I’ve seen to it has been online and has cited “This is America.” That kinship is the problem. It is what has earned it opprobrium from Nigerians who are keenly aware of Nigeria’s problems but keep a back catalogue of the extents of creativity.

The videos of songs like Maintain’s “Àlọ́” and Sound Sultan’s “Mathematics” have more in common with “This is America”’s reliance on subterfuge. The opening scene of “Mathematics” is of a rowdy class at the aptly named Jagbajantis High School. Maintain uses a fixed football match to parody the military’s machinations in Nigeria. Granted, both of these don’t sustain the subterfuge as well as “This is America,” but the kinship is keen.

There’s much, too much, to invoke in the history of Nigerian creativity. Falz may have had the best intentions in making this video, but his failure to grapple with the intellectual grounding of “This is America” only comes across as a cynical exploitation of a viral meme.

TA

I hope we have not forgotten where the true “Nigerian prince” came from and that America seems to have usurped Nigeria in the corruption indexes? So maybe knowing this might make our artists invest more in originality. It is just a pity these days that, when it comes to what goes viral and what does not, meritocracy is not getting rewarded like mediocrity.

Perhaps Falz might get there, or other creative artists from Nigeria will begin to put contents before fame or faddishness. I am not sure some of us are not overhyping Childish Gambino’s artistic ingenuity and creative prowess even in relation to the subtexts that he left us to interpret as we deemed fit.

I remember receiving “This is America” with goshwow reactions as I tried intently to decipher its well-crafted nuanced messages after getting past his Gwara Gwara amusement. I had to return to the video a couple of times to really get to capture the background scenes that were otherwise obscured at first. And while I was dealing with the confusion of what I perceived as juxtapositions of black violence and black oppression, I came across an article from an African-American titled “The Difficulty in Defining Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’.” The writer’s take highlighted how the song is playing into the gallery of whiteness.  I think I can quote a bit of the article here:

He’s carving out a unique place for himself in American popular culture — a place that’s difficult to define because it’s somewhere between commercial success and subversion. “This is America” is an indictment of a gun-crazed, violent society. It’s also a commentary on Black American entertainers’ role in perpetuating, glamorizing, and covering for the sins of their nation… Donald Glover has navigated Hollywood too well not to understand the White gaze. He knows how to make White America feel comfortable. And he knows just how far to push when poking at its failings. He also knows how to make Black people uncomfortable instead by highlighting Black trauma and the pathologies that plague Black communities.

So what is my point here? This incredible work of art is not devoid of backlash from the society whence it came. We can cut Falz some slack especially in today’s viral frenzies. Many artists are catching that fever fast and, in a way, replacing quality with quantity. Nonetheless, this is still a conversation starter. Where it leads though, I have no idea.

Further Reading

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Cape Town’s Inner Ugly

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Double jeopardy

The future looks terrifying for many US-based exiles from Mauritania—facing deportation to Africa’s modern “slave nation” under Trump’s monstrous ICE.