100 years of popular music in Nigeria: what shaped four eras


The global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first months of 2020 has brought almost all physical and social human activity to a halt. For musical practice, this meant imminent death. Playing music is, after all, one of the oldest forms of human social engagement.

In Nigeria, the cessation of concerts and public musical performances was rapid. Even the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967 to 1970 could not shut down all of Nigeria. In fact, popular music activities exploded in Lagos as bombs rained down on Biafra.

The pandemic has been a watershed moment and offers a compelling reason to trace the trajectory and evolution of popular music in Nigeria 100 years ago since the birth of the modern state.

In a study, I reviewed the various political, economic and social events, trends and choices that characterized the 98 years between 1922 and 2020, taking into account how they shaped popular musical practices and experiences. in Nigeria and from Nigeria.

Nigeria became a modern state in 1914 when the British colonial powers merged the northern and southern protectorates into a single unit. A musical recording in London in 1922 by the Reverend Josiah Ransome-Kuti (grandfather of music icon Fela Kuti) is considered the first formal effort to commercialize and “popularize” Nigerian music.

From this beginning, four periods have emerged from the study: I ​​have called them the foggy years, the period of interactive budding, the liberal period and the mononationalist period.

1922-1944: juju music and palm wine

For the first 22 years, there was a hazy or unclear direction in the emergence of popular musical practices in urban Nigeria. In this short time, two world wars and internal economic and socio-political tensions hampered and retarded the growth of popular music. They restricted social life among the youth, calling on young men to enlist in the West African Frontier Force which fought for Britain.

These years saw the first recordings of musician Domingo Justus and political activist Ladipo Solanke. The first recorded music was sung in the style of a hymn in a Yoruba church, accompanied by plucked string instruments like the banjo.

The arrival of the guitar was followed by the rise of the Jùjú style of music in Lagos. Jùjú was essentially a modern Yoruba-language reinterpretation of his pre-colonial traditional music Àsìkò with the main instrument known as jùjú (the tambourine). It was led by artists such as Tunde King, whose song Aronke Macaulay was produced in 1937.

Palm wine music emerged, expressing a combination of styles but mostly accompanied by guitars and banjos and played in palm wine bars in emerging urban areas. He was championed by Israel Nwaoba, GT Ọnwụka and others. Also noteworthy was the appearance of the Ọnịcha Native Orchestra, which only combined musical instruments of the Igbo people while exploring various social themes and trends in their native singing style.

The church, the guitar and the tavern have all influenced early popular music in Nigeria.


Les 24 années suivantes ont vu l’interaction et le bourgeonnement parmi les Nigérians alors qu’un nouvel ordre sociopolitique émergeait des cendres de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Une vague de décolonisation et de discours d’indépendance se répandit dans toute l’Afrique coloniale. Il y a eu une participation accrue des Nigérians aux affaires sociales et politiques courantes.

Avec cela, une nouvelle génération de musiciens a émergé qui allait – grâce à de nombreuses interactions entre nations et personnalités – forger une culture musicale populaire décolonisée. Ils se sont éloignés des influences coloniales qu’ils avaient subies dès leur naissance.

It was during this time that Nigerian highlife music and the highlife music of Ghana and other nations evolved. It spread along the West African coast, primarily from increased cultural interactions between Africa and the West. “High” was in the name because highlife was reserved for “highly” placed Africans residing in urban centers.

He mainly adopted simple Western tonality, chords and instruments (like guitars, brass and bands) to perform popular themes (like love, mourning and joy), either in local languages, pidgin or English. The brass bands of colonial military formations had a major influence in the emergence of highlife. A few of the notable early representatives were Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, Stephen Amaechi, Samuel Akpabot, and Rex Lawson.

Read more: Victor Olaiya: Stadium Hotel, Highlife and nostalgia

During this period, female artists joined the popular music industry for the first time, among them Foyeke Ajangila and Comfort Omoge. And while American-influenced jazz and twist styles were being brought to Nigeria, Jùjú was also championed.

The Nigeria-Biafra War ended the era in 1969.

1970–1999: Afrobeat and oil

The liberal period marked the most diverse and expansive time of popular musical practices in Nigeria so far. After the war, regional popular music styles and practices came to the fore. And new influences came with imports of foreign popular music like pop (Michael Jackson), rock (Beatles), marabi (Miriam Makeba) and others.

As the influences blended, new Afro-based musical genres grew. The most famous of them was Afrobeat (Fela Kuti). Afrobeat is a fusion of rich African polyrhythms and African-American forms like jazz and reggae. He was influenced by local political struggles and the American civil rights movement.

But there was also afro-reggae (Sonny Okosun), afro-jùjú (Shina Peters) and afro-pop (Dora Ifudu). There has been an increased participation of women in the industry (Onyeka Onwenu, Salawa Abeni and others).

Middle class income rose following the first oil boom in Nigeria. Added to this is the rise of Pentecostal Christianity among young people as well as the rise of sophisticated nightclubs in Lagos. The likes of Ron Ekundayo and Benson Idonije would highlight the explosion of Nigerian deejays of the 2000s. At that time, popular music styles were often adapted to gospel themes.

2000-2022: naija hip-hop and afrobeats

With the start of a new century came a seismic shift from diverse to singular focus in Nigerian popular music. The new government of Olusegun Obasanjo has decided to pursue a local content policy. This meant that local music was front and center in media and broadcast. This would help form the “Naija hip hop” scene.

Naija hip-hop is a profusion of American/global hip-hop, afrobeat, highlife and other Nigerian/African styles mediated by computer-aided technology. It claims local rhythms, languages ​​and dance styles. A remarkable feature of the Naija hip hop movement is its offshoot into Afrobeats – an interrelated fusion of various Afro-based genres that has given Nigeria the greatest worldwide fame and acceptance since its emergence as a modern nation-state in 1914.

Notable artists from this period include Plantashun Boiz, Lagbaja, 2Face Idibia/2Baba, Flavour, Aṣa, Davido, Wizkid, Tems and Burna Boy.

I call this period mononationalist because of the one-dimensional focus on a particular nationalist musical movement (Naija hip hop) that dominated.


The shutdown of public life due to the global COVID-19 pandemic has boosted online music structures and opportunities while helping to contain the unchecked powers of music pirates. This allowed many more talented and younger artists to emerge independently. But COVID-19 has resulted in heavy economic losses for artists and music industry workers.

Read more: From Nigeria to the world: Afrobeats is having a global moment

In 2022, hip hop phenomenon Naija, whose child is Afrobeats, is thriving with hit songs competitively ripping through the global soundscape. As Nigeria marks a century of popular musical practices and experiences, it seems that the mononationalist era could last an entire generation (three decades) or more before another episode emerges.


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