In ‘This Is Nigeria’, Falz is a woke preacher who is still asleep

To those who grew up as Christian teenagers in urban communities, Nigerian rapper Folarin Falana, popularly known as Falz, copying Donald Glover’s ‘This is America’ to make his viral video of a similar title must feel familiar. Contemporary Christian music has always been filled with copy cats: for every popular rock band, there was a Christian alternative; for every catchy secular tune, a gospel artist who has appropriated the same and layered it with bible verses. But all of these copies had one thing in common: they were corny, low-grade versions of the originals, made to appeal to a crowd that wanted the same pleasures as outsiders—the world, as they are properly called—but in language they are familiar with.

In ‘This Is Nigeria’, Falz is working in the same mode as those contemporary Christian artists. He has taken a song produced through a distillation of American culture and condition and adapted it for the Nigerian situation. Falz’s song is neither a cover nor a parody, and those who describe it as either do so in ignorance. You can’t accuse him of theft. And as long as he isn’t making his version for commercial reasons, he can adapt Glover’s music however he wants.

Falz isn’t doing anything new here. Nigerians have a history of moulding foreign cultural works to Nigerian realities. Ola Rotimi adapted the Greek classic Oedipus Rex to The Gods Are Not to Blame. In ‘Not My Business’, Niyi Osundare took the tone of Martin Niemöller’s ‘First They Came for the Jews’ and turned it on the tyranny Nigerians were experiencing in the military era. And to a lighter extent, Banky W became popular by adapting the tune for Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ to his ‘Ebute Metta’.

So, perhaps Folarin Falana’s anger was justified when he responded to critics of his song online in a rant. They were accusing him of what many before him had done, successfully. “I just dey read comments online and I dey vex,” he said, delivering his monologue while struggling to hold on to his Boda Taju persona. It was as if the gravity of the accusations required him to shed his comic tendencies.

“This is supposed to be a remake. It is supposed to be a cover,” he said, face pressed to what must have been the front facing camera of his phone. “It is not supposed to be original. I’m not trying to make money off it. Now, the sooner you realise that you are supposed to pick up the message, or the numerous messages on the track, the better for your life, the sooner you start to act accordingly, the better for your own personal life. This is not business. This is a moral instruction. Wake up.”

If there are any doubts left in the minds of those who classified the video as a parody, Falz’s rant clarified them all. He was a preacher who had a vital message to pass across to his congregation, not a comedian trying to make a light, comic version of the original. He was also angry—as preachers can be when their audience is slow of learning. Hence, the instruction: “Wake up.”

Perhaps Falz was looking at the response to his song and comparing it to what his colleague across the Atlantic received. Erroneous accusations of plagiarism aside, both artists garnered popular praise for their efforts. But where American critics showered Childish Gambino’s video adulation, the immediate critical response to Falz’s work grew from tepid to harsh.

‘This is America’ is easy to praise. The singular nature of the Donald Glover–Hiro Murai collaboration made it easy for critics to scrutinize the video, both for style and meaning. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber says Glover’s message was that “America is a room in which violence and celebration happen together, and the question of which one draws the eye is one of framing, and of what the viewer wants to see.” And the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix says, “This is what it’s like, Glover’s video seems to say, to be black in America—at any given time, vulnerable to joy or to destruction. When his character is not dancing, he is killing.”

The lyrics and visuals of Glover’s video were layered in a way that simultaneously reflected an obvious message and welcomed a search for hidden truths. After its release, Twitter users became sleuths, checking every frame for references: the Jim Crow stance, the meaning of the cars, even SZA standing in for the Statue of Liberty. This is a video made for an audience that is as eager to study it for revelations as it is to mine it for memes. Falz seems to desire the same results. His video, however, lacks the ambiguity that would have made this possible. ‘This is Nigeria’ is simply a rehashing of headlines and Twitter hot takes made to a format created by Glover.

In an essay about a Christianrock festival, American writer John Jeremiah Sullivan described the nature of music by Christianrock bands as “message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility—one the artists embrace—to “reach people. As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism.””

This description fits Falz’s video snugly. He presumes that those who criticize his song, whether they’re right or wrong, are not paying attention to its message. To him, the presence of a message precludes any kind of criticism. “Wake up.”

Writing in The Guardian Nigeria, Saratu Abiola considers Falz and Glover to be “similar in the scale of their ambition.” She says Glover’s video doesn’t give the satisfaction of a message, and that is true. She, however, contrasts it with Falz’s work, saying, ““This Is Nigeria” offers you no distractions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Where the video on which it is based is focused entirely on Glover to distract you from the chaos in the background, the camera in “This Is Nigeria” wants you to miss nothing, straying often from Falz to focus on the bus driver sipping codeine, the woman packing money with a dead snake in a calabash, the fraudulent pastor, the young men pulling at their generator.”

What Abiola describes here as Falz not wanting his audience to miss nothing is, actually, lack of depth and subtlety. It is a reflection of a simple mindedness that American culture critic Susan Sontag ascribes to all capital moral truths, and a problem inherent in most message-driven art. Falz thinks once we “wake up”, we’ll see the wisdom in his message. But this is lazy. It’s a crutch for his own deficiencies, because Falz has never been one to create profound work.

‘Child of the World’ from the album 27 was his last attempt at social commentary rather than his usual comic offerings. On the surface, Falz was trying to rap about what happens to a child who is abandoned in a world full of evil. Dig deeper and what you see is simply a paternalistic song. One that tells you a story Falz isn’t self-aware enough to realize validates the myth that sex workers have troubled homes, or even the converse: that people from rough upbringings are bound to end up damaged. This obvliviousness repeats itself in Falz’s faux pas in his video, such as his naive depiction of the Fulani killer, the dancing Chibok girls, and the voice over by Femi Falana, his father, which Eromo Egebjule critiques, saying, “the intro where the elder Falana is giving a speech on neo-imperialism is quite problematic and encourages authoritarian tendencies.”

Perhaps a desire to be like his father is what drives the younger Falana. This isn’t an ambition to be ashamed of. Like Egbejule and Abiola assert, in a country where artists are often derided for being too hedonistic, it’s admirable to see one who tries to speak to the political conditions. But this doesn’t imply that any criticism of it is wrongheaded. Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, perhaps the first critic to respond properly to the song, says, “In its hasty failures, Falz’s This Is Nigeria video is itself an example of his country’s mediocrity. All that is left is for Nigeria, through some silly government official, to ban the video and in doing so give its online citizens a chance to cheer Falz to living martyr status.”

Aigbokhaevbolo is both right and wrong. Falz’s video is indeed mediocre. But there’s no chance he’ll become a martyr because of this, not when his most egregious claim is one he shares with the leader of the country. President Muhammad Buhari once said Nigerians have “made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking.” And Falz sings: “This is Nigeria/ Everybody na criminal.” He’ll sooner get a national award than land in Kirikiri Maximum Prison.

Nigerians can appreciate the enthusiasm of this rapper who wants, desperately, to be taken seriously. They can even sympathize with his baby steps in this walk to wokeness. What wouldn’t be appropriate, however, is to allow him become the standard bearer of a new kind of protest music without subjecting his work to the rigor of criticism. To do this is to allow him wallow in the mediocrity that defines the very culture he wants to comment about.  If Falz wants his audience to wake up, he better be sure his eyes are fully open.