How to keep Nigerian music stars like Dele Ojo alive

The chorus of Nigerian pop star Davido’s hit single ‘Skelewu’ included fragments of a song that is obscure to the average listener. “Èsù bóko yóko / terenà terenà tere / owa dejò sónà.” Sandwiched in the ‘Skelewu’ word salad, it is difficult, even for fluent Yoruba speakers, to figure out the meaning of those three lines. But anyone who lived through the heydays of juju music will instantly identify the source: Dele Ojo’s ‘Terena’, the story of a husband who demands respect from his wife and shape-shifts into animals to compel her to call him “Baba” (father) instead of “Awe” (mister man).

For those who lived in South West Nigeria in the 1990s, juju was one of the popular forms of music music. Artists like King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obe and Orlando Owoh were revered by a growing generation as they were by their parents. Dele Taiwo and Shina Peters, contemporaries of that time, were producing variations to the genre—funky juju and afro juju—that rivaled Fuji as the music of the next generation. Into that mix were other artists who might be relatively unknown today, but whom those who lived before that era remember with gratitude and delight: Tunji Oyelana, Kayode Fashola, Remi Olabanji and Dipo Shodipo—the Pope whose remarkable tenor is one of the most enchanting voices to emerge from Nigeria—and many others.

To lump these artists together feels wrong. Their music is aggressively diverse: some employ synths that hark back to 1970s funk, others deploy brass remnants of Nigerian fascination with jazz, and many stay faithful to the electric guitar—vanguard in the development of juju and highlife. Before American monoculture engulfed Nigerian cultural production, these artists and their songs were radio and television staple. Afterwards, they became relegated to Yoruba party floors (owambe) and private events, where old souls danced and listened with wistfulness about a past that feels like an eternity ago.

Nostalgia is the spirit of the times, and artists are incessantly plugging echoes of the past into the present to create deeper connection with audiences. Hollywood has made a trope out of this, releasing films that prey on the desire for the childhood pleasures. There’s also a latin resurrection in American pop music, prime examples of which are DJ Khaled’s ‘Wild Thoughts’, which owes its catchiness to Carlos Santana’s guitar, and Cardi B’s ‘I like it’, a rap remake of Pete Rodriguez’s classic of similar nomenclature. Santana and Rodriguez did not need pop renewals to burnish their already bright image and pedigree. If anything, there are questions about what the new songs add to their sounds. The same cannot be said for old Nigerian artists; many are dead to the present, even when they are still alive, with names and reputations in need of resurrection.

Nigerian pop acts are mining the past, too, with some creativity. To be fair, this isn’t entirely new. Nomoreloss’s ‘Iyawo Asiko’, a remix of Orlando Owoh’s ‘ Iyawo Olele’ is the bar for remixing old songs. He took the classic and made it new while retaining the old feeling. Simi did the same with Ebenezer Obey’s work in ‘Aimasiko’ from her critically acclaimed album Simisola. While if often feels like every artist and their alté sibling wants to model their work after Fela Kuti, there are many who realise the Nigerian canon is filled with potential influences outside Abàmì Èdá.

Dele Ojo, who Davido referenced in Skelewu, was buried in his hometown of Ilara-Mokin, Ondo State, on 4 August. One by one, these artists who charmed Nigerians in the past are leaving the planet, many with the same obscurity with which they lived their later years. There are lucky ones, like William Onyeabor, whose death was widely acknowledged because of the efforts of Scottish-American singer David Bryne. This exodus of the country’s stars into oblivion seems inevitable, because of Nigeria’s aversion to history. Yet, it doesn’t make it any less sad.

There are characters who can be held responsible for this tragedy: journalists, critics, culture promoters, etc. But the group that should be most interested in what happens post-stardom are artists themselves. And creating a culture of paying homage to the past is their trump card in this high-stakes game of finite time. The homage can be announced, like Nomoreloss does at the end of his song; or it can be buried so deep it requires the work of critics invested in trawling songs for their references and influences. Whatever method they choose, setting nostalgia to sound holds benefits for artists, not just for the veneer of quality they can borrow from the past, but because this is also an act of self-preservation.

Referencing the past and succeeding at it has its problems, as pop stars like Mark Ronson and Robin Thicke have discovered. Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ has been involved in three legal issues, and Thickie was ordered to pay 5.3 million dollars to Marvin Gaye’s relatives for ‘Blurred Lines’. Legal developments exist in Nigeria too. Mad Melon and Mountain Black of Danfo Driver fame took up Tekno, who clearly infringed on their copyrights in his song ‘Jogodo’. And Sir Victor Olaiya accused Simi of piracy for the song Joromi, which owes more sonically to masked singer Lagbaja than the highlife legend.

Many have pondered over the effect of these legal battles. “If the purpose of copyright law is to reward creativity,” writes Mark Hogan in Pitchfork, “at a certain point this new frontier for litigiousness is ultimately going to be counterproductive.” One method that has been deployed to reduce the rate of litigation by artists in the U.S. is to include artists they reference in their songwriting credits. Copyright law still has some ways to go in Nigeria, and artists are often aware of this so they cut corners. But imagine what good it would have done Dele Ojo to have a songwriting credit on ‘Skelewu’. This trend, if adopted, won’t be mere charity to the black dwarfs of Nigerian music, but an act of self love for today’s shining stars.