It is hard to quantify Wizkid’s cultural importance accurately in words for anyone that has not, at any point in the last decade, ventured into the uncomfortable embrace of the Nigerian psyche; but I’ll try.
It is a lasting feeling of pride in one’s countryman. An unshakeable belief in the 29-year-old’s magnificence and uncanny ability to belt out tunes that can – would – soundtrack your life, not in spite of the fact that they are afrobeats tracks but decisively because of that peculiarity. To be Wizkid is to be loved with undying fervor by millions of people around the world, powered a core following domicile in Nigeria, and, simultaneously, hated by a significant number of people; but at the same time command respect from both lovers and haters.
That’s Wizkid the Starboy, and that has been the status quo for much of the last ten years. To be Wizkid is to have the image of popular music from Africa so welded to your image that they are almost interchangeable.
When news filtered that there was going to be a sound clash featuring Wizkid online, the wheels started chumming in motion for what was going to be clearly going to be an occasion – tens of thousands of fans logged in for Popcaan Vs Burna Boy, the numbers were going to be significantly higher for Ayo Balogun.
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Halfway into the No Signal music clash that took place between Wizkid and Vybz Kartel last week, this reality must have dawned on listeners tuned in from all over the world – particularly Caribbean listeners.
All over Twitter, there was disbelief, and later incredulity, as Wizkid took each round from the Worl’ Boss. At the end of the night the score read 10-nil. Wizkid victory in every round. But these sorts of social media-powered clashes will never serve as accurate barometers of the art and only function as release triggers for music lovers during these unprecedented times when uncertainty means that we couch our worry in music.
Vybz Cartel’s impact, music, and legacy is duly noted – and praised – across both divides, yet as culture journalist, Ivie Ani, astutely noted, “I think only one side truly understands Wizkid's (influence).” And of course, that’s the Nigerian camp, the ones who have seen him grow from ghetto upstart to one of the most definitive voice of music in the world all in the space of 11 years. Ani further added: “A lot of people's introduction to Wizkid AND an entire genre was within the last 4 years, not when he or it first emerged.”
To understand the frenzied support for Wizkid, the deep ties between him and our genre, identity and pride, you have to go back 10 years. At the beginning of a decade that would change all conceptions of what was possible for a popstar from Africa.
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'Holla At Your Boy', the mainstream debut track that launched Wizkid’s career, dropped less than 15 days into 2010, coming at a critical period for the future of afrobeats. At that time, D’banj was making a more concerted westward push with his music, the tour de force of the P Square brothers was coming to a grinding halt, and 2face was ceding the floor, newer were needed to step up to the fore.
Wizkid’s claim to superstardom came loud and clear on 'Holla At Your Boy', a teenage, tuneful number that ignited across Nigeria and introduced us to the boy from Surulere. Everything about Wizkid was a force of attraction: looks, voice, and fashion. A new generation of kids/ teens fell in love with him, wearing chequered shirts and baseball hats in his honour, while his suggestive lyrics did not stray too afar of the standards required in Nigerian homes.
Just a year later, his debut album aptly named ‘Superstar’ portended his career trajectory. That was the it album, the most-anticipated in years that blew up on release. Led by 'Holla At Your Boy', the album is littered with smash hits that catapulted Wizkid to a cultural icon status for teens and young adults; the likes of 'Don’t Dull', 'No Lele', 'Tease Me/ Bad Guys', and 'Pakurumo' – all spun during the sound clash – were on the album ensuring that Wizkid dominated radio, the awards season, and our hearts.
When afrobeats’ godfathers and leaders were pivoting or slowing down, the young master kickstarted the groove, making us all dance and sing teary-eyed across demography: from the highbrow mansions in Abuja to the middle-class apartments in Port Harcourt and lower-class shacks floating on the Lagos waterfronts.
That was Wizkid, that was the hero who could be us.
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'Superstar' was a cultural reset, and courtesy of its popular appeal, we received the never-ending gift of Wizkid on hooks that took flight after the album drop. Wizkid’s ability to fashion the most relentlessly chaotic tunes ensured that no two hooks sounded the same and no song wasn’t a paradigm shift; in effect, a considered recalibration of what Nigerian pop could aspire to that.
Less than two years after 'Holla At Your Boy', we were egging our sonic conqueror on after his irrepressible rise. He was talking about money, lots of it; women; sex; and waking up in cities that he could only have dreamed of prior and we, the kids born after 1994, lived vicariously through his music. If you want to know what the bravado of this 20-something year-old kid sounded like, listen to ‘The Matter’ where he was featured by British-Nigerian Maleek Berry.
With complete certainty in something inexplicable, he goes:
20 man shall fall that day if you cross my lane oo
All your man shall fall that day if you cross my lane
Oya back to the matter
Open and close
Touch your toes
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By the time 2014’s Ayo came, carrying the blatant influence of Fela’s afrobeat on ‘Jaiye Jaiye’, Wizkid was already subtly influencing the sonic range of global popular music. A collaboration with Chris Brown leaked; his take on the popular Azonto rave fed into D’banj’s Western push, linking local domination with pride for a new generation of Britons – raised kilometers away from Africa but birthed by African parents – who were becoming buoyant about their roots and the sounds thereof.
'Ojuelegba', the gem that elevated the afrobeats movement was housed on Ayo. I was a sophomore year student at university when the remix with Drake and Skepta came out, and it was a significant cultural moment for everyone connected to our rhythmic music.
I had listened to Drake on strolls at night on my campus’ grounds and now he was on a Wizkid joint? Drake?
Every step since that summer has established our success on a global scale and provided trackable metric for our movement that is celebrated with every retweet, every like, and each comment posted on social media. The dream was getting monumentally bigger, more vivid than anytime in our contemporary history, but in Wizkid’s winks, his pidgin, the slurry accent, and mischievous laughter, it still retained a connection to the oft grimy streets of Ojuelegba.
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Chart success came for his big label debut, ‘Sounds From The Other Side’, in Belgium, Canada, and the U.S. And when Drake dropped 'One Dance', Nigeria, and Africa by de facto, became the next frontier for the capitalist gaze. Leading a phalanx of talented musicians, producers, and engineers from the motherland, Wizkid had taken us to the stratosphere.
That’s Wizkid the Starboy who so effectively carried the crusade of an entire genre to the front of the queue.
As collaborations dropped, followed by strategic photo-ops with western heavyweights, and, sometimes, studio leaks, we looked on in admiration and a number of us were inspired to take our gifts to the West; secure in our identity and the slightly bewildering knowledge that our music, and lifestyle, was gold.
To be Wizkid is to have your life’s work unforgettably linked to the fact that the most popular black music that blew up in the 2010s was afrobeats, and that you opened the door for that. As much as the rise has been meteoric, Wiz’s misdeeds and missteps have played out openly, dissected at length in the court of public opinion, that is the price of being a star.
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By some alchemical concoction – or carefully considered planning – Wizkid again closed out his groundbreaking decade with the surprise release of ‘Soundman Vol. 1 E.P.’, a precursor to the madly anticipated album, ‘Made In Lagos’, that is sure to serve as a bookmark for an era: ending or finishing. In the 2010s, he navigated the terrain of global fame, extended the parameters of contemporary pop, and played a key role in furthering Nigeria’s burgeoning cultural image.
Despite struggling at times with the direction of the music, a hit has never been far away. And Wizkid is so readily protected by the dual nuclear threat of nostalgia and a fanbase whose loyalties and passion were fostered in the novelty of Superstar; the cocky strut that was Ayo; the unnerving global offering of ‘Sounds From The Other Sides’; and the unruffled assurance of ‘Soundman Vol. 1 E.P.’ – that’s why Wizkid can never lose, not even in an online sound clash.
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Words: Wale Oloworekende
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