Boiler Room’s recent broadcast from Nigeria – which we’re revisiting on Guardian Music today – broke new ground. It was the first time a show had been live-streamed from a Lagos nightclub to the world. With the club’s own Wi-Fi connection offering a flickering, untrustworthy signal, the stream was facilitated by chaining multiple mobile sim cards together, giving enough bandwidth to upload a few hours of high-quality video.
That was apt. Where once it could take days, even months, for a song to travel from being a hit in Lagos to being a hit in Abuja (let alone to travel to being a hit in London or New York), the global spread of the current Afrobeats scene has been helped in huge amount by two things: the increasing speed and availability of broadband in Lagos and the sudden proliferation of smartphone technology, which has brought computing power to the pockets of billions.
Giggs performs for Boiler Room in Nigeria
“Social media is the be all and end all out here,” yells Teni Zaccheaus, over the noise at the Boiler Room show. He’s here as manager of DRB, a rising Afrobeats duo who are performing their mix of poppy R&B, deep Nigerian melodies and bass-heavy hip-hop to the admiring home crowd.
“Over the last two years, data has become so much more accessible, even on people’s not-so-smart phones. You can buy music, download music, it’s made a big difference. Tweeting, Snapchat, SoundCloud, all of it – Nigerians are heavy users of the internet. It’s insane how quickly songs can travel now.”
To make his point, he pulls out his phone and shows his WhatsApp account. It is constantly popping off with artists sending new music, promoters firing over party invites, and group chats dedicated to who is going where later that evening. “In Nigeria, WhatsApp is huge, the biggest form of communication. It’s taken over from BlackBerry Messenger. Not everyone has iMessenger but everyone has WhatsApp – for business, for groups. I used a WhatsApp group to promote this show. Everyone’s talking on it.”
Artists are now creating groups to disseminate their brands, and using them to fire out emoji-spattered messages announcing new videos, exclusive downloads, clothing ranges and party invites, and almost completely ignoring traditional media in the process. Print media covering the new music scene is nearly nonexistent, and DJs on radio stations such as Beat FM – Lagos’s current top station for breaking new homegrown talent – are as likely to hear a new track through a WhatsApp message or on a Snapchat loop as they are through any sort of standard promo campaign.
In a country where mobile phones are far more affordable than laptops or tablets, it’s inevitable that new social media, specifically platforms designed for phones, should take hold so quickly. While the story of artists taking control of their careers using social media has become well known in the UK, the speed with which Nigerians have adopted the technology – and the way this has networked the country’s diaspora – is already having wider effects.
Teni points out that Nigerian rapper Folarin Falana, otherwise known as Falz, has just won the 2016 BET award for best new international act. Falz is signed to his own independent label, Bahd Guys Records, and has almost no presence outside Nigeria (until he won the award, at least), and yet he beat, among others, the UK act Section Boyz, who have recently been performing with such American A-listers as Drake and Chris Brown. With the award being decided by a public vote, Falz was able to mobilise a huge Nigerian following via WhatsApp, communicating to the Nigerian diaspora as much as his local fans. It seems unlikely that Falz’s award will be the last time that the influence of this network will be seen.
Inevitably, as this increase in mobile technology disseminates Nigerian music to a worldwide audience, it also brings music into Nigeria from around the world – particularly the US and UK. Skepta is currently massive in Lagos, as his sellout Christmas show in the city proved, and the clubs are as likely to be playing the latest trap beats from Atlanta as they are anything produced in a local studio. As a result, the sound is hybridising, taking on elements of grime and trap and fusing them into Lagosian styles with a rapidity that had previously been absent.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” concludes Teni. “But everybody is getting that outside view of what’s going on in the rest of the world. It’s changing the sound here. Everything’s getting very exciting right now.”