Remember 2009, the year Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift and when the word ‘swagger’ was firmly planted in the Nigerian lexicon? In June that year, eccentric popstar Terry G unleashed Free Madness Part 1, a marijuana-motivated medley about swagger and intellectual ganja on a stolen four-minute instrumental. Coincidentally or otherwise, it was the same…
Remember 2009, the year Kanye West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift and when the word ‘swagger’ was firmly planted in the Nigerian lexicon?
In June that year, eccentric popstar Terry G unleashed Free Madness Part 1, a marijuana-motivated medley about swagger and intellectual ganja on a stolen four-minute instrumental. Coincidentally or otherwise, it was the same month that the World Health Organization declared swine flu a global pandemic. Coincidence, perhaps? Closer to home, Terry G’s viral madness spread through the entire nation, and we were united in dancing frenetically to it – from Owerri to Oshogbo and Yola to Yenagoa – like crazy chickens. In October the next year, he released a sequel that was equally a monster hit.
Two things were worthy of note: both songs had no hooks whatsoever and the lyrics if they could be called that, were mostly gibberish and murmurs.
It was in continuation of a tradition of interesting deviations in the use of language by Nigerian artists and artistes, beginning with Amos Tutuola in the 50s, then Onitsha market literature in the 60s and Ken Saro-Wiwa as a young guy in the 80s; every decade, a storyteller comes along in the Nigerian literary or entertainment firmament and attempts to leave a mark, good or bad.
While Tutuola wrote The Palmwine Drinkard in what has been termed “Yorubaenglish”, Saro-Wiwa harnessed the power of the Nigerian lingo for Sozaboy, the hilarious account of a young soldier from the Niger Delta. Terry G’s language remains undecipherable but has been employed by a million other of his compatriots including most notably Tekno Miles, heir apparent to the throne of beautiful nonsense.
Diction and Contradiction
The one binding characteristic of all these artistes is that their invented languages are all variations of Nigerian English. With increasing members of the lower and middle classes having access to education over the years, Nigerians began to speak a language that was a blend of traditional British English, American English, pidgin English and cultural expressions from the potpourri of over 500 indigenous languages in the country (Nigerian English and pidgin English may constantly overlap but there are semantic and phonetic differences – but that’s the subject of another article). And this was done with good reason too as a lot cannot be properly expressed in English, the language of the colonialists which was left behind after the exit of Lugard and company.
For decades, the Nigerian dialect was seen as ‘rotten English’ and the language of the semi-literate, looked upon condescendingly by the elite and those in the middle class. Nigerian English is funny and breaks the rules of British English you see, so it is quite understandable that many want it consigned to the bin of history. The uninitiated can pass out when they turn up at a driving school and hear an instructor scream animatedly at his ward in what seems like assisted suicide, “Cut your hand to this side. Cut it! I said cut it and stop wasting the bloody time!”
So storytelling – and speaking – in an unconventional language has always been seen as infra dignitatem. This was until the reinvention of Funke Akindele as Jenifa in 2008 and the later rise – separately – of both Chigurl and Folarin ‘Falz’ Falana (ironically a child of an elite member of society schooled as a Queen’s Counsel in Queen’s English) in what has been one of the most influential cultural innovations in Nigeria since the turn of the millennium.
The trio have reinforced a playful style that resonates largely with the 0-40 age bracket and created a fan movement who now use it themselves in private and in public, for their faux Yoruba/Igbo-corrupted diction. Suddenly Nigerian English with the apparatchik of shibboleths, accents and grammatical super-impositions became ‘cool’ among the elite and the well-educated youths, two categories of society who would previously turn up their noses at its use. At weddings, in churches and on social media, you can hear and read it sandwiched between other languages, or as a standalone voice of a million skits and vlogs. Listen to two hours of talk radio today across the main radio stations in any of the major cities of Lagos, Enugu, Abuja & Port Harcourt over the next week and hear for yourself.
Razz is the new cool and the idea that young educated Nigerians have to speak perfect Queen’s English only, is coming apart little by little, like falling ashes. The rise of the Nigerian lexicon will be slow but steady like the takeover of homegrown music on Nigerian channels and eventually the spread, disguised as ‘Afrobeats’ to the rest of the world.
It is instructive to note – and quite impressively too – that the hilarity goes pari-passu with a message. Falz may come across as unserious but there is no denying that the themes inherent in his music are on issues that rappers his age aren’t discussing. Regards to Your Mumsy for example is a satirical take on having perverts as uncles and family friends and in Marry Me, he addresses squarely the idea of society seeing marriage as the end that justifies all means and weddings as the only crown that matters in a woman’s life. Same for Ms. Akindele who as Jenifa has tackled heads on serious social issues including most recently, human trafficking. There’s the possibility that if they were doing all of these in ‘serious’ British English, we’d have all tired of the show and the music.
There have been years of talk about a lingua franca to bind us all – in beer parlours, at newspaper vendor stands, on the pages of newspapers and at countless conferences. The solution? Nigerian English.
A Nigerian, a Kenyan, a Tanzanian and a Ghanaian – who all grew up in their respective countries – walk into a bar. What are they speaking? It’s very likely Nigerian English and this is thanks to Nollywood and all the Naija songs that have permeated across Africa. And that’s because these countries lap up our culture like a cat does milk; just like those younger siblings that claim to be independent but still imitate the moves of their seniors.
A fortnight ago in Johannesburg, I watched proudly as a couple of excited Kenyan journalists explained the meaning of wahala to a wide-eyed Namibian colleague during a dissection of Tekno’s Pana. To be on the periphery yet at the core of the same discussion, one about a made-in-Nigeria brand made my insides catwalk with joy and this same feeling overwhelmed me over the next few days as I heard those Kenyans and their Namibian convert add “oooh” to their sentences like Dem Mama, Dem Papa-era Timaya replicas. As many of my friends in East Africa tell me, the Nigerianization of Africa is still very much in progress and there’s no reason why the language should not be even more celebrated at home than it already is. I digress but its rising pan-African popularity should offer us brief respite given our current economic woes and be a reminder that with good leadership, we could actually be the true giant of Africa.
It is still early days and one cannot already begin to jubilate about its’ widespread acceptance but the signs are there. In August, I visited the popular Hot Bites nightclub in Maiduguri to write this story. It was delightful to see the religious tolerance of the predominantly Islamic community in full view there; young Kanuri and Shuwa ladies whose Muslim parents would shudder at the sight of them rocking young (Christian) men of Igbo origins. The background music was that of Tekno, Mr. Eazi and yes, Falz. Afterwards, I even heard a random sex worker mimicking Falz during a protracted negotiation with a prospective customer who replied in the same manner.
As a people, we have to collectively push for more recognition for Nigerian English. It’s the only way forward.
For the Future
The British, American and Australian versions have their own dictionaries and other paraphernalia of bona fide certification but there is none for our homegrown English. To encourage full-scale adoption of this dialect, we need one.
Does it break the rules of British English? Yes. So did Arundathi Roy with The Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. So does American English with its strange spellings and lightweight words, yet it has come to be accepted as the norm even beyond its borders. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.
Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation may be set in an unnamed West African country, but the language is very related to Nigerian English and may have already set the tone for other novelists to follow. It is an indicator of what things should and could be, if everyone were to adopt the language. Writers wouldn’t have to explain to the world what the many Nigerian terms and phrases mean because we cannot come and go and kill ourselves. And I wouldn’t have to write this article for a Nigerian platform, in British English.
Furthermore, if Nigerian English were to be adopted in an official capacity, radio jockeys would be comfortable with their current accents and not have to worry about tuning them to sound like the sonic equivalent of a coat of many colours. Allowing them creative freedom to talk in their studio as they do out of it could help them be more comfortable and help them simultaneously play their part as custodians of the culture in extending the bridge that their contemporaries and predecessors built. On a personal note, I’ve resolved to sprinkle some more Nigerian phrases into my writing and keep at it unapologetically.
Even mad Kanye would approve.