‘I be superstar’: Machoism, rivalry and fandom in Nigerian Hip Hop – Fellows’ seminar by Paul Onanuga

16 November 2022

It’s a world where performers openly and viciously taunt and ‘diss’ each other in their lyrics and in online altercations and where masculinity, machoism, misogyny, dominance and threats of violence are commonplace, but is it real or just an elaborate game to gain fans and sell more music? And how do fans position themselves in this narrative? Indeed, what do the fans get out of it? These are some of the questions Iso Lomso fellow Paul Onanuga of the Department of English and Literary Studies at the Federal University Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria hopes to unpack in the ever-crazy, very dramatic, growing world of Nigerian Hip Hop.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Paul Onanuga

“Despite the perception of popular culture as banal and ephemeral, its traditions continue to evoke sustained following in the larger society. This is more so in Nigeria where Nigerian Hip Hop has grown from being a local cultural product to becoming a household global commodity,” said Onanuga. “Beyond its rhythmic compositions, sonorous prosody, appealing beats, and exhilarating dance steps which have contributed to its mass following, digital platforms have further aided the viralisation of the music genre. The artistes thus wear a larger-than-life mien, a sense which is evoked both in their lyrics and digital engagements with their fans. In this study, I attempt an examination of how male Nigerian Hip Hop artistes trigger rivalry in their music lyrics. I further engage with how their fans participate in the engagements and how they assert their fanaticism online through their reactions to artiste achievements, scandals, beefs, etc. Specifically, I am interested in the linguistic practices in these multiple narratives.”

The project brings together Onanuga’s interests in computer-mediated communications, Hip Hop and linguistic practices, and the idea has South Africa roots stemming from a request to participate in a book project which he expanded for his Iso Lomso fellowship and which he believes will benefit from South African experiences and inputs. He hopes to understand more about the local Hip Hop scene, as well as how all of this plays out with female performers.

“Hip Hop studies was once an outcast academic pursuit,” he laughed, “now people are engaging with it all over the world.”

As his theoretical base he leans on Critical Discourse Analysis and Fandom Theory. “No language is neutral, language is a social intervention,” he explained. “Ideology, identity and representation are all encoded in language use. Fandom Theory – based on Henry Jenkins’s work in the 1990s – sees fans as active producers and manipulators of meaning who are critically engaged and socially connected consumers of popular culture building their own digital communities and spaces.”

“The place of fans in the sustenance of superstar visibility and the accompanying digital narratives of fandom have been understudied in Nigerian Hip Hop,” he added. “I hope to engage with the intersection of artiste rivalry, digital fandom and oppositional politics.”

Americanisms to Nigerianisms

Hip Hop originated in the Bronx in New York in the early 70s largely focused around racial politics and identification, black rhetoric and engagement with social issues. Onanuga explained that Nigerian Hip Hop began in the late 1980s under various names including Gbedu, Naijapops and Afrobeat (with Fela Kuti its most well-known early pioneer). Initially it was about directly imitating the Americanisms but this began to change to ‘Nigerianisms’ with increased use of Nigerian Pidgin English and Yoruba, and the introduction of themes linked to Nigerian lived experience. From the late 1990s it became more popular with increased commercial sponsorship and airplay. The availability of cheaper music production and editing software made it easier to produce and disperse locally. However, global dispersal really took off with distribution through pan-African entertainment channels – including Channel O and MTV Base Africa, BET and VH1 with YouTube and other social media dramatically raising global consciousness.

Lyrical battling to digital ‘diss’

Using the example of American rapper 50 Cent, Onanuga pointed out that Hip Hop has always included elements of confrontation and violent rivalry with artistes casting themselves as larger-than-life superstars and gangsters, and engaging in lyrical battles with their opposition. He highlighted similar examples from high-profile Nigerian Hip Hop stars including Wizkid, Davido and Burnaboy.

Lyrical battles in Nigerian Hip Hop typically include self-salutation, the denigration of other artistes, as well as metaphors and imagery encouraging enmity towards government agencies and bloggers. ‘Diss’ tracks are a common element of this macho war often with a long-running ‘diss’ played out on an album. Such ‘Diss’ tracks typically include four topics – women, money, success and record sales.

Traditional live performance encourages audience participation but with the growth of social media this has spilled over into very public trading of insults and wordplay in the digital world.

“Multiple realisations emanate from these digital skirmishes –artistes leverage their social and cultural capital; social barriers disappear between celebrities and their fans; fan agency is experienced through linguistic personalisation; and, we gain insight into youth linguistic practices and the transnationality of digital fandom.”

Onanuga pointed out that although it’s difficult to put figures to this practice in Nigeria it has mass appeal among young people with social media making it simultaneously both inclusive and elitist. “Twitter, for example, has about 2.2 million users in Nigeria out of a population of 220 million.”

He is interested in understanding how language manifests in these online communications and how words are used to indicate inclusion and exclusion, how belonging is enforced through the appellate identities and pronominal choices that personalise fandom, hint at possession of the artistes, and the seeking of membership of online groups with fanpages and twitter handles. He is also analysing the use of images, emojis, slang or urban-youth language, flaming and other abusive language.

“In addition fans position themselves as social critics and participate in the online altercations,” he said. “They wade in and out, starting discussions. There are no holds barred, people are prepared to say anything.”

“It is thinning the barricades between the celebrity and fans, creating a sense of belonging through digital engagement but, perhaps, stimulating a false sense of community.”

Haters as the currency of success

Onanuga is interested in further unpacking the role of the ‘dissing’ as a capitalist tool. “The ‘fights’ sell more music so fan involvement fuels industrial capitalism,” he said.

The artistes use the power of the digital space to leverage their social capital while fans use it to have access to their subjects of fandom. “For the artistes it’s more clout chasing than actual violence.”

“One example was an ongoing ‘beef’ between 9ice and Rugged Man – this placed them constantly in the news, with the public buying the tracks till eventually they released a track together – effectively milking the situation. The same is identifiable in the more recent digital spat between MI and Vector with both artistes confessing to the commercial gains that followed their publicised altercation.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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