The Illustrious Rise of Urban Highlife in Nigeria

Words by: Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu

Highlife has had quite a journey since its birth in Ghana and later adoption in Nigeria, in Nigeria the journey has seen some particularly interesting turns.

Historically, Highlife music emanated from Ghana with African traditional music idioms often characterizing the genre. The Highlife in question here however is Nigerian Highlife. More specifically, Eastern Highlife which holds some of the genre’s musical pioneers, including Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, and Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson (arguably one of the greatest Nigerian Highlife musicians).

South-Eastern Nigeria is the homestead of Nigeria’s Igbo populace. At 12 million strong, the population is a clear cross-section of Nigeria’s, with the age groups of 18–40 being the most occupied. This Nigerian music market has a few genres that receive mainstream attention; Afrobeats and its offspring, Afropop and Afrofusion. Twenty years ago, Highlife and Gospel would have had a shot at the same top three, but as tastes and opinions shift, so does the market’s attention. 

Modern-day artists from the South-Eastern region such as KCee (formerly one-half of KC Presh) and Phyno have all at a certain point dabbled into multiple genres – Highlife included. In his earliest days, KCee helped create a distinctly Nigerian version of Pop-R&B records alongside his long-time collaborator, Presh. However, since the duo split he has found a number of new homes, his most recent being his Cultural Praise compilations with the Okwesili Eze Group

Flavour is another Eastern artist who had to challenge many of the values his core audience might have associated him with in order to evolve. Originally a Gospel-inspired artist, he transitioned from Hip-Hop to Afrobeats, before ending up making a distinct type of Highlife. Hailing from the predominantly Christian South-East, the expectations of that audience are often skewed towards two extremes for artists from the region; the ultra-religious Gospel records made with distinctly Eastern percussion or super-secular Afropop. He found this balance on his Uplifted album, marked by a conscious shift towards him creating what I refer to as “Urban Highlife”. He married multiple genres with his earliest influences. The project performed better than was initially expected commercially and critically, helping cement Flavour as one of the modern carriers of the Highlife torch.

The relatability of these records played a huge part in their acceptance. Highlife helped represent a creative West African response to the modern world. While the genre might have become relegated to the sidelines of popular culture within the new generation, it is no less as poignant as it was forty years ago. For artists utilising the sound to keep it alive, the intricate drum patterns and exotic instrumentation give it the familiar feeling of the genre they are drawing from.

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Globalization changes the way we experience familiar forms of art. From the use of live instruments in music to its substitution with computer-generated synths, down to the kind of enunciation that is acceptable on certain records or in certain films, it is clear that concerted efforts have been made to appeal to a global market.

While this is generally a positive occurrence, the core values of every genre need to remain intact to provide a tether. Whether it is to a reinvention of the sound or the creation of a sub-sound from the original. The Cavemen are a great example of how this can be achieved. On their debut album, ROOTS, the duo strikes an interesting balance between their use of English, Western instruments, and contemporary Igbo Highlife. Released to rave reviews and spawning a number of COVID-compliant shows, the album’s reception has catapulted the band to the ears of a much larger audience.

With the efforts of some of the artists named above and many unnamed, there are glimmers of hope surrounding the state of Igbo Highlife in a new era. The ability of these artists to continue to reinvent and infuse the key elements of the genre into the music they make today will be more important to keeping the genre alive than the market’s current tastes.

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