Welcome to the Nigerian music scene, a place where everything seems to work in the reverse. A place where artists identify, are promoted and even have songs released under a label only for the fans to be told years later that there was no contract signed in the first place. A place where split sheets, publishing, and mechanical royalties are afterthoughts and artistes do not understand the importance of transitioning into brands with a strategy on how to sustain their careers but more importantly, welcome to Nigerian music, a place where songwriters are the object of denial from artists and butt of jokes from the fans.
It’s funny how during the Grammys, for every award handed out to our favorite songs, there is a proper listing of every individual who contributed to the process of creating the song or the album. There is even the ‘Song of the year’ category dedicated primarily to songwriters, but what obtains here is artists turning songwriters into ‘cult members’, who must not be named or publicly credited especially if they have been paid because when a singer admits to having gotten some form of third party help in writing his/her song, it is often met with ridicule from fans and their talent questioned.
Most hit songs in the world have multiple songwriters. Outside Ether, writing Getting Jiggy for Will Smith is one of Nas’s biggest commercial project, Bernie Taupin is famous because of his works performed by Elton John, Sia has written songs for the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Neyo, Bruno Mars have all made a name writing/co-writing songs for others while Eminem gets credit for Dr. Dre’s ‘Forget About Dre,’ most labels see it as one way to integrate the artist into the industry before they begin their solo careers.
On Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ album, no less than 72 writers were listed while Adele tapped about a dozen for ‘25.’
For genres like hip-hop, there is usually a background chatter when it comes to the suspicion of using songwriters, partly based on ego but largely due to the elements that birthed the genre. The foundation of rap is built on authenticity, self-expression and the need to tell one’s story as experienced, so in the past it was almost a forbidden rule [Still is, depending on who you ask], but as the attention has moved towards scoring hit songs and not getting drowned in the competitive waters of streaming numbers, more rappers are now beginning to employ more hands, some even have camps where songwriters who specialize in hooks, background vocals, storytelling are housed and get to ‘live’ and write life through the rapper's perspective.
Where rappers get help, they refer to them more as ghostwriters, but for other genres, this is not the case, using songwriters has always been permissible, like it in no way hinders the marketing push, status or perception of the artist.
Hence the confusion with Nigerian artists, we can’t be doing pop music using rap rules, it doesn’t work that way.
Davido was the industry’s MVP in 2017 releasing back to back chart-topping singles but it was the last of those singles, ‘Like Dat’ that made headlines, not for its brilliance nor the arrival of another hit anthem but controversy surrounding the ‘writer[s]’ of the song after fast-rising talent at the time, Teni tweeted her appreciation at the opportunity given her by the pop star to have contributed to the writing of the song.
What was her moment of excitement quickly turned into one of wild inquisition with the tweet causing an uproar on social media.
From being called an idiot for publicly making the revelation after she had been paid to those who claimed that ‘Ghostwriters’ should live by their name, anonymous and unseen, the backlash was heavy with the singer later admitting that it was a ‘bitter-sweet experience’ for her, ‘‘because of the mentality of the people, they feel if you have a songwriter, then that means you are not good.’’ she said in a 2018 interview with NotJustOk.
No wonder the likes of Yonda, who was also later credited as a co-songwriter in the liner notes kept mute.
Without doubt, the place of the songwriter is behind the scene, but there are instances, especially in the absence of IP laws where open appreciation is allowed, but we have enabled a culture where songwriters are to be heard only through the voices of the paymasters, not deserving more for their craft and integral additions other than the cheque they receive; if they get any at all.
Recently, Davido [Yes, him again] got called out after announcing that singer Adekunle Gold co-wrote one of the songs on his upcoming album, ‘‘A good time’’. ‘You should learn to write songs for yourself’ was the misguided response from the fan who confidently took the position of the ‘informed’ tweep on the timeline.
In a setting like ours where the artist is the ‘all in all’, multi-tasking as the producer, singer, performer, promoter, it is easy to confuse or even neglect significant roles, but the music creative process for a song, talk less an album is a more wholesome journey. Some musicians have the power of the vocals, some play at least one instrument, there are others with a compelling personality that commands you to pay attention, while some have the gift of being performers, but not everyone is blessed with the clarity of turning words into a catchy, compelling and memorable melody or verses.
The likes of 2baba, Sound Sultan, Simi, Brymo, Kizz Daniel, Banky W, Wurld, and Burna Boy are few who seem to have nurtured this art.
Pop artists should not be afraid to outsource the writing part of the music, as the songwriter is in no way their competition, rather a central figure in the entire creative process, especially for anyone seeking excellence. Using songwriters also does not point to laziness or the absence of talent, it is just what it is, understand your strengths and get that part off the worry list while you as an artist focus on getting the needed emotions for the listener to feel the story being told.
This lack of understanding is why Tony Tetuila or a Faze, former members of the Remedies and Plantashun Boiz were not considered as crucial to the success of their respective groups back then and supposedly didn’t ‘deserve’ to get an equal share of the bag.
Any obvious input whether in the form of melody, a line of lyrics, an entire verse or structure amounts to songwriting. They may be sleeping or nominal partners in the conversation but partners they are, nonetheless and should be well compensated for their contributions which may vary depending on the extent of the contribution.
More importantly, contracts should be signed and whatever terms agreed clearly stated before commencement to avoid unnecessary complications.
Giving these set of talents credit also grants them access to a bigger pool of not just other artists to work with, but even TV/film producers, which translates to more money for songwriters and a truly effective music ecosystem.
Afrobeats is the new wave and observers continue to question if what we are offering is the best that we can showcase in terms of talent and how well we can turn this attention into actual profit, especially back home.
This writer may not have the answer to those questions in this piece but if we are to start creating a semblance of a sensibly structured industry that would viably witness the reaching ripples of benefits trickling down to everyone irrespective of their skill and how minute we may assume their role to be, then we must protect and encourage other creatives like the producers, sound engineers and songwriters, because someday when the beats alone fails to drown the pain or quench the thirst and the message is all that will be left, then the people will ask, what exactly is your music saying?
P.S: A songwriter can be the difference between you having a transient hit single and a classic song, or also the answer to that elusive next banger after your hit song, saving your career from being a ‘one-hit-wonder.’