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Making music in northern Nigeria during a pandemic

As the cultural landscape rapidly changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians and producers across northern Nigeria have creatively employed various strategies to continue making music. With little government support, musicians have had to creatively adapt and embrace new digital opportunities to survive.

The Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) has affected over 200 countries including  Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. Several national lockdowns, which were imposed by various countries to combat the spread of the disease have been multidimensional, and these restrictions on the movement of citizens have had far reaching consequences on the lives of many people and economies. Since  Corona virus first appeared in Africa in late February of 2020 Nigeria continued to experience a steady increase in the number of cases, which spread across several states. 

Following a Presidential broadcast which declared that the country was to undergo a total lockdown on the eve of April 1, 2020, there was a halt of all major social and economic activities including the blooming Nigerian creative sector space. In the entertainment sector, music events and tours were either cancelled or postponed. As with many sectors, music and live entertainment have been severely impacted by the global Coronavirus pandemic.

A report by the Music in Africa Foundation indicated that musicians across Africa faced an entirely new set of challenges due to the pandemic, which resulted in loss of live performance revenue and a sharp decline in physical sales, which represent a significant percentage of recorded music revenues.

 

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) COVID-19 global response assessment, the pandemic has revealed and magnified the creative industries’ pre-existing volatility. “Due to the complex nature of their work, artists and cultural professionals are particularly affected and lockdown measures around the world directly impact the entire creative value chain – creation, production, distribution and access,” the report reads.

Disruption of planned music tours

Nigeria imposed various restrictions to curb the spread of the virus which included, home confinement, geographic containment, prohibition of gatherings and the closure of establishments and premises among other measures. In Kaduna, northern Nigeria, a no-movement lockdown was imposed in March 2020 and Haruna Abdullahi, aka DJ AB, a rising superstar in the Hausa rap scene was planning a tour of northern Nigerian cities where thousands of fans, mostly university students troop to enjoy the entertainment of his shows. The planned tour had to be put on hold.

DJ AB is one of the pioneering members of the group known as Yaran North Side (YNS) (Hausa phrase for Children of the North). The group’s cypher kind of music videos continue to go viral in the social space especially in northern Nigeria, with lyrics predominantly in Hausa. There are pop culture elements abundant in DJ AB’s music. Commenting on adapting and creating music in unprecedented circumstances, the 28-year-old musician said “During the lockdown, I just focused all my energy on creating and recording a new album in my home studio. I worked tirelessly to create hit records”.

Expanding existing opportunities amidst challenges

As the world continues to adapt to the various realities necessitated by the Coronavirus pandemic, the music industry has also changed and continues to embrace the new normal. The virtual space now serves as a new home to the creative sector with concerts and live sessions now held online. Musicians have had to be creative in getting work done while following various World Health Organization guidelines including social distancing during the pandemic. Nigerian artists have also been taking advantage of the available opportunities reaching fans directly from their own homes, using various social media services  and platforms. 

For DJ AB the pandemic affected his crew in both positive and negative ways, and it has expanded the audience available. “It has helped us to discover new ways we can actually connect with our fans, understand who our fans are and to diversify in ways that will benefit us using our platforms,” he said. One of his Instagram live videos Quarantine Life Freestyle attracted thousands of live viewers for the less than two minute video with over 100, 000 views on Instagram after the live broadcast. “It was not easy to make adjustments. We are used to moving around, touring to make things happen and create content, but movement and socialising has been very hard with the pandemic,” he adds.

DJ AB is among a rising group of young musicians rapping in Hausa language from northern Nigeria, with an immense fan base on Instagram and Twitter. The artist is among several music creators that have continued to make music, taking advantage of streaming platforms amidst insecurity in the sector. With little government support to weather the storm of the pandemic, creatives artists have had to explore new monetisation opportunities. While some governments across the world have supported artists, backing musicians with insurance schemes and tax exemptions, artists in Nigeria have not received any meaningful government support.

With the easing of the lockdown order in Nigeria, the government initiated some programmes to assist various industries worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with promises of funding. However, according to all the creatives interviewed, no funds disbursement have materialised. As such, musicians have had to creatively strategise to survive a raging pandemic with little government support. 

Murpheus Major Idoko aka Murpheus Rhymz, a music consultant and coordinator of Graffiti Basketball and Music planned a three day event featuring live basketball matches and music concerts. However, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of the event that gulps around five million Naira (around $15,000) in planning alone. In the absence of a solid government relief fund or support scheme, the event organisers and the artists were the biggest losers following the cancellation.

While lockdown measures were still tight in Kaduna due to rising COVID-19 cases, DJ AB and his crew moved their tours further up north to states which recorded lower cases, hosting live physical concerts in Zamfara, Sokoto, Bauchi and Niger States. “One thing that the pandemic affected was shows and performance. But because our fans loved us and everyone needed some form of socialising, we had to move around despite the pandemic but in accordance to COVID-19 guidelines,” says DJ AB. “We also helped to create awareness on COVID-19 through music and also using our social media platforms which helped a lot,” he adds. 

Community engagement and empowerment have been identified as key elements to change behaviour and stop the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, as part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) Community Immunity Ambassador Program, DJ AB was involved in a collaboration  to help raise awareness. The Community Immunity Ambassador Program, a digital campaign engages people from all works of life to play a part in the fight against the virus, with more than one million people from all over the world having taken part in the program. Featured by his brother Feezy, a 24-year-old Hausa hip-hop artist, DJ AB recorded and released a soothing collaborative acoustic aimed at creating awareness about COVID-19. The artists shared their experience on how they were coping with the nationwide enforced lockdown.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for government support for Nigeria’s creative and arts community if the industry is to survive this pandemic. The industry itself also has to find other ways to survive this pandemic without relying entirely on physical performances.

The series is a creative storytelling collaboration between This is Africa and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

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