100 years of pop music in Nigeria: what shaped four eras

The global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early months of 2020 shut down nearly all physical and social human activities. For musical practice this meant near death. Performing music is, after all, one of the oldest forms of social human engagement.

In Nigeria, the shutdown of concerts and public music performances was swift. Not even the Nigerian–Biafran War of 1967 to 1970 could shut down all of Nigeria. In fact, popular music activities boomed in Lagos as bombs rained on Biafra.

The pandemic was a watershed moment and offers a compelling reason to trace the trajectory and evolution of popular music in Nigeria 100 years ago since the birth of the modern state.

In a study I surveyed the various political, economic and social events, trends and choices that characterised the 98 years between 1922 and 2020, giving consideration to how they shaped popular music practices and experiences in and of Nigeria.

Nigeria became a modern state in 1914 when British colonial powers amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates into one unit. A music recording in London in 1922 by Rev Josiah Ransome-Kuti (grandfather of music icon Fela Kuti) is regarded as the first formal effort at commercialising and “popularising” Nigerian music.

From that beginning, four periods emerged from the study: I called them the foggy years, the interactive-budding period, the liberal period and the mononationalist period.

1922–1944: juju and palm-wine music

For the first 22 years there was a foggy or unclear direction in the emergence of popular music practices in urban Nigeria. In this short time, two world wars and internal economic and sociopolitical tensions interfered with and delayed the growth of popular music. They limited social life among the youth, calling young men to enrol into the West African Frontier Force that fought for Britain.

These years witnessed early recordings by musician Domingo Justus and political activist Ladipo Solanke. The early recorded music was sung in the style of a hymn in a Yoruba church, accompanied by plucked string instruments like the banjo.


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