This article was birthed on the premise that music history in Nigeria is incomplete without the contributions that women have made. So far, what we have seem like ghost stories and it’s the same old redundant information that’s available; how so-so was the first woman to do this or that, great records made by women in the past e.t.c. This write up could have gone in a similar direction, a curated list of women we believe you ought to know. However, the realization that a more intensive study of this missing bits of history is required changed the course of the article. Women deserve better than a brief summary of their achievements and when music in Nigeria is in discourse, the names of women shouldn’t be thrown into one messy category.
The history of the Nigerian music industry has been very male-centred, the contributions and even names of women nearly mythological. Women in Nigeria’s music history remain obscured by the achievements of their male counterparts and mostly come up in conversations that are partial to women, rarely in general terms. The men are idolized, made into pioneers and legends, meanwhile the women remain unacknowledged except for flashy pseudo-feminist references. In conversation and in the historical archives, one realizes how little is known about most of these women, in comparison with their male colleagues.
Breaking into the music industry, as with most industries, has always been twice as hard for women. Till date women fight to be taken seriously and given the same respect and benefits men are handed. From the Lijadu Sisters to Tiwa Savage, the narratives continue to share similarities, leaving you to wonder about the so-called progress that is being spoken of. No doubt, the music industry has more female artistes than it ever did, many of whom can boast of as many achievements, if not more, as male artistes in the industry. However, most female artistes do not last long on the scene because the demands made of them by the industry and by society are outrageously biased. The industry goes as far as pitting women against each other in a never ending comparison, often based not on their talents but their sensuality.
When one researches music history in Nigeria, there are very few mentions of the women who did music in times past. In fact, the Wikipedia article on Nigeria’s musical history goes into detail on prevalent genres, trends and artistes of the time (50s-90s), all of whom are notably male, afterwards a separate category titled “Women in Music” follows with no more than two paragraphs to summarize the place and influence of women in the industry. This is a reflection of how women singers were and still are being viewed: as complementary fillers. This flippant categorization of women who performed in varying genres and at various points in time, implies that women musicians were never given the same credit and status that their male peers were. That is to say, women who did music were not appreciated for their musical genius only because they were women in a male dominated industry. One can also say that they were viewed as a monolith and that “women in music” may as well be a music genre.
Nigerian pop music has been heavily contributed to by women like Evi-Edna Ogholi, Mandy Brown Ojugbana, Esse Agesse, Nelly Uchendu and Christy Essien Igbokwe. These women each brought distinct flavour to the Nigerian pop scene. From reggae to highlife to disco, women were heavily involved in the industry, churning out albums and singles. Their songs were nationwide hits during the 70s to 90s, several of them achieving platinum status. Ironically, only their most popular songs have, however, survived the period of their creation, and there’s still talk of missing discographies. One can almost say with certainty that the higher percentages of missing discographies are those produced by women.
Furthermore, the music produced by female artistes in Nigeria has rarely ever been given the critical attention that men’s music has received. Few look past the women to the arrangement of their music, the innovations that they came about or their stylistic input to the industry as a whole. For instance, no one talks about the evolution of the musical style of Asa or the distinct style of reggae that Evi-Edna Ogholi played. Until recently, few people knew about the politically charged music of the Lijadu Sisters who began performing Afrobeats before Fela Kuti came onto the scene. Others like Onyeka Onwenu also remain in the shadow of Fela in terms of her political activism. At the height of the popularity of rock and roll, funk, jazz and disco, Nigerian musicians began to incorporate these genres into their soundscapes. However, only the name of IK Dairo is mentioned when this innovation is spoken of. The Lijadu Sisters did it flawlessly, but it’s out of the history books.
Till now female artists have their personal lives in the spotlight, way more than their careers. A quick Google search of artistes like Ese Agesse and Salawa Abeni reveals tabloid articles pertaining to their sexuality and morality. The former has articles about her lack of a husband, while the latter has articles written about a man threatening to publish her nudes. It is not uncommon to have men take centre stage in discussions about female singers, whether or not the context is positive. Although someone like Salawa Abeni has more introspective articles written about her career due to her popularity, for most others these are few and far between. Writings and conversations exploring the lives of female artistes, in terms of their influences and inspirations, are rarities.
The music industry in Nigeria has indulged in donning its female historical figures with interesting titles. Batile Alake is regarded as the mother of Waka, Salawa Abeni, the queen of Waka; Onyeka Onwenu, the elegant stallion; Christy Essien Igbokwe, Nigeria’s lady of songs and so on. A simple minded glance might leave one with the belief that these women were being honoured with these titles. However, there is more than a hint of underlying misogyny. The titles seem more like a replacement of the singers’ personalities, a compensation for their ability to penetrate a system set up without them in mind and one that still isn’t willing to give them their proper accolades. It is perhaps why Christy Essien Igbokwe was not the first president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN), but its first female president despite spearheading the project. The so-called appreciation that leads to the bestowment of these titles have apparently not been extended to the work it takes to maintain the legacy of their music. When it comes to women’s music, the industry has been unwilling to exert itself and therefore their work rarely outlives them. Whatever impact women had on the Nigerian music scene in the past has definitely not been of lasting effect because the universal model of significance or greatness is inherently masculine.
Therefore, what is needed is a rewrite of the music history of Nigeria, one that is all encompassing, blind to gender and clear-eyed to achievements and talent. Women in Nigeria’s music history are not only relevant for the purpose of writing Women’s Day articles. Neither should we bring them up only to say that they in fact exist.