Phyno Called Me A Tribal Fool! So I Wrote About It…

As a music journalist, (and critic. Don’t forget critic.) one street proverb captures the expected reactions to my work; “Na who the thing reach, na him go talk say they share am well.” People will react to whatever you say based on whether it favours them or not. In my experience, when you praise people, they lap it up unreservedly. But when you highlight their shortcomings, or point out spaces for improvement, you become enemy number one.

Phyno called me a Tribal Fool. It’s an accusation I find very interesting. I am half-Igbo, half-Annang. My mom is from Abia State, and I have lived in Ebonyi State, have a family in old Umuahia, and schooled in Okigwe, Imo State for most of my formative years. I also speak Igbo Izugbe (General Igbo). I can’t be tribalistic to a tribe that I have equity in. No way.

I am a tribal fool because I did what I do on the regular. I find new ways to sieve the culture and amplify the parts of it that are deserving of it. Almost all the time, I lean towards the light and illuminate the successes of musicians. Artists work really hard at their craft. They toil day and night, fervently praying that their creativity finds a home in your heart. They desperately hope that their music connects and the art will feed them. For many, artistry is a ladder to wealth, and if it leads them to their desires, they become successful. When it doesn’t, they strategize again, and push on. It’s a game of repeated trials here. There are losers and winners in this game. The winners are the ones who ‘blow’. The losers don’t get to blow, and with time, pivot from the art when reality hits them that isn’t working, or if the need to earn money for survival trump their burning desire to make art. To earn from their creative medium.

Phyno is a winner. I am familiar with his story. From Enugu (O42), where he worked as a producer, singer and rapper. I danced with joy at ‘Multiply’, and have followed the journey through ‘Ghost mode’, his debut and sophomore albums and the singles after that. His story is particularly amazing because he found a way to make Igbo rap work mainstream. And he’s never looked back.

But 2018 hasn’t been his most effective year. Phyno’s music failed to make a strong dent on mainstream conversations. Did he put in the work? Yes. Did he find pockets of happiness and sunshine from his home base? Yes. But is that enough for a mainstream artist? No.

Phyno represents two things for Igbos. He is their number one rapper, and one of their pop luminaries who took elements of their culture and reimagined it for the future. Where Nigga Raw tried, Phyno surmounted and became a superstar. Also, when you look at representation in the pop space, Phyno carries the hopes and pride of the Igbo nation. Where the West can lean into Olamide as a symbol of their art, Phyno leads the East. It is this love and devotion that comes from his cultural relevance, that makes them so protective of him. It is also why he can fill up stadiums with relative ease. When he puts out a call for a concert in the East, it isn’t entertainment. It is a cultural demand for celebration. He inspires a movement that is bigger than him. He needs to be protected at all cost!

2018 hasn’t been his best year. I have seen arguments championing his purchase of a Rolls Royce. Congratulations to him. But that is strictly his business. It’s his car. Let him drive happily.

What is of concern to the public is his music. That’s what he shares with everyone. Collaborations with Wale, Kranium and Tekno have not catapulted him into the top 20 pop musicians of the year. This year, nobody can mention the hottest acts, and look the way of Phyno. He hasn’t performed at his characteristic level. The problem here isn’t that he’s lost it. It just did not work this year.

The arguments on his music state that he was imperious in the East. Thanks, but ruling the East is his bare minimum. If he farts on a record, it is expected that his home base call it the number one fart on iTunes. Musicians are generally supposed to do well in their region. The main problem here is that people think it is enough for a pop artist to limit his influence to his home states. If Phyno wanted to be a regional champion, he wouldn’t have crossed the Niger, into Lagos for ‘Ghost mode’ to happen. His ambition still remains national and continental. His expected glory is more inclusive. Kanye West getting reception in Chicago isn’t growth. If that isn’t spread around the world, he will fire his team for ‘failure’.

Here’s how growth works in music: You start out from a place. You secure that spot. You expand. You secure. You expand some more, and you secure some more. Losing distance and returning to square one isn’t growth. It’s either a sign of a loss, or an insane technical victory. Phyno held down the East. That means his art was only potent at home. It means he has more work to do, and a new strategy to devise. I want that to happen. Phyno is too talented and lit to not be playing at the highest. At this stage, his aspiration should be taking Igbo rap global. Going back home for any reason in music is romantic, but it doesn’t equate to growth and advancement.

Also, all this talk about decentralising the industry is tribal bullshit. Lagos is the hub of African music for many reasons. Everywhere along the lines of Nigeria, music is made in pockets and silos. Lagos is where it goes mainstream. Duncan Mighty, for all his voltroning about Port Harcourt, had to return back to this jungle city for access to the big leagues in 2018. Zoro, another Eastern rap luminary, is still reworking his strategy to blow in this city. You know why? Because everyone wants to perform at the highest level of their craft. Lagos is that highest level. Ask any musician around you. They pray day and night for any sunlight from here. This year, an artist from the East offered to wash my car every day if only I can give him contacts to flourish in this city. Bro, people are very desperate.

It’s easy to see why. The professionals are here. Access to international airports is here. The media is here. The biggest concerts happen here. The money is here, so also are the opportunities for growth. Lagos will continue to be our version of Hollywood for a long time. Why would anyone, not want to be here? Do you just like sufferhead that much?

Nigeria’s music industry is actually decentralised. But there’s very little money for the pop musicians that aren’t in Lagos or Abuja.

The only positive here is that Phyno’s fans want the best for him. They want him to win. That’s why they came for me. That love creates an emotion that is so powerful that you can wish death on another person because of music. Frankly, I wish I had that total surrender to anybody. But sadly, no. I have a job to do.

Phyno isn’t washed up or a bad artist. He’s just not had his best year. The good news is that 2018 is gone, and everyone’s slate is wiped clean again. Here’s to wishing that in December 2019, he would be completely beyond criticism. That his music would be more impactful and garner extended acceptance. Perhaps he will make a victory record named ‘Tribal Fool’ to celebrate his earth-shaking success.

I very much would like that.