[Music Review] Reading BrymO’s Lagosian fiction in Merchants, Dealers & Slaves Serubiri Moses Merchants, Dealers & Slaves evokes the confident move of the artist defining their own journey as a songwriter and performer. This is what one gathers even without knowing who BrymO is, indeed, even prior to their knowledge of Naija pop. In simpler terms, Merchants, Dealers & Slaves presents a vulnerability for the singer, exposing their voice and its limitations, on minimally produced tracks. As a fervent listener of Neo Soul, I recognize this stripped back approach of albums such as Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, India Arie’s Acoustic Soul, or even Des’ree’s Supernatural. However, while those albums’ vulnerability comes from self-empowerment lyrics, Merchants, Dealers & Slaves becomes a work of protest when exposing the narratives of destitution involving the historical ‘chief’ and ‘thief’, bringing up the social power struggles in Lagos history.
Born Olawale Ashimi, the singer was once a hook-master, or at least this is what he claims in interviews, while working on the Nigerian music label Chocolate City, home to some of Nigeria’s biggest music acts like M.I. and Ice Prince. While there he penned and performed the hook on Ice Prince’s massive hit ‘Oleku’ among others. For the listener of Hip-hop, Naija Pop, or even Afro-pop, his voice was refreshing as it borrowed and emphatically used sounds out of traditional Yoruba performance. And while the rappers flowed in an American English, BrymO stood apart on the 30 second hooks because he added another dimension of storytelling to the songs.
Another reading of Merchants, Dealers & Slaves involves BrymO’s break from the Chocolate City music label. For lack of a better term, this event has turned into a conspiracy in the media, and amongst die hard Chocolate City fans. A public case of disloyalty has been leveled against BrymO, who has numerously denied the charge, calling these rumors. When 360Nobs.com asked him about legal battles with Chocolate City and their impact on his career, he said “they are all rumors. I have not received any notice of any legal proceeding whatsoever from chocolate city,”1 before contradicting himself to say, “however the impact on my career is immense and I have never been in this place before.”
These words, while appearing as the generic celebrity interview response, describe the desolate nature of the Merchants, Dealers & Slaves album, which critics have called dark. Its ambiguous wandering creates an unusual stillness, moments guided only by his higher pitched baritone. The gentle and at times playful production by Mikky Me supports the artist’s effort in such cases. BrymO’s abstract impressionism paints pictures of struggle within Lagos. Neither completely narrative, nor completely poetic, the album leaves a lot to the imagination of the listener, presenting characters who come and go as they please: at times electrifying on “Grand Pa” and then equally disconcerting on “Down”.
But while Merchants, Dealers & Slaves is the coming of age album for BrymO, articulating his journey from Okokomaiko to the front lines of Naija Pop, the album is equally an impressionistic take on the historical injustices in Lagos. I ponder and question BrymO’s fiction of Lagos. The artist’s impressionist picture reminds of the New Yorker’s report on Lagos called “The Megacity”2 where writer George Packer unravelled the chaos by drawing Dickensian characters out of a prostitute, an immigrant, and a struggling university graduate. His many observations were shocking such as “All of Lagos seems to be burning,” and “Many residents sleep outdoors” and the more shocking, “Immigrants come to Lagos with the thinnest margin of support, dependent on a local relative or contact whose assistance usually lasts less than twenty-four hours.” These observations were not contextualized in Dickens until I read another article 3 by the author published years later in the Lapham Quarterly, when he confessed that “in Nigeria … I would experience a sense of deja vu that took me out of my own life and time. It felt as if I were meeting a character out of the novels of the late-nineteenth century… something by George Gissing or Thomas Hardy.” He noted that these novels were trying to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron or industrial city, written as a work of activism on the decaying of the standard of living, a pretext of humanism.
But what does humanism mean for Lagos now, a city whose historical slavery, politics and social structures have constantly been reborn and transanimated over centuries? Prior to the Portuguese name, the city was called Eko. It was founded by an Oba of Benin who gave it its first ruler; its cultural leaders since then have been called “Oba of Lagos” 4. However, Lagos island was divided in two during the British colonial era: one half was a planned part of the city in the 1950s tailored-for-colony style of tropical modernism, and is now populated by elite Nigerians; another half was a largely unplanned part occupied by mostly immigrants and non-elite Lagosians. On Merchants, Dealers & Slaves, BrymO sings about the elite Nigerian partygoers as well as the abokis on the corners of downtown Lagos where innovative structures made by Lagosians flourish; streets are lined by cars in informal parking lots, okada drives ride past downtown streets of smaller postcolonial period flats— some amateur derivatives of colonial-era tropical modernism— while electric wires fly overhead in flux as clothes hang over balconies and children play freely on the sidewalks.
Another reading of Merchants, Dealers & Slaves is in the album’s abstract narrative on Lagos. Through the album’s lyrics, it is clear that the songwriter derives both pleasure and pain from Lagos, as though it were a dangerous muse. It is through this interplay between pleasure, love, pain, and memory that Merchants, Dealers & Slaves becomes a cohesive comment on Lagos. Almost incidentally, the artist paints a picture of a prisoner of Lagos in the line: “If you ain’t got freedom, you can’t give / If you ain’t got love, you can’t receive.” Because he goes on, in the chorus of the song, to lament “merchants! … dealers! … and slaves!” it becomes too literal a description for the city that was once a major port for the Atlantic ocean’s slave trade, and later a center for returnees who were freed slaves after the Abolition. This song, while a bookend for the album, is the album’s ultimate reincarnation into the kind of activism that outlines the evils of social oppression, in the same way Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” or Bob Marley’s “War” did in 1976.
On his previous album, Son of a Kapenta (2012), BrymO told the story of his beginnings in Okokomaiko in Ojo, Lagos state. His revelation of being born to a carpenter in the outskirts of Lagos, was probably the first of a series of signs that he would strike out on his own. He made the comment during an interview5 with Punch Nigeria that he was ashamed of his background, but thank God today he is proud of his parents, adding, “I’m proud of Okokomaiko, the neighborhood where I grew up.” These lines could isolate anyone who has gained stardom in Nigeria’s pop industry that thrives on the appearances and performance of Nigerian elitism. This album would also begin his transformation from a hook master into a music activist, much more engaged with speaking for the oppressed in Lagos.
On Merchants, Dealers & Slaves, the artist situates his commentary in a series of characters who moan the state of Lagos. “Money” starts with a certain swagger, “I dey think about money, I dey think about my purse.” Then, hanging out intoxicated at elite Nigerian parties: “If you like to spend money, if you like to dine and party, let the liquor drown the paint tonight.” This particular song revealed the artist’s own dissatisfaction with the high-art living of Naija’s pop kings and queens. The song says this group of elites are not only isolated but are also concealing a deeper pain. This song isolates BrymO from his own stardom and status as a Nigerian nouveau riche. He is disenchanted with the money and the fame, and longs for his old grandpapa and the Eko he used to dream of when still a young man in Okokomaiko.
I’m of the view that these are not only money matters, but that they touch upon the spiritual. Beyond music, politics, booze and money is a deeper spiritual struggle that Ugandan writer David Kaiza elaborates 6 as “a crisis of self-definition spanning a century in which the cosmological roof over our heads has collapsed.” The artist reflects on similar spiritual challenges in Lagos on his song “Down”, which speaks to downtown Lagos. Its opening, “Something e dey go ’round town,” shows fear and worry over the unknown. Then he continues with more mythical characters called “Thief” and “Chief”. The power struggles between the two are explicitly fought on the bodies of their wives and daughters: “the Chief e dey sleep with the Thief wife; Aboki for corner e dey sleep with the Chief wife; The Neighbor Daughter carry belle for the Thief Child. Rere run … o run …” It is a complex web of relations that BrymO solves with the intervention of clergy, sheikh and native doctor, who each pray, make Sadaka for Allah, pour blood for the spirit; but in vain, “dem dey wait on the Lord faaa …”
These challenges occur regardless of the infrastructural, historical or political setbacks of Lagos. BrymO’s fiction poses questions about the deeply spiritual problems for that person that cannot be placed in neat statistics like the Lagos traffic jam or the number of shacks floating in Makoko on the Lagos lagoon. A Yoruba folk song, and the album’s highlight, “Se Bo’timo” addresses this unresolved conflict of the self, giving the slow-moving tortoise, which keeps moving regardless of what society thinks of it, as moral. BrymO sings the song as a salve to the hopelessness in “Down”. He believes that the person should not give up on their own ability to rise above the challenges of power, hierarchy, and history that are forever re-activated, reborn and transanimated in Lagos. The deafening words that close the album, “We have nothing to lose,” testify to the lives of those abokis, chiefs, thieves, Titilopes, and elite party-going pop stars in Lagos. However, even after enjoying this album in loud burping and belly rubbing, one must ask the question: does BrymO’s fiction of Lagos capture what the city feels like, or rather does it provoke a Dickensian 19th century image of a failing industrial city?
1) Wana George, “Brymo talks about ‘Merchants, Dealers and Slaves’, Chocolate City Rumors in New Interview” (25-10-2013) http://www.360nobs.com/2013/10/brymo-talks-about-merchant-dealers-slaves-chocolate-city-rumors-in-new-interview/ [Retrieved 08-03-14]
2) George Packer, “The Megacity” (13-11-2006) http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/11/13/061113fa_fact_packer [Retrieved 13-03-14]
3) George Packer, “Dickens in Lagos” (24-09-2010) http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/essays/dickens-in-lagos.php?page=all [Retrieved 13-03-14]
4) Admin, “The Origin of Eko (Lagos)” http://www.edo-nation.net/eko.htm [Retrieved 13-03-14]
5) Kemi Lawal, “I’m not a hook master – Brymo” (2-12-12) http://www.punchng.com/spice/culture/im-no-longer-a-hook-master-brymo/ [Retrieved 13-04-14]
6) Start, “David Kaiza on Ugandan arts: Substance or airy pursuits?” (4-08-2012) http://startjournal.org/2012/08/david-kaiza-on-ugandan-arts-substance-or-airy-pursuits/ [Retrieved 13-04-14]