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AFROBEATS INTELLIGENCE: Basketmouth’s Aligning Stars

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AFROBEATS INTELLIGENCE: Basketmouth's Aligning Stars

Basketmouth is filled with stories. The tales never cease, coming out at every stop, every conversation, every chance to stand across from a person or a crowd and deliver bits of imagery. Life and effort have made him a famed journeyman, spreading his stories across space, time and generations. All our earliest memories of Basketmouth evoke nostalgia; shaggy-haired, mic in hand, with fiery eyes that hold a spark in them whether in comic performance or interviews. Each appearance was an address, a pursuit of interaction, a dance of humor where spirits get lifted, buoyed by laughter in response to each word from his mouth.

Basketmouth’s legend is already pop culture history. A member of Nigeria’s creative elite, he’s distinguished in inventiveness, fluidly alchemising his many talents into multiple businesses. Being a comic in Nigeria is a gritty, slow grind to the top. It’s never easy to make a Nigerian laugh. In a country riddled with many ills, extracting a smile is a chore. Eliciting laughter usually came at a hard price, especially in the pre-internet age, when mass amplification wasn’t democratized. A time when you had to get it out of the mud, building your fame, clout and respect across a self-created circuit of shows and appearances. Basketmouth thrived in that grind. And when smartphones and fiber cables opened the world to us, he took off: there’s a Basketmouth creation on every digital platform. A piece of him, crafted through multiple extensions of storytelling, to provide a product. On TV, My Flatmates already has us eating out of his hand. His skits and shows populate YouTube. And on video-streaming Showmax, he is sitting pretty with streams from his series Ghana Jollof.

Basketmouth’s Yabasi album marked one of the silver linings of a tough pandemic year. 2020’s early apprehension about a strange illness decimating the world gave way to lonesome lockdowns and drastic changes across the world we live in. The new normal, the mandates, and reduced freedoms and human interactions did hurt. But it also clicked the refresh button on Nigerian music. As things slowed down and the world yearned for peace, a new demand emerged for a different type of sound, ushering in a flood of melody and introspective songwriting. Basketmouth’s music walked through that gate. He’s reinventing himself again, calling to Nigeria for an extension of our social contract and pushing music as his latest product.

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For Basketmouth, this new chapter isn’t a random stab at his luck. Or worse, a mindless cash grab for a piece of “Afrobeats to the world.” Music is his first love. Born into poverty in Lagos as Bright Okpocha, the 42-year-old has been in character since the ’90s, when he abandoned a struggling career in music for comedy and acting. He first discovered his skill in drumming in 1991, before taking up rapping in 1994. By the next year, he was already leading a group, a seven-member rap collective named Da Psychophats. The group didn’t find a path to the money. Their in-group harmony was off, and no material made its way to the public. After many failed attempts to fly in music, comedy came to him as a by-product when he attacked a disapproving University crowd after struggling through a set. “One of the craziest nights of my life. For like 30 minutes, I was with these guys, yabbing everybody. So I was insulting the whole school and I won,” he told me last year, laughing. “I quarrelled with the whole auditorium that day. It was in 1998, I think. After that point, my friend Eno Ofugara was like, ‘Bright, don’t do rap music for now. Do comedy. That’s your strength.’ I said yes, I’d do it for now. But music, man. Then you know how it is now—I got into comedy and I got stuck.”

Yabasi, 2020’s best-album forerunner, was Basketmouth’s homecoming. He’s gone around the world, met a lot of people and done a lot of things. But music never truly leaves your soul. Returning as an A&R was perfect timing. In the past five years we have witnessed the expansion and redefinition of what it means to be a Nigerian musician. Singing a song and owning it used to be a constant bundle. These days, it’s all up in the air. You can sing a song and not take it home. Ownership is mostly defined by whose name appears on the final files uploaded to the DSPs and a rather spleet sheet. And what affords you the privilege doesn’t have to be your talent in vocalizing. You can be the choirmaster. Create a theme, work your butt off to assemble your cast of artists and producers. Pay for everything. Split royalty points around the room and own the final product.

Yabasi stunned the country. Who knew this comic had it in him? Who knew he could find a way to bring out the best of producer Duktor Sett? Who knew he could link stories with melody to build multiple potent songs that would make an attack on our playlists? Not me. Not you, either. But Basketmouth did it, by deep A&Ring and curation. First he created a comedy show called Papa Benji, pumped it full of stories drawn from his childhood, and sold it to TV and brands. Yabasi drew life from the stories on there and became a thing.

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See how successful it was: in October last year, Basketmouth appeared in the news, shaking hands with EMPIRE’s top man Ghazi, smiling with contracts in front of him. He’s snagged a distribution deal, the kind you give to singers and rappers to make music and win at their careers. This one’s for a comic who got into music and A&Red a project. He’s now got an advance, and advance support for his next one. It’s genius.

Horoscopes, the product of that deal, comes loaded with extra marketing support. Although he scarcely makes the connection in official communications, the album also serves as a soundtrack for a feature length film (Scorpio), planned for release in 2022. Horoscopes takes a portion of the movie, blows up all the emotions within it, and examines them via music. Much like its predecessor, the supporting cast of collaborators on Horoscopes is intergenerational. Basketmouth spreads his wings far, uniting extreme clusters of artists for effect. Check out the posse cut “Assembly of Gods.” It’s a long, winding, breezy outburst of reflection and braggadocio by the Cavemen, Falz, Dremo, Illbliss, Flavour. Where did we get this community creativity on a mainstream-facing record?

Wande Coal kept Basketmouth waiting for two years with a beat burning on his hard drive. But one day a little bird snitched on Wande’s visit to Aristokrat Records. After speeding there and stating his case, Horoscopes scored a booster on “Listen,” a free-flow record about self-appreciation. Another collaborator, BNXN (previously named Buju), listened to the offered beat once, then came up with a hook in Basketmouth’s car after they agreed to collaborate. 2baba personally asked for a Blaqbonez verse on “Trouble.”

Horoscopes isn’t put together like a soulless radio playlist; neither does it present as a desperate data dump of records. While Highlife stood as the underlying sound culture in Yabasi, this new album is an enjoyable punctuation of styles and sounds. To provide listeners with a consistent cadence, Basketmouth says he craves a relative sameness of sound in his projects. But his actions show different, with every record existing in adjacent genres and fusions. “I was trying to create a sound that is different from the last one, but still obeys the theme,” Basketmouth told a crowd at his cozy album-listening party in early February. The songs are new. But beyond the excellence of the music, what binds them are the story lines. Everyone Basketmouth talked to, he gave them a guiding story and set them out to pasture. Sometimes these stories are peculiar. Simi, M.I Abaga and Johnny Drille were told to imagine a soundtrack for a married guy whose wife still harbors feelings for her incarcerated ex. Peruzzi was approached in Warri during a gig and offered a happy scene from Scorpio. His response, “Celowi,” a Latino-influenced call for dancing, uplifts the entire affair. Efya and Oxlade cry about the hustle, and Kwabena Kwabena leaves his village in search of better living conditions.

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You could argue that Basketmouth is not solely an A&R (his rap vocals close the album), but a hybrid performer embodying the duties of a savvy music exec. It’s unprecedented for Nigerian music, and for him. The entire industry is up in the air, as Afrobeats broadens and dials up the push for global dominance. The energy in Lagos says you can be anything, do anything, and land on your feet in music. Basketmouth’s ambitions might appear new to us, but there’s a feeling that the immediate future will have more personalities try their hands at interpreting music.

Perhaps the biggest winner here is Nollywood. While Yabasi soundtracked a TV show, Horoscopes is tied to the helm of a feature film. Our local film industry is undergoing an upheaval as more streaming services open up the market via seamless content distribution. With a foot in Afrobeats and another in Nollywood, it’s people like Basketmouth who sit at the intersection of art, that hold the key to finding common ground. By aligning the stars and different worlds on Horoscopes, Basketmouth does the same for himself. Look to the sky: his stars are aligning too!

AUTHOR: Joey Akan

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