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Afrobeat brings profit, mostly for the pirates

Sam Seyi, in the black and white floral shirt, an aspiring singer-songwriter, joins other musicians in an Episcopal church in the Ajengunle slum in Lagos, Nigeria, in February. [New York Times]
Sam Seyi, in the black and white floral shirt, an aspiring singer-songwriter, joins other musicians in an Episcopal church in the Ajengunle slum in Lagos, Nigeria, in February. [New York Times]
Published Jun. 9, 2017

LAGOS, Nigeria — Forcing a smile, Seyi Shay, a music star in Nigeria, stood for hours under the hot lights of a film studio to record a video. Three changes of clothes, two wigs and multiple touch-ups later, she was still at it, singing snippets of the song over and over.

"More energy," a producer called out from behind a camera.

"How am I supposed to be happy? It's not a happy song," Shay said, sighing.

"A little more attitude," the producer said.

"Attitude?" Shay asked.

"Yes. Sassy, sexy, all that."

Across town, her painstaking efforts to build a following over the years were paying off — for someone else.

At a sewer-side market, dozens of customers lined up with their smartphones and flash drives, eagerly handing over cash to pirates with laptops to load up on Shay's songs. She earned nothing from the sales.

"Out here, nobody cares about the rules," Shay said. "Everything is kind of cowboy."

Artists worldwide battle illegal sales of their work. But Nigeria's piracy problem is so ingrained that music thieves worry about rip-offs of their rip-offs, slapping warning labels on pirated CDs to insist that "lending is not allowed."

In Lagos, Africa's biggest city, legitimate music stores are rare, streaming services haven't caught on and fans are flocking to markets like Computer Village, with its rows of yellow umbrellas shading young men selling illegal downloads. Throughout the city, thousands of pirated CDs are churned out daily, and some artists even pay to appear on them, hoping the exposure will be worth it.

But now, members of the country's music industry are trying to put a stop to all the pilfering, hoping they can finally turn the growing popularity of Nigerian music to their advantage.

Nigerian music — Afrobeat in particular — is having a moment. It blares in hotel lobbies, airport lounges, nightclubs and the dozens of bedroom recording studios where young people dream of stardom in this clogged, overheated city.

While many countries have courts or jurists focused on intellectual property cases, artists in Nigeria have only in recent years begun to pursue copyright protection. They complain that laws to protect them are so seldom invoked that some judges don't even know they exist.

Recording artists are pressing cellphone companies for more money to use their songs, the government recently announced a push to protect intellectual property, and the copyright commission created an institute to train musicians, and judges, about artists' rights.

"We're trying to change people's perception about the use of music," said Chinedu Chukwuji, chief executive of the Copyright Society of Nigeria. "Music is everywhere, but they don't know it's proprietary."

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Industry executives are trying to use Nigeria's economic malaise as a rallying cry, arguing that legitimate sales not only benefit musicians, but also could help an economy that has plunged into recession amid low oil prices.

"We're no longer getting revenue from oil, so we're arguing that content is the new crude," said Aibee Abidoye, general manager at Chocolate City Group and 5ive Music, which seeks royalties on behalf of three Lagos-based record labels.

• • •

The appetite for Nigerian music is clear. International labels like Sony Music Entertainment are setting up shop in Lagos. Musicians like Shay, who spent much of her childhood in Britain, are being lured back.

Last year, Wizkid, one of Nigeria's most popular artists, reached the top of the U.S. singles chart for an Afrobeat collaboration with the Canadian rapper Drake. They released another track this year.

But for many artists, the more popular they become, the more their music is stolen. Bootlegged Nigerian music is stacked alongside the thousands of other counterfeit CDs at the Alaba International Market in Lagos.

"There isn't exactly a proper structure for us to make money," said Falz, a Nigerian rapper and songwriter.

Apple Music offers streaming in Nigeria, but the service has been plagued with problems because of the nation's currency crisis. Even concerts, profitable for artists anywhere, are being pared back here as corporate sponsors feel the pinch of the souring economy.

In Nigeria, musicians have rarely sought royalty payments. Artists complain that even the nation's Nollywood film industry routinely uses songs in movies without permission or payment.

"When you create your content and put it out, it's scattered," said Harrysong, a Nigerian singer known for his hit, "Mandela."

The Copyright Society of Nigeria has filed lawsuits, staged protests, hosted conferences and handed out fliers to businesses explaining copyright law. Its leader, Chukwuji, said the group was battling the nation's major mobile phone company, MTN, which pays artists to use snippets of their songs.

Mobile phone use in Nigeria has exploded in recent years, and ringback tunes — the few bars of music paid for by customers that play while a call is being connected — are hugely popular. As a result, MTN, with its headquarters in Lagos, has become one of the biggest sources of revenue for Nigerian artists. In fact, Nigerian ringback tunes like Harrysong's "Mandela" are more popular than songs by Snoop Dogg or other U.S. artists, according to MTN.

"Music has always been part of the fabric of Lagos. What has changed is the ability to monetize it," said Richard Iweanoge, general manager of consumer marketing at MTN, considered the largest distributor of online music in Nigeria. "It's a privilege for us as a Nigerian company to support local artists."

But the copyright society has accused MTN of not giving artists a fair cut from the sales. MTN officials acknowledged that the company recently renegotiated ringback deals to better favor the artists.

"Things change," Iweanoge said. "It's always in our interest to make sure the artist gets a fair share."

• • •

Plenty of musicians in Lagos are still willing to sacrifice money to get noticed. Across a polluted channel from the Lagos mainland, past a sugar refinery belching smoke, is Snake Island, a serpent-shaped piece of land dotted by tilting tin huts.

Inside one of them, Sam Seyi, 24, was dreaming of stardom, sitting on a bed with Winnie the Pooh sheets as he sang into a microphone. Friends filed into his generator-powered bedroom studio as babies screamed and chickens clucked just outside the open window.

"You've got to believe in yourself," he sang, eyes closed and arms pumping. "This is my time to make it."

Seyi, whose stage name is SamSeyi Yango, has paid music blogs to feature his songs, and spent $16 this year to be allowed onstage to perform.

"I'm paying my dues," he said. "You can't expect them to pay you a million dollars when you're not a superstar."

On Lagos' affluent Victoria Island, famous artists were getting ready to perform at the luxury Eko Hotel. Some of Nigeria's biggest music stars gathered in the green room: Harrysong, Falz, Lil Kesh, Vector and the hip-hop duo Skuki.

None of them were being paid, even though the audience included hundreds of paying fans. The musicians agreed to perform for free, hoping to be exposed to a new market.

Upstairs in a hotel room, a makeup artist was layering foundation on Shay. She sneezed inside a tiny cloud of powdered makeup.

Even Shay has paid various music blogs to be heard. She once allowed her song to be used for free as the soundtrack for a popular video game.

But now fans fawn over Shay when she walks into a nightclub. She lives in an apartment in a gated community, and a driver ferries her around.

Her entourage includes a personal assistant and a wig stylist. She recently flew to South Africa for performances and has scored an endorsement deal with a Chinese telecom company. Her face has been on Pepsi billboards in Lagos. Not long ago, she was signed to the British-American label Island Records.

Trying to relax at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Lagos after a recent show, Shay was sipping a margarita when a bartender interrupted repeatedly to ask how his music could get noticed. She told him to email her a demo.

"You have to put in the work," she advised. "Nobody is going to do it for you."