Monthly Archives: August 2011

Flirting with the dark


On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

Pp 296

Published by Vintage (2010)

Paperback £7.99

If there is one adjective to describe Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, it would be ‘coquettish’. The book flirts around the dark subject of human trafficking and prostitution, and yet manages to remain remarkably decorous.

The lives of four young African girls trafficked to Belgium for prostitution are interminably entwined in this novel that examines the situations and ambitions that lead them to the booths on the Vingerlingstraat where they attempt to make the most of the “trump card that God had wedged between their legs”.

On Black Sisters’ Street is a peculiar book, misleading in its honesty; therefore, one never quite appreciates the subtle significance of events that begin the book until a second read. And it is not that Unigwe has not given her readers a reason to: She hints early on at the death of her main character but her cavalier mention of it, belies the fact.

All that Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce have in common is their African origin, and the man, Dele who is the point that connects them. All four bear their different pasts stoically until the need for communal ties in the desperate situation that they have resignedly convinced themselves to be “the good life” forces them out of the pact of silence they have sworn with their past.

Sisi is a university graduate, who haunted by failure- “an ineluctable destiny that she had contracted from her parents”- sought the fortune that had been prophesied at her birth. Efe, driven under by her mother’s death, her father’s alcohol addiction and an unwanted pregnancy thinks tacit agreement to Dele’s proposition is the only way back to life. Ama is angry at the world, bearing wounds sustained from childhood rape experiences; and employing a calculated cruelty as her shield. Joyce is the ungrateful survivor of a war that wipes out her family, resigned to whatever else life hurls her way.

The house on the Zwartezusterstraat – filled with the noise of Ama’s quarrelsome voice, Efe’s highlife music and Joyce’s relentless swish swish – is claustrophobic; made stuffy with the stench of mildewed dreams. Readers are, like the girls, hardly let out of the narrow door with the taped-over cat flap unless it is to return down memory lane, to visit with men in dingy hotel rooms and bar room toilets; or to a chance encounter with ill-advised love.

Flitting deftly between the present and the past, On Black Sister’s Street reads like a collection of tales, alighting briefly on subjects such as war, poverty, child abuse and cultural isolation while it tells of the entrapment, sullied self-worth, and the danger of un-extinguished hope borne by tens of thousands of African (especially Nigerian) prostitutes in Europe held at the mercy of pimps and public systems that care only for their own.

This novel is one of the recent myriad attempts by African authors to tell their own stories in a world made one-dimensional by the limits of the media in the developing world. It is not entirely devoid of hope either as the fate of its four protagonists affirms the time worn philosophy that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel.

First published in Vulture Magazine, May 2011

‘The Initiation’ by Emily: A novel excerpt


“The sun is out with a vengeance today, isn’t it? We should do something fun.” I said to my classmate, Anita. We had just come out of Psychology class and were sitting, legs sprawled out on the grass, soaking up the sun.

“What do you have in mind” she asked, the corners of her mouth turning up.

“Hmmm…” I drawled, looking around, gosh, there really was nothing to do.

“You know what yeah? Why don’t we ditch this joint and look for some excitement?” Anita volunteered.

“What do you have in mind?,” I urged.

“Well, I met a couple of guys yesterday like, and they were cruising in Bentleys, we can find out if they’re free to hang out”

“Anita! How old are these guys” knowing my friend they could range anywhere between 10 and 70 years old. She really wasn’t picky.

“Come on, don’t be a prude, you’re bored right?”

“Yeah but…”

“Relax sug, you don’t have to do nothing if you don’t want to, that’s your prerogative, I just want to have some fun that’s all, I thought you wanted the same thing. Jeez, you virgins piss me off, I’m not asking you to get with any of them and I would advise you not to. You have to learn to use what you have to get what you want without having to put out, there’s a name for girls that put out for profit.” She said in her soft and sugary voice, she knew how to make people do what she wanted with that voice; oh how I wish I knew how to do that.

“What is it that I have, and what is it that I’m looking to get.” I asked arms akimbo. She smiled at me playfully and then she adjusted her weight on the grass to face me fully. Reaching over, she ran her both her hands slowly down my body, from my full breasts to my hips. I felt a slight shiver but she stopped just as suddenly as she had started. I didn’t know how to react, and before I opened my mouth I realised she was already speaking.

“Girl, you know what you have; it drives all the boys crazy, we just need to figure out what it is that you want.”

What did I want? It’s not that I didn’t know what I wanted, but if you asked an average person that question you would most likely get an answer based on where that person is at that point in life. For example is you asked a really poor child how much she wanted, she would probably say £10 based on the fact that it would be a huge sum of money to her at that time. When asked what I wanted, I could only think about all the things that I didn’t have; the designer shoes, bags and dresses and a car. Now was I willing to do anything for all those things…that was another question. See the thing is when you’ve lived with horror for a while, your mind starts to adjust to it and you no longer take it for what it is. I had been spending a lot of time in an environment where girls went out with older, married men or young scrupulous men, who in turn took ‘care’ of them.

I remember the first time I was witness to one of such liaison.

It was end of term holidays, I was fifteen and had never really been exposed to boys- disregarding my first crush, not like I was ever exposed to Chuck, and the boys I played hide and seek with when I was about 7 where we fondled in the cupboards while pretending to be hiding, or playing mummy and daddy and fondling under the covers when all our ‘kids’ had gone to bed, ah fun times, but I digress. The point is that I had never had a relationship with a boy. The only male advances I can remember having are the rude cat calls from builders or young stupid boys whose main intent is to annoy and embarrass.

One of my oldest friends, Tobi, had come to stay with me for the weekend. We had been friends since we were toddlers. We had lived on the same street in Surulere, a small part of Lagos Mainland, before my family moved and we still kept in touch. Her parents are quite old and live in the village; they had sent her to Lagos so that she could get an education. She lived with an Aunt and her family and wasn’t very free in the house so our sleepovers always took place in my house. My parents’ house was in Victoria Garden City, which is one of the posh areas in Lagos. Tobi was going to visit one of her ‘Uncles’ and she had been going on about how loaded he was and the things he bought her.  For lack of anything better to do I decided to go with her, I wanted to see the large house he lived in with the swimming pool and the flashy cars. Although my parents were okay financially, they weren’t stinking rich and they spent money sensibly. So while I lived in a nice house, in a posh area I was curious to see how really rich people lived.

Her uncle lived in Parkview so I borrowed my mom’s Mercedes C-class and we drove down to his place. The house looked nice on the outside but nothing prepared me for the opulence inside. It was pure luxury form the moment we drove through the automatic gates. The house had a winding driveway and the entrance had imposing pillars. There was a huge fountain in the centre of the grounds and it actually worked…I know this sounds silly but if you’ve lived in Nigeria long enough you wouldn’t really be surprised if things; even necessary things, didn’t work. In the fountain was a sculpture of a voluptuous maiden in all her naked glory with a calabash over her shoulder from which water spewed forth, mixing with the pool by her feet.

I took in my surrounding and was glad I had come. We rang the bell and the door was answered immediately by a young man in a uniform.

“Who you come to see?” he asked rudely in broken English, on seeing two young girls at the door.

“My friend, tell your Oga that Tobi is here and stop being a nuisance.” My friend answered, equally as rude.

The man hissed, and shut the door in our faces.

“Isn’t your uncle expecting you?” I asked, a little shocked that a servant would speak to his master’s relation in such a manner.

“He is, but these servants like to take liberties whenever they can. I’ll be reporting his insolence to my uncle. This is unacceptable behaviour” she fumed.

A few minutes later the door opened and I had to do a double-take, the same man had opened the door but his demeanour was so altered that it would have been easy to believe it was someone else.

“Ha, Aunty Tobi,” he greeted happily “I no know say na you now. Abeg no vex, welcome. Oga say make you come upstairs. Oga don dey wait for you tey.” He bowed and stepped aside to let us in.

“Monkey” mumbled Tobi as we sauntered into the house.

The interior of the house literally took my breath away.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “This place is lush.”

“Didn’t I tell you” Tobi smiled proudly.

“Yeah you did, but wow!” I spurn round slowly with my mouth open.

“Wait till you see the rest of the house” She took hold of my hand and walked toward the curved staircase.

“Where are we going?” I asked, curious.

“To look for John”

“Who? Your uncle”

“Yes, whatever”

“What do you mean ‘whatever’?”

“Wake up sweetie; he’s not actually my uncle.” she said with a slight grin

“But you said…”

“I know what I said” She interrupted. We stopped walking and she gave me a stern look. “Did you really believe an uncle would give me as much money as I get from John, or the clothes?”

“Yes, I did, there’s nothing…”

“Oh please spare me, there’s nothing like a free lunch. Something always goes for something; remember that, if that is the only thing you ever remember. I have uncles that have sexually harassed me and not even give me one kobo when I go to them for school fees. Their wives turn me into a house girl, doing menial tasks and slaving away just to get a roof over my head and food to eat.”

I gasped and pulled her into my arms.

“Oh Toby,” I groaned “why didn’t you tell me things were so bad?” She pushed me away.

“Because they’re not bad anymore, now I have John”

I nodded mutely. “So is John like your boyfriend?” I don’t know what was so funny about my question but she burst out laughing like she had never heard anything so ridiculous.

“Boyfriend! Ha! He’s married with four kids. His family is based in the UK. Don’t worry, he’s not my boyfriend.”

“So what exactly is this Tobi” I was now really troubled. “Are you a prostitute?” I asked in a low voice, a little fearful of her response, but she just laughed at me.

“Really, you crack me up, I’m not a prostitute. It’s a little complicated, that’s all. I know John; I wouldn’t just go around sleeping with men I don’t know. But I’m more of a freelancer, if you get my meaning”

“Isn’t that just another word for ‘prosy’?”

“Babe, you’re really beginning to annoy me, if I knew you were going to be like this, I wouldn’t have brought you here. I just thought you needed some way of making money. You keep wearing your cheap clothes from Yaba and Tejuosho and it embarrasses me.” She said raising an eyebrow

I was silent for a while not sure of what to say. I felt insulted and shameful at the same time. It was true that I wasn’t the best dressed girl in class but I wasn’t the worst either. And while I had coveted some of her Gucci bags and lovely clothes, I had never thought I seemed desperate for nice things. I was satisfied with everything that I had.

“Tobi, I don’t know what to say, I guess thanks for your concern, I’m really sorry if I embarrass you” I said with a pained expression, “but I can’t condone what you’re doing. Everything about it is degrading to women all over the world. How can you let some fat, ugly man use you just to get money and beautiful things, don’t you think you’re worth much more than that? What is the point of all your education?”

Tobi’s eyes were wide with constrained fury, I could see that I had hit a nerve, but I wasn’t backing down.

“Listen, this is neither the time nor place…”

“Yes, I agree. I’m going home. See you later.” I said hurriedly turning back down the stairs.

Okay come on, don’t do this. Just wait for me, alright? We’ll talk about this later, I promise.” Said Toby changing tack. “I’m sorry I brought you along under a false pretence.”

I thought about this for a second, on one hand I was furious and disgusted, on the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if anything happened to Tobi.

“Okay, I’ll stay” I said finally and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thanks babe”

“But only to make sure you’re safe.”

“Cool, come on.” She took hold of my hand and we walked together up the lovely staircase, past a window with the loveliest vase of flowers.  I stopped for a second to inhale the flowers and they were fresh. Wow, I wondered if they changed the flowers every day. We came off the stairs and into a large sitting room area.

“Just wait here” Tobi said to me, pushing me in the direction of a plush armchair, “I’ll be right back”.

This is where things got a little interesting.

I sat down to wait for Tobi. Reaching into my bag I pulled out a Joan Collins novel and proceeded to while away time.

After 10 minutes of waiting, absorbed as I was in my book, I was beginning to toy with the idea of going to look for my friend. She did say she would be right back. How dare her leave me here on my own in this strange house. Just as I was debating whether to leave or go in search of Tobi I heard movement behind me.

“You idiot, you said you would be right back. “I said not looking up from my book.

“Not very nice, are you?” the reply was in a smooth male American accent

I turned around sharply and was horrified to see a tall dark-skinned man. He was well-dressed and must have been in his early thirties.

“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you” he said with a wide grin, extending his hand to me, he introduced himself as Alex. He isn’t bad looking, I thought to myself.

“So I take it you’re Tobi’s friend”

“Yes, but I don’t think that will stop me from killing her” He laughed heartily.

“You don’t like being left on your own then, I actually prefer my own company so I don’t know what you’re upset about” he said coming round to perch on the arm of my chair. In another situation, or may be with someone else, I would have felt a little uncomfortable but there was just something easy about him.

“Yeah, but not left alone in someone else’s house. Who knows what might be lurking in the shadows.” I replied huffily. He looked at me intently.

You’re a strange one, aren’t you? A lot of girls wouldn’t mind being in a house like this.  Just yesterday a girl came in here and I met her feeling right at home and using the phone to call her boyfriend in London.”

“Hmm, so do you get a lot of girls here all the time?” He laughed again.

“Women! Wow, was that what you got out of all I said?”

“I’m sorry, I was just curious. So do you live here?” I had to lean right back to see his face. I noticed that he had long eyelashes and his hair was clean cut.

“Sort of. I live in the States; I stay here whenever I’m in Nigeria.  John is one of my oldest friends, we went to Uni together. So tell me about your self,” He sat with his arms folded across his chest and smiled at me.

“That’s too easy; tell me what you want to know about me?” I said, flirting with him slightly. I had done a quick calculation in my head, putting him at about 32 years; he looked like he was comfortable financially, I had a few male friends who took advantage of their girlfriends, spending their money and driving their cars and most likely cheating on them as well. I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those girls. With Alex, I wouldn’t be at risk…at least on the financial side of things. Jeez, what is wrong with me, I thought, I’ve met the guy five minutes and already have us shopping for a wedding ring. This is what I do all the time, that’s why I have no boyfriend. I’m just going to relax and let things flow. He does seem interested in me though. I bet he drives a nice car. I was getting tired of picking my male friends and giving them lifts to school or to the cinema, I wanted someone to pick me up in a nice comfortable car for a change.

“What do you do? Are you in University?” He asked, he picked up one of my braids and tugged it playfully.

“Yep, Unilag, studying law.”

“Wow, a smart one.” I could hear the admiration in his voice and I wanted to make him like me more.

“Patronizing, but I’ll let it pass. So what do you do?” I smiled, and then his hands settled on my thigh. My first instinct was to brush it off angrily; I stole a glance at his face because I was curious to see what the hell he was thinking. What I saw made me hesitate, he face was infused with lust and he looked like he was about to eat me up. A warm glow spread over me and a felt a familiar moistness. What was wrong with me? I literally met this guy 5 seconds ago, but there was something about him, he seemed so sure of himself…thinking about it now, he was a meanie trying to take advantage of a girl who was more or less a novice, but then all I could think of was how that look made me feel immensely desirable and sexy. No man had ever looked at me that way before, even if they had, I definitely had never taken any notice. I didn’t slap his hand away.

Emboldened by my lack of indignation, that hand crept slowly forward. I stared pointedly at a little spot on the wall, trying not to betray any emotion.

“I’m an IT consultant for British Petroleum, but I always wanted to be an architect. I don’t know what happened, you know, why I never pursued it. I guess I got railroaded along the way.”

“That’s nice” I gasped, not entirely sure which I meant, what he was saying or what his busy hand was doing. It was silent for a few minutes while I continued to pretend that his hand wasn’t up my skirt.

“Gosh, you’re so wet” he whispered in my ear. “Come with me”

The next thing I knew, the hand was gone and he stood up holding his hand out to me.

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, I should just refuse. I should stay here and wait for my friend.

“I should stay here and wait for Tobi” I said out loud. Where is that stupid girl, I’m going to kill her if I end up doing anything stupid. I didn’t have any experience with men, how was I supposed to control myself if I was being barraged by all these forceful and confusing emotions.

“Trust me, she won’t miss you.”

“Em, but still, I don’t think I should. Thanks.” I said faking a smile. I couldn’t have sex with him, I was a virgin and I wasn’t going to lose my virginity to a stranger. My mother’s words of advice rang in my ears; she always warned me to beware of men trying to use me. If it was too easy, they moved on quicker. Easy come, easy go.

“Don’t worry. We won’t do anything you don’t want to. Come on, I want to show you something” I took his outstretched hand reluctantly and let him pull me up. He led me up another flight of stairs into a room I could only assume was his. He then proceeded to show me.

“Em…what are you doing?” I had never seen it in real life before. It was large and throbbing. Oh hell no! no way that thing was coming anywhere near me. My lust was fast turning into dread. Gosh, it would be painful. I’m so not ready to die.

“Come on baby, I won’t hurt you” He came closer and I allowed him to slip off my top. I knew I had pretty breasts, I was very proud of them. I allowed him to play with them. He touched one, softly and reverently and bending down he put his lips over one nipple while fondling the other gently. His lips felt hot and soft and his tongue flicked expertly around my never been explored breast. My knees buckled and he lowered me gently onto the bed.  He continued licking my swollen breasts while his hands roved all over my body leaving trails of fire behind. I was burning up and I didn’t want him to stop. I moaned, and was surprised that the sound had come out of me. It sounded so amoral.

Emboldened, his hands travelled beneath my skirt and yanked my panties to the side. He stuck a finger inside and I jerked from the slight discomfort. “Wow, you’re so wet. It feels so nice.”

He lifted himself up to lean on his elbow and lifted my skirts up. I didn’t need a crystal ball to tell me what he was going to do next. “No” I said, almost shouting. I pushed my skirt back down and struggled to get up form beneath him. He rolled to the side and allowed me to sit up.

“What’s wrong?” He asked. I could see him struggling with himself. It wouldn’t take him much to overpower me if he wanted to. In the end, I would like to think that good sense prevailed.

“Come on, what are you scared of?” He asked and picking up the hand closer to him, he started tracing circles in my palm.  It must have dawned on him then because all of a sudden his eyes widened.

“No, you’re not!” There it is. I smiled, and nodded shyly.

“I’m really sorry if I led you on but I can’t do this. I’m not ready.” He nodded grimly. He looked lost in thought for a moment, then he jumped off the bed.

“Come, I want to show you something”

“I think we’re past that now,” I chuckled. I couldn’t help stealing glances at it. It was so big and marvellous, proud looking even. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed that he was stark naked, I was in my bra and still had my skirt on although I would probably need to chuck my underwear to avoid getting a rash. It was moist and uncomfortable.

He walked to one of the build-in wardrobes and pulled it open. I got up and walked to where he was.

I was lost for words. Half filling the wardrobe were bundles of money in stacks. Needless to say I had never seen so much money in my life. It was crazy, why did he feel the need to show this to me.

“Wow,” I said “so I take it you’re loaded”

“I was hoping a bit of incentive might make up your mind for you.” He said grinning. I walked to the bed and lay on it resting on my elbows.

“Does this work on the other girls?” I asked after a brief pause. I saw confusion flicker across his face.


“I was just thinking how smart a web you weave. What young girl would be able to resist seeing all that money? And I bet they never get a penny of it.”

“It’s not like that at all. You’ve got it all wrong.”

“Okay, what is it then? Why did you show that to me?”

“I just wanted you to know that you have nothing to fear. I can take care of you. I don’t do this with just anybody but you look like a good girl, someone I can trust.”

I was disappointed. I had actually considered dating this guy. He probably assumed I was like Tobi, not that I can blame him. I mean, here I was, half dressed in his bed.

“I’m going to leave now. It was nice knowing you.” I picked up my top and started shoving my arms into them when I felt his arms around me. He was standing behind me and I could feel his manhood pressing into my back.

“Stay, don’t go. We don’t have to have sex. We can do other things.” He started kissing my neck and pulled my top out of my hands. Bra came off next and it was as if the fire had always been there, but this time it was back with a vengeance. I felt every touch of his fingers and shuddered violently as he led me back to the bed.

I shook my head repeatedly, moaning “No, no, this isn’t right, stop.”

He stopped and stood facing me as I sat.

“Just touch it” he whispered “please.” He added when I hesitated. Slowly I stretched out my hand to feel around the tip. He sucked in his breath sharply in response. It felt so hot and smooth. It was so unlike anything I had ever felt, moisture seeped from the tip and I rubbed it all over. I would have thought it impossible but it seemed to grow bigger and harder. It felt really good but there was no way…

He moved closer and cupping my breast together he stuck his penis in between them and started moving in and out. This was a bit strange; I had read about this in a Barbara Taylor-Bradford book in high school, I can’t recall which. But apart from the fascination, it was a bit of a turn off.

“Look Alex,” I gathered up the courage to say. I was afraid I was leading him too far. I had read about men that couldn’t control themselves once they got past a certain point.

“Ah,” he groaned “you’re killing me”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“But you like it, look at how wet you are. You could drown a horse in there.” He dipped a couple of fingers between my legs and held them up; they were dripping.

“Yeah, probably,” I giggled, pushing him away gently.

“Look at me, how you can leave me like this,” he started making puppy facial expressions. Aww, but he was so cute.

“I’m sorry, I can’t really help”

“Yes you can. Just give it a little kiss” he said smiling down at me. What! Oral! No way! I screamed in my head. Of all the disgusting things, I wasn’t putting that thing in my mouth.

“Alex, I’m really sorry but there’s no way that’s happening. Plus I don’t know where it’s been.”

“It hasn’t been anywhere. Come on, you’ll enjoy it.”

“Er…no I won’t. Sorry.” I started getting up and gathering my clothes that were scattered all around the room.

“Please, come on, just one little kiss.” He pleaded desperately “I really need you.”

“No.” I replied looking at him square in the face. Surely he could see that I meant it.

“I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, please just let me go.” The next thing I knew Alex was on his knees. I was amazed, what would make a rich, good looking guy beg for this. What was so special about it anyway? I looked at him and he just looked so pathetic; staring up at me with those puppy dog eyes.

“Alex, get up!” I shouted at him. “Have some dignity. It’s not happening.” With that I walked out of the room. It was later that day when I narrated the story to Tobi that she told me that he had boasted that he would have sex with me and she had asked him to put his money where his mouth was. Needless to say Tobi walked away with 50,000 Naira that evening. The idiot serves him right, I thought. How humiliated would I have been if I had gone through with it? I got half of the 50,000 Naira though.


Afrobeat Renaissance


PSquare, Wizkid and Cokobar manager, Ropo Akin. Photo: Ropo Akin

The scene: a poorly-lit bar, South London. Young men and women are squeezed tightly in the small space that is the dance floor. Snatches of Jamaican patois can be heard over the reggae and hip hop sounds. The men sport dreadlocks and headbands of green, yellow and red, and a few gold teeth sparkle intermittently in the darkness. The ladies, clad in skimpy skirts and body-moulding blouses, gyrate suggestively.

The Nigerian student moonlighting as a DJ suddenly breaks the flow of American Pop and spins a track from one of the emerging Hip-Hop acts of his country. The sound of Trybesmen’s ‘Beremole’ filters from the speakers and, like a sudden shower of rain, it slowly empties the dance floor of its occupants.

The year is 2001. And it is not a good time to be African. Second generation immigrants are proudly proclaiming their alternative British identity. First generation ones are seeking any others that would have them, and Jamaica, with its domination of the Caribbean identity, welcomes all comers.

Less than 20 years earlier, Fela Kuti had stood on the Glastonbury stage before a crowd of thousands, and infected his European audience with his Afrobeat sound. But no Africans, or Nigerians, masquerading now as ‘Wah-G’wan’ denizens, seem to remember that. None, that is, except the hapless DJ who already regrets his impulsiveness.

Into the future

Fast forward 10 years, and the landscape has changed. The little club hall has given way to the Indigo O2 in Greenwich. Nigerian rapper, MI, is strutting on stage with his trio of lieutenants. Technicolour flashes of animation display a panorama on the cinema-sized screen behind him. White girls cling to the barriers that separate them from the stage, chanting his lyrics in unison.

Afrobeat, spearheaded again by Nigeria, has made a comeback. This time it is not in the form of angry, middle-aged, anti-establishment artists wielding brass instruments and dedicating hour-long compositions to the injustices of a Third World governance. These new Afrobeat ambassadors don bespoke suits, speak with a faint Western accent, and “spit bars” to a hybrid of vocoder-enhanced beats.

DJ Abass, that hesitant disk jockey of years ago, prides himself as one of those who set this transition in motion.

“We were the first generation of Nigerians in the UK who lifted Nigerian Pop. And it was African women (not Nigerian) who even gave it a chance,” he said.

Now a music promoter and media consultant, Abass contrasts the past and the present: “All through the 90s and early 2000s, the Jamaican identity was the dominant black identity in the UK. Now it is African, specifically Nigerian. Everyone in the young urban circuit of the UK and America is in love with our music, our fashion, and our idiosyncrasies.”

Internationalisation of Nigeria

Don Omope, a Nigerian entertainment journalist, chalks this new appreciation of Afrobeat to what he calls the “internationalisation of Nigeria” driven by the gradual identification of second generation Africans with the Mother Continent.

“While before they used to insist ‘I’m British’, now they proudly pronounce their Africanness. The Western world, which has always seen Africa as exotic, has noticed this acceptance and is attracted by it.”

The proliferation of the Nigerian sound has also been propelled by the sheer population of Nigerians living in Britain, estimated by the UK Home Office to be up to three million people.

“Someone somewhere is playing some Nigerian music to your hearing,” says Omope.

Breaking into the circuit

Ropo Akin, music promoter and manager of Cokobar, a weekly Saturday hub for Nigeria-style music, dance and extravagance, says that over the years the race dynamics of the club’s patronage has changed. He, however, attributes it to a collective effort of many proponents of World Music. “Generally, music itself has penetrated race.”

And recent visit to Cokobar, located in central London, confirms that the London night scene has indeed undergone a colour-merge.

Akin attributes his business success to his ability to procure popular venues for the Nigerian acts that he imports and cannot emphasise the impact of that enough. “I started operating in London in 2004, and I have organised events in niche venues but the first time we used the O2, the event got published in British papers.”

Expectedly, “breaking into the circuit” was not an easy feat. “Cokobar had to pay much more than other UK promoters did, as well as sign strict performance bonds. Though we have sold out our shows more often than not, it takes a longer time to sell tickets. The owners of the venues can be assured of Madonna’s tickets selling out in hours, but with us they are going out on a limb.”

Artist manager, Lanre Alade Lawal, operates a different strategy. He targets young professionals of all races. “We market to the world at large. We began with audiences as small as 25 and now we get as many as 450 people attending the shows.

“I wouldn’t use the O2 Indigo; I only programme events in venues in the West End and reputable areas. The audience is diverse and I would put the proportion at about 60 per cent white and 15 per cent African. I get many Asians and Caribbeans too.”

Specifically targeting, as he puts it, “BBC Radio Two listeners” and using the same places where British music is being played, has paid off. Alade has promoted events for artists like Seun Kuti, Keziah Jones, and Nneka, all of whom have debuted quite remarkably in the UK.

From Zero to MOBO

Nigerian-German soul singer, Nneka, is perhaps his biggest success.

“We managed Nneka’s campaign from zero to MOBO Award winner,” he declares with pride. “It took four years of growing an audience.” His motto, Lawal says, is “the highest quality for the cheapest price. We do bespoke stuff for the price of about £15.

Essentially, the business of exporting Afrobeat to the West is a multi-camp one. While Alade Lawal desires the upscale brand of artists like Asa, Akin is a proponent of the popular sounds of P-Square, D’banj, and others whose music has already usurped American and British imports in Nigerian clubs and on Nigerian radio.

In a 2010 article to commemorate Nigeria’s independence, the BBC asked African nations what they had gained from the self-acclaimed “Giant of Africa”. Most of the respondents pointed to music and the notorious outpourings of Nollywood (the second largest film industry in the world).

But while Nollywood, until perhaps recently, has been largely viewed as being synonymous with haphazard, badly-executed craftsmanship, Afrobeat has enjoyed the exact opposite reputation. This distinction is attributed by some to the “brain gain” experienced in the music industry.

Returnee professionals from America and UK degree-holders alike have mixed their cosmopolitan sophistication with African flair to create a thriving industry that the world appears to want a piece of.

Several MTV and MOBO awards, global invitations for shows, and collaborations with foreign artists are ample proof that something is going right. And it is not peaking yet. America, as always, is quick to tap into the revolution.

Six years ago, says DJ Abass, “At the Grammys, Kanye West threatened to call security because I tried to interview him. A few years down, he’s signing up a Nigerian (D’banj) on his record label.”

Acknowledging their roots

International artists of African descent like Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Wale, and Tinchy Stryder are also acknowledging their origins. Others too many generations absorbed, like Beyonce Knowles, are releasing new albums “inspired by Afrobeat”.

DJ Abass says that Nigerian pop is indebted to the UK, which had enlightened and honed the skills of returnee artistes. Omope argues that it owes its growth in the last ten years to Fela and the popularity he has given Nigeria, as well as to Nigerian music promoters, like the duo of Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye, who took the early work of fledgling musicians and introduced it in global arenas like the Grammys.

Industry expert, DJ Abass, may be overly optimistic when he predicts that “in the next 12 months most major international labels will have a Nigerian star,” nonetheless, after a three-decade hiatus, it is Africa season all over again.

So when next you hear Asa’s ‘Be My Man’ on BBC Radio Three, or D’banj and Kanye West’s ‘Scapegoat Remix’ collaboration booming at the Movida night club, appreciate that it is a good time to be African – and that it just might stay that way for a while yet.

Afrobeat carnival featuring PSquare, Wizkid, and Ice Prince comes up at the HMV Apollo, Hammersmith on 28 August, 2011