The strangest thing happened on 12th September, 2023. I am working from home. For an hour, I am singing Mohbad’s Ask About Me aloud in my room. I find it enjoyable, relatable. So, in the manner that I often do, I post a screenshot and an excerpt on my Instagram stories. Two minutes later, I see a DM from my sister that simply says “he’s dead”. I say “huh? who?” in confusion. She sends me posts from blogs, posts that are only minutes old. I take off to Twitter, scroll through many vague mentions of Mohbad, and soon, I can confirm that something terrible has happened. I delete my post, toss my phone on my bed and clasp cold hands together. What in God’s name? You know about the rest of the day — it is long, painful, infuriating.
The eerie part of this story is that the excerpt from Ask About Me which I share on IG is “iku to pa iya teacher, o le pa awon niggas”. It is Yoruba. In English, it literally means “the death that killed the teacher’s mother can kill the niggas”. For Mohbad, it was certainly figurative. I am still unsure of what he meant, I only shared because it sounded cool. Fans are often like that — never really pondering on the meaning of things, just enjoying them; hearing, but never really listening. In many songs, Mohbad told us his past, present, and future. At the clubs and parties, we yelled, “I feel good, panrara!”
By the time you read this, it will be weeks stale. After I finished my first draft weeks ago, I could not muster the calmness to edit and publish. Every paragraph enraged me. I wondered if talking was cowardice — if everyone should be doing more. I dwelt in my loathing for this country, how it only oppresses and kills. I have read a few fine essays about Mohbad, by well-meaning writers, and wondered if they were enough. But they were mostly tributes, they lacked the rage that afflicts me. It is important to me that I say the following, that it exists here in text. I do not care how many of you read, I do this to make sense to myself.
2020 and KPK.
Like most of you, I first heard Mohbad in 2020, on KPK. 2020 was a dramatic year for young Nigerians — an unprecedented pandemic and its attendant lockdown were followed by the famous #EndSARS protests. The #EndSARS protests were a generational feat, inspiring and uniting. We protested oppression by the Nigerian government (who of course express this oppression through the machinery of the police) and the impunity that interferes with every aspect of Nigerian life. In this article for TXT Mag, I wrote about the impassioned music that defined the time, from Burna Boy’s 20102020, to PrettyBoy D-O’s Jungle Justice to the video release of Falz’s Johnny.
An interesting trend from 2020 was the adoption of viral sayings as slang, to command boldness and solidarity. You will recall that “soro soke” and “werey wan dey disguise” became powerful rhetoric. By October 2020, young, protesting Nigerians were called the “soro soke generation”. On 10th October 2020, I trekked the streets of Ibadan for hours, alongside hundreds of others, raising posters that simply rehashed Twitter slang.
However, alongside these inciteful slogans were lighthearted ones, such as “e fi le, e jo cook” and “ko po ke”. “Ko po ke”, “KPK”, “OPP”, “OPG” and other variations were viral. I do have a picture on my Twitter captioned “do you mean to tell me that it is not plenty?” which is a literal, corny translation of Mohbad’s lyrics. Literally translating Yoruba lyrics to elevated English was yet another 2020 trend.
Mohbad’s KPK was a distinct, sensational song. In 2020, I wrote about “optimization”— how Chike milked Boo of the Booless throughout the year, how Mayorkun emerged as the (unawarded) artiste of the year with Geng, Of Lagos, Betty and a few incredible verses. Yet, Mohbad might have done an even greater job, because KPK is just four lines of lyrics.
Ta lo so pe ko po ke? | OPP, o po pa, OPG, o po gan | Awon omo ajinomoto, a ji gba wire | Awon omo mi choko choko
KPK became one of the biggest releases of the year, with as much cultural impact as Davido’s FEM, DJ Neptune’s Nobody, Wizkid’s Joro, Naira Marley’s Mafo or Simi’s Duduke — the Headies nominees for “Song of the Year”. It is a bop — easy, confident, danceable, and memorable. It invited you to sing it, compelled you. It was released on Sunday, 3rd December 2020. We had been indoors for months, living in fear and caution. We had watched people die, to COVID-19 or the Nigerian government. But when the world around us began the journey to normalcy, when we would eventually step out in our Christmas outfits, for that postponed rendezvous or party, who would step up to us and tell us that it was not plenty?
NYSC and Feel Good.
Two weeks after KPK, Mohbad released his debut EP, Light, and his journey with the word apparently began. However, the next time I would really listen was in July 2021, while I lay on that iron bunk bed at McGregor College, Afikpo, Ebonyi State. It saddens me to recount it, but you must remember that I began Midnight in Ebonyi with mention of Mohbad’s Feel Good. I said that Feel Good was the theme song for my NYSC camp experience because “on God, emi ti gbera la ti 4:30”.
I thought that Feel Good was an even bigger hit compared to KPK. I actually did a Twitter poll to confirm. While I lay on that bed on some evening, I heard the amapiano hit on those loud camp speakers (the same ones they used to make those many annoying announcements and run those cringeworthy radio stations). I had to know what song it was, immediately. So, I ran around my room of twenty boys to frantically ask.
Feel Good came at the time when Nigerian experimentation with South Africa’s amapiano was peaking. It was released on 16th July 2021, two days before Ameno Amapiano, and a month before Lojay and Sarz collaborated on Monalisa. In December 2020, DJ Kaywise and Phyno had dropped Highway, Falz and Niniola released Squander. Later, in February 2021, Focalistic featured Davido on the remix of Ke Star. Feel Good was a landmark in Afrobeat sonic development. In February 2023, it was deservedly featured on this Pulse list of the top 10 Nigerian Amapiano songs ever, alongside hits like Asake’s Sungba and Mayorkun’s Of Lagos.
Feel Good was right on time for summer. Like amapiano (or naijapiano), it was immediately accepted. The drums (which also double as a solid piano melody) are bold, catchy, masterful. The indigenous Nigerian attraction to call and response meant that when Mohbad cried, “won le, won ba ti” (they chased him, they could not catch him) in the refrain, we were on time to yell, “on God!”
Perhaps we should have wondered who exactly was chasing Mohbad. Perhaps we were dancing too hard, we did not observe the lyrics. Unlike in KPK, in Feel Good, Mohbad tells us plenty: He recounts his days in Ikorodu when he was hungry and tearful. He says he has worked and prayed, that he’s being chased by plenty of enemies and he hopes they do not catch him. We do not know why he is up by 4:30AM — a pretty early time to be up. Mohbad hopes that there is a day his pains go away, and resigns to smoke and party them away, until then. My eyes are teary while I type this part because it really was all there. Mohbad sings “omo iya mi, malo ronu ko parare, I feel good panrara”. And what he tells us, quite clearly, is that the pains and suffering that have haunted him all his life are still present; even after a record deal, a viral song, and an acclaimed EP, he has despair. And all his repeated talk about feeling good is only so that he does not think himself to death. In retrospect, Feel Good is not quite about feeling good, it is a sad, haunting song.
Returning to the Melody and Comfortable Singing.
I assess the quality of music by two criteria — the presence of “soul” and chords. When I discuss the use of chords in Nigerian music, I often make a reference to something I call “returning to the melody”.
Returning to the melody is simply singing on expansive chords. I once said that even when artists make “street music”, I would prefer that they sing on chords. In Olamide’s Bobo and Asake’s PBUY, the chords are clear. Young Jonn (the (wicked) producer) begins the former with an outstanding, memorable harmony. It excites you, ushers you into a most incredible song. Because Bobo is grounded in consistent chords (doh — lah — fah — doh) and decipherable tonic solfa, it is performable, by a choir or an orchestra. It is “expansive”. The difference between Bobo and PBUY is that while the former is entirely melodious, the melody in the latter is only recognizable from “the money long cos I don pase”. You will observe that it is at that very point that Magic Sticks begins to play the chords. There is a crescendo from that point to the expansive hook that is “Asala — melekun…” At “I get many, many disciples”, Asake has fully returned to melody, he is singing on audible chords. This might be why that is the most exciting part of the song.
Nigerian street music is rarely expansive, it tends to lean towards singing in rushed, restricted notes or monotones. The artist sings a “doh doh doh” or a “lah lah lah” over and over, or two notes that are boringly close. This is the case because it is heavily influenced by Fuji, which in turn originates from “Were” music, also known as “Ajisari” — a genre of music performed to wake Muslims before dawn during the Ramadan fasting season. If you are familiar with the Muslim call to prayer, you might see my point. I hope you understand — while Seyi Vibez is melodious in Bank of America, he strays in Chance (Na Ham). I love the former, I cannot stand the latter. Because I play instruments (and because my little understanding of music was imparted by protestant churches), my brain demands decipherable chords when I listen to music.
Of course, rap music seems to defy this rule — rap is mostly rhythmic speaking, there are no notes. But then my favorite rap songs are those with good singing in the hook, or those that incorporate chords somehow. In M.I’s version of 6 Foot 7 Foot, there is no singing, no need for chords whatsoever, but the producer deftly introduces them anyway. The underlying harmony is alternated here and there to embellish the different cadences in M.I’s and Phenom’s renditions. When you listen to the iconic Still D.R.E, you might enjoy Dr. Dre’s rapping, but the recurring melody and those chords are famously sick.
I loved Mohbad because he clearly understood music. He cared to stay on the melody, and used his chords. So when he did this live cover of Ask About Me, it sounded delicious. There was material for two guitarists, a keyboardist and a violinist to work with. The song is introduced by a faintly sung harmony which must be an interpolation from some European choir. I will find it.
Another reason why I loved Mohbad, why he was appreciated, was his distinct baritone voice. Many believe that to be considered a good vocalist, one must hit and sustain high notes. I disagree, I believe that singing well on the keys you are comfortable with does it — as long as you stay on the notes. That is, nothing is erroneously sharpened or flattened, and you never sound coarse or fatigued. Singing on low, comfortable notes is essential for the average “Afrobeats” artiste, it is key to your concert performance, as well as your Colors and Tiny Desk.
The word for Mohbad’s voice was “integrity” or “fidelity”. It neither failed nor faltered, ever, recorded or live. In his singing, he did not attempt anything ambitious, he stuck to low keys, yet he sounded full all by himself. His many songs contained impressive vocal performances on keys which were just below the range of the average tenor singer. His full, sturdy voice shone through. When he sang his lyrics, each syllable was audible.
Mohbad and the House of Marley.
To me, part of a song’s “soul” is defined by how relatable I find it. My favorite music projects often dwell on the human condition — learning what we are made for, deciding on what to do, struggling with it, moving forward with both doubt and resolve. And sometimes, as in KPK, Feel Good and Ask About Me, we just need an injection of confidence. I thought Ask About Me spoke to me — it came at a point when I was berated, and craved the confidence to make important decisions. I had to recall the many incredible things I had done and how whole I truly am. I would smile to myself — because they don’t know that I don go, because I would soon be somewhere unknown, getting my mulla — dollar, [pounds] and naira.
Most of Mohbad’s music had a lot of soul — it was spiritual, meaningful, peaceful. It also portrayed a lot of resolve. In Peace, Mohbad has been through many things and gists, dealt with frenemies; still, he is a survivor. He will fly like a rocket, he will find his peace. He was not just saying things; he was up against strongmen who repeatedly bullied and harassed him, yet he forged ahead. Amidst recurrent “ojoro” and nastiness, he would name his final project Blessed; he would still be famous for the beautiful Yoruba word, “imole”, which means light. Mohbad fought his battles with illumination — he shone light on them within and outside the music. He seemed to have a lot more to offer. The great tragedy was his contract with a record label that was, summarily, contrary to his perception of himself.
Before the indelible ruin of 2020, 2019 was quite the exhilarating year — everyone remembers where they were in Q4. Young Nigerians coined “Detty December” to describe the relative excitement and promise on the streets of Nigeria’s largest cities, spurred by a long list of concerts fit into those 31 days of December, fueled by the overflow of incredible music released by the breakout artistes of the year — Fireboy, Rema, Joeboy, Zlatan Ibile, Naira Marley. 2019 was Naira Marley’s — the music, the dances, the culture and headlines. Fans called themselves “Marlians”, to represent the exuberance and nonconformity that he apparently embodied.
Four years later, it does seem that our parents and pastors were right after all. I am not sure what happens at Marlian Music but I cannot shake off my awful suspicions. Like many others, I have continuously expressed concern about the appearance of signed acts. I see pictures of Zinoleesky and ask obvious questions.
In Midnight in Kigali, I quote “iwo lo ma f’Eko le” (it is you who will leave Lagos) from Ask About Me. Again, it haunts me — the repeated mention of being chased. Since 2021’s Feel Good, Mohbad has been chased. By whom?
It is no secret, is it? Everyone who knows anything about the matter knows exactly who. Beyond the music, in numerous IG and Twitter posts, he told us. We know that according to him, he was in a continuous dispute with Marlian Records. We know that it became physical — he was battered, bloodied. We saw his bruises. We saw his high blood pressure. We watched as Naira Marley tried to defame him, continuously informing the public that he was “not okay”. We saw one Balogun Olamilekan Eletu “Sam Larry” try to assault him while a music video was being shot!
On 12th September 2023, Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba “Mohbad” died under suspicious circumstances. He was probably murdered. And everyone knows who the prime suspects should be.
A Toxic Industry.
In DML and Miscellaneous, I say plenty about the music industry. The music business is difficult and exhausting — artists put a lot of time and money into it. They do not only write and record music, they spend money on production, promotion, travel, clothing. You give and give, and hope that it all works out — that the fans like your new song, that a random person uses it on TikTok and it suddenly becomes a hit, so you can finally take the advance you need for that car.
In The Fucks I Do Not Give, I go on about how music business is risky and disposable money is hard to come by; that this is why record labels might want an 80/20 split and exclusive rights to intellectual property. Except you are a major record label with a business plan, music money must be money you can afford to lose, because you will likely lose it. This is why fraudsters are so integral to the Nigerian music industry, why it is attractive to money launderers. I am not about to invest my legal, hard earned, competitive, 9–5, lawyer salary on an artist.
You never know if the artist you sign will “blow”, you can only trust your taste, the artist’s image and work ethic. If the boy blows, you have to reinvest most of the profits back into the business, for the first few years. So if you pick one Daniel Anidugbe, a graduate of Water Engineering from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, and make him into a star, you would like to eventually receive some return on your investment. If you cannot have it, you will have his name. He was not Kiss until he met you, he will not be Kiss after!
Mohbad’s tragic death reignites the conversation about record labels and deals. There are important nuances, from the perspective of the label and the artist. I cannot delve into them now, but I advise every creative person to have a lawyer nearby. Even though not all lawyers understand the music business, lawyers are generally resourceful — they might not know what to do, but they often have friends who do.
The entertainment industry is terribly toxic and all the controversy you hear of is not half of it. There are “interesting” things happening — from contractual disputes, IP infringements, human right violations, to promiscuity, drug abuse, STIs, crude misogyny and outright violence. Yet, industry actors learn to be quiet, secretive. In showbiz, more than everywhere else, you mind your business — the work that feeds you. As Eddie Murphy said at the Golden Globes, the blueprint for success is (1) pay your taxes; (2) mind your business; and (3) keep Will Smith’s wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!
This is why Mohbad never seemed to get the support he needed, why Bella Shmurda is the only ally we know. The very celebrities who mourn his passing were questionably quiet while he suffered. I despise them for that, but I do not know if I should.
Separating the Artist from the Art.
Music is a profession. Artistes are not generally motivated by good but by personal interest — the clout and positioning necessary to stay relevant and turn in revenue. So it may be silly to expect musicians to be compulsively moral. The same way it is somewhat silly to except professional footballers to decide against incredibly lucrative deals and stay in leagues that you personally consider competitive. They have bills to pay, families to feed. Also, who is at my job to tell me what cases to take, what clients to represent? Who is at your job to comment on the ethics of your decisions?
But I do understand that musicians, as famous people, have a moral responsibility to spread goodwill, or avoid certain controversy and narratives. Famous people should not misinform or mislead their many followers. I also understand that fans have a direct stake in the success of artists — in today’s transparent world, you are simply as big as your fanbase. So, this fanbase can feel entitled to your concern for their basic political or economic conditions. However, while I have much admiration for “Afrobeats” and its many defining acts, I understand that with regard to processing basic socio-political conversations, or simply avoiding crime, most acts are disappointing.
As a listener, where do you draw the line? What misdeeds are unforgivable? While I go on about Mohbad, in June 2022, Burna Boy and his friends opened fire at Briella Neme and her husband, because she would not speak to him at the club. In October 2017, after a Twitter disagreement, Burna Boy threatened to “come for” fellow artiste, Mr. 2kay, and according to investigations by the Nigerian Police, later hired four men to beat and rob him. In February 2023, the Lagos High Court entered judgment against Oxlade over that sex tape that was both recorded and circulated by Oxlade, without the consent of the woman it features. Everyone knows of these incidents. Yet, when 2018's Gbona comes up, we dance. When Burna Boy says, “you no get money, you dey call police”, we all know what he speaks of and I chuckle at the audacity.
It is sadly Nigerian, to be morally conflicted. Always, somebody you know or respect is on the side of oppression. Where do you draw the line and what are the implications of your actions? If I sing Burna’s Thanks or Oxlade’s Intoxycated, does it mean that I support violence and abuse? In agreeing to feature on the above songs, do J. Cole or Dave support the aforementioned misdeeds?
My most popular article in the Miscellaneous series is about Adekunle Gold. When he featured ODOMODUBLVCK in Wrong Person and offered some vague explanation about prioritizing the music, I rolled my eyes. The latter’s rise to the top of Nigeria’s music industry has been “interesting” to watch — tweets about occasionally slapping women do not seem to matter to anyone I hold in esteem. Not AG, Falz or Fireboy who have subsequently collaborated with him. It does seem that his trail of homophobia, misogyny, and outright disrespect for his fans actually invigorates a certain sect of the fanbase, industry. All of it is puzzling.
However, I am probably not in an unchallengeable position to throw stones or remove specks. I do not support Burna Boy’s antics — the violence, disrespect, or unoriginality, but I also love Dangote and Alone. The man is fantastically talented. And if I were to do away with all the problematic Nigerian artistes, who would I listen to? Buju? Zinoleesky? Shallipopi?Unfortunately, the industry is one tangled web of bad behaviour and unpunished villains.
People who say morality is polar, that the distinction between the good we should encourage and the bad we should shun is clear, are dubious or idiots. Everyone draws their line somewhere, but it is fair to suggest that the point where they draw this line says something about them, indicates who they are. My line is certainly drawn against Naira Marley, I encourage you to do so as well. All the white washing propaganda and “nobody holy pass” nonsense that pervades our amoral media must not dissuade us from creating consequences for ragingly nasty people.
Nigerian Impunity & Oppression.
However, a point I am always desperate to make is that no matter how strong individual will may be, it cannot match the imperativeness of political will. Nigeria has terribly inefficient and corrupt institutions — it is the cause of so much damage. Three years after our #EndSARS fight, Nigerian oppression and impunity are still winning. We know that our prayer points would drastically reduce if we simply left this country. Outside Nigeria, there are simply less ways to fail, die.
Mohbad’s story is awfully Nigerian. The circumstances of his death are incredulous. It has now been a month since the fact and the cause of death remains inconclusive. The issue that drives me insane, that makes me wander into blank space and fantasize about jumping off a cliff, is the levity of it, and the ease with which all of it will be forgotten. In My Nigerian Death, I ironically encourage my readers to not hinge a campaign on my Nigerian death because it will fail. One day, the country is shocked and raging; the next, they are on top of a more spectacular tragedy. Another Nigerian mishap is always promised — it will happen and we will forget about Mohbad.
As with Lady Olenna in Season 7, Episode 3 of Game of Thrones, there is a failure of imagination in My Nigerian Death (where I consider the possible scenarios of the typical Nigerian death). Like Cersei, Nigeria does things I am incapable of imagining. I did not see Mohbad’s kind of death coming, and it is perhaps the most quintessential of them all.
That you would be born poor; that as a child, you would live through substandard education and difficult jobs. That you would find peace and light in music, but the unregulated business of it would take the joy away from you. That you would be oppressed all your life by just about anyone with more money and influence, including your record label. That your health would begin to fail. That with grit and skill, you would rise to that level of acclaim and you would still die of unknown causes. The cause of your death would mysteriously become a mystery. People would rush you to a hospital, pronounce you dead, bury you, but still not know how you died. That even in death you would not find light or peace. Donations would be made for your burial but your friend would convert half. You would not fit into your cheap coffin, and instead of purchasing another, they would decide to break your neck instead. That at your bushy, unmarked graveyard, like clockwork, your impoverished kinsmen would continue the cycle of oppression — they would fantasize about ransacking the little you acquired, to deprive your wife and child.
That after you die, an industry that shunned and denied you would sing your praises for clout. Blogs and pages would use the news for traction, celebrities would use your memorial for photoshoots — at a bizarre congregation, they would hustle, to have the microphone, to sing songs and say prayers, to be seen to participate somehow. That your colleagues would make your death about themselves — how they did not see your DM, how they did or did not restrict your account, how they have released a song or clothing line in your memory, how they are hosting a live chat. The prime suspects of your alleged murder would join in the mad performance, sponsored agenda would begin work to vindicate them. The royalties from increased streaming of your music would go to the same label that tortured you.
That the older generation would begin rumours about cultism on WhatsApp, because it is awfully Nigerian to find faults in victims. That one group of imbeciles would use you for religious fodder — how you “won in life” because you “gave your life to Jesus”. So, even though you were probably murdered and dishonorably buried, even though this will avoidably happen again to another young Nigerian, glory be to Jesus! You will wear shiny, spotless white and float in Heaven’s gold mansions.
That another group of imbeciles would ignore the many tragic circumstances of your death and turn their attention to the legitimacy of your child. They would ask for a paternity test — that your wife pay to have a cheek swab taken from your dead, dug up body. Entirely for their own satisfaction. Because whether there is rainfall or sunshine, women must be found and blamed.
That your father would say the most defeatist things, and distastefully, your brave mother would be comforted by *skims jotter* that Senator who assaulted somebody in a sex toy shop.
That the hospital you allegedly died in would wait two weeks to issue a statement. That although the police would announce the successful completion of your autopsy ten days after your death, the result of said autopsy would not be shared till date. Instead, they would issue an “interim report” that points to wrongful medication by an “auxiliary nurse”. “The injection she gave him triggered a reaction that led to his eventual death” it would suspiciously read.
That slowly but surely, you would be forgotten. Nigerian things would happen. The Big Brother winner would be announced, the President’s university certificate would be declared a counterfeit. Donations would be made to your family and friends, and some would forget that charity is not justice. The outrage that followed your death would be overshadowed, the hashtags would disappear. Alas, someday, no one would ask about you and your justice.
This is the heart-wrenching, awfully Nigerian story of Mohbad. I am so sorry. I cannot right the wrongs, I have tried to write them.