Last night the MTV African Music Awards were held in the enormous function hall which forms part of our hotel, allegedly the largest such venue in the whole of west Africa. Which admittedly is a bit like being the best German comedian, but is impressive nonetheless.
The first indication the hotel’s unfortunate guests had of the impending event was a stampede of South Africans and an invasion of Brits cluttering up the restaurant at the evening buffet, and the internet packing up. Preparations for the event had been going on all week, a period of which every second was required as half the kit was unsuprisingly seized by customs for four days before being released, meaning, as with most things in Nigeria, it was hurriedly finished at the very last minute (“finished”, in this part of the world, means just over the threshold where something is functional). The South Africans were in town presumably because MTV Africa thought it a good idea to maximise the African content in the production of the event, especially as the united Africa message was being pushed quite heavily throughout. Unfortunately, every one of the South Africans was white, and every lackey being bawled at to put this carpet over here or lay that cable there was black. This theme also applied to the camera operators and other technicians on the night itself. The influx of additional guests, all of whom work in media production and hence have Youtube as their homepage, meant the already shaky hotel internet collapsed under the weight, meaning none of us lot could phone our wives, resulting in turn in us being forced to go to the bar instead. It was whilst we were drinking at the bar, mourning our inability to converse sweetly with your wives and girlfriends, that we spotted the tickets for the event on sale and, not being blessed with a full itinerary of scintillating activities on offer that Saturday night, a few of us bought some.
So Saturday night arrived. However, the problem was…
Actually, there were a few problems. The first came in the form of somewhat misleading information on the ticket to the effect that:
Doors Open: 19:00
Doors Close: 19:30
Show Starts: 20:00
So having bolted our food and making our way all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into the venue itself at 19:20, minutes before the door would slam behind us making us sigh in relief that we have not found ourselves locked out of the best night in African history, we discovered that actually the place was almost empty, people were still setting up, and there would be at least 2 hours before anything meaningful would happen. This is Nigeria, where being two hours late is considered being on time. Only when a calendar is employed does the term late apply. So we decamped down to the hotel bar, waving wristbands at the security guards – who were backed up by what looked like half a platoon of the People’s Liberation Army of The Democractic Republic of West Basketcase but were in actual fact Lagos police guards – so that we could gain re-entry whenever the organisers got themselves organised. The hotel bar was pretty busy with many guests – obviously wiser to the Nigerian system of event timings than we – hanging about and enjoying what looked to be a warm-up party by the swimming pool. Clearly everyone who was anyone in Lagos’ media industry was attending this event, and they’d all donned their most fashionable clothes for the occasion, making the gaggle of oilfield workers in their jeans and scruffy t-shirts (or in my case, Hawaiian shirt) look somewhat out of place. Nevertheless, this was an event of some importance to the kool kats of Lagos. At 7,000 Naira ($46) per ticket for the standing area, and 15,000 Naira for the seats, those in attendance were drawn from the lucky few of the city’s 15m (or whatever) inhabitants. The minimum wage in Nigeria is 18,000 Naira per month.
Two beers each later – which, at the pace of the service in the hotel’s bars, equates to about an hour and a half – we sauntered back upstairs to the venue which had by now filled up considerably, but was still noticeably only two-thirds full. Up until an hour before they had still been selling tickets, and it now looked as though either they’d priced them too high, overestimated the importance to be seen at this event, or the hotel management had entered their third decade of being unable to organise simple car parking and traffic management. Anyway, we stood around for a further half an hour trying to work out how the bar system worked (it involved tickets and separate counters, which led me to believe at least one of the event organisers had majored in Soviet Retailing). Then at some point some music started, two hyperactive African young men leaped onto the stage wearing sunglasses, accompanied by what looked to be a slightly retarded 15 year old boy who, judging by the reaction of the crowd when he was identified, was somebody pretty well known, and the show, as they say, got on the road.
And thereupon began what was less of the MTV African Music Awards as the MTV Africans Copying American Hip-Hop Music Awards. If anyone was looking for originality, or an insight into the deep roots of African culture as expressed through the medium of music, they were to be sorely disappointed. Muscially, you’d find more diversity watching the band at a neo-Nazi rally. First up was a fellow called Rick Ross who, from what Wikipedia tells me, is an American rapper who took his stage name from a convicted drug trafficker and took to the stage in the same way that a rodeo bull takes to its arena. Only Rick Ross did not have a cowboy on his back. Instead he had on a massive coat which would probably have been more suited to December in Chicago than December in Lagos. I noticed that he took it off after the first song. His travel coordinator, like those in the oil business, also seemed to take the attitude that it’s better for people to find out essential information about the place you’re going to all on your own. Anyway, the crowd went nuts, and they were so excited that they all got out their mobile phones and held them over their heads. This phenomenon must be sending the executives of cigarette lighter companies back to the drawing boards. Then a lady called Eve turned up, who spoke like she was from Baton Rouge but is actually from Philadelphia, but was quite famous. Actually, I had no idea who any of these people were. Unless there is a banjo playing, or Chuck Berry, I take little interest in music and I admit I was probably a tad optimistic to expect to see either at this event despite the obvious links each has to the continent of Africa. And once more artists started coming on stage and performing I found each act both visually and aurally indistinguishable from any of the others. I only kept up with the proceedings because I had a Norwegian friend explaining stuff to me, although if you require the assistance of a Norwegian to understand the goings-on in a hip-hop concert then you are probably in the wrong place.
Anyway, the crowd in the venue – still one-quarter empty – didn’t share my opinions or my ignorance and was lapping it up. At one point the MC called for the introduction of some “gangland” into the proceedings, but I suspect the “gangsters” who emerged from stage right made sure their heavily armed police escort stayed with them right up until their plane left the tarmac at Lagos airport. The gangster theme was threaded throughout the whole event, which was probably a good thing, because Nigeria needs nothing more than an injection of lawlessness, violence, and a live-fast die-young mentality as personified by the role models (or at least, their alter-egos) that were leaping about on the stage. The highlight of the night was a chap called Chuck D, former front man of Public Enemy, who came on to perform. Unfortunately, he is 50 and looked like somebody’s dad. But he turn out a reasonable performance which made sense to seemingly everyone but me right up to and including where he urged everyone in the place to “fight the power”. There is something highly ironic about an American rapper urging a concert crowd made up entirely of Nigeria’s wealthy elite to fight the power. Or maybe he was talking about the miserable electricity supply that residents of Lagos have to endure? On that point, I’m with him. I was also surprised to see the swearing kept to a reasonable level, I suspect because the Nigerians, being deeply religious, don’t take as kindly to it as your average herbert walking the streets of LA with his trousers hanging below his arse. Or maybe these rappers had exhausted their supply of expletives dealing with the service in the hotel during the day?
These events might look pretty slick on TV, but the live production was a bit disjointed. The organisers probably made a mistake by putting the autocue in the middle of the audience, which included fake American expressions such as “y’all” and indications of when to laugh, which enabled the audience to see it a lot better than the dimwits who were supposed to be reading from it when presenting the awards. The awards themselves were fairly predictable, with a noticeable bias being afforded to the Nigerian acts. MTV’s idea of Africa seems to equate to sub-Saharan Africa, because there was not a single Egyptian, Morrocan, Algerian, or Tunisian act featured or even nominated. And the One Africa concept was dented somewhat when one successful act, on collecting his award, shouted “God Bless Kenya” and was greeted with boos from some quarters. The award for best international artist went to Eminem who, perhaps predictably, didn’t bother to show up to collect it but did afford us a two-minute video of him slouched in a chair in his studio thanking us in, erm, where is this? Ah yeah, Lagos. Yeah, thanks Lagos. Wherever that is.
Other than Eminem, the only other presence of a white face in the proceedings came in the form of a South African rock band who, having seen their opening song which featured chords, rhythm, and a tune go down like a lead balloon, hastily dragged some rapper onto stage to take over lead vocals and switch their style back to hip-hop. I thought the whole thing was a pretty sad state of affairs, personally. I appreciate this was organised by MTV which is by no means all-encompassing, but given the enormous cultural variation across Africa and the incredible depth of its music, that all but one or two acts were a poor imitation of the now highly-commercialised and manufactured American hip-hop acts was pretty pathetic. Is this really what Africa wants its identity to based on, an imitation of one of the more negative aspects of American popular culture? The event could have been composed by a piece of software so predictable was its form and content. I’m not sure exactly what it was that I witnessed last night, but I am fairly sure that it wasn’t African. And if it was, then God help it.