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Opinion

Nigerian Comedy May Never Get Global Acclaim Unless… -By Azuka Onwuka

The Nigerian music industry has never had it so good. In addition to the Grammy awards that Nigerian musicians win these days as well as the sold-out concerts they have in different cities of Europe, North America and Asia, Nigerian music is played in virtually every part of the world. Unlike in the past when Nigerian songs appealed mainly to Nigerians, Africans, and Nigerians abroad, people from different nationalities love Nigerian songs.

For example, to round off 2023, former American president, Barack Obama, published his list of favourite songs of the year. On the list of the 28 songs he published, there were four songs by Nigerians, namely “Unavailable” by Davido ft. Musa Keys, “Sittin’ on top of the world” by Burna Boy ft. 21 Savage, “Amapiano” by Asake & Olamide, and “Me & U” by Tems. Obama’s list also featured the song “Sprinter” by Dave & Central Cee. Although Dave, whose full name is David Omoregie, is identified as a “British rapper,” he was born in South London to Nigerian parents who relocated to the United Kingdom some months before his birth in 1998.

That Nigerian musicians had such number of songs on Obama’s list was an indication of the huge acceptance Nigerian music has received in recent years. This was unheard-of 20 years ago. The only Nigerian musicians who received such global recognition were those who were based either in the United Kingdom or the United States like Sade Adu and Seal. But today, Nigerian-based musicians rise and get recognition across the world.

Even when Nigerian musicians sing in pidgin English or other Nigerian local languages, it does not affect the reception of such songs, because music is more about the rhythm than the lyrics. An example is Congolese musician, Awilo Longomba, who was hugely popular in Nigeria in the first few years of this century, even though virtually all Nigerians could not understand one word he said.

The Nigerian film industry had also received international recognition before the music industry did. But technology and other factors have not allowed that industry to rise as high as the music industry.

Another industry that has become very lucrative is the comedy industry. The key areas here are stand-up comedy and comedy films. With the rise in the popularity of social media and streaming platforms, Nigerians began to produce short comedy films called skits. Unlike the comedy films that were shared through the sale of video cassettes and discs, the skits are posted only on platforms where they can be watched. The sites publish commercials on such skits and pay the content creators according to the viewership of the content.

This has turned many young people into wealthy individuals. Stand-up comedians also post their stage performances on channels like YouTube and other social media platforms, and get paid for the volume of viewership. There is a huge opportunity in this field as it gives the content creators access to global audience. When it comes to online matters, there are no boundaries.

However, the Nigerian comedy industry – both skit-making and stand-up comedy – is limited in the height it can achieve globally. The irony is that the same factor that makes it funny and attractive to Nigerians is its limiting factor. That factor is pidgin English.

There is something dramatic and hilarious about pidgin English. For Nigerians, it is easy to learn and speak. Unlike English, it rarely has wrong grammar. Almost anyhow it is spoken is intelligible. When Nigerians speak English, they are too self-conscious. They don’t want to make mistakes in grammar or pronunciation. Sometimes they are stuck because the right word can’t appear at the needed time. Sometimes, they can’t easily translate their thoughts into English. Some words and expressions in the local language are not available in English. Some get weakened when translated. For example, try translating “good soup, na money kill am” into English and see how hard it is.

It is twice as difficult to make people laugh in English than in pidgin. When you say regular things in pidgin, people laugh. Ordinary greetings like “How una dey? (How are you?),” Wetin dey happen?” (What’s up?) bring smiles to audiences.

That is why the most memorable and exciting TV commercials in Nigeria are done in pidgin English. Pidgin English is not as uptight as English. It is not as class-conscious as English. It is not as formal as English. When people talk to their subordinates in English, the subordinates feel that the discussion is formal. But if the boss talks in pidgin, the subordinates feel relaxed and become more expressive.

And among all the variants of pidgin English spoken in Nigeria, the variant from Warri is most exciting. Unlike in most parts of Nigeria where the locals have a Nigerian language as the primary language, Warri seems to have pidgin English as its primary language. In Warri, three major ethnic groups (Urhobo, Itsekiri, and Ijaw) hold sway. None is seen as the dominant language. To communicate easily among one another, they use pidgin English.

Unlike in most parts of Nigeria where children start speaking their local language first, children in Warri start speaking pidgin early in life alongside their local language. Years of communicating in pidgin English makes them speak it expertly. They regularly coin words and expressions in pidgin English. When they speak pidgin English, it flows like rap music. Even when they are talking about something serious, listeners laugh because of the expressive and dramatic way they speak the pidgin English. It is not surprising that some of Nigerian best comedians come from Warri city or Delta State.

Ironically, that advantage pidgin English has over English as regards the acceptability of comedy by Nigerians is the disadvantage it has on the world stage. Except for a few countries in West Africa, most people don’t understand the pidgin English spoken by Nigerians. In fact, each country has its own version of the pidgin English that most West Africans struggle to understand the meaning of many of the words Nigerians use.

This pidgin English factor will make it hard for Nigerian comedy to gain global acclaim like Nigerian music has done. Nigerian comedians have spoken so long in pidgin English that it will be hard for them to easily speak in English and be funny to non-Nigerian audiences. The Nigerian accent is also a barrier. For example, most Nigerians pronounce cot, court, caught, cut, and curt the same way, which confuses non-Nigerian listeners, especially Western listeners.

What happens now is that Nigerian comedians who perform in Europe and North America mainly perform to the Nigerian community in such cities. Their jokes also have Nigerian background.

The challenge facing Nigerian comedians and skit makers is to capture the interest of non-Nigerian audience like Nigerian music has done. The first barrier to overcome is the language barrier. Interestingly, there are many Latinos, Arabs, Indians, and non-English-speaking Europeans that have become hugely popular as comedians in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, for example. If nationals whose key language is not English could overcome the barrier of language and become big comedians in North America and the UK, travelling round the world and performing to different audiences, Nigerian comedians who studied from primary school to the university in English can do it and do it better. The way to do it is to think big: think of conquering the global market instead of being satisfied with just conquering the Nigerian market.

But if Nigerian-based comedians find it hard to conquer the global comedy market, perhaps the gauntlet will fall on Nigerians born abroad in the US, UK, and Canada (or those who emigrated when they were pre-teens). These ones who will not face the barrier of language may become the comedians that may take Nigerian comedy right round the world.

– X: @BrandAzuka

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