Photography by Glenna Gordon, Words by Iain Marlow
LAGOS, NIGERIA—“Don’t you ever mention Antibalas and Fela in the same sentence again,” Chike says from the front seat as the beat up VW van jerks to another halt in the gridlock on the way out of central Lagos. The sun has just set, and it’s dark, but he’s bathed in the warm red glow of brakelights. I’m sitting in the back, on a beat-up, three-seater couch shoved into the hold with two other men in thick, knotted dreadlocks. I’m trying hard to make out Chike’s expressions in the shadows, but I keep turning around to stare nervously out past the space where the roll-up back door should be, into the eyes of other people stuck in an endless line of cars stretching back toward downtown. “Can we roll down the back door?” I ask. One of the other guys, over the sputtering engine, replies: “The driver needs it to see.”
Understood. We continue rolling slowly, along with thousands of others in this African megalopolis, past the source of the indeterminable gridlock: An SUV that collided with one of the numerous battered minibuses that ply these streets, men hanging out the side. This SUV, though, has ended up spectacularly upside down, marvelously upside down, basically on top of the minibus, which is crushed, both vehicles resting on the median; some men sit near the side of the road, while others bicker with each other. One man on a cellphone stands in the glare of the headlights, waiting for reception, staring into the black sky.
Antibalas, the New York-based band Chike is referring to, plays the Nigerian melange of American funk, jazz and African rhythms known around the world as Afrobeat. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or Fela, as he’s known, is renowned for inventing the genre and using his talent as a megaphone to antagonize Nigeria’s brutal and corrupt military governments. He ran a compound that effectively functioned as an autonomous state within Nigeria and at one point had 27 wives. The military governments are now gone, and so is Fela, the demigod, who died in 1997. But in a kinetic place like Lagos, Fela’s energy pulses still, out of the car radios in a more modern, R&B form; Fela’s spirit has been autotuned. Antibalas is almost unfathomably removed from most people’s daily reality here, a safe, sanitized version of this place’s belly-burning, eye-popping intensity, so even though I mentioned them and Fela in the same sentence, and I must stress it was in response to one of Chike’s questions, I can’t blame him for morphing into a stern pastor before me on the subject. (A New Jersey-based Nigerian business executive, on the other hand, tells me he loved Fela! on Broadway, for which Antibalas was the house band.)
With a population somewhere between 10-million and 21-million, Lagos is either the largest city in Sub-Saharan Africa or the largest city in all of Africa, ahead of even Cairo. Regardless, it’s one of the largest cities in the world. But all of that’s as hazy as the thrumming, kerosene-drenched air, considering there’s been no real census here since 2006, almost all of them have been contested given the politicization of population in Nigeria, and the fact that this city-state could be expanding at a rate of about 600,000 people every year. Most of them, of course, slam right into the slums on the sprawling outskirts, where there is almost always no legally legitimate claim to their housing. How you’d count everyone is beyond me, anyway: It’s really hard to imagine bespectacled bureaucrats wandering into the slums with pen-and-clipboard; although, for a couple of afternoons, that’s basically what I did, on assignment for my newspaper.
Of course, to paint Lagos as a lawless enclave on the coast of West Africa is all too easy. The slums make for picturesque poverty — particularly Makoko, which is a slum of shacks built out on stilts into Lagos Lagoon’s fetid water — and they cover roughly two-thirds of the city. But the city has its downtown, even if to get there from one of the main highways you drive right above a little market selling goats. It has bank headquarters, big commercial buildings, and a massive port with cranes yawning over the water into ocean-faring juggernauts. It’s an impressive place, a symbol of Africa’s complicated economic renaissance.
Everyone you meet, whether in meetings or on the fly, whether Big Important Men In Suits or their female assistants, almost without fail they will try and bring you into their plans somehow, and they all have three or four business cards and are trying to figure out which one to give you: The one for this business or that venture, this start-up or that one. Did I tell you I’m looking for opportunities, they ask, because I may not be in this job forever and so maybe, just maybe, we should stay in touch! Who knows?
Toni Kan is a glorious example of all this. A consummate social butterfly, he’s a newspaper columnist and book reviewer and fiction writer and ex-telecommunications executive. He’s just returned from Italy, where he was on a writer’s retreat, and is now bobbing around Lagos’s social scene, stopping by the Lights! Camera! Africa! film festival at the posh Southern Sun Hotel, hugging people, saying hello. With his diesel generator and the driver and Lagos’s insane rent, he’s got to hustle, got to hand out business cards for his PR business. He’s just one of the links between Lagos and the world, one of the many globally minded citizens who is trying live their life in a Lagos they know could be better. When he first arrived in the city, though, he wasn’t who he is now.
“I had a bad stammer then, and I realized: You can’t stammer in Lagos. You need to be on your toes, you can’t just slack,” he says. “I just know this was where I wanted to be.” He talks about how pumping the music scene is, the booming “Nollywood” film industry. But he’s also cautious: Corruption is everywhere. The oil-drenched economy means that everyone is fighting to get on the inside. Rebels become Big Men; Big Men become enfeebled cash distributors. The national government has tended to pay off its critics, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where it pays militants not to steal oil and kidnap foreign oil workers. It usually works, until the politicians who control the armed bands get booted from office in an election and go right back to looting, explains one Nigerian social worker who works there. The government is cracking down on corruption, and educated Nigerians are coming back to cities like Lagos with big plans, but it’s going to take time, if things don’t fall off the rails again. “When we go anywhere else, we excel, but when we come back, we revert to foolishness,” Kan says. “This is Nigeria. Everybody who’s trying to fight the system is trying to get a leg in.”
Everyone is hustling in Lagos. Lagos, itself, is a sort of hustler, and may hustle you in the airport if you’re not careful. Certainly, its restaurants and hotels and bars and businesses, all powered by thundering generators that down diesel like Star and Gulder beers, will hit you up in the city proper, sucking the 1,000 Naira bills, each worth about $6, straight from your wallet. Chike’s hotel, the Bogobiri, is an example of that. He jokes about how much cheaper the beer is out in the street. Because of my foreign credit card, and because most of the Nigerian economy is “informal” or doesn’t take credit cards anyway, I have to pay for a week’s stay in cash; and when the largest bill is for 1,000 Naira, it means I’m walking back to my driver’s dented Toyota from the ATM, which spits 20,000 at a time, with a bulging wallet, two bulging pant pockets, and two bulging shirt pockets. At the Bogobiri, it all empties out. Hustled!
Chike, the others and I, after navigating traffic made even worse by road closures, eventually arrive at our destination: The New Afrika Shrine, a version of Fela’s legendary nightclub revived by his son Femi, who plays a faster, more pulsating version of Afrobeat than the one his father played. Because we are late, he is already performing. We walk past the man selling weed out of a shopping bag. We pay the 500 Naira admission and stroll into the cavernous hall. We get beers, pass the pool tables and station ourselves below a woman gyrating and stomping in a cage. A woman is dancing alone in a corner, her shadow snaking along the wall.
On stage with Femi are a guitarist and bassist, a percussionist and drummer, a full horn section, and other musicians, as well as three dancers in tribal gear, faces painted. It’s intense. Loud.
We start moving, dancing, and soon get more beers. People dance past, huge joints in their mouths, and fist bump Femi, who has to bend down from the high stage to reach them. At one point, a man with no legs, wheeling himself around on a board, climbs on stage to applause. He fist bumps Femi, too. He is a god here, like his father was before him. And like his father, Femi speaks and people listen and what he says is quite true about Lagos and Nigeria, more broadly. “Politics is big, big business!”
Glenna Gordon’s personal site is here.