I was in my room, in front of my laptop, when a knock came on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Subabane”, my brother responded. It’s the bosses. I chuckled. I’d hear the same phrase again from youths of Minna in the coming weeks, so much that I began to use it myself, and of its origins in a song that had broken through the consciousness of northern Nigeria in 2015. When I found out, I started to pay more attention to the singer.
DJ Ab, born Haruna Abdullahi, found a way to fuse rapping with pop culture without forsaking originality, thus securing the love and admiration of his first target audience, the northern youths. By claiming the language of the streets, but in a new way, not rooted in the usual footprints of ancient music makers like Mamman Shata or the like.
Listening to his music takes me back to a memory wedged somewhere between my 12th to 13th year. I was walking to school with my then best friend Vivian, and we’d been talking excitedly about a thing I cannot now remember, speaking in a mix of Hausa and Pidgin. There were no cuss words and no inappropriate words thrown. Just what you might call a bit of “razzness”. It hits me now that I have always been razz. A woman who had been walking to work stopped us hastily, and with a deep sense of worry in her voice and on her face, cautioned us against our language. She was shocked by it and told us, with great concern, to speak proper English instead. We nodded and thanked her, then continued our journey to school in silence.
This was perhaps the first time I became dimly aware that there was classism even in language. I could not have understood this perfectly at the time, I did not even know how to take it. Later, as I moved through life and grew and observed, I understood that really, that was it; language was splintered between the upper class and the lower class. But DJ Ab’s music gives a middle finger to that notion.
The Hausa hip-hop star was born and raised in Kaduna state, which is emerging as a seat of creativity in northern Nigeria, especially with the growing genius of collectives like The Critics Company, a group of teenage filmmakers, and a dance company called The Mud Art Company, founded by gifted dancer Ochai Ogaba.
DJ Ab’s passion for music first manifested in the form of dance, at the age of four. By 2007, when he turned 14, he had already started making instrumentals and beats. The following year, he started writing and recording songs. Though he was inspired mostly by artists from the global West such as Michael Jackson, Akon, and Lil Wayne, he sings predominantly in his indigenous language, Hausa. Today, he is arguably the most widely loved rapper in northern Nigeria, with an immense fanbase on Instagram, Twitter and IRL. In his performances and live shows, the audience snatches his songs from his mouth the moment he climbs on stage and begins to sing.
Chronicling his journey to me, DJ Ab recounted that while still in secondary school, he and three others had formed a band they called Ency fellaz. Had his parents worried that his performance in school would suffer?
No, he said; support from home was on a 100%. He was also a 500 level student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he told me.
DJ Ab is also one of the pioneering members of the band known as Yaran North Side (YNS) which grew after Ency fellaz. Children of the North. Another phrase that evolved into daily speak among northerners.
Like many others, when posting pictures of myself and friends on social media, I find myself captioning them #YaranNorthSide. The phrase feeds into the idea of finding pride in one’s identity. Until recently the need to announce myself as a northerner did not really appear necessary.
Once in a state in Southwestern Nigeria, a man who I had been in conversation with, and who appeared to have been struggling to place my accent all the while, said suddenly, “You’re a northerner?!” He didn’t mean it as a question, or even a statement, he said it like an accusation. But now, we are announcing this identity even before we are asked. Because naming, especially self-naming, is a necessary step towards reclaiming and grounding. A disarming of external factors. This is what the domestication of the name of this band means to the northern youths who identify with it.
YNS is a band comprised of northern artists including Likitre, Rawdawgg, Kabirbebeji, Teeswag, Lil Prince, and Zayn Africa.
One of DJ Ab’s songs, Totally, opens with the voice of a child filled with admiration, and a seriousness that is hilarious because it is adult-like and yet coming from the mouth of a child. He is saying to DJ Ab,
“Su Baba, wannan wankan ya mun…Irin toootally na ke gaya ma.” Boss, I love this outfit of yours. Like tooootally, I tell you.
A literal interpretation of that line however will read something like “Boss, I completely agree with this bath of yours. Like toootally, I tell you.”
When I first I listened to the song, I was struck by its exact description of the way I was in the habit of gassing my younger brother up, whenever he looked good. And it wasn’t exactly a popular or common phrase at all at the time. And yet, here I was, hearing it in a song.
The slang phrase, using bathing as a metaphor for fashion, assumes intimate knowledge of the Hausa speaking community. After the release of this song, the use of the word “wanka” (bathe/bathing) fully fixed that slang definition, equating “bathe” with a person’s fashion sense. DJ Ab’s music insists on the integrity and relevance of the language spoken by members of his own society —its particular elegance, if you like. It proposes that the street aspect of the Hausa language within the northern community has, in fact, a polish all its own.
Perhaps the song that best encapsulates this for me is “Kumatu,” released earlier this year and endorsed by popular Ghanaian artiste Mr Eazi. Mr Eazi once joked on Twitter that DJ Ab might just be the “King in the North,” alluding to the character in Game of Thrones.
In the song, DJ Ab raps,
“Rai ya ɓaci. Hankali ya tashi. Kai ya ɗau charji”. The mood has dampened. Nerves are up. Head is charging (blowing hot)
It didn’t take long before students started to use the song as a background tune for videos of themselves studying, or making scenes or skits suggesting something serious was about to happen.
DJ Ab’s music continues to spread beyond Nigeria, despite the fact that the lyrics are predominantly in Hausa, strengthening my conviction that good music will resonate across borders, despite differences of language.
At my cousin’s wedding ceremony, when I was six, there were older Nupe women present to entertain guests with traditional music. They sat on a mat in the middle of the compound, their huge calabashes stuffed with clothes and then clamped on the ground. Their voices rose into a beautifully chaotic timbre that seemed to draw you into a past you did not know existed. The only other sound came from their beating the backs of the calabashes. I was fascinated. It seemed very much like magic to me, how a calabash could produce that kind of enchantment. These musicians were called Epun Nyinchizhi in Nupe, and ‘yan kiɗan kwarya in Hausa, my mother told me later. They were everywhere, mostly singing the praises of politicians and selling them to their audience. But some of them, like Hajiya Barmani Choge, sang songs that empowered women.
From the use of traditional means to create rhythm and sound, to singing only with the magic of voice, unaccompanied by any other form of sound, and now to rapping, music in northern Nigeria continues to evolve. The traditional music is still very much in vogue, especially at weddings, and more recently at public intellectual functions. In September, a traditional Hausa band was invited to perform on stage at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival. A few days ago in Kano at a seminar about domestic violence, another, similar band was also present.
Music saves, music heals. We return to it in our public moments of joys and triumphs, in our insufficiency during private sadnesses and melancholies. But also for a sense of community. It is for this last reason that I go to DJ Ab.