MTV VMAs 2023: The Night Rema Became Afrobeats’ New Leader
Historians and followers of American politics can readily recall the night Barack Obama arrived on the central scene, leading to his election as President of the United States four short years later: it was at the 2004 Democratic Convention where he gave a rousing speech that anointed him for the role that will make him the most historic president in America’s two hundred and fifty-year history. Similarly, in years to come, anybody who saw Rema win the Best Afrobeats at the 2024 MTV Video Music Awards will remember it as the night he made his ascension as the leader of the Afrobeats genre. Standing next to Selena Gomez and fielding cheers from the global audience, he was the true star of the night – at least as far as Afrobeats was concerned.
It’s not so much the literal meaning of the words he said when he gave props to Nigerian icons from Fela to younger ones like 2face, Don Jazzy, Dbanj, Wizkid, Davido and Burna, who make up the set just before him before declaring his generation as the next who will push the Afrobeats movement further on the global stage. Rema not only embraced his history, he did so openly and publicly; he did it in the same week that Spotify announced that Calm Down, his collaboration with Selena Gomez, had become the first Afrobeats song to notch a billion streams.
Rema had made the first statement a couple of weeks ago at The Headies, Nigeria’s leading award show, which has been held in the United States since its 2022 edition. Whilst a section of the public queried the choice of location of a Nigerian award, some other artistes like Ayra Starr, for example, had slated the organizers for announcing her category backstage (she wasn’t in attendance nor anybody else in that category), Rema and Asake were in attendance. Still, when the latter won, all he said was “Thank you.” However, when Rema mounted the stage to receive one of his four awards of the night, his speech was a deliberate call to arms. “I think it’s important to say that I’m not here because of the awards; I’m here because it’s important to support our institutions… I feel we’re in a very sensitive period that if we don’t give attention to our institutions, we will never have this chance again.”
The context of it is why Rema’s soft speech means a lot more: the genre has been begging for a leader, and the biggest beneficiaries of the attention the world is paying to the culture now seem disinterested at best and, in some cases, eager to distant themselves from Afrobeats and attempt to create something newer for themselves. Wizkid is notoriously private and hardly ever makes contemplative pronouncements like this; Davido is often preoccupied with proving himself to many doubters, and Burna Boy is primarily combative. Asake, whose stardom has been overwhelming, appears unable to phrase his thoughts properly to deliver a punchy statement. Rema is the only one saying all the right things about his genre right now. It’s a timely intervention.
Afrobeats may result from many decades of innovation and the evolution of Nigerian music. Still, at this point, it is the vehicle by which the rest of the world is being introduced to our popular music. Now is not the time to dissociate oneself from this movement as it is still too young in the large scheme of world music. Rather, all the players within the ecosystem owe it to themselves, their forebears and successors to represent it properly when the biggest klieg lights are shone on them. In the words of William Shakespeare, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” At this critical point in Afrobeats’ history, it is a matter of all three, and one must salute Rema for rising to the occasion.
A few hours before Rema made history at the VMAs, it was announced that rising star Mohbad had passed away in Lagos, Nigeria. The news was met with shock and disbelief, which soon gave way to sorrow at the untimely death of yet another talented youngster. At 27, he had barely started his life, and more was still to come for him. Previously signed to Naira Marley’s Marlian Music, his dispute with the label was widely reported. He had also been said to have been badly treated by Naira Marley and his crew, and at least on one occasion, inflicted bodily harm on him. His death is particularly made more painful because he had openly spoken of his struggles with his health, being blacklisted by a section of the music industry, and according to his friend Bella Shmurda, Mohbad had once been suicidal, mainly because of his struggles to exit the label.
Label controversies are not new, but they’re not insignificant either. Artistes are human beings first, and each person has a breaking point where their body gives up, involuntarily or otherwise. The cause of his death is yet to be revealed when writing this, but whatever it is cannot make it less heart-wrenching. He lives behind a 24-year-old wife, a five-month-old baby, and his parents and siblings. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire family, and we hope they find the fortitude to bear this terrible bereavement.
Jide Taiwo is a writer and media practitioner. His second book, E File Fun Burna, is available here.
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