There have been instances in recent history where trendy vices were used as tools to promote equally trendy subcultures in music. Arguably the longest and most destructive of these relationships began over a decade ago, between internet fraud and a very popular dance move that reportedly started on Lagos Island.
Olu Maintain released his monster hit Yahoozey in 2007. The song was the most blatant and over-the-top celebration of internet crime in pop culture up to that point.There had been references to ‘Yahoo-Yahoo’ floating around for years, such as Nkem Owoh’s satirical Chop Your Dollar for the Osuofia movie series (2003), but it was the former Maintain singer that truly put a cool stamp on internet fraud.
Olu shared the open secret of the Nigerian underworld with the rest of the country, and made the dance so popular that former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made the ill-advised move to perform it with him on stage. In the years that followed, other artists like Kelly Hansome went on to turn internet fraud-inspired music from a moment into a subculture and the recent success of 9ice’s Living Things — where the singer showered praises on alleged internet fraudsters — is proof that it’s still alive today.
In some ways, Shaku Shaku is to 2017/18 what Yahoozey was in 2007/08; a dance movement so popular that, in only a few months, it has broken new artistes, given older artistes new life and created an entire subculture out of thin air. But the Agege-born dance movement is in danger of having one more characteristic with its tainted predecessor, and that’s being tethered to another stubborn societal vice: this time, its drug abuse.
Nigeria has a drug problem; the twin challenges of availability and abuse are decades old, but recently seem to have been exacerbated among millennials. With marijuana and its variants becoming increasingly more socially acceptable and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin heavily stigmatized and out of the reach of the common man, the drugs at the heart of the recent surge are low-priced prescription medicines, particularly Codeine and Tramadol.
Codeine and Tramadol are both opiates prescribed for pain relief. In drug culture, they are considered ‘downers’ because they have a sedating effect on the user. Codeine is also a cough suppressant and is the chief component of many types of cough syrups. It is natural and derived from the poppy plant, tramadol, on the other hand, is synthetic.
Both drugs are called opiates because, when taken, they bind to the brain’s opioid receptors – the part responsible for controlling pain, reward and addictive behaviors. That’s the reason why users of either drug could easily become addicted. Besides being addictive, when overdosed or taken in combination with other drugs, codeine and tramadol could cause seizures with brain damage, kidney damage, breathing difficulties, coma and, in some cases, death.
There’s a nationwide black market for the drugs. According to government reports, millions of bottles of codeine are consumed illegally every day, and the NDLEA routinely busts tramadol trafficking rings worth millions of dollars. Loose regulation means a bottle of cough syrup with codeine can be purchased on the street, or at a pharmacy without a proper prescription, for ₦1000, and a 10-tablet strip of 100mg tramadol can be gotten for as little as ₦100.
Early this week, the BBC released a documentary titled “Sweet Sweet Codeine” to highlight the codeine epidemic in Nigeria. Embarrassed, the FG reacted hastily by announcing a ban on the production of cough syrups containing the drug. But I’m hopeful for a more holistic approach that would include discussions around complex topics like mental health, addiction and unemployment, and the promotion of drug use in pop culture.
By some accounts, shaku shaku’s very history is rooted in drug use. According to DJ Real – the DJ widely credited for the rise of Small Doctor – shaku shaku was named after the way street urchins (awawa boys) danced after smoking large amounts of marijuana (among other things). The ubiquitous dance then spread from the grimier parts of Agege to other parts of Lagos through uninhibited street parties.
However, it was rap superstar, Olamide who then took the street dance into the mainstream. His hit song, Science Student was inspired by shaku shaku. It was also inspired by Olamide’s desire to highlight the drug culture prevalent in the back alleys of Lagos where the dance movement had its roots.
On ‘Science Student’, the YBNL boss raps about different homemade concoctions that the youth get high on, the chorus goes: Kosewe, kosegbo, kosewe, kosegbo; won ti po omi gutter po, oju ti dirty; won ti po chemical po, awon omo science students. Translated, this mean ‘There’s no bark, there’s no leaf; they have mixed gutter water, the eye is now dirty; they have mixed chemicals, science students’
Science Student walks that thin line between the glorification of drug abuse and its artistic documentation. Olamide has been adamant that the intention of the song is the latter, but the traditionally heavy-handed Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) could only see one side and placed a ban on “Science Student” earlier in the year. That — alongside public criticism from the likes of Former Edo State Governorship aspirant, Pedro Obaseki — contributed in swaying the public’s perception of Olamide’s new record. But at least, the rapper sparked a much-needed national conversation about drug abuse.
The lyrics and the spirit behind “Science Student” are open to interpretation. However, on his own shaku shaku-inspired single, “Diet”, the rapper’s brother DJ Enimoney, and his featured guests, are far less subtle about drug abuse. Although, given the innocuous song title, you wouldn’t have guessed it. Unlike Naeto C who, on his 2015 studio album Day 1, openly titled a record “Codeine Therapy”, “Diet” has a silent prefix that only gets louder the longer you play the song.
Sure enough, the record begins innocently with one of the breakout stars from the dance movement, Slimcase, yelling “slow down on a codeine diet” but Reminisce immediately reverses this anti-drug stance with an intense verse explaining that, unlike Olamide, he not only is an observer, he’s an active participant.
He raps: “Awa wanbi on a codeine diet / Omo Ase, ki lo n so to keep quiet?” Translation: “We are here on a codeine diet / Foolish child, what are they saying that has kept you quiet?” On her own verse, Tiwa Savage then switches the lyrics from codeine diet to the more PG-friendly protein diet. Her attempt at self-censorship, in itself, is an unwitting admission that something isn’t quite right with the song.
Reminisce and Tiwa have been roundly criticized for their lyrics on “Diet”, although not as much as Olamide was for “Science Student”. Both records have added new words to the lexicon of drug culture, but they’ve also become useful reference points to understand that world better. In artist’s defense, art imitates life, and some of the most important singers in history just reflect our reality; whether it is good, bad or drugly.
There’s a lot more in the shaku shaku mix to dilute the notion that the subculture, as a whole, promotes drugs. But there’s been so much controversy surrounding its rise that drug abuse now looms ominously behind, like a dark shadow.