What makes a song truly great? Forget hype, chart success or sales. A great song must transcend time, convey strong emotions, shift culture and resonate with a large number of people.
These songs should also be embedded in pop culture, influence lexicon and reflect cultural attitudes.
In the gold rush and cash grab for (the oddly-named) Afrobeats, articles, think- pieces, lists and content dedicated to Nigerian music before this explosion barely exist. It seems premium attention is only placed on the music movement that sprang up around a decade ago.
The first album released by a Nigerian was in 1925. That’s almost a century away from Burna Boy’s Grammy nod in 2019. The African Giant has climbed to the top of the most reputable North-American journalistic institutions, swinging from the web pages of The New York Times to NPR.
There are however many complex back-stories that have led to not only his rise but the rise of contemporary Nigerian pop music as a whole. It has been a culmination of music genres, styles, trends and lifestyles from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and even the 80s and 90s.
There seems to be a gaping hole, a curation dearth of our music legends. Where are the tantalizing tales? The musical myths? Where is the fabric, the tapestry that weaves through the decades and connects Tekno to Bright Chimezie or Davido to Shina Peters?
I decided to compile this list because of two reasons; there is no such list on the Internet with cultural context that I know of, and secondly- to educate young Nigerians on this country’s music history.
With the knowledge I have of Nigerian music (little, I must admit) I have compiled a list of 25 Nigerian classic songs that I feel are worthy enough to be classified under this list.
This list showcases a range of genres, topics, music styles and writing techniques. What binds them together are the qualities I listed above.
I hope you enjoy the greatness of these songs and appreciate Nigeria’s rich music history. Be on the lookout for Vol. 2.
- Songs released after 2008 were not considered.
- These songs have been ranked in no particular order and reflects the bias and music taste of the writer.
25) Konko Below by Lagbaja (2000)
On the dot of the new millennium, the masked entertainer Lagbaja (who had ran the music scene from the 90s with his blend of Yoruba highlife and contemporary genres) released perhaps his biggest album — a three-in-one collection named ‘Me’, ‘We’and ‘Abami’. Off ‘Me’ he dropped the eternal rump shaker titled ‘Konko Below’.
Forget about catching lightning in a bottle, Lagbaja caught thunder in a compact disc. The heavy drums, the sweet licks of the guitar and the smooth voice of Ego (his side-kick vocalist), helped concoct a hypnotic groove that still captivates people on numerous dance floors till today. Konko Below was a bonafide Y2K smash hit and has morphed into a Nigerian classic.
24) Gongo Aso by 9ice (2008)
The first 8 seconds of ‘Gongo Aso’ is a call to beautiful mayhem, musical bedlam, sweet madness. Laced by producer ID Cabasa, Gongo Aso was the song that catapulted 9ice from a hood singer and hook specialist to a national sensation.
The instrumental of this classic song is one of the most famous in Nigeria’s music history. No debate. With 9ice’s gravel voice, Gongo Aso became a national hit. With a mix of street lingo and Yoruba proverbs, 9ice scored a home run. It is the musical equivalent of
23) Diana by Daddy Showkey (circa 1998)
One thing about great songs is that they are simple and effective. It does not get as simple as Daddy Showkey’s ‘Diana’. The narrative of the song is eerily similar to countless Nollywood plots of a barren woman scorned by her in-laws.
Daddy Showkey used simple story-telling, ghetto living and the galala sound to create an evergreen track. The song is so popular that there is hardly any Nigerian that can’t sing the chorus of this song. I personally feel that Diana was arguably the biggest song of the 90s…
22) Dem Go Dey Pose by Baba Fryo (circa 1997)
Starting from the mid 90s, the ghetto known as Ajegunle was a hotbed for musical talent especially those who sang ‘Galala’, (a Nigerian version of ragga music). Nigeria was just coming out of the Reggae fever when Galala sprang forth.
Daddy Showkey was the poster boy of this movement but along the line, other acts scored massive tunes. One of those songs was ‘Dem Go Dey Pose’ by Baba Fryo.
Armed with a star eye-patch, Baba Fryo scored a huge crossover hit. With a skeletal beat, Baba Fryo criticized hypocrites who flaunted their fake lifestyle- a common trope of popular Nigerian music. Dem Go Dey Pose was a runaway smash that no one someone coming. It helped entrench Galala music in the minds of Nigerian music lovers.
21) Fuel For Love by Wrinkars Experience (1972)
Wrinkars Experience performing at a gig in 1972. © Uchenna Ikonne
The 70s was an exciting time in Nigeria. The country struck gold with crude oil and was rolling in money. Musically, it was the golden age for alternative music with rock and psychedelic rock music leading the charge. Even a certain Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was tweaking a new captivating sound which he would christen Afrobeat.
‘Fuel For Love’ is a bonafide classic from Nigeria’s rock generation. The band Wrinkars Experience made up of mostly Cameroonians and Nigerian lead singer Dan Ian composed a love record that remains a golden tune from a golden generation of rock stars. If you are digging through the crates for Nigerian rock songs, Fuel For Love is the place to start from. The group unfortunately did not last long. By 1973 the group had split but in 2014, the living members of the band including Dan Ian reunited at the Lagos Jazz Series for a commanding performance.
20) Taxi Driver by Bobby Benson (1958)
There are some songs that are stuck in your mind for as long as you remember but the odd thing is that you can’t remember when you first heard it. It has been a part of you since you could sing the alphabet song.
‘Taxi Driver’ by Bobby Benson is one of such songs. It’s a track we can all sing but we are not quite sure how we learnt it. You can swear you never took the time to listen to the record.
Composed during the Highlife years in Nigerian music, the classic song has whiffs of big band music. Taxi Driver is a gentleman’s way of telling a woman off instead of begging her to stay. The puzzling thing about this track is why the legend Bobby Benson used a taxi driver as his punch line. Maybe back in the days, taxi drivers where the city boys. Nevertheless it is a timeless song.
19) Happy Birthday by Evi Edna Ogholi (1988)
The Queen of Reggae Music in Nigeria and music legend Evi Edna Ogholi was a force to reckon with during the golden era of the genre in the country. By the late 70s, reggae music was creeping into the country thanks to the influence of Bob Marley.
By the 80s, The Mandators, Majek Fashek and Oritz Wiliki became Reggae superstars. However, Evi Edna Ogholi was the golden child of the movement. Her career started when she was just 20 years old. 4 years after that, she released six albums with three of them reportedly hitting platinum status.
With classics under her belt, Evi Edna Ogholi is one of the few Nigerian acts that you can’t summarize her career by listing one track. However, if we have to choose, it would have to be ‘Happy Birthday’. The song was ubiquitous. There was hardly any kiddies birthday party this song wasn’t played from the 80s down to the mid-90s’. To know more about her glittering career, read my article on her.
18) Still Searching By Bongos Ikwue & The Groovies (1978)
Heartache has never sounded so melodious. Bongos Ikwue remains one of Nigeria’s finest singers.
In 1978, he took his pen and pad to compose one of the bluest love songs known to man. This song is as melancholic as Drake’s vocals on 40’s cold instrumentals.
This song should go down in history as one of the best penned songs to come out of this country. The sax solo on this song is captivating and the reggae grooves underneath makes the song so gripping. However, Bongos Ikwue’s haunting and almost-tired voice is the cherry on the cake…a cake that we are still eating.
17) Mo Fe Mu’Yan By Victor Olaiya And His ‘All Stars’ (1982)
Victor Olaiya is one of the gods of Highlife music and thankfully he is still alive. The maestro whipped up a lusty track (what was considered lusty in this period) that dripped with red hot desire. The title of song when translated in English means ‘I want to suck breasts’.
It is a daring and edgy record in terms of lyrics. How did this song get on the radio?
This song was remixed a few years ago for a cleaner version but where is the fun in that? The original remains a Yoruba Demon classic.
16) African Queen by 2face Idibia (2004)
What hasn’t been written or said about this track? There is a twinge of ad nauseam concerning this track off 2face Idibia’s solo debut album ‘Face 2 Face’.
Still the popularity of this song is mind bugging. It is a household song. The song was an instant classic of Nigeria’s urban music generation and remains one of Nigeria’s greatest love songs. Coming off a classic LP, we really should have known that African Queen was destined for greatness.
15) Jailer by Asa (2008)
I personally consider this song to be the best single released since 2000. The songwriting is sheer brilliance. Using metaphors and imagery, Asa paints a vivid picture of oppression and injustice — two things Nigerians are very much aware of.
A predecessor of alte/woke records, Asa dropped a gem of a record off a classic debut album. This record encapsulates the struggles of being a Nigerian — to endure constant suffering from the powers that be and their pawns.
Her self-titled album helped usher in the soul movement in contemporary Nigerian music. Jailer is a true conscious record that has continued to resonate for years.
14) Love Nwantinti by Nelly Uchendu (1976)
I honestly don’t have the words to describe this track. Is it the piano driven bounce? Or the faux operatic vocals of Nelly Uchendu? This song is a masterclass in creating a timeless track.
Love Nwantinti also belongs to the class of great Nigerian love records. Simple, enchanting and brilliant this song by Nelly Uchendu undoubtedly belongs to the list of greatest Nigerian songs of all time. R.I.P in Nelly.
13) Seun Rere by Christy Essien Igbokwe (1981)
If you strip late Christy Essien Igbokwe’s vocals from this song the instrumental might lead to think it is a a happy song but when Christy Essien Igbokwe’s powerhouse vocals lands on the beat, it becomes a sad tune.
Don’t even mess with her pen game. Seun Rere tells the tale a child lost in the world despite his parents upbringing. It’s a song of despair and eventually hope but Igbokwe made it sound so damn good. And those horns! They don’t play them like they used to.
12) Shakomo by The Remedies (1998)
To those who don’t know let me state this, there would be no Wizkid, Davido, Rema, Burna Boy and co without this song. Why? Prior to Remedies, the Nigerian music landscape wasn’t Hip-Hop/urban music friendly.
Despite the popularity of American Hip-Hop tracks and urban music, there was no homegrown movement that cracked the mainstream with urban/Hip-Hop tracks. That would change when the duo of Kenny ‘Keke’ Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D1’ Adeneye launched Kennis Music.
The first act on the legendary label was The Remedies made up of rapper Eedris Abdulkareem, singer Eddie Remedy and back-up vocalist Tony Tetuila. Their first single was the MC-Lyte remixed ‘Shakomo’ which was based off a sample of ‘Liberian Girl’ by Michael Jackson.
This song was the rallying cry for a new gen to rise up and take its place in history. The song was an instant hit among young Nigerians. Shortly after, Nigeria’s urban music scene was birthed which led to the revolution (one day I will write about that).
11) Afro Juju by Shina Peters (1989)
By the late 80s, the juju genre had passed its golden age. It was being overshadowed by modern new music styles by a younger generation that favoured digital production and contemporary music flavours.
In 1989, Shina Peters, who had been around for a while, dropped a salvo. His album Ace was a spell binding and dizzy array of poly-rhythms, hooks and melodies. Most importantly it featured an updated Juju sound which he christened Afro Juju.
Produced by one of Nigeria’s greatest producers Laolu Akins, the album turned out to be a best seller. It crossed regional boundaries and became a national hit despite the Yoruba barrier.
Now the problem about picking a song off this album is that in true Juju fashion the songs are sang in a medley format. The tracks blend into another so it’s hard to choose. However, for this purpose of picking the greatest songs I will choose the opening track called ‘Afro Juju’. In the first four minutes, Shina Peters introduces a world of lusty, rump shaking and more urgent form of juju music that was needed at the time.
10) Joromi by Sir Victor Uwaifo (1979)
The Guitar God himself. Forget Jimi Hendrix, Uwaifo is the king of the guitar strings. And his classic ‘Joromi’ is as popular as any Nigerian fairy tale.
An eternal Nigerian favourite, the song has remained relevant over the years thanks to the countless remixes and references.
Joromi was such a commercial success that his record label Phillips West Africa awarded him the first golden plaque not only in Nigeria and West Africa but in Africa. The Guitar God keeps on playing forever.
Odd sidebar — Nigerian rapper Cashman Davies remixed the song back in the mid 90s (I am looking for that version).
9) Esubiri Ebo Mi by King Sunny Ade (1974)
How do you choose one classic song from a catalogue of 124 albums? King Sunny Ade’s career spans over four decades and is choked with numerous evergreens. A proponent of the Juju sound, KSA helped take the genre to mainstream Nigeria and outside of the shores of this country later in his rich career.
Out of his numerous classics, I’m picking ‘Esubiri Ebo Mi’ which featured on the B-side off his 1974 LP. When translated to English, the hook means “my friends gather around me. This journey I am on, is it taking me forward or backward? I don’t know.” The song touches on the uncertainty of this journey called life and if success is around the corner.