By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
“Somebody stepped into the studio and said he wanted to do a stupid song because Nigerians really like stupid songs.”
That was Bez speaking to an interviewer in 2013, in response to a question about his 2011 single ‘That Stupid Song’.
He continued: “Cobhams was like: ‘Ha, which kind of stupid do you want to do now?’ Then, he started thinking in a more creative way and the guy said: ‘No, I don’t want all those oyinbo kind of songs. I want a proper stupid song.’ At that moment, the idea came to Cobhams to create a song that was a mixture of different songs that we sang back in the day.”
‘That Stupid Song’ became a hit, perhaps the biggest of Bez’s career. Just under a half-decade later, two songs in that mould are causing quite a ripple across West Africa. But where Bez and Cobhams were somewhat condescending to their source material and fellow citizens, the singers of these other songs appear committed.
In December last year, Fuji pop artist Small Doctor released the song by which he would almost certainly be remembered by. ‘Penalty’ started small, becoming a hit on the streets, then, months later, wending its way to nearly everyone’s playlist in Lagos. It crossed the city’s famed Island-Mainland divide, becoming as likely to be played on the stereo of a rickety danfo as at a shindig hosted by an upscale hangout spot in Victoria Island.
Over in Ghana, a similar thing happened. Social media users were surprised to see videos with people ostensibly busy at some task and then abandoning those tasks for some frenetic humping when a particular song comes on. The One Corner videos had become popular before many realised the ridiculousness was a dance move to a song made by a previously unknown artist named Pataapa. Like Small Doctor, Pataapa had some regional fame before the big hit. Like ‘Penalty’, ‘One Corner’ was met curiosity, condemnation and, finally, acceptance.
Some of the condemnation remains in both cases—but the success, in terms of popularity, of either song is no longer in doubt. The success of ‘Penalty’ led Small Doctor’s team to release a colourful video for the song several months after its release. For its part, ‘One Corner’ has swept Ghana, earning Pataapa a spot across media platforms and a performance at the album launch for Sarkodie’s The Highest. Videos showing Nigerian acts Reekado Banks and Falz listening to ‘One Corner’ have turned up online, with the former going at it with a chair. Other celebrities have joined in, and Pataapa is reportedly getting ready for international concerts.
‘Penalty’ has no real meaning. Writing for this platform, Kayode Faniyi called the song “a hot mess, a dunghill…an absurdity”. The song makes no claim to depth. From saying someone has conjured a throw-in out of a penalty, a football metaphor, Small Doctor goes through lines taken from old juju songs and the soundtrack of a TV show. When he takes a song from the childhood of a generation of Nigerians he proves what one might, with the benefit of hindsight, call the Bez-Cobhams theory: A truly stupid song should employ childhood songs.
Pataapa does that and more. His ‘One Corner’ is just as meaningless as ‘Penalty’, consisting of all sorts of things stapled by drums on the chorus. As he has said, “I create my own French”—a sentiment close in spirit to Small Doctor’s claim that anything can be put into a song.
“The lyrics consist of mostly rhymes we sang as kids,” music journalist Gabriel Myers Hansen says of Pataapa’s hit, “including what to do when you come upon a traffic light. Therefore, he says absolutely nothing.” People dancing to both songs at concerts and on the streets do not care for meaning. As Faniyi says the “audience seems preoccupied with dance, which means sound is primary”.
That preoccupation is a major feature of certain strains of pop music, a genre so democratic that popularity—not edification, not cleverness and certainly not art—is its target. Add the suggestion of sex to danceability and you might arrive at the source of the appeal of ‘One Corner’.
The relationship between familiarity and pop music success is one plausible reason these songs have become hits and further confirmation of Cobhams’ ‘stupid method’ all those years ago.
In Song Machine, John Seabrook’s 2015 book on the music industry, the writer quotes Guy Zapoleon, a US radio consultant: “There’s an old adage that you can only do research on people who are already familiar with the song.”
“Zapoleon, “ writes Seabrook, “refers to this as the “rule of three”—you have to hear a song three times before you know if you like it or not.” Neither Cobhams-Bez nor Small Doctor-Pataapa might be aware of Zapoleon’s rule, but ‘That Stupid Song’, ‘Penalty’ and ‘One Corner’ capture its essence. There is some sense in tapping into patterns pre-formed in the listener’s mind over years.
The most important difference between ‘That Stupid Song’ and its successors is class-related. Patapaa and Small Doctor, both of whom are from working class backgrounds, would hardly call those songs of old stupid. Their identification with those songs is perhaps why their own songs have crossed class lines: those from the working class can immediately access the singers’ sincerity; those from a higher class join in ironically. Speaking broadly, for this latter set, enjoying ‘One Corner’ or ‘Penalty’ is a little like slumming. And because ‘That Stupid Song’ was conceived with a winking awareness, it could be loved only by the relatively upper crust. Like Bez and Cobhams, these listeners were in on the joke.
Cobhams “created [the] music almost immediately,” said Bez in that interview from four years ago. “Then, I started giving him the different songs that we sang and so we added some things and removed some.”
“It was amazing,” he concluded. Indeed, ignorance might be bliss—but making a hit from innocence while calling it stupid deserves to be called amazing. Maybe.
This article was first published on Music in Africa.