Nigeria’s Afrobeat Music Scene Is Booming, but Profits Go to Pirates

Seyi Shay

Seyi Shay

Forcing a smile, Seyi Shay, a music star in Nigeria, stood for hours under the hot lights of a film studio to record a video. Three changes of clothes, two wigs and multiple touch-ups later, she was still at it, singing snippets of the song over and over.

“More energy,” a producer called out from behind a camera inches from her face.

“How am I supposed to be happy? It’s not a happy song,” Ms. Shay sighed into the lens.

“A little more attitude,” the producer said.

“Attitude?” Ms. Shay asked.

“Yes. Sassy, sexy, all that.”

Across town, her painstaking efforts to build a following over the years were paying off — for someone else.

At a sewer-side market, dozens of customers lined up with their smartphones and flash drives, eagerly handing over cash to pirates with laptops to load up on Ms. Shay’s songs. She earned nothing from the sales.

“Out here, nobody cares about the rules,” Ms. Shay said. “Everything is kind of cowboy.”

Artists across the world battle illegal sales of their work. But Nigeria’s piracy problem is so ingrained that music thieves worry about rip-offs of their rip-offs, slapping warning labels on pirated CDs to insist that “lending is not allowed.”

In Lagos, Africa’s biggest city, legitimate music stores are rare, streaming services haven’t caught on and fans are flocking to markets like Computer Village, with its rows of yellow umbrellas shading young men selling illegal downloads. Throughout the city, thousands of pirated CDs are churned out each day, and some artists even pay to appear on them, hoping the exposure will somehow be worth it.

But now, members of the country’s music industry are trying to put a stop to all the pilfering, hoping they can finally turn the growing popularity of Nigerian music to their advantage.

Nigerian music — Afrobeat in particular — is having a moment. It blares in hotel lobbies, airport lounges, nightclubs and the dozens of bedroom recording studios where young men and women dream of stardom in this clogged, overheated city.

While many countries have courts or jurists focused on intellectual property cases, artists in Nigeria have only in recent years begun to pursue copyright protection. They complain that laws to protect them are so seldom invoked that some judges don’t even know they exist.

Recording artists are pressing cellphone companies for more money to use their songs, the Nigerian government recently announced a new push to protect intellectual property, and the national copyright commission created an institute to train musicians, and judges, about artists’ rights.

“We’re trying to change people’s perception about the use of music,” said Chinedu Chukwuji, chief executive of the Copyright Society of Nigeria. “Music is everywhere, but they don’t know it’s proprietary.”

Industry executives are trying to use Nigeria’s economic malaise as a rallying cry, arguing that legitimate sales not only benefit musicians, but could also help an economy that has plunged into recession amid low oil prices.

“We’re no longer getting revenue from oil, so we’re arguing that content is the new crude,” said Aibee Abidoye, general manager at Chocolate City Group and 5ive Music, which seeks royalties on behalf of three Lagos-based record labels.

In recent decades, music from abroad — mainly American and British hip-hop and R&B — often dominated the Nigerian scene. Yet international music distributors largely ignored the nation and its nascent middle class as a potential market. With few ways of buying the overseas music that was so popular here, illegal sales flourished.

“American artists would come here to do a show and were stunned to find thousands of people singing their songs back to them,” said Efe Omorogbe, owner of Now Muzik, a local label.

The open piracy, and few meaningful efforts to stop it, left little incentive for anyone to set up legitimate music sales or invest in streaming services. Local musicians, struggling to be heard above the international competition, often gave away their work.

“The music industry has been its own biggest enemy,” said Mr. Omorogbe, a business partner of the musician 2face Idibia. “It’s descended to a point where people who use your material almost feel like you should celebrate them. They’re doing you a favor.”

The appetite for Nigerian music is clear. International labels such as Sony Music Entertainment are setting up shop in Lagos. Musicians like Ms. Shay, who spent much of her childhood in Britain with her Nigerian parents, are being lured back.



Last year, Wizkid, one of Nigeria’s most popular artists, reached the top of the American singles chart for an Afrobeat collaboration with the Canadian rapper Drake. They released another track this year.

But for many artists, the more popular they become, the more their music is stolen. Bootlegged Nigerian music is stacked alongside the thousands of other counterfeit CDs at the Alaba International Market in Lagos.

“There isn’t exactly a proper structure for us to make money,” said Falz, a Nigerian rapper and songwriter.

Apple Music offers streaming in Nigeria, but the service has been plagued with problems because of the nation’s currency crisis. Even concerts, profitable for artists anywhere, are being pared back here as corporate sponsors feel the pinch of the souring economy.

In Nigeria, musicians have rarely sought royalty payments. Artists complain that even the nation’s Nollywood film industry routinely uses songs in movies without permission or payment.

“When you create your content and put it out, it’s scattered,” said Harrysong, a Nigerian singer known for his hit, “Mandela.”

Many musicians pay to have their music heard. Popular music blogs like and collect as much as $120 from unknown musicians to promote a single song. Budding musicians also pay to have their songs featured on “latest mix” CDs hawked on the streets. A collection called “Mega Mix” contained new pirated songs from well-known musicians like Davido and Wizkid, along with songs from 43 less-known singers.

The sellers of pirated music know the artists receive nothing.

“To get the songs off the internet, it’s free,” said Ola Mide, who stared into his laptop at Computer Village as customers lined up behind him for songs from local artists like Tiwa Savage, D’Banj and Ms. Shay. “Then people come to me and give me money for them.”

Henry Onunary, another vendor of illegally downloaded music, explained how the musicians might benefit, if at all. “What they get from us,” he said, “is popularity.”

The Copyright Society of Nigeria has filed lawsuits, staged protests, hosted conferences and handed out fliers to businesses explaining copyright law. Its leader, Mr. Chukwuji, said the group was currently battling the nation’s major mobile phone company, MTN, which pays artists to use snippets of their songs.

Mobile phone use in Nigeria has exploded in recent years, and ringback tunes — the few bars of music paid for by customers that play while a call is being connected — are hugely popular. As a result, MTN, with its skyscraper headquarters in Lagos, has become one of the biggest sources of revenue for Nigerian artists. In fact, Nigerian ringback tunes like Harrysong’s “Mandela” are more popular than songs by Snoop Dogg or other American artists, according to MTN.

“Music has always been part of the fabric of Lagos. What has changed is the ability to monetize it,” said Richard Iweanoge, general manager of consumer marketing at MTN, considered the largest distributor of online music in Nigeria. “It’s a privilege for us as a Nigerian company to support local artists.”

But the copyright society has accused MTN of not giving artists a fair cut from the sales. MTN officials acknowledged that the company recently renegotiated ringback deals to better favor the artists.

“Things change,” Mr. Iweanoge said. “It’s always in our interest to make sure the artist gets a fair share.”

Plenty of musicians in Lagos are still willing to sacrifice money to get noticed. Across a polluted channel from the Lagos mainland, past a sugar refinery belching smoke, is Snake Island, a serpent-shaped piece of land dotted by tilting tin huts.

Inside one of them, Sam Seyi, 24, was dreaming of stardom, sitting on a bed with Winnie the Pooh sheets as he sang into a microphone. Friends filed into his generator-powered bedroom studio as babies screamed and chickens clucked just outside the open window.

“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” he sang, eyes closed and arms pumping. “This is my time to make it.”

Mr. Seyi, whose stage name is SamSeyi Yango, has paid music blogs to feature his songs, and spent $16 this year to be allowed onstage to perform before a small audience.

“I’m paying my dues,” he said. “You can’t expect them to pay you a million dollars when you’re not a superstar.”

Across the water, on Lagos’s affluent Victoria Island, already famous artists were getting ready to perform in a chandeliered banquet hall at the luxury Eko Hotel. Some of Nigeria’s biggest music stars gathered in the green room: Harrysong, Falz, Lil Kesh, Vector and the hip-hop duo Skuki.

None of them were being paid, even though the audience included hundreds of paying fans. The local comedians onstage were the big draw, and the musicians agreed to perform for free, hoping to be exposed to a new market.

Upstairs in a hotel room, a makeup artist was layering foundation on Ms. Shay, the room a mess of glittery blue eye shadow, shimmery lotion, fake eyelashes and a pair of Oscar de la Renta flowery high-heeled shoes carefully positioned on a shelf. She sneezed inside a tiny cloud of powdered makeup.

Even Ms. Shay has paid to be heard, forking over cash to various music blogs. She once allowed her song to be used for free as the soundtrack for a popular video game.

But now fans fawn over Ms. Shay when she walks into a nightclub, taking selfies and cooing over her. She lives in an apartment in a gated community, and a driver ferries her around town.

Her entourage includes a personal assistant who calls himself a “body man” and a wig stylist. She recently flew to South Africa for performances and has scored an endorsement deal with a Chinese telecom company. Her face has been on Pepsi billboards along main roads in Lagos. Not long ago, she was signed to the British-American label Island Records.

Trying to relax at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Lagos after a recent show, Ms. Shay was sipping a margarita when a bartender interrupted repeatedly to ask how his music could get noticed. She told him to email her a demo.

“You have to put in the work,” she advised. “Nobody is going to do it for you.”

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