The 2 reasons you forget MI Abaga is Nigeria’s Greatest Rapper

The announcement of a “battle” between MI Abaga and Naeto C earlier today provoked a flurry of tweets about both rappers. Who has more hits? Who is greater?

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The latter question, I think, has only one answer: MI Abaga. And because this isn’t a treatise, I’ll provide a single reason: he is the last man of his generation still standing. Even in the generations after him, most are known more for singing than rapping. His only true rival for the spot, Olamide, is from a younger generation and even he veered into pop a while back. That’s not a bad thing but that’s not rap.

Why then does the conversation come up every now and then when the answer has been clear for years? Of course, there are those who say Vector is Nigeria’s rap GOAT and there are those who bring up Mode 9.

The former group is giddy on fandom; the latter would be worth debating with if greatness was entirely a matter of punchlines. Unfortunately, for the Mode 9 group, a fair bit of acceptability has to come into play. The fact is: No Nigerian rapper lyrically better than MI has been more acceptable and no rapper more acceptable is lyrically better. This is why MI is your king.

Back to the question of why his greatness is still being contested. The two reasons are:

1. MI has been with us for so long we take him for granted.

2. MI didn’t get the oyinbo cosign Nigerians love so much.

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That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. Everybody else that came up or enjoyed a season or two with MI has pretty much been discarded or they have left the game. And across genres too. Da Grin died, Naeto C left, Banky W got married. MI lived, stayed, and thrived. Among the Choc Boiz, MI’s own group, the short black boy is the only one truly standing. Folks cooled off on Ice Prince, Jesse Jagz went to Jos. Brymo left the mainstream.

As the famous line from The Dark Knight goes, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. MI has lived long enough to amass millions of followers and maybe an equal amount of “haters” who don’t realise that before MI rap wasn’t as viable and after MI rap isn’t as viable.

It’s why folks go pop, trading rapping for singing. The market isn’t really there to support rappers financially. Davido and Wizkid and their wannabes have pretty divided the music market among themselves. There’s no real space for any other genre. Sure, there are one or two exceptions but they only highlight the sheer uniqueness of MI’s talent and success.

The second reason comes from a sad fact of Nigeria’s cultural life: because there are no really reputable institutions and because there is probably something in the Nigerian psyche that is drawn to American praise or coverage, we all bow westward. (We are not the only ones to be sure: I recall the French media jubilating at the Oscar nomination of Emmanuelle Riva for her turn in Michael Haneke’s Amour.)

MI didn’t get covered by Billboard or Rolling Stone; he didn’t get a Grammy nod; he didn’t get on a song with Jay-Z or Nas or Lil Wayne or Eminem: these are his crimes.

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These “crimes” have only gotten more “heinous” as today’s pop guys, Davido, Wizkid, Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage, have gotten entry into these American institutions. The people who take those as the only sign of greatness will never hear otherwise.

But the rest of us know they are wrong. We’ll watch the battle on Instagram on Sunday, knowing what we’ll hear are the hits and that’s what that’s about. The question of greatness has been settled. And it’s in favour of MI.

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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