Around the time of Falz’s ascent into the mainstream, I wrote that he would never be rated as one of Nigeria’s great rappers. The reason was simple: he is too funny to be taken seriously. His talent will be acknowledged; but no one will call him the greatest of his time.
But the man obviously takes himself seriously. He has put in work to release three albums, a sign that he is after cultural prestige in this age of singles. He has acted in movies and appeared on television.
On his last album, 27, he tells us he does what he does for several reasons, including winning awards. And if we go by social media reaction following the release of the video for This Is Nigeria, we could give him the award for Best Political Commentary. He would deserve the award but that is only because there is no competition. Wizkid and Davido will not sing it, sequestered as they are in some club or festooned to a fluffy bed by a buxom broad.
And yet for all of Falz’s good intentions, his new video has its problems. The major aesthetic one is in how much it leaves for the viewer to complete: in part this is the trouble with Nollywood. You might know a Nollywood film or two that shows a person go to a bank with a blue shirt and come out with a green one. The excuse given by Nollywood sympathisers used to be that, well, the viewer knows it is the same character. But, of course, someone has neglected his job. A director’s duty becomes the viewer’s unrewarding puzzle.
Childish Gambino made a video that while politically important, realised it was also necessary to be artistically astute. Otherwise how is the artist different from a politician? So what you get from the American rapper is a pretty realistic depiction of a close-range execution. What you get from Nigeria’s Falz, to take one example, is blood on the floor and a beheaded man’s intact neck. The similarity is the seriousness of politics. The difference is Falz permits mediocrity; Childish Gambino aimed for excellence. Who can forget the shock of the head shot first she saw the This Is America video? I know I can’t. The camera movement and editing of the new video is equally inferior.
Still, if the video’s aesthetics are rather poor, what about its politics?
This Is Nigeria shows that Falz, besides watching the music video of his American colleague, has other habits: He reads the news in a country where perhaps the strangest thing you expect a Nigerian pop musician to do is read. There are generators, Boko Haram allusions, and references to the Chibok Girls. It is not that we forgot, but it seems fair to remind us of our lives. But if This Is America was content with presenting the problems of American society, it worked because it went first.
Childish Gambino’s layering of a groovy beat with an ominous one works still for Falz, whose song contains what is surely a great line: “This is Nigeria. Everybody na criminal.” If the video consisted of all the ways this is true, I’d join the social media town-criers applauding the Falz genius. But the video isn’t quite as thoughtful or insightful.
Considering that this is a second take, one might expect a bit of commentary to go with Falz’s Nigerian recreation of Gambino’s concept. Instead it takes from the original and not very well as pointed out earlier. The new video doesn’t exactly add to Gambino’s except for the raising up of his hands — in a gesture of resistance, in the manner of Fela. That point of defiance is immediately ruined when the camera pulls out and you see most of all that have gone past in the last shot. At that point, the This Is Nigeria video began to seem like a gratuitous take on serious events, popstar Falz finally remembering he is an entertainer after all and thinks to pose for a photograph with his politicised loot. It is very near unforgivable — especially when you consider the wild desperation that closes the original. Is Falz saying Nigerians are passive creatures? Then isn’t it contradictory to strike a defiant pose at the end?
If, as one American art dealer told Vulture, “Posting on Instagram isn’t resistance; it just means that you pose as resistance,” then it is fair to ask: Is Falz reading news publications or is he merely following trending hashtags on Twitter?
These questions might be good for debate that would lead to more mentions on social media in a way that Falz can consolidate any claims he might have to being a political “influencer”, but these questions also seriously undermine what was a chance for Falz to marry his ideas about the turmoil in his country to a deserving artistic vision. As it stands, in some ways, the video comes off wholly as sensationalism, a culture product in the service of likes and retweets than in the service of either politics or art. Great political art has both politics and great art entwined. This one has married a stale political position with sometimes shoddy art. The video suggests Falz didn’t really think his idea through.
The ready excuse anyone might want to proffer for any one of the video’s missteps is that Falz is constrained by budget. I don’t buy it. The trouble here is one of geography. The hint is in the respective titles use by Donald Glover and Falz: Childish Gambino is from America, a land of glory hunters where excellence is usually rewarded; Falz, despite his best intentions, is Nigerian, a land where the eternal conundrum is how you can get the most from an endeavour, an employee, an idea, a citizen, with the smallest of efforts or investment — as some of our churches might put it: “Sow like an ant and reap like an elephant.”
But Falz deserves some praise because even his shortcomings come to pass along a message: In its hasty failures, Falz’s This Is Nigeria video is itself an example of his country’s mediocrity. All that is left is for Nigeria, through some silly government official, to ban the video and in doing so give its online citizens a chance to cheer Falz to living martyr status.