The Sarz vs Shizzi Battle is really about Wizkid and Davido

It doesn’t happen often that two producers dominate the discussion on a social media platform — not when neither of them has a sex scandal.

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But that is what happened last night.

Sarz and Shizzi, two pillars of Nigerian music, went at it on Instagram Live, playing items from their catalogue. Almost immediately, it was clear that without these guys, most of the music we have come to take for granted, as the work of singers, would not exist.

It was also clear that even as both artists have worked for many singers, Sarz and Shizzi will be remembered primarily for what they have done with just two guys: Wizkid and Davido respectively. There really isn’t anything wrong with that. Working with an singer guarantees a producer steady stream work, and if the singer is as successful as either of these guys, that is, in ideal, non-greedy situations, a path to riches.

Sarz passed through a number of acts before forming the killer partnership with Wizkid; Shizzy pretty much landed in our consciousness with Davido. You could say this should deepen Shizzy’s skills but that is only true with regards to his work with Davido, and in an event for the benefit of the producers’ ego and the enjoyment of the mass public, extensiveness is more valuable than depth.

So during and after the session, Twitter was filled with statements by people recalling just how long and varied the career of Sarz has been. Nobody said anything about the bombastic inventiveness of Shizzi’s drums on ‘Dami Duro’ or Sarz’s crazy syncopation on ‘Joor Oh’.

And yet, the key lesson of the session is really about the difference between a producer-producer relationship and a singer-singer one in a scene with too much power residing in the hands of two or three recording artists.

Can anyone really see Wizkid and Davido engaging in such a display online? Can anyone conceive of a Wizkid-Davido session that ends on the respectful note that last night did? I know I can’t. At some point in that exchange, a lot more than the music they have made would become the subject — and this would be without taking into account the fierce insults online between fans of both artists. This morning, Twitter is talking about the perceived arrogance of Sarz but that is par for the course in a challenge and even he, at the end, thanked his fellow producer for his time. How will Davido or Wizkid form the words to express gratitude of that sort?

Two years ago, I was in the audience at Eko Hotel when they both appeared onstage. It seemed genuine enough and it probably was. Nonetheless, there were environmental conditions to take into consideration: neither of them was at home; they were performing for a paying crowd; the crowd had more interest in camaraderie than rivalry; the other expected to be paid back with an appearance at a later date. With these conditions out of the window, Wizkid and Davido are unlikely to be as gracious toward each other.

Beyond the magnitude of egos borne by popstars, there is also the shape of the industry to consider, how singers and producers rise and earn their living differently. Every artist is encouraged to find his voice but only the singer has to take it literally. For a singer, this many times leads to a partnership of sorts with a producer who gets you. It is different for a producer, who as a newcomer, has to work a bit like a prostitute: the work must be sold and usually to all kinds of artists or record labels. So very early, a producer learns to work with others, to be social and entrepreneurial, while a singer looks to find himself.

For a singer, this dynamic creates a sense of self-seeking that could be alienating: at best, the singer has no real relationship with his peers except they have worked directly together; at worst, his peers are rivals. When the genre is pop music and when the stars are of the level of Wizkid and Davido, the tension between the singer and his peers are amplified. Could this be a male problem? You know, in the way that animals mark their territory?

Maybe but it helps to remember that Tiwa Savage, perhaps, Nigeria’s most popular female performing artist has never featured a female artist on any of her albums. Seyi Shay had over 10 featured acts on her debut album; only one was female. My point is: the only way Wizkid and Davido can do a music challenge on Instagram Live is by proxy, which we got last night.

The big masquerades of Nigerian pop (or afrobeats as some call it) might never come to play with themselves for our benefit — but with emissaries like Sarz and Shizzi, we’ve got the next best thing.

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