Phyno’s Obiagu And The Menace Of The Society That Created Him

Phyno is an indigenous rapper whose lyrical contents embody some of the less desirable aspects of Nigerian society. His art is a product of full immersion into an all too familiar worldview, one created and maintained by a reality of poverty and general government neglect that has resulted in the institutionalization of violence and an endorsement of crime life. The authenticity of hood rappers like Phyno comes with the by-product of a problematic endorsement of these vices. Hood rappers like Phyno are not merely observers but rather full characters in the stories they tell, and it would be naive to expect them to have escaped the mentality of the environment that birthed them. In this respect, they follow the traditions of proper gangster rappers like the Niggas With Attitude (NWA) Crew and The Game, and not someone like Kendrick Lamar who managed to escape his harsh environment both physically and mentally.

Nigerian music does not have a dedicated gangster genre like African-American-dominated US hip-hop scene, but the aggression of a gangster-ridden Nigerian society has nevertheless seeped into our art in one way or the other. It is inevitable that the music of a society would reflect important and pervasive features of that society. Just the way gangster hip-hop was birthed out of the often crime ridden Black American neighborhoods in New York and California, Nigeria is possibly just as crime infested and while we do not have rappers talking about going on robberies or dealing in illegal drugs in their music, we still see element of this life, and it’s pervasive impact on urban culture through the music of our popular artists. 

Nigerian cities tend to be divided neatly into highbrow, privileged areas shielded from crime, and the less privileged areas; the ghettos exposed to the rawness of Nigerian life, of institutional neglect and its attendant negative consequences. These feature the most pristine and unfiltered expression of the Nigerian spirit. One of such areas is the Obiagu neighborhood in the coal city Enugu, in Eastern Nigeria. Obiagu is a ghetto and the most vivid peek into its spirit is supplied by its former resident and torchbearer- rapper Phyno. Phyno was brought up in, and fully immersed in the traditions of the Obiagu community. These areas generally see little government attention, and this situation, together with widespread poverty have resulted in a higher crime rate as people struggle to make ends meet in a disordered and dysfunctional environment. As is usual in crime infested neighborhoods, a glorification of deviance is promoted and fossilized in the Urban culture. The cool guys are the people who are deep in crime, the heroes are those who do not regard formal institutions and do whatever they like. This was the kind of mentality and legacy Phyno grew into and inherited. 

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If you’ve listened regularly enough to, and understood Phyno, you would have noticed his obsession with his “mens”; that collection of individuals united in loyal brotherhood. Phyno does not just consider them friends, but obviously as an asset of sort, a veritable weapon of intimidation against one’s enemies. On the song “Abulo” off his Playmaker album, we are treated to this weaponization of one’s “friends”. To an adversary who possibly thought himself untouchable, Phyno rapped, “Iche no so ginwa n’eme ihe mens? Taa enwe m mens nah.”. (“So you think you’re the only one with a gang? I’ve got a gang too.”) Phyno had talked about having people behind him in ‘Alobam’, the 2014 hit off the No Guts, No Glory album. He treated us to a roll call of those individuals whom he could count on, who had his back, so to speak. He mentioned known friends and associates in the music industry like P-Square, Olamide and Timaya and it was apparent that he was simply following In that age-old Igbo tradition of praise-singing that we see boisterously deployed everywhere from local music groups in traditional village settings to the music of the likes of Osadebe and Oliver the Coque and down to even the likes of Duncan Mighty and Flavor. Just the way Osadebe finds way to incorporate Chief so and so in his music, and the way Duncan Mighty found space for electronic appliance dealers in markets in Port Harcourt, (Okey Equipment in his Port Harcourt Boy) song, so has Phyno decided to turn his song into a praise fest of sort, honoring his friends in the process. 

In ‘Abulo’, his “mens” see no breakdown into individuals or recognizable figures beyond the collective “mens”. Phyno in the song warned an unknown adversary, “Abulo, kupulum abulo o.” (“Bro, don’t test me bro.”) Informing this adversary of his that testing Phyno is not really worth it. It soon becomes obvious that Phyno is rapping about a quite dark and troubling social malady affecting the average Nigerian lowbrow neighbourhood- the scourge of gangsterism. Perhaps it might have been the legacy of years of military rule, but the Nigerian society is one where the capacity to inflict disproportionate force on any individual or group is counted as an asset. Some of the repositories of this capacity for force we often boast with are military “connects”, as well as cult groups that one is a member of, or affiliated to which provides protection to the individual. Phyno appeared to have been employing the latter to threaten this adversary of his. This is a representation of the fact of life in the kinds of neighborhoods like Obiagu that have been gangster infected. Cultism being so rife, and the memories of destructive clashes being ever present in memory, it is unlikely that the threat of the force of a cult group would fail to have an impression on an adversary, except of course this adversary has the backing of other cult or mercenary groups behind them too. A situation Phyno might have been alluding to when he rapped “I chezi na so giwa nwe mens?” (“You think you’re the only one with a gang?”).

While gangsterism has yet to see the mafia-style, drug fueled rackets operated by organized crime syndicates like we see in Hollywood movies, there is still the existence of a large scale underground illegal marijuana market. Obiagu, with its substantial supply of ready deviants and contending law enforcement, is once again the scene of some social conflict and organization and Phyno is once again on hand to capture the situation in the finest Igbo rhetorical tradition. As always Phyno is on the side of the deviants who are actually the good guys in his stories. On Kush Music, he treats us to the modus-operandi of determined marijuana consumers who have evolved innovative ways to evade law enforcement while smoking their joint. Phyno, on the song, describes how smokers congregate in “jungles”, or bushes where they pretend to be defecating to smoke. As Phyno rapped in infinite wisdom; “Eke bia mee ka i na anyu nsi! Eke bia mee ka i na acho ihe!” (“If you see the police, act like you’re taking a shit! If you see the police, act like you’re looking for something!”) As I already mentioned, Phyno is on the side of the smokers and he adopts their perspective and hierarchical organization of individuals which places the experienced smokers at the very top, and less experienced smokers occupying various lower strata.  

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A novice in this situation is particularly looked at with derision, his naiveté at the art of smoking seemingly a source of irritation. This reflects strongly-held sentiments at Enugu’s deviance-propelled undergrounds where “do-gooders”, or people particularly bad at the act of deviance are objects of relentless scorn. Phyno tried to distinguish the proper guys by asking, “Ichagokwa anya? Isegokwa ife?” (“Are you high yet? Have you smoked yet?”). The novice who does take it is made fun of when the stuff proves too much for him, “Negodu otu okoko a si e display” (“Look at this weakling display”), Phyno raps mercilessly. Phyno’s mockery is in line with that heavy pro-deviance sentiment pervasive in localities like Obiagu. Phyno’s “mens”, and the “ones who participate in this thing we are doing” are individuals firmly positioned atop Obiagu’s jungle hierarchy. In the depth of Eastern Nigeria’s toxic- masculine society, the labeling of these people as “mens” indicate their satisfaction of “proper” masculine requirements where those requirements involved the brazen expression of deviant behaviors while those who shun those kinds of life are regarded as lesser men, possibly even as cowards. They are not “mens” in the estimation of those gatekeepers of credibility in Obiagu’s undergrounds.

Phyno’s delivery on songs like Kush Music and Abulo are hard-hitting and fierce, reflecting the mood of the average no-smiling deviant in the neighborhood. But one also gets the unmistakable sense that Phyno is relishing the pictures he is painting. He rapped like an excited gangster on Abulo, and like a street sage and expert on weed smoking on Kush Music. While the jury is out on the appropriateness of marijuana, cultism is absolutely deplorable and if Phyno is to be held to a higher account, one would have expected him to not be endorsing the idea. But Phyno’s originality and the hold of gangsterism in less privileged neighborhoods like Obiagu are thick and complete. Phyno is a product of his environment and the hold of this environment over him is complete. He cannot but endorse all it stands for, except he manages to untangle himself from Obiagu’s institutional hold on him. Not only is this a tough thing to ask, but it may even be naive. It might be naive to expect Phyno, or any other product of Nigeria’s dysfunction to rise above the harshness and moral decay around them.

Njoku Kelechukwu is a freelance writer with interest in everything. Catch him on [email protected]

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