Music
Emefa Smith and Wavy the Creator. Photo: Chuchu Ojekwe for OkayAfrica.

Photos: A Look Inside Nigeria's Alté Subculture

We speak with four of the people shaping Nigeria's alté scene: musicians Wavy The Creator & Teezee, creative director/stylist Ashley Okoli and fashion entrepeneur Emefa Smith.

Just like most cultural waves that come from Nigeria, the roots of the alté subculture can be traced back to Lagos. The bubbling populous city is home to innovative hustlers and a large youth population which leads to a lot of experimentation and creation of new sounds and subcultures happening within.

While afro-fusion transcends international borders to become a regular fixture on top of the global charts and a permanent presence in UK airwaves—and as afropop stars like Wizkid and Davido collaborate with global hitmakers like Drake and Skepta—a smaller community of artists in Nigeria is creating a sound and style that is harder to define: it's inherently more experimental and subverts expectations of what it means to create in Nigeria.

By crafting out a style that plays on gendered fashion and refuses to follow conventions, and a sound that fuses varying textures of different genres together, these alté artists have created a disruptive subculture that has earned and grown a significant following.


The term alté—as in alternative—can be traced the 2014 song "Paper" by BOJ, a member of the group DRB, which had the line "The ladies like me because I'm an alté guy." The term would then grow to refer to an aesthetics that is alien to the traditional music and style landscape.

Teezee. Photo: Michael Oshai for OkayAfrica.

Teezee, who is part of DRB and a co-founder of the youth culture magazine Native Mag tells me, "It's inspiring. We pioneered a movement as outcasts, now everyone wants in. The best part is, we are still young so we are working harder to get to the next level everyday... more kids coming out to do what they want, breaking rules, actively pushing boundaries in every way."

"We pioneered a movement as outcasts, now everyone wants in."

Dressed in a white tee shirt and a generous amount of rings, hand chains and necklaces, many today would consider Wavy the Creator's sound and style 'weird' or 'different.' While the term 'alté' term implies things to be alien, it's important to note that outliers have never been quite alien to the Nigerian music industry. Singers like Charly Boy—a highlife artist—rose to fame in the 80s riding the wave of his experimental style and sounds, armed with his ever changing gender expressions. This might be why Wavy the Creator tells me that although she receives criticism all the time she is unbothered because eventually "they always catch on."

Wavy the Creator. Photo: Chuchu Ojekwe for OkayAfrica.

Nigeria is still very conservative, with norms placed deep in its society's consciousness that dictate everything from what you wear to the sort of art you are allowed create. This has led to people whose style and art has been labeled 'alté' being forced to deal with a certain amount of derision, condescension, and invalidation. It's so much so that the term 'alté' is almost considered derogatory. The criticism that this small yet ever-growing community of creatives face comes from both a societal dislike of unconventionality, as well society believing alté artists are being different simply for the sake of being different. However this criticism, and sometimes outright hate, from people doesn't phase the artists, as Wavy tells me, "People will always criticize what they do not understand and that is okay."

'Alté' goes beyond a sound. Singers like Wavy, Teezee, and Santi—one of Lagos' leading alté presences—are regularly decked in clothing that disregards Nigeria's rigid sartorial norms and gender binary fashion rules, even when they're away from the stage or studio.This seeps into music videos that solidify their artistic brilliance: self-directed saturated clips that feature a surplus of stylish youth, experimental fashion and a sort of vibrancy one would most likely not find anywhere else. They're all presented through handycam aesthetics, leaving the resulting work looking informal and intimate.

Ashley Okoli. Photo: Michael Oshai for OkayAfrica.

This is most obvious in Santi's recently released "Raw Dinner" video which is heavily inspired by 90s Nollywood horror movies. Ashley Okoli, a creative director and stylist and one of the foremost leading presences on the alté fashion scene, describes the process of styling the "Raw Dinner" video. "I always draw inspiration from my own style, because my styling is an extension of myself. When I saw the treatment, I already knew how I wanted it to look, and the gothic, sexy elements were right up my alley. it was fun and it was simple, believe it or not."

For people like Ashley, their personal style, much like the alté sound, is hard to define. It is a fusion of several eras, trends, classics and something that is just them. Her refusal to be defined or conform to pre-existing norms automatically makes her an outsider to those outside of the alté subculture, naturally leading to a lot of criticism from people.

"We are bringing the new, the fresh, and the modern to the mix, and that upsets, or even scares, people."

"I don't let it get to me," he says speaking on the criticism her style gets "I wouldn't be me if I did, and that would be tragic, wouldn't it?... Because Nigerians are used to being in a box. A lot of people here aren't used to freedom and seeing creativity—most people are very traditional and stuck in those ways. We, on the other hand, are bringing the new, the fresh, and the modern to the mix, and that upsets, or even scares, people."

Emefa Smith. Photo: Chuchu Ojekwe for OkayAfrica.

However, and despite all criticism, the wave of the alté subculture is slowing diffusing into mainstream society. Emefa Smith, a fashion entrepreneur, is one of those responsible for this. Using her brand The Vintage Smith, Emefa has managed to grow a cult following while demystifying alté fashion and allowing people outside the subculture to partake in it—all while creating designs that have been spotted on the likes of Wavy The Creator, Teezee, Boj and so more.

Despite not being an alté artist herself, the importance of creatives like Emefa in rising the status of the scene cannot be ignored. Emefa, who left one of Nigeria's leading music labels Chocolate City where she was working with artists like M.I Abaga and Victoria Kimani, doesn't bother herself about the sect of Nigerians who religiously criticize the alté subculture. She cares more about the overall scene and its message of individuality, which she believes in.

"All of us individually are pushing a common agenda. We are who we are. With Odunsi, he has his sound to offer. With Wavy, she has her sound to offer. With Ashley, she has her style. With me, I have my style."

Ashley Okoli. Photo: Michael Oshai for OkayAfrica.

Wavy the Creator. Photo: Chuchu Ojekwe for OkayAfrica.

Emefa Smith. Photo: Chuchu Ojekwe for OkayAfrica.

Teezee. Photo: Michael Oshai for OkayAfrica.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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