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Interpolation: The secret behind many of Naija’s biggest hits

Yesterday, Wizkid released ‘No Stress’, the first single of his long awaited fourth studio album, Made In Lagos. Ever the consummate musician, Wizkid dragged out the release, teasing his fans for nearly 3 months before releasing the single unceremoniously. With 300,000 views in 2 days, ‘No Stress’ has already begun to generate major buzz for its genre bending sound that incorporates reggae undertones with Wizkid’s ever evolving take on Afrobeats. There’s also an extra ingredient, subtle but no less potent, connecting Wizkid’s many hits across the last decade: interpolation. In ‘No Stress’ Wizkid takes an iconic series of lines from the Amerie smash hit ‘1 Thing’, extrapolating them by switching the subject and object of the lines in question and switching some of the lines, while relying on the distinctive melody to trigger nostalgia in his fans.  

As music has evolved over the last 300 years, intellectual property and copyright laws have been created to protect the artist from having other artists profit off their original ideas. Intellectual property also exists to protect the record labels and other funders who invest in artists and help them create, ensuring they are able to recoup their investments in music projects. As technology improves and it becomes easier for individuals to encounter and engage the work of other artists, sometimes even being inspired inadvertently by them, the legal framework around intellectual property has gone from scant to draconian with a number of high profile lawsuits in the last decade (who could forget Marvin Gaye’s estate vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell). The increased scrutiny has forced Nigerian musicians to find legal loopholes to still reference other musicians while keeping their content fresh. 

Interpolation refers to the practice of ‘borrowing’ and ‘remaking’ a  melody or portions of another artist’s creative oeuvre. This deviates from sampling, where the artist seeks permission to use portions of melody or composition or lyrics from another artist with permission and an agreement to pay the original artist some form of compensation, either before the sample is used as a pay off, or after the sample is used as royalties on intellectual properties. The process of gaining permission to sample music from another artist can be an incredibly time consuming exercise if the artist in question dislikes or has reservations about the project her/his work will be featured in. Some artists simply refuse to have their work sampled, fearing dilution of its essence. In those rare cases, artists have the loophole of turning to extrapolation. 

But Wizkid isn’t the only Nigerian to make a killing off extrapolation. In 2000 the biggest song in the country was ‘Somebody Say’ by the Plantashun Boiz, a perilously similar extrapolation of Boney M’s ‘Plantation boy’. All starting their careers from church choirs where it was common to repurpose hymn melodies to create contemporary pop songs, the decision made by the members of Plantashun Boiz to borrow elements from this song, right down to naming themselves after their hit song legitimized interpolation as a creative path for Nigerian musicians and opened the doors for singers like Psquare.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrl-ECGAFy0

Emboldened by the success of the now defunct group, Peter and Paul Okoye leaned in to interpolation as a brand, freeing themselves of the hurdles of composition and creating a nostalgic sound that convinced undecided listeners that the song they were hearing was indeed familiar and as such worthy of a full listen. Eventually as PSquare’s brand grew global, they would substitute interpolation for direct homages and collaboration. The duo and their brother and manager Jude Okoye, through their record label Square Records dominated the Nigerian music charts for most of the 90’s and 2000’s by interpolating from American popstars like Nathan, Usher Raymond, Sean Paul and Sean Kingston and 80’s rap groups like Harlem World and Public Announcement. Olu Maintain were another 90’s group best known for their extrapolation of Ludacris’s ‘Area Codes’ that properly utilized interpolation as the driving force behind their music, creating the pathway for Wizkid and other contemporary artists to explore their own versions of interpolation.

In some ways, Wizkid’s decision to work Amerie’s ‘1 Thing’ into his new single taps into a form of nostalgic driven music creation that has fallen out of favour with Nigerian musicians. The Alte movement which is currently enjoying mainstream success, has spent the last five years incorporating retro Nigerian music into their sounds, as an homage to the 90’s wave of Nigerian indigenous pop and cinema that overtook our collective obsession with Western music. Singer Lady Donli’s ‘Enjoy Your Life’ is unapologetic in its homage style celebration of Nollywood pop hits like Patience Ozorkwor’s ‘National Moi-Moi’ among others. High Life duo the Cavemen went for a more purist approach to their homage to traditional and contemporary highlife for their much anticipated album ‘Roots’ and singer Santi took it a step further by incorporating the hyper-religious horror films of the 90’s into his sounds and visual aesthetics. Wizkid is in a global phase of his music so he is incentivized to keep his influences and references global. 

Whether Wizkid’s album will feature more overt interpolations remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the art form will continue to thrive in the Nigerian music industry.

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Edwin