In a Vast Nigerian Shantytown, Hope Lies in Rhythm and Rhyme

Nigeria 2007

By Meghan Sullivan

June 10, 2009

Appeared on Washington Post Online

LAGOS, Nigeria -- In one of the largest slums in Africa, Papa English preaches hope through the rhythms of his music.

Papa English lives and thrives in Ajegunle, where barefoot children play among waist-high heaps of garbage and many of its more than 2 million residents spend hot, humid days trying to sell whatever they can to make a living.

"Somehow, we survive together, we try to keep together," he said, a handful of youngsters trailing him as he walked toward a friend's house. "Street life has made me what I am today. Street education has been so great."

Papa English and a handful of others who live in Ajegunle, a section of Lagos, are turning the daily struggles of their hard lives into art -- music, poetry and novels. Some, like musicians Daddy Showkey and Daddy Fresh, have made it big, gaining name recognition across Africa.

But for most, including Papa English, fame has not yet extended beyond the dirt roads and metal shacks of a place they affectionately call AJ City.

The music rising from the slum is mostly Afrobeat -- jazz and funk blended with traditional Yoruba sounds in a style made famous by the late Fela Kuti in the 1960s and '70s. The Ajegunle musicians have re-branded reggae by the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and mixed it with a localized version of hip-hop into what is popularly called "AJ music."

"Most of our songs, we sing what we see," Papa English said. "Sometimes the kids sing songs, and it inspires me."

In a song titled "Fermine," the Xion Defenders, a group that includes Papa English and a fellow musician who goes by the stage name Toxic Waste, call on Nigerians to return to their traditional farming roots. Agriculture was vital to Nigeria's economy until oil was discovered there in the 1950s.

Wake up from your sleeping and slumbering

What about the dreams that we have lost

African black man has found.

No food for the children feeding

No shelter for the common man living

Then, it was one big happy family.

For several decades, Ajegunle has drawn a flow of newcomers from across Nigeria and neighboring countries as more and more people look for work in Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, with a population of more than 8.5 million. According to the United Nations, Lagos will become the third-largest city in the world, behind Tokyo and Mumbai, by 2015.

Papa English, whose given name is Agirishi Nwamkwa, said his family moved to Ajegunle sometime in the 1970s, when he was a child. His father wanted to find work as a building contractor and give his family a chance at a better life. But he died in a construction accident in 1979, and a young Nwamkwa suddenly found himself navigating the streets hawking plantains and bread to make money for his mother and two sisters.

As a young man, Nwamkwa learned to make hats, sandals and belts. Today he sells his handicrafts to support his wife and five children, including infant twins.

But his passion is for music, he said, and he plays at churches and clubs whenever he has the opportunity, usually once a month. He also plays for the neighborhood children, hoping they might see that there are options available, even in AJ City.

On a recent day, the streets were packed as Papa English strolled past the rusty tin roofs and thin boards that form homes and shops. A couple sat in the shade near their open-air vegetable stand, waiting for customers. Bright red tomatoes and peppers glistened in the sun against the dull gray around them. A group of men played chess at a table nearby. Papa English said that, like them, he had no pressing need to "be somewhere."

More and more young people in Ajegunle are turning to music to eke out a living, said Dagga Tolar, a close friend of Papa English's. They "connect the fact that music like Fela highlighted is a weapon, and this can appropriately be used positively in the struggle to create a better society for all. The potential for growth for the music is enormous," he said.

Tolar, tall and thin with a colorful floppy hat atop a head full of dreadlocks, recently produced an album titled "Social Revolution," on which he is lead vocalist. He has published four books of poetry in the past 10 years, the latest called "Darkwaters Drunkard," along with several other literary works.

It has taken Tolar two to three years to scrape together enough money to get each project into print. Still, his books have been virtually inaccessible to a larger audience, as most of his sales and marketing have occurred locally.

To gain greater exposure, Tolar has participated in public readings and, like Papa English and other local musicians, has worked as a disc jockey in dance halls in and around Ajegunle.

Tolar was born in the slum, in a home on Sidi Street that was left to him when his father died. He has helped other struggling artists by giving them a place to stay in the one-room house.

"I am committed for life to the ghetto, but I am not a romantic," Tolar said.

Papa English said that in addition to promoting his music beyond Lagos, he intends someday to make a documentary about Ajegunle. He said he wants to show life in the slum through the perspective of a resident.

"I am trying to struggle out, but I have a passion for this place," he said. "I dream that one day the whole world will know me."