John McEnroe recently put his foot in his famous big mouth, the vocal tennis legend suggested that if Serena Williams was playing tennis on the men’s tour she would have been ‘like 700’ in the rankings. Regardless of the logic, it’s impossible to make such a gender-biased statement in 2017 and not expect to receive backlash – and boy did he get it. John has been struggling to explain his initial statement ever since. We can be upset at John all we want but the truth is, unless Serena actually goes out on the same court to compete with the men, it is impossible to know how high she’d rank.
With music, it’s a different ball game. Men and women go neck and neck for practically everything, except most awards, so if a female artist comes out on top, it’s not just because she’s good ‘for a woman’, it’s because she’s good – period. That’s the reason why it has been frustrating to watch the achievements of Yemi Alade, the princess of Nigerian pop music, being swept under the rug, while her artistic shortcomings become regular trending topics on the internet. If she’s not getting jammed for the lyrics to her popular songs, then it’s for how she’s been unable to fill 2Baba’s massive shoes as a judge on the Voice Nigerian or about how she’s disrespecting the late, great Miriam Makeba and how it’s too early for her to be calling herself ‘Mama Africa’.
Yemi released a video last year, standing up for herself and asking for the same level of criticism for her male counterparts, yet she was ignored and blasted for playing the gender card. But Yemi was right in playing that card, she just played it in the wrong game. Let me explain – male artists are criticized, probably even harder than the women, but when it comes to giving plaudits, male excellence easily gets more recognized.
That’s part of the reason why in its 10-year history, the Headies is yet to award its coveted Artist of the Year award to a woman. All this is in a stretch of time when Weird MC, Sasha, Asa, Omawumi, Tiwa Savage and now Yemi Alade were all alive and singing, all this at a time when many male artists have achieved god-like status, imperfect as they are. Add this inability to recognize excellence in female artists to Yemi’s strong and ambitious personality and you understand why she isn’t exactly Nigerian music’s favorite sweetheart.
You can say a lot of things about Yemi but one thing is clear, you can never accuse her of lacking self-confidence. Yemi Alade isn’t one to ask nicely for the crown, she’s taking it by force. Her very first album out of the gate was pompously titled ‘King of Queens’ and as if that wasn’t enough, on her second album, she christened herself the mother of all 54 African countries – she isn’t even 30 yet. It’s the kind of confidence that would be applauded if we see it in a man but, in this part of the world, is still off-putting when we see it in women. Ironically, it’s this level of confidence and self-believe that, perhaps, fuels people to highlight her artistic flaws.
But Ms. Alade doesn’t need to tick every box for her to be considered one of the greats of her time – if her male counterparts can get away with being imperfect artists, so can she. Besides, her achievements in the last couple of years would stand up to most people’s – male, female or Katlyn Jenner. She is one of the most heavily streamed African artists on YouTube and Spotify. She had 3 songs in the top 100 Nigerian songs released last year, only Tekno and Patoranking had more. If Olamide had skipped his annual album release ritual in 2016, Yemi Alade’s sophomore album Mama Africa would have been the highest-selling album in the country last year, according to MTN Music+. Little wonder that a multilingual version of the album, Mama Afrique, was released two weeks ago for the singer’s sizable international fan base.
Furthermore, Yemi Alade was nominated for BET’s controversial Best International Act: Africa in 2015 and has taken home the Best Female Artist at MTV’s African Music Awards 2 years in a row. She is currently on a Mama Africa World Tour which kicked off with a sold out show in Paris. What’s even more impressive – Yemi achieved all this on the strength of her music alone, no scandal in her personal life, no gimmicks for the media, just the music. How many male artists can claim to have done the same?
Even the narrative about her music being poorly-written is subjective at best, incomplete at worst. If you listen to her projects in their entirety, you’d see that there’s a lot more to Yemi than the songs she and her label release as singles. Yemi Alade wears many faces: God-lover, man-lover and a lover of many cultures and languages, it just so happens that her persona as a feisty, man-lover from around-the-way has become the most popular and she’s milking it. On much-maligned pop songs like “Johnny”, “Dorcas” and “Tumbum”, Yemi approaches topics that many women can relate to like fighting with other women for their man’s affection, while on “Ferrari”, she’s singing about asking her man to earn her own. Those songs are written with as much linguistic complexity as a Donald Trump tweet at 6:00AM, I agree, but my god do they work!
However, Yemi isn’t the only one to blame for this. We created a monster, it was we – the consumers – that brought this side of Yemi to life. According to the singer:
The song [Johnny] wasn’t officially released — it leaked. If it hadn’t, I could have just kept the song, like, oh no one’s going to like this.
She was wrong – that song changed Yemi’s life and her music. Ms. Alade was no longer that ‘Yoruba-Igbo girl’ that used to perform for crowds only in Lagos, she became a continental star whose music was being listened to in countries where the only English they know is ‘go and come’. Yemi took a leaf from the P-Square handbook on how to dominate those parts of the continent and her music would evolve – and not devolved – even more.
The singer is now executing her plans for continental and global domination with the kind of tenacity that, if we had seen in a male artist, would supersede their flaws and make them rank among the greatest of their time.
Originally written for Guardian Nigeria