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Odunsi the Engine’s ‘rare.’ Authenticity and the Alté Lineage in Nigerian Pop Culture

There is often a lack of specificity when people talk about virtually all forms of African art. Even the standard category ‘African ___’ is, itself, far too broad to convey the nuances of creativity across the continent. This lack of specificity has played out, particularly, in music journalism with the range of sounds made by African musicians being flattened into ‘Afrobeats’ or ‘Afropop’. In lazily labelling contemporary African musicians as ‘new’, ‘modern’, or ‘international’, critics overlook significant historical and local contexts. They make out the exceptional contemporary African musician to be an anomaly yet burden them with the role of representing an entire continent; and ‘African music’ if discussed critically at all, is described in its relation to Western trends. Alté, a fast-growing Nigerian movement, breaks out of these boundaries and doesn’t deny its roots. Rather, its music is driven by individuality, innovation, and experimentation. Musical artists are building on traditions in a way that speaks to their time and the result is really exciting to listen to.

Odunsi Bowo, known as Odunsi the Engine, began his musical career on the music platform, Soundcloud; the home of experimentation and collaboration for many young artists. A familiar story, Odunsi learnt how to produce music from YouTube videos and released his first EP, Time of Our Lives, in August 2016 with features from other trailblazing African acts such as the now-retired electronic musician, Okuntakinte. Alongside collaborators like Okuntakinte and Santi, Odunsi quickly became associated with a ‘wavy’ sound that could only have emerged on the Internet. I vividly remember the first time a friend played ‘Gangsta Fear’ (Santi feat. Odunsi) at a kickback, and mine and my crew’s amazement, as we instantly started whining along. What was this blend of Dancehall, Afropop, and ‘straight vibes’? It was then that my love of Odunsi began; and my relationship to his debut album, rare., released in 2018, deepened my appreciation.

The first time I listened to rare., I was in America, on a bus from New York to Boston. It made for the perfect ‘staring out the window, thinking of my life as a movie’ soundtrack. And as I listened to the album, I was in that part of the film where the protagonist has a flashback to childhood. ‘Falling’ took me to barbecues and family outings, to waiting for my parents 30 minutes after they’d asked me to get ready to leave. It evoked the highlife, R & B and funk music that I associate with that era.

‘Ifunanya, can’t you see I’m falling in love?’
‘All because of Ifunanya [Ifunanya]
Ifunanya [Ifunanya]
Because of Ifunanya’
‘No one else can make me feel this way
Can’t you see I’m falling in love?’

This chorus took me back and forth through time, linking child-like wonder to the love Odunsi sings about. This is how what Odunsi describes as ‘Afro-fusion’ works in practice: tying together the past, present, here, and there, in a way that is true to him and those of us from a similar cultural background. The nostalgia created throughout the album stretches beyond home yet still manages to be Lagos-specific. This specificity is particularly captured in ‘express’ (feat. Santi and Nasty C), a song made to be played while hanging out with friends, at home during the holidays.

Odunsi’s collaborators and features share his wealth of creativity and point to a map of other African musicians who are embracing a philosophy of being many things at the same time. The Internet allows these artists to draw connections through sound, time, and space. Odunsi features alté peers like Santi, the Ghanaian, amaarae, and older Nigerian Afropop musicians like Davido and Runtown, demonstrating an eclectic approach to the different sounds that make up the broader lineage of African musicians.

Extracting from the past and the present, Odunsi amalgamates his influences to form a sense of plurality with rare. Essentially, the album is many things at the same time. For instance, ‘dance floor’ takes me to two distinct childhood memories. It invokes, firstly, all the times during family functions where my parents forced me out of my seat to share a playful, but embarrassing dance with the rest of my cousins. The other memory is my listening to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ on my CD player, having just finished my homework, and belting along to the lyrics as I danced. Odunsi, it seems, seeks to create a bridge through his music whether by connecting listeners to their own private memories or by working with his peers and older artists. The latter, especially, he often does by paying homage. For instance, in Show Dem Camp’s 2018 single ‘Poppin’, Odunsi says:

Remember turning on the radio
For an SDC record
Now I’m flexin’
On an SDC record

Odunsi’s discography also includes a series of cover songs including a refix of Donell Jones’ ‘This Luv’ in which Odunsi lays his own lyrics over the beat of Jones’ iconic love ballad. While it may seem unexpected to listeners, such experimentation is what makes Odunsi an alté artist. His type of artistry, however, is not without its challenges, especially in Nigeria. Odunsi has mentioned how difficult it has been to be fully accepted in the industry due to condescending sentiments attached to being ‘new age’.

Perhaps instead of understanding it as caricature, we should see the alté movement as a way to make sense and take ownership of the cultural flux that is particular to the Internet age. For Odunsi, eclecticism works as way to celebrate a diversity of influences and to forge an identity. After gaining independence, many African countries were tasked with building a national identity from scratch. Much of the optimism that characterized Africa’s independence era is mirrored today in how the beginnings of the alté movement have allowed for the re-discovery and repurposing of culture, and conversations about the future. The alté music wave is emblematic of fun, recollection and growth. It refuses to accept pre-defined notions of music that people ‘should’ be making and, instead, is led by the question what else could we be making?

Such experimentation is how I understand ‘Afro-fusion’. Visually, one could liken Odunsi’s aesthetic and musical practice of ‘Afro-fusion’ to the works of Moroccan photographer, Hassan Hajjaj. Hajjaj’s 2015 pop art image ‘African Boy Sittin’ is worth mentioning here. Both Odunsi and Hassan Hajjaj’s works are examples of how popular African art is expanding the constraints put on the Black imagination by exploring and fusing many parts of the multifaceted experience of what it means to be ‘African’. Odunsi articulates Afro-fusion visually as well. His aesthetic is inspired by 70s and 80s Nigerian psychedelic rock music, as well as the contemporary re-interpretations of that era, as found in young designers like Nigerian-British Mowalola Ogunlesi.

Odunsi’s musical inspirations for rare. include a roster of musicians who were not afraid to be alternative. Ralph Tresvant, Grady Harrell, Plantashun Boiz, Asa, Prince, Ade Asa, Sade, and Kris Okotie make up the range of creatives that came together to inspire this album’s sounds.

Visually, American television including The Get Down, Pose and Insecure inform the disco that the music calls for. Disco, a space and culture built for alternative expression, is a fitting symbol of where this musical moment is at and the links to popular shows of the ‘Black Renaissance’ in film and TV more explicitly situates this music as a part of the global narrative of this expansion of Black creativity. Trying to other alté as un-African is a projection onto the music by people who still haven’t let go of their own strict ideas of what kind of art Africans should be consuming and making.

However, this isn’t to say the alté movement’s cross-pollination of cultures is the first of its kind. From Djibril Diop Mambety’s being influenced by French avant-garde films to the effect that Ghanaian highlife music had on Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound, postcolonial African music has always been a reflection of a multitude of sources. What marks this era as different is how embodying all of these influences no longer detracts creative work from—or adheres it to—a certain definition of ‘African’-ness. With the alté movement, creativity just is