We Are All MohBad: A Cultural Essay By Reuben Abati

Beyond politics – Tinubu’s maiden trip to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Atiku Abubakar’s voyage of discovery for Tinubu’s academic records in the United States, revelations regarding how the Presidency lied about the President’s stop-over after the G20 Summit on his way back home at the United Arab Emirates, the increasing failure of the Naira without respite, the proposed strike by organized Labour, and other urgent matters political in the public domain – no other matter has been of greater compelling attention and significance that the sudden, surprising death of 27-year old artist, musician, song-writer, and rapper, Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba popularly known as MohBad or Imole. No other death of an artist has caught the popular imagination in Nigeria in recent times as his.  

His departure has been like the eruption of a volcano, with the lava spreading uphill and downhill. When beggars die so said the poet, there are no comets seen. But when Princes die, even the Heavens themselves blaze forth the glory. So it has been with MohBad: a life so short, and yet so impactful, more so in death than in life. He was a prince of his art. What lessons can we learn from this phenomenon that has been thrust upon us by fate and circumstances? 

Many years ago, in 2007 to be precise, I wrote a piece on the pages of The Guardian newspaper titled “A Nation’s Identity Crisis” which touted my credentials as a trained expert in dramaturgy, ethnomusicology, and the entire range of theatre arts theory and criticism, having taught the same subjects myself, I argued, with special focus on contemporary Nigerian music at the time that an emergent “Naija, Nija, or 9ja” generation had lost touch with their original roots. I raised questions about a palpable slip into the “age of abbreviations” of talent and everything else, characterized by the emergence of a new generation that was in “a hurry.” 

 It was a comparative essay between the old tradition and the “post-modernist, deconstructive temper of emergent youth culture which as I argued was marked by a Grunge character that suited non-meaning and alienation.

That piece I believe should be available online in this season of social media reality. In it, I praised the old culture, the musicians of the earlier generations – the 60s till the 80s – whose music had a proper complexus of sound, shape, sense, skills, and authenticity as a major highlight. In contrast, I found contemporary music then to be highly deficient in the same respects, bogged down as it was by populism, commercial appeal, wannabe affectations and a befuddling lack of depth. Accordingly, I predicted that many of the emergent superstars of the period would not survive for long because their talent was not original enough; it was mere hype, propped up by animation and the synthetic piano.  In those days, we had artists with swollen heads who thought naively that they had arrived. One of them, Rooftop MC in fact told everyone: “Ori mi wu o, e lagi mo.” I concluded then that “most of the music being produced now will not be listenable in another five years   and this perhaps is the certain fate of commercial art that is driven by branding, show and cash. 

My intervention stirred the hornets’ nest. For more than two months, the super artistes who felt their ego had been bruised attacked me on the pages of The Guardian and elsewhere. My colleague, Jahman Anikulapo, Arts Editor of The Guardian then, allowed all shades of opinion to flourish. He opened up the pages to a robust debate. Some of those who responded to me included Banky W., El Dee and a host of others. Looking back on those days, I guess I may have been proven right. Many of the musicians I predicted would not make the long-distance run have since fallen by the roadside. Only the truly talented can make that long-distance journey. In the 18th Century in Venice, Italy and Austria, Antonio Salieri was a far more popular composer than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Europe. He got better patronage from the courts. Posthumously, however, Mozart has proven to be the true Amadeus – chosen by God, a true legend, eternally recognized for his genius, not momentary popularity.  Salieri remains unknown.

I have given this background to show that the uninformed, the uninvolved who relate to developments in the cultural space, without education, relying on sentiments, may in the fullness of time discover that they may have been driven more by emotions rather than the truth, or a proper, intelligent reflection on the matter at hand. Our departure point is the death, last week, of 27-year-old Ilerioluwa Oladimeji Aloba, a tragedy which has now become a cause celebre. There has been an enormous outpouring of grief from all parts of the world. Processions have been organized in Lagos, Abeokuta, Akure, Benin, Lagos, Ikorodu, Abuja, Wolverhampton, London, UK, Canada and Spain. In New York, MohBad’s image was on the screen at the Times Square. In nearby Ghana, elderly women took to the streets and mourned as they joined others in asking for #JusticeforMohbad – a clear testament to the power of music as a universal, semiotically, unifying referent and language. MohBad’s songs – Feel Good, Ponmo, KoPorKe topped the charts in the UK and elsewhere. He became a greater star in death.  Many who have trooped out, asking for justice because they have bought into the narrative that there was foul play in his death, may never have even listened to any of his songs. But his spirit has proven to be stronger in death than in life. In metaphysics, there is this belief that certain spirits are indestructible. Fela. Ayinla Omowura. Victor Olaiya. Fatai Rolling Dollars. Michael Jackson. Bob Marley. In other words, the transcendentalism of the human spirit –  but the residue in this matter is the force of good art, further confirmed in the eponymous quote by Horace that “art is long, life is short.” MohBad’ s music seems destined to live beyond him. 

It is important for us to ponder on the lessons of his example rather than the attempt to jump to conclusions about the circumstances of his death. The Lagos State authorities have exhumed his body for an autopsy.  All the conspiracy theorists who have raised questions about blood that was found in his grave when his corpse was exhumed (those who know insist this is not unusual); those who query why he had to be buried so quickly and in an unbefitting space, those who argue that there is a foul play and that they have an idea about the identity of the killers and their agents should all at this moment clam down and allow the pathologist to do their work, and the security agencies to conclude their investigations. The response of state agents so far is commendable, especially the empathy that has been demonstrated by the Lagos State Government and the Nigeria Police. The creative community has also shown solidarity in a most impressive manner. MohBad is dead and gone. Those who are using his death to fight personal battles, chase clout, gain attention and play games should calm down, and look beyond their own emotions.

There is a MohBad in all of us, a part of him that speaks to the depths of our cravings, outer realities, and fears. Young or old, man or woman, we all wake up every morning hoping that God’s grace will shine upon us. MohBad enjoyed heavenly Grace, no matter how briefly, in life and death. In death, he became a catalyst for the expression of youth angst and despair in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yet he grew up amidst deprivation. It is perhaps true after all that heroes do not wear capes. They could come from the ghettos.  MohBad’s mother left his father. He grew up under the wings of a problematic step-mother who has been studiously silent. Good for her. MohBad managed to complete secondary school education and gained admission into a Polytechnic.  But he would eventually drop out to pursue his passion: Music. He was brought to the limelight by Naira Marley Records. When he eventually decided to leave this particular label to set up his own: Imole Nation, his travails began. He was hounded from pillar to post by his former Managers. He reported to the police and even sang about his travails in his records. Many of those now shedding crocodile tears heard his cries for help, even in his songs, but nobody raised a finger to help. We are all sad enough in the same space: a random check will reveal millions of persons who had home troubles like MohBad, work troubles as he had, and who also lived in fear and anxiety like him, and who slipped into depression, and who in the midst of it all, made wrong choices, or just one wrong choice that ends it all. MohBad, young as he was, lived an impactful life, but many in his shoes die unsung. Perhaps if he received help and support, not having to bear so much burden at his young age…Think upon these things.

There are many broken children like him, products of a broken home who manage to find their way in life, but whose background limits their chances. The artist who made good, created good music and a sellable brand has been made a further victim of family circumstances. His shameless father has been all over the place, hugging the limelight, proclaiming himself as the father of a dead son. Could he have done something different to keep the boy alive? MohBad’s mother who abandoned him for 15 years suddenly took over his home in Lekki after his death, to attend to visitors. The young widow, Wunmi who had a five-month son for him was so promptly marginalized, the lady’s sister had to cry out on social media! What I remember from some of the reports is that MohBad’s mother has been whining that her son had promised to give her N5 million before he died. What exactly is she missing? Her son or N5 million? According to the reports, concerned persons like Davido and others have contributed funds for the upbringing of the innocent son that MohBad left behind. What is the guarantee that Wunmi, the boy’s mother would not eventually be driven away and eventually accused of killing MohBad, when an inevitable struggle for money and benefits, who-takes-what begins.? Obviously MohBad was too young to write a will. Nobody expects to die so young. Many are in this same boat. You spend your entire life supporting family. When you die and your children are still young, the vultures in the family and among your friends move in to inherit whatever they can – including the wife you left behind. Family members start the war by accusing your wife and her family of witchcraft. In MohBad’s case, some characters even asked for the DNA of his son. 

There are more lessons certainly to be learnt, especially by artistes still within the creative space. A major thread of the MohBad narrative has been how he was reportedly maltreated and dehumanized by his former Manager, Naira Marley: anger over his decision to leave the Marlians, death threats, assault, blackmail and intimidation. MohBad decided to establish his own record label and that even worsened his situation. Disc jockeys and radio stations were allegedly instructed not to play his music.  On one occasion, he was physically assaulted, He reported to the police but when he was called upon to identify his assailants, he was the one who failed to show up. He was too scared to talk. Imole’s fans are convinced that his travails reflect their own circumstances: the oppression and victimization of youths by power figures in the public and private arenas. This is why in part they ask for justice. It is in the nature of artists and their craft to inspire passion. We urge caution. Many of the people using MohBad’s death to draw attention to themselves -more have turned the ,tragedy into an enterprise, or to chase clout – that is what most are doing, most cynically should please allow the pathologists and the police to do their work, so we can have proper closure. 

I find even more curious the indication that MohBad was treated for an ear infection in a hospital – Perez Hospital – by an auxiliary nurse. The said nurse has since been arrested only for us to be told that she is not even a nurse at the named hospital. The hospital has since denied ever treating him and that MohBad was brought in dead, lifeless.  

I find this curious. Why would a rising star who has enough money to promise his mother a N5 million gift, and enough money to live in Lekki, allow himself to be treated and administered injections by a random nurse at home? Why did he not visit a proper hospital early? The older musicians that I praised were far more circumspect. The more modern singers who emerged after their generation may not have been as talented. This new generation is the worst that I have seen, though. They can sing and dance, and they have been helped by technology, and increased globalization.

But this is nonetheless a unique generation that is on drugs. They are also different because their space has been taken over by occultic groups. Artistes are required to be high on certain drugs and pay allegiance to a cabal. It is most difficult to see that the new generation is permanently high on something. This is one of the biggest threats to talent and tradition in Nigeria today. Our artists do not bother to take good care of their personal health. They prefer to buy diamonds. Flashy cars. Fine homes and those pimpernels who appear as if they have just stepped out of God’s beauty parlour. They travel in private jets too. In due course, their investments take a second seat.  There is an emerging greater emphasis on vainglory rather than true art, and a definitive colonial mentality in Nigeria’s cultural space, identified in our 2007 analysis, but now more the case with the ills of drugs and occultism to boot.  Who will save our artistes? 

MohBad’s death is a tragedy that calls for reflection and soul-searching. Is there anything that can be done to assist the multitude in the creative space who have to grapple with issues of relationships, contracts with managers, the devilish context of operation, society’s expectations and the ephemerality and tensions of stardom?  

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