Add to bookbag
Author: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
Title: Gender, sexuality, and popular culture in Nigeria
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Gender, sexuality, and popular culture in Nigeria
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 1-2, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham.

Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture in Nigeria


This paper discusses images of Nigerian women in popular culture, using a strand of Yoruba popular music as an example, and how they function as consumers of a constructed representation and naming. It also expresses concern about the inability of popular culture in Nigeria to facilitate a progressive agenda for Nigerian women. Instead, in almost all forms of popular culture, women are derided, ridiculed, objectified, or rigidly categorized—in accordance with male power and control—as mothers, wives, good-time girls, and at best, as romanticized queens and goddesses. Representations of women in popular culture are a direct reflection of how they are perceived in society. It is important to note the distinction between representation and reflection. Reflection implies that there is a direct correlation between phenomena in the "real world" and their application in texts. Representations however, indicate that some kind of modulation or interpretative process is involved in re-presentation; hence some manipulation or transference becomes inevitable. Perception therefore plays a key role in reflection. While representations of women are not necessarily accurate reflections of women, the representations are a perceived reflection of women in the "real world," since the dominant forces which are at play in the lives of women in private/public spheres are the same ones which construct their representation in popular culture.

Due to the fact that popular culture as an area of study is relatively new in Nigeria, and the analytical tools of gender power relations have not been applied to this area of discourse, levels of gender awareness and consciousness in popular culture are at an unfortunate low. This has serious implications for women's participation in the political arena, in public life, and in democratization processes. To this end, both the producers/controllers of the technology and the consumers collude to create a symbiosis of mass narcissistic hysteria, and in the process, prevent attempts at any critical dialogue. Since the "popular" belongs to "the people" and is produced and consumed by the people, we need to examine what supports popular culture's negotiations with power structures—conservatism, collusion, or escapism?

In the production, dissemination, and consumption of popular culture, audiences use texts and construct meanings in different ways. "Popular culture is used, abused, and subverted by people to create their own meanings and messages" (John Fiske: 1989). However, the ease of doing this depends on how much space the audience has and the power relations that apply to a particular kind of audience. For example, the convention of praise-singing, an important aspect of Yoruba popular music, is the concern of the rich elite and their kinship/friendship structures and is a function of the musician's ability to manipulate these. The composition of the praise song has almost nothing to do with the ordinary man on the street, though he shares in the consumption. If, however, the musician decides to wax a record castigating women as a social group, all men, irrespective of their class, benefit from the entertainment. However, it is impossible to imagine a musician waxing a record to abuse all men, since antagonizing a male client base would be tantamount to committing commercial suicide.

Gender, Sexuality, and Commercial Space

Sexuality is an integral part of identity on both personal and social levels, and like gender, is socially constructed. Popular culture plays its own role in constructing sexuality, and the more control the producers have, the more dominant the representations are. Also, the use of sex broadens the commercial space of producers. Through his saucy lyrics, the male recording artist utilizes the inordinate amount of space he has to titillate and excite the imagination of his audiences, and he finds legitimization in doing so. The popular—as being for the people—is largely for the enjoyment of the people; therefore, constraints that would usually be placed on language and behavior in every day life are relaxed. Codified gender relations, however, remain the same and even assume more liberal dimensions. Tensions, frustrations, and anxieties between genders find expression through popular music, and over the years Yoruba popular musicians such as Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade, the late Ayinla Omowura, and the late Adeolu Akinsanya have used their music both as a conduit for their own conservatism as well as a means of consolidating the attitudes of their predominantly male audiences. Issues such as male/female relationships, marriage, polygamy, and kinship serve not only to convey the musician's personal views on such matters, but also to remind their audiences of their commitment to maintaining a status quo of social relations. In a record he waxed in the 1970s, Ebenezer Obey sang,

Tí omokùnrin bá l'áiya sílé
tí ó tún lo ní girlfriend
tí aiya ilé gbo tí ó bá bínú
ó ye kó lo ogbon àgbà fún un
tí ó bá lo ogbon àgbà fun tí ò bá gbo
ó ye kó l'ogbójú fun
Nítorí kíni?
Nítorípé àwa okùnrin lè láiya méfà
kò burú
okùnrin kan soso l'olúwa mi yàn fún obìnrin.
If a man is married and has a girlfriend on the side
if his wife gets to know about it and is annoyed
he should try and manipulate the situation
if this does not work
he should call her bluff
Because we men can marry six wives
too bad!
God allows a woman only one man.

Whenever this song is played, men can be seen nodding their heads in agreement and throwing triumphant glances in the direction of women—a classic example of popular music providing legitimization for its public.

Sexual parodies of women are a regular feature in Yoruba popular music. Most of the musicians employ the services of young women as dancers for their musical videos. These dances focus on sensuous body movements, with the cameras zooming in on cleavages, rolling buttocks, gyrating hips. The lyrics are often so lurid and vulgar, calls have been made for the ban or at least the regulation of such records; but nothing has ever been done about this. Each album comes up with more imaginative ways of describing the female anatomy: "fresh fish" (succulent bodies), "sweet banana" (breasts), "bulldozers" (buttocks), "caterpillar" (body contours), and many more. Sunny Ade is another musician who has used sex/sexuality as an entertainment gimmick. He popularized the slang siki siki (breasts) and he once sang "omú siki siki siki siki ni iyì obìnrin"—"Bouncy breasts are a woman's greatest asset." The use of siki siki in this way is meant to have an onomatopoeic effect.

The Socio-Political Context of Shinamania

Shinamania is the creation of a young Nigerian Jújù Musician known as Shina Peters. He has been on the Nigerian musical scene since the 1970s, when as a young boy he was a guitarist with "Brigadier General" Adekunle. He left Adekunle around 1976 with Segun Adewale to set up their own band, and after a few years they both went their separate ways. One reason why Shina's phenomenal success surprised Nigerians was that it was no secret that Shina Peters was not a vocalist; he was acknowledged as a gifted guitarist, on a par with the likes of Sunny Ade. When he was with Adekunle and later with Segun Adewale, he never sang; he acted as master guitarist for both bands. When he insisted on singing along with with Segun, they fell out. Shina played mainly at private functions, releasing one or two insignificant albums, until he produced Afro Juju in 1989.

Afro-Juju is a combination of conventional jújù music and a funky pop beat. The result is very fast and upbeat with a lot of funky bumps and grinds. Though he called this album ACE, it became known by one of its tracks, Ijo Shina (Shina's dance). By the time he released the second album in the Afro-Juju series in 1990, his music and following had developed to such a feverish height that he aptly called the second album Shinamania. In ACE, he makes a lot of lewd and pornographic references to women. Apparently, these references were not an issue for his huge female fan base; they seemed more interested in consumption. After all, Shina is not the first jújù musician to use the female anatomy as a selling point for his records. This does not imply that Shina's female fans were one homogenous mass of undiscerning females—they cut across class, religion, and ethnic lines, and he appealed to those who would not regard themselves as fùjí fans or fans of older jújù musicians like Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade. It would also be inappropriate to argue that they "like" what he says about them, as some people have pointed out to me. Since images and references to women in popular music are almost exclusively constructed by men, women are socialized into accepting these constructs, especially since these constructs are in the realm of the popular, rarely considered a serious arena of discourse.

The Shinamania craze happened when Nigeria was going through its most serious economic crisis in 26 years. There had been massive losses in oil revenues, the economy had been in steady decline since the end of the second civilian republic in 1983, and Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) were being implemented. The impact of all these fiscal policies was felt by both the rich elite and the poor (there were arguments in various quarters as to the non-existence of a middle class). Since the hitherto lucrative deals in importing and exporting were no longer available, foreign exchange deals, real estate, fraud, and narcotics became the major source of income for a nouveau riche. These young men joined the widening fan base of Shina Peters and fùjí musicians. Around this time, the print media in Lagos was booming; the mainstream weeklies, such as Newswatch, African Concord, and African Guardian, spurned another genre, the soft-sell general interest publications such as Quality, Eko, Poise, Hints, Classique, and Channelle. There were also "junk" magazines with their fascination for scandals and the bizarre, such as Vintage People, Prime People, Climax, Choice, and Fame. The target market for these publications was urban working- and middle-class men and women. These soft-sell and junk publications played a major role in the superstardom of Shina. The senior editorial staffs of many soft-sell publications were contemporaries (i.e., 28 to 40 years old, or old school mates) of the nouveaux riches who were the new movers and shakers in the cities. A lot of soft-sell publications carried stories on these new kids on the block, whose main characteristics were their flashy cars, designer clothes, beautiful (and expensive) women, and unbelievably lavish homes. When these nouveaux riches took a keen interest in Shina Peters, the journalists followed suit and added to the frenzy that Shinamania had already stirred. Shina Peters summed up this generation in his first album ACE'with "àsìkò àwa youth re o, e yé bínú wa"—"this is the time of the youths, let us be." A major appeal of ACE was that both its tempo and lyrics encouraged the sheer lack of inhibitions. A demoralized, "SAP-ped," and cynical urban public were now given the option to,

... dance, dance, dance, and forget your sorrow 2ce
je ká jó, je ká jó 2ce (let us dance)
Ijó Sir Shínà, ó yá (Sir Shina's dance, come on)
let us dance to Shina's music
let us dance to Afro-juju
my sisters and brothers, all music lovers
Afro-juju is the latest
it's the latest music in town
dance, dance, dance, and forget your sorrow....

And he lays claim to his constituency:

omoge wón jó ijó Shínà
omodé ńjó ijó Shínà
Àgbàlagbà ńjó ijó Shínà
Àwon guys ńjó ijó Shínà
omoge ńjó ijó Shínà
young women dance Shina's dance
children dance Shina's dance
adults dance Shina's dance
guys dance Shina's dance
young women dance Shina's dance.

Lyrical Pornography versus Harmless Fun

Eyin sìsí baby baby 2ce
eyin orekelewà obìnrin
ìkébè yen ló'ńdá mi lorùn
jowo jowo
afárá oyin tó'ńdá mi lorùn tó ńjekí siki
eyin sìsí baby baby
e bá mi jó ijó Shínà Peters
You young ladies
you beautiful women
those buttocks appeal to me
please, please
those honey combs called breasts appeal to me
you young ladies
dance Shina Peter's dance.

From this track in ACE and onwards, Shina establishes his lascivious interest in women as objects of desire and pleasure. It is not clear if he does this to appeal to the frivolity of his new audience, the "youth," or simply to enhance his own macho image as a good looking, sexy, rich, eligible (though he is married) performer. What is clear is that women are the focus of the lurid lyrics, and he claims legitimacy by using slang and newly coined hip words—in fact, he uses so many of these that his lyrics are hardly recognizable as Yoruba; the result often amounts to jargon, making translation difficult. Within this framework, he constructs his female audience as a receptacle for his own sexual desires and those of his male audience. The following lyrical sequence in ACE: Ijo Shina is an example:

Pàdí mi owon
wo ìkébè níwonbà
kí o mójú kúrò
kì í se erú e
ìkébè oníkébè lò ńwò
ìjà ìgboro lo ńwá
tèmi ni, tìe ko o
má je a jà
omoge jòjòló yì ńko?
tèmi ni, tì ç' ko
máje a jà
nítorí, fàájì ìsàle wà
teni tí ó bá dùn
l'omoge ma bá lo
My dear (male) friend
don't look at those buttocks for too long
turn your eyes away
they do not belong to you
you are staring at someone else's buttocks
you are looking for a street fight
they are mine, not yours
let's not fight
because women will only go after
whoever has the sweetest to offer
down there
oyin momo, oya dun oyin
siki siki e ló wùn mí mu
ló wùn mí muo
oyin momo oya dun oyin
sweet, sweeter than honey
I feel like sucking your breasts
sweet, sweeter than honey
mo rómoge tó rewà,
tó dúró sepe sepe
figure 8
òró[mgrave]bó àyà e
ó dùn ju osàn lo
olomoge show me your back
dig it left
dig it right
ó yá ó yá wéré wéré (come on, fast, fast)
show me your back
olomoge dance with your chest
dig it right
dig it left
ó yá ó yá wéré wéré (come on, fast, fast)
dance with your chest
I saw a beautiful woman
who stood tall and fine
with a figure eight
the oranges on her chest
are so sweet

These lyrics could of course pass for harmless fun to rev up the people on the dance floor. Women might interact with popular music for harmless fun, and even when the lyrics turn lewd and suggestive, it is not their "problem," since only male senses are being excited and incited. However, since this agenda is constructed and acted out at their expense, it is left to women to take the politics out of production and consumption, i.e., to shrug off these representations as "what men like to do."

During the Ibrahim Babangida administration (1985-1993), his wife Maryam set up a program, Better Life for Rural Women (BLP), ostensibly to address the needs of millions of Nigeria's women in rural areas and integrate them into national policies. The First Lady was the National Chairperson of the Program; the wives of the Governors of the thirty states of Nigeria were State Chairpersons, and the wives of local government Chairmen were Chairpersons at local government levels. The BLP was therefore a shrewd exercise in not only institutionalizing patriarchy, but in annexing women as part of a populist State agenda resulting in a form of "State Feminism." Maryam Babangida was a very glamorous woman, and she attracted a lot of media attention wherever she went because of her flamboyant clothes and headgear. The BLP therefore became a personality cult, and gender in Nigeria became popular and glamorized; suddenly it was fashionable to talk about women, and what it was that women "needed."

Shina Peters knew that he must create a space for women since they made up the vast proportion of his fan base. Since it was now "politically correct" to raise women's issues, he dedicated a large part of his second Afro Juju record Shinamania to women:

The time has come when I go talk to my people o
talk o talk o, make them hear
na wa o
na wa for African men
na wa for Nigerian men
give our women chance to talk
give our women chance to rule
go to England
na woman de rule
go to India
woman rule there before
In Nigeria, there are women of knowledge
North o, South o, there are women of success
East o, West o
make you give them chance, to deliver the goods
African women get knowledge
African women beautiful
90% bribery and corruption caused by men
90% accidents caused by men
African women soft minded, sensible,
they are beautiful....

It is curiously ironic that Shina follows this call for respect for women's abilities with lyrics that serve as "brotherly advice" to women, as well as a denigration of the very values he has just drawn attention to:

omoge, look your front
look your back
before you fall for that man
You can be Miss World o
you can be Miss Africa
you can be Miss Nigeria
without money, nothing can be done
before before, love dey between men and women
but nowadays, money for hand, back for ground
me I no dey blame women o
I no dey blame women at all
baby wan buy beautiful dresses
baby wan buy beautiful shoes
baby wan buy beautiful jewellery
baby wan buy beautiful car
baby wan buy beautiful duplex
all these things, na ego de talk (all these things cost money)....

This commodification of women recurs constantly in male/female relations, and in this instance popular music not only sets women up as sexual objects and men as their triumphant predators, but also designates men as the purchasers of services while women are the suppliers. After all, women are not expected to get their beautiful dresses, shoes, and cars, free of charge; "money for hand, back for ground" is a euphemism for prostitution. In this instance, a male producer of popular culture has chosen to be an advocate of his female audience, warning that in his own opinion, love is not enough to keep [a woman's] love, unless the relationship is commercialized.


Popular culture is part of power relations; it always bears traces of the constant struggle between domination and subordination, between power and various forms of resistance to it or evasions of it ... despite many more centuries of patriarchy, women have produced and maintained a feminist movement, and individual women, in their everyday lives, constantly make guerrilla raids upon patriarchy, win small fleeting victories, keep the enemy constantly on the alert, and gain, and sometimes hold pieces of territory (however small) for themselves. And gradually, reluctantly, patriarchy has to change in response.... (John Fiske 1989).

One might ask if there is any way for women, in discourse, to redress these anomalies. This is a rather difficult question. Sometimes the obvious line of action is to involve more women—as scholars, activists, producers, and consumers—in popular music, theatre, print/electronic media, and the whole spectrum of popular culture so that the guerrilla raids are effective. This would only work if women stopped internalizing and recreating the very images they find objectionable, and disavowed the codes, language, and naming used by male producers. Of immediate, critical concern is the process of de-coding and renaming to ensure that new meanings and language exist to interpret and represent the lives of women in popular culture. If this can happen, perhaps new audiences might be constituted.


Barber, K. 1987. Popular Arts in Africa. African Studies Review Vol 30, No 3 (September):1-78.

Bennet, T., Mercer, C., and Woollacott, J., eds. 1986. Popular Culture and Social Relations. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Caplan, P., ed. 1989. The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Fiske, J. 1989. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge.

Bonner et al, eds. 1992. Imagining Women: Cultural Representations and Gender.

passages |