Famous Nigerians You Should Know About

When I teach Journalism, Yearbook, and plagiarism to middle school students the topic of “common knowledge” would always come up. To illustrate what is common knowledge in Lagos I would start naming famous Nigerians like President Goodluck Jonathan and Fela Kuti. Almost always, a new expat student would innocently blurt out “who is he” and get glared at by fiercely proud Nigerians — “What, you don’t KNOW???”

You see, not knowing who Fela Kuti is like saying you don’t know John Lennon if you live in UK or James Brown if you live in the US, or Bob Marley, the father of reggae. Fela Kuti was the pioneer of afrobeat and also an activist. The play “Fela!” about him was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2010. The musical came to Lagos in 2011 and had a performance at the New Africa Shrine, a club that keeps his legacy alive through sons Femi and Seun. My colleagues were able to watch the musical at Eko Hotel and some got to see Femi jamming with other musicians at the Shrine in Ikeja on a separate occasion. I am so envious and have added a visit to the Shrine to my bucket list of things to do before leaving Nigeria.

To continue with the discussion about famous Nigerians, I had my own embarrassing moment while attending a writing workshop in Johannesburg. The presenter picked an essay by Chinua Achebe and I mistook him for another famous writer Wole Soyinka, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, becoming the first African laureate. So I got a richly deserved “what, you don’t know???” I have since corrected that blunder by reading the Kindle version of the most widely read book in modern African literature, “Things Fall Apart” early this month, kind of a NY resolution. This is a good way to end my final year in Nigeria since I read Chimamanda Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” and “The Thing Around Your Neck” during my first year here.

One of my family’s favorite singers/group is Sade, and I was thrilled to learn that she is from Ibadan. Two years ago my friends gave me a great birthday gift, the CD album “Beautiful Imperfections” of Asa, whose voice and style has been compared many times to Sade’s. Born in Paris, she lived in Lagos when she was two but returned to Paris 20 years later. That’s where her music career took off when her first album won the French Constantin Award in 2008. Beautiful Imperfections was her second album, released in October 2010, and I never get tired of listening to it.

There are at least two famous Nigerian artists that I can claim bragging rights to having met and talked to in person: one is batik artist Nike Davies-Okundaye who is credited for reviving traditional methods of weaving and dying in Nigeria, particularly the art of making adire, the indigo tied and dyed Yoruba cloth. I blogged about her back in 2009. I met her during my first year in Lagos when she was the guest of honor of the American Women’s Club. She invited us then to visit one or all five of her art centers, as her Nike Art Centre can arrange tours and accommodation. I finally signed up for one to Ibadan and Oshogbo this March. It is said a visit to Lagos is not complete without a visit to her art gallery, which is the largest in Western Africa.


The other one is “reggae/dancehall artist” General Pype, who came to our flat last Sunday for lunch. His singles “Champion” and the recent “Victorious Man” are as popular as his collaborations with other African performers like “My Prayer” with Sensational Ify and “Mara Hio Hio” with Kenya’s Sauti Sol and Sasha. It’s interesting to note that he has not released an album yet, even though or maybe because he has been busy composing, recording and starring in music videos, traveling and performing in various parts of Africa. Here’s a video shot where he grew up near Lagos:

The list of famous Nigerians goes on and on. Two-time Grammy award winner Seal is half Nigerian although he was born in London. The Swedish musician and producer Dr. Alban was born and raised in Nigeria, and came to Sweden to study dentistry when he was in his early 20s. In sports there’s soocer star Nwankwo Kanu or simply Kanu, who distinguished himself by winning Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal and leading Nigeria in three World Cup Finals. He’s now a UNICEF ambassador. Other famous Nigerian athletes are NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon and football star Amobi Okoye, but because basketball and American football are not popular in Nigeria some locals might have never heard of them.

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