It started ordinarily: the Ugandan model Eva Apio was hosting guests on her “Live Talent Show” on Instagram, and one of the sessions featured FatherDMW, the Nigerian skit creator whose real name is Bashir Muhammadu Abdullahi, and who until then was best known as one of pop star Davido’s staff members, and who before then was an okada rider. Father DMW is a comedic character and Eva, 19, is a glossy one; their video interaction, a chemistry of hilarious behavior and hilarious reaction, quickly established a narrative worthy of a reality TV script: he is trying to woo her, with his Hausa-inflected verbal mannerisms, and she is entertainingly puzzled, curious, and welcoming of his clumsy efforts. Undergirding this dynamic is the class awareness: a boy like him never gets a girl like her. Their Nigerian and Ugandan followers love it and make moments of it into memes. Soon, thousands more—up to 49,000 at one point, including such entertainment figures as Don Jazzy and Ebuka—are tuning in to watch them and laugh and comment. More snippets of their exchange make it to popular fun-geared Instagram accounts and to Twitter, where they trend at No 1. Tech Point Africa best captured this new popularity in a story header: “Move Over Kardashians, We’re Now Keeping Up with FatherDMW on Instagram Live.”
The story of Father DMW and Eva is only one example of how Instagram’s Live feature has created new funny sensations in our anxiety-filled era of COVID-19. It is a development that fans are welcoming of, given how it gives them visual access to their favourite online distractions as they happen, while also providing relief from the news. And it is part of a new increase in social media usage: a 61% rise, according to data insights firm Kantar, which includes a doubling in Instagram Live use, according to Facebook. Much like how Zoom has become the go-to app for professional meetings, Instagram’s Live feature, only recently perceived as being threatened by Tik Tok and Triller’s gained traction, is being maximized by young Nigerians as a centre of both trivial and important moments in culture.
One important moment was the “Battle of Hits,” which saw famed music producers square off. Sarz and Shizzi went first on March 30. The session saw 22,200 viewers—among whom were Davido and American producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz—and Drake shared it on his Instagram. Following them were Pheelz (Olamide, Fireboy DML, Seyi Shay) and Masterkraft (Phyno, Timaya, CDQ, WizKid). And then Rexxie (Naira Marley, Sarkodie, Zlatan) and Kel-P (Burna Boy, WizKid). These music battles and mini concerts on IG Live are of course not unique to the Nigerian culture space—YouTube launched its #WithYou concert and we saw American songwriter battles in The-Dream vs Sean Garrett and Ne-Yo vs Johnta Austin—but as with most things joined by Nigerians, it took on a different, more energetic flavor.
As Sarz and Shizzi played, the former 42 songs and the latter 40, many fans saw in it not simply two beat-makers jokingly jostling for supremacy but two blueprints in contemporary Afropop: some of Sarz’s biggest collaborations were with WizKid and some of Shizzi’s were with Davido, and so fans also saw in them WizKid vs Davido, which skyrocketed the significance and provided further reasons to talk up the decade-old rivalry between the continent’s two biggest music stars. With Pheelz and Masterkraft, it was a scenario of recency vs range. Pulse NG, which notes that in two hours and 13 minutes they played a total of 71 songs and drew 28,500 viewers, described the event as “a cultural victory for Nigerian music and a professional victory for producers—to show the depth of their influence.” Before now, such a cultural moment, in which major shapers of contemporary Afropop would share catalogues spanning 153 songs, would have been imagined only on an awards or Coachella-like concert stage, not on Instagram.
But the Live feature isn’t offering only entertainment and laughter; it is also a source of intellectual and emotional engagement. The Nigerian media entrepreneur Chude Jideonwo has been going Live with notable personalities to discuss his new show, Let’s Be Human Together. Guests have included musicians Banky W, Adekunle Gold, and Vector, filmmaker Mo Abudu, actors Nse Ikpe Etim and Timini Egbuson, media personalities Toke Makinwa and Adebola Williams, former Big Brother Naija housemates Tacha and Anto, and comedian Ali Baba. Each guest brings along their fandom and in front of them shares personal stories, inviting them to engage layers of humanity and find inspiration.
In the literary industry, IG Live has refreshed the concept of conversations. “What we think of our role as writers, which is to connect, is facilitated by IG Live,” Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, Nigerian AFRIMA Award-winning culture journalist and former West Africa Editor at Music in Africa, tells me on the phone. “We are reaching audiences we might not have reached. IG Live has become central to the literary conversation globally.” His conviction is echoed by Zukiswa Wanner, South African curator of Afrolit Sans Frontieres, a literary festival held on the Live features of Instagram and Facebook, with its third season set to start this May. “Readers are getting to know writers from this continent that they did not know about,” Wanner told Lit Net in an interview.
The IG Live model is something that creatives and culture observers will be seeking to establish in a sustainable format. There is, at the moment, no way to monetize it, but there is the need for it to pay, to leverage the thousands tuning in daily. Out in real time, COVID-19’s infection rate is growing, states have closed borders, the lockdown has caused a spike in hunger among ordinary people, relaxation has commenced in some states, the African continent is close to 50,000 cases and 2,000 deaths, and everywhere in the world the news is getting grimmer. For Nigerian millennials who could afford Internet data, social media has become even more indispensable, a place where everyone could find their niche. If they have made Tik Tok the go-to video app for fun and turned Twitter to an arena of clever “savagery” and YouTube to a home of tutorials, then they are making Instagram’s Live feature a new base for culture, a synthesis of reality, music, and inspiration that we’ve never seen before.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.