That time Rick Ross filmed a music video in a Lagos slum

Can a rap music video do better than some journalism in showing the real, unvarnished existence of ordinary Nigerians?

A still from the music video for Rick Ross's "Hold Me Back"

American rapper (and music executive) Rick Ross shot the latest version of the music video for his “Hold Me Back” record in Obalende, a poor section of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.

The video – it resembles the travel diaries usually shot by rappers on tour – is a strange mix of images and ideas over a nonsensical rap.

Shot in black and white, the music video opens with grainy late 1960s footage of the Biafran War from a US television news show . The announcer introduces a general of the Nigerian Federal Government who declares himself pleased with the war’s outcome. The video then cuts to a series of disconnected images – Nigerians in a mosque, goats, expensive wrist watches, children crying, a man washing his feet, theater performers on a boat, Rick Ross handing out money to children, more poverty, etcetera – while a shirtless Rick Ross raps obscenities and misogyny on repeat (“niggas,” hoes” and “bitch” feature heavily for holding him back) interspersed with motivational speeches. Sample lyric: “Momma workin’ three jobs ’til I told her to quit / How we rose from the sewers, funny now I’m the shit.”

The music video ends with grainy images of the Nigerian national football team’s greatest moments — in the 1994 World Cup in the United States and the 1996 Gold Medal performance against Argentina in the final of the Olympic Games men’s football tournament.

Ross has featured in a music video with Nigerian pop stars before (he did a guest verse on “Beautiful Onyinye” by the P-Square brothers) which music video was mostly shot on a yacht) and has traveled elsewhere on the continent.  It is not unclear what the directors of the Lagos themed “Hold me back” wanted to communicate with this video. Is it a statement against Igbo claims about the Biafran War in which nearly 3 million people lost their lives? Boima Tucker says he is certain Ross doesn’t really know anything about Biafra. Is this about Ross being a fan of soccer now, especially of the Nigerian national team? We are not sure.

The Lagos video is kind of a remix music video for “Hold Me Back.” The previous version was shot on location in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Rick Ross also made a “Behind the Scenes” video of the making of the New Orleans version.  Ross gives a lot of motivational speeches about being poor and not letting that keep you back. He also says that he wanted to show the reality of the poor in New Orleans.  Various locals, including rap legend Mia X, appear on camera to express their gratitude that Rick Ross came to their city to shoot the video there after the damage and depression of Hurricane Katrina.  At the end of the video, a local complains about the quality of houses and the struggles residents have to confront. This version of the video was reportedly banned by the American channel, BET, which targets black viewers.

As usual the Internets aren’t very helpful in helping us to make sense of what Rick Ross tried to communicate with the Lagos video.

Most websites, especially music blogs, posted the video with no or minimal context and asked their readers to interpret it instead. The comments on sites frequented by US rap fans are of especially poor quality. More honest are those on popular Nigerian blogs (like Nairaland and Linda Ikeji’s) or tweets by Nigerians on Twitter.

The condemnation and praise for Ross is evenly divided.

Here are some samples from the 200 odd comments to a post of the video (again, with little interpretation or context) on Linda Ikeji’s blog. On this blog, known for its conservative politics, readers complained that Ross, his director and their local handlers were wrong for filming the video in a slum. They would have preferred if he showed the affluent parts of the city.  They wished all kinds of curses on him.

This is SO DISGUSTING, are we at war, why are we portrayed as barbaric. FAT RICK ROSS, go to hell.

look at the dirty area the video was shoot. nawah o. i wonder what will be going through G.O.O.D Music acts mind. Rick ross is wicked for shooting his video in a place like this. Fat Fool

So Sad. Nigerian artist need to stand against this humiliation. Does D’banj have the guts to go the dark Brooklyn or Michigan, or even the hoodest downtown Baltimore to go shoot a video. Idiots.

my prayer is that lightening will strike rick ross and hailstones will wipe out his entire family even to generations yet unborn.

However, some commenters appreciated Ross’s choice of location as it highlighted the deplorable conditions under which large parts of Nigeria’s population live:

I felt so sad watching this video!!! Everything wrong with/ in Nigeria was shown!!! Nigeria needs a revolution!!! Am so tired of the suffering pain and injustice … Kudos to rick Ross for highlighting this and remaining us to act n do something about our country.

A similar type of comment was posted on WorldstarHipHop. The writer commended Rick Ross for presenting “the rugged parts of Nigerian society” and criticized Nigerian pop artists for their silences on the conditions ordinary Nigerians live under.

I don’t really like Rick Ross, or care for his music. However, I have to give him some credit for doing a video of Nigeria which presents the rugged parts of Nigerian society, without passing judgment on it. I’ve never seen D’Banj or P Square do anything like that (who are indigenous Nigerian artists) – they’re too busy copying US music industry cliches instead … there’s nothing in the video or title which suggests he’s intending to represent the whole of Naija. Nigerians should stop constantly complaining at people who present ‘the bad side’ of Naija, especially if they’ve done nothing to help correct it. If our government, society and economy was competent, then much of these images of poverty wouldn’t exist to be filmed.

Here’s our take: The negative reaction against Ross is understandable, though misplaced (and boring). It’s like the cottage industry calling for “positive” news about “Africa” in Western media. But equally problematic are those praising Ross for “exposing” poor conditions in Lagos when all Ross is doing is use Nigeria as a backdrop to make him look hard: “We’re so hard we throw dollar bills off boats to poor kids in Nigeria,” is what he seems to be saying. And the references to the Biafra war and old soccer games are baffling. If he was trying to show how Nigerians are struggling with poverty or resisting their conditions, why not use more recent/relevant images like Occupy Nigeria?

But after all that debate, I still think the best retort to Ross’s various music video versions for the song, came in the form of comedy; i.e. a parody video:

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.