Lady Donli, Nigeria’s Alté Culture, and the Quest for Difference.
When all our obstacles have been overcome, and we find ourselves in a state of total presence, the wisdom of enlightenment manifests.
The above quote is from the practice of Dzogchen, a tenet of Buddhism practised in pursuit of self-liberation. Dzogchen entails completeness, peace of mind, and an ultimate state of existence, all of which can be achieved through the approaches of renunciation, compassion, and self-awareness. While these approaches may be different, Dzogchen ultimately requires that for individuals to attain self-liberation, they must remove themselves from the world. They must be different.
It is a chilled, laid-back September night at the FreeMe Space, a creative centre for music, performative arts, and visual exploration in Lagos, Nigeria. The space is a few blocks from the more prominent Nike Art Gallery, which precedes a stretch of residential buildings in the Ikate area of Lekki, Lagos. It adequately reflects the gradually closing gap between the city’s residential setting and bustling social scene.
There is a group of people outside the venue, yet nothing of significance — nothing that stands out in the general terrain of Friday nights in Lagos. Between the venue and the small gathering, a long table, flanked by security personnel, is situated to the side for taking and clearing tickets. Because of its exterior aesthetic, the FreeMe building stands out from the cookie-cut houses surrounding it, yet this distinction progressively shifts from the building’s architectural layout to the multitude of people gathered at its front and slowly filtering into the premises. As they reconnect on the other side of the gate, the sense of camaraderie becomes more glaring. People are talking, laughing, and taking selfies, all while blending into the subtle stir of a bustling drink stand, a radiant photo booth, and a busy technical unit at the far corner of the small yard.
In summary, it’s a few minutes to another edition of Wild Sessions, a series of music shows by Lady Donli, one of Nigeria’s more exploratory contemporary artists. But it is much more than Wild Sessions; we’re getting there.
A lobby adjoins the main hall where the stage is set inside the building. The FreeMe space is not designed for a large crowd — somewhere around two hundred to three hundred people on a packed night, subtly resounding the message that boldness and eccentricity are for a select few. The main hall has a high ceiling, and multiple garden lights hang wall-to-wall about fifteen feet above the ground. The garden lights are the only source of light besides the stage, a small cube-like arrangement of glowing frames that contains a band set-up and a microphone stand right in the middle.
The small stage, the closed-off homely room, and the intimate cohesion of both factors indicate how involved the small audience will be. They look like they are excited about it too. The crowd consists of individuals with bright faces already entranced on the stage, dancing entertainers, and a chime of club bangers from the DJ in the far corner. Phones are up, and several instances of subtly swaying waists and tapping feet. Typical of an anticipating crowd.
Despite the evident typicalities, several elements of this crowd elude it from what would widely be considered the norm. As earlier mentioned, there is a general sense of fashion choices, demeanour, and several other observations that indicate a deviation from mainstream culture. It is all reflective of the Alté sub-culture, a movement that Lady Donli herself is a part of and well-rooted in Nigeria’s enormous entertainment scene.
But, again, it is a lot bigger than Lady Donli.
In 2007, Ladi Lanre, Tobenna Ofili, and Tobi Ajayi — all up-and-coming Nigerian artists at the time — formed a rap group known as Rap Royals. The group later incorporated the services of Teni Zaccheaus (more commonly known as Teezee), and the group name was modified to DRB Lasgidi. DRB is short for Double R (Rap Royals) Boys, and Lasgidi serves as a moniker for their base city of Lagos. Over the following years, the group saw several changes in its operational dynamics; new members, rebranding, and changes in creative direction, all to arrive at the version of the music fit that released its maiden album in 2018, titled DRB 10, and the follow-up two years later, Pioneer.
While these events may seem like one of many grass-to-grace stories of band/artiste formations, a bulk of the contemporary Alté culture can be attributed to them. Perhaps the most prominent aspect of this culture is the kind of music they created, a blend of afrobeats, pop, and other elements into a cohesion that delivered a psychedelic feel. A feel removed from the traditional structures of afrobeats and others, further enabling the narrative proposed by the genre’s frontrunners — music does not have to make sense; it just has to be felt.
Several descriptions have been used to quantify Alté as a brand of music, presumably because of how different it is from what the Nigerian and African audiences have primarily consumed until now. Most of these descriptions have been from a general standpoint of the Alté artistes’ deviance. For example, Imade Omo from Culture Custodian describes it as a musical genre “born out of people rebelling against mainstream music”. These descriptions, however, have proven to be lacking in a sense. Because while music is deeply embedded in Alté, it is too developed beyond a brand of music to be viewed solely in that ramification. For example, Wavy the Creator’s P.S. Thank You For Waiting spurs a laidback envisage that entails lonely synth riffs and soft drum infusions. Yet Santi’s MANDY & THE JUNGLE poses a more ruffled body of work that peaks in tempo and momentum on some tracks, then descends into gloomy tones on others. Artistic variations can also be seen across other artists within the genre, spurring a difficulty in carving the creative lines that define what Alté should sound like. Essentially, it shouldn’t sound like anything. That’s the point. And as the Alté community has continuously reinstated, there shouldn’t be a stipulation for what they should say, look, or feel like. Especially when the people driving this stipulation exist outside of their community.
Back to wild sessions, back to the conceptual themes and subtle displays of entertainment that fill the room ahead of Donli’s arrival. Two topless young men are dancing in front of the stage. Both are wearing white flared trousers shredded at the bottom and masks largely similar to that of Lagbaja, Nigeria’s legendary masked Afrobeat artiste. To the side of the room, right by the entrance, a young lady performs a headstand effortlessly as she maintains a beaming up-side-down smile. The stage has not been graced by the main act, yet the aura reeks of energy and is pregnant with potential for what could be a memorable night.
Enter Lady Donli.
Tonight, she Altérnates from her typical two-piece ensembles of warp-print designs with uniformed colour themes and has replaced it with a skin-tight unitard with a pair of matching arm sleeves. Her beaded dreadlocks are loose and glaring, and she makes a point of it by swinging her head frantically as she steps forwards to the cheering crowd and the wave of phone camera lights that have emerged all around. Explosive drum roll and electric guitar riffs establish her arrival and the increased magnitude of the moment. There is a brief discourse between her and her audience concerning their welfare and readiness for the show. Cheers of confirmation ring through again as clicking drum sticks usher in music.
Once again, my attention shifts to the crowd to see the full-blown excitement that their anticipation has translated to. The show has just started and is in its supposed subtle stages, yet the bobbing heads, stepping feet, and swaying shoulders are a collective expression of the energy that has now soaked the air. If there’s anything learnt from this crowd, it is that expression is taken in their stride.
I soon learn that expression is at the Alté movement’s foundation. Not the music, not the fashion, not the aesthetics. Instead, the disposition to be different and express oneself in light of that difference. To articulate one’s identity in a world that strives to deny it. Many things begin to align when the movement is observed in the light of expression and deviation. For example, the pursuit of a new sound is bold and daring in itself. Any Alternate approach to the norm would require a distinct shift in the socio-cultural scale that would accommodate this unique sound and grow an audience for it.
This same cultural shift is evident in the ramifications of fashion. A niche has been carved with the help of distinct influences from designers like Ashley Okoli and Mowalola Ogunlesi. This niche manifests in the form of layered necklaces, mesh blouses, two-piece envisages, brightly coloured wigs or hair dye, body piercings, eccentric make-up, a prevalence of leather elements, and a general inclination towards a style-laden body positivity that is characterized by the irony of minimal body covering, yet conspicuous overall fashion statements.
A cultural shift. Perhaps this is the best way to define Alté culture. A fast-growing change that may be relatively subtle in its beginning phases but is gradually peeling off the surface conservative constructs that traditionally characterize Nigerian youth. Not to say that Nigerian youth — or any youth — are paragons of virtue, but the metrics of good character are being re-evaluated and redefined to a version that suits the people to whom these metrics are subjected. Essentially, they are taking back the standards used to define them and authoring the new constructs. They are also saying they are the “bad kids” our parents warned us of, and they are completely fine with that. So while Alté culture entails no shift in virtue or compromise to general societal coexistence, there is an evolving sense of perception as to how youth should behave, what they should wear, and how they should make their music.
In pursuing answers to this question, I spoke to XDeoye (XD for short), a contemporary artist that has long created Altérnative music. As is reflected in a growing consensus amongst the sub-culture community, XD sternly points out that he does not make Alté music because Alté is a culture — not a genre — and while music from that culture may often reflect a uniformity, it is as a result of the cultural constructs that influence it. When I ask XD how he would then classify his music, he stresses the ineffability of his sound, stating that it does not belong in any major category. “I’m more of an Afropop artiste,” he tells me, “Afropop is not as traditional..it is different, in the sense that it is freer”. XD further tells me that Alté as a musical genre is not defined, inhibiting its ability to stand. This inability to be explained stems from the widely varying musical styles that artists within that genre practice, making it all too collectively multifaceted to be grouped together.
This need to elude a definition is also reflected by Goz, a fashion designer and stylist that has also voiced his dislike for being called Alté. While he admits that it is a sub-culture, he states that there are several others. “I don’t like being called Alté because I am not Alté. I don’t want people to put me in that box. Alté is not just dressing; it’s more of the way you think. Being Altérnate, being different.” Goz bases his perspective on the growing tendency of observers to generalize this way of life and group several other growing sub-cultures — such as emo and goth — into Alté.
“Nigerians should understand that there are other aesthetics and genres that exist. They just want to put you in a box and define you by all means. Once you’re not mainstream or conventional, they call you Alté.”
XDeoye and Goz reflect a growing discourse surrounding what defines Alté and how these definitions are constantly being misused in public spheres. For example, Lady Donli tweeted in March this year that Alté is a subculture that barely has to do with music, highlighting the general negligence in “categorizing anyone that doesn’t make afrobeat(s) as Altérnative”.
An important takeaway is that while they are subject to debates surrounding what they are and should be called, they just want to be. This perception factor could prove very important in the continuation of the culture. But several other things apparently lay in their future. Given the growing contrast between the sub-culture and Nigeria’s socio-cultural identity, Alté culture could increasingly accommodate perspectives that are not commonplace in the Nigerian aesthetic. For example, there’s a growing skateboard community in Lagos that may not be exclusively tied to Alté culture, yet shares several members and is founded on the same basis of cultural deviations. Queerness, as it pertains to sexuality, is also partly embedded in Alté culture, against the duality of social backlash and a fourteen-year criminal sentence that have both been used to punch down on Nigeria’s discreet LBGTQ+ community.
The Alté community has revealed several recurring elements of non-conformity, either from that night at the Freeme Space; female bouncers and close audience interaction, or in general; gender fluidity and defiantly themed events. Yet, as much as the culture does not have to ‘conform’, it does not have to be alienated. Fortunately, there is a growing discourse around the culture. The NATIVE, a culture magazine established by Teezee and Seni Saraki in 2016, is constantly driving discourse on Alté culture through music, art, and fashion channels. The NATIVE isn’t alone; several other platforms — like Wild Sessions, for example — are emerging to establish Alté identity and strengthen the ties that bind this community.
In Nigeria’s entertainment climate, Burna Boy can sell out the Madison Square Garden, and Nollywood’s growing international appeal has spurred its significant boost over the past five years. So maybe we should pay attention to the ties that bind our entertainment culture.
At the end of the night, as Wild Sessions ends, Lady Donli requests for any person from the audience to come on stage. I raise my hand, drawing her attention to my hard-to-ignore 6'4 frame. She ushers me towards her through a cheering crowd, and I immediately sense the contrast. For the first time all night, I am pulled from the dark corner of observance and immersed in the spotlight. It is quite a spotlight too. Phone lights flash from all the crowd, and all eyes are now on me. She steps closer and starts a sonic tirade.
You wan chop the thing, but it bite back
You wan love the girl, she no like that
You want a taste of the mysterious Kitty Kat
You want a taste of the mysterious Kitty Kat
After the fast-paced minute passes, she runs her microphone down the length of my torso and slightly nudges me backwards with it, creating a distance between us and indicating that my time on stage is now over. For some reason, I bow before exiting. Strangely enough, I constantly ask myself why I bowed through that night or why the moment held me in an enthralling yet overwhelming state of mind. The closest I can come to answer is that I felt free. Liberated. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from Dzogchen, being different is the ultimate path to liberation.