An Open Letter to DaGrin
It’s been 10 long years since you passed. 10 harmattans, harsh and light, have passed since that unfortunate day when the world was informed of your transcendence—I say transcendence because I cannot imagine any scenario where you didn’t morph into further greatness. In the preceding nine years, I didn’t like to talk about it because yours was the first death I ever had to confront; a yanking off of my childhood innocence and the dread that ceasing to exist confers.
“DaGrin is dead,” my classmate told me as I prepared to write my Junior secondary school exam. No, he can’t be, I argued, the news said he was getting better last night. I watched it last night. But I remember the quiver in my voice that told me I was wrong. You were gone without any warning or respite for a young fan who had consumed your work and was waiting for you to return, because you just seemed larger-than-life. There’s a lot of things that rushed to my mind in those moments; the myriad of emotions that ached my heart; thoughts that bubbled up; and the absolute hurt that I felt. But, strangely, in the days that followed, it’s gratitude that I felt the most.
I was—am—thankful that you gave us an identity. You gave a voice to kids like me, who lived where I lived, and talked like I talked. We were grateful that we heard our slang in your music and then you watered our vocabulary with newer euphemisms. I am thankful because, even if I could not rap to save my life, you showed us that it was possible to rise by being true to our identity. You were—are— the rose that grew from concrete, only more mischievous. I heard your rascality loud and clear on “Kondo (Magic Stick).” But beneath that exterior, at your core, was rhythm and poetry; and I loved it more than I loved mathematics or biology.
Just the other day, I played your debut album, Still on the Matter, trying to understand why you didn’t register on the wider radar till 2009-ish and I think I get it. On that album, there’s still so much incertitude that beclouds your work. Maybe you were weary of committing fully to the indigenous cause, mindful of the burdens of marrying truism and sustainability. But you found a way and our music is all the better for it. C.E.O. is proof of how it can be done, led by “Pon Pon Pon,” it changed everything.
Indigenous rap is now mainstream in Nigeria—it’s difficult to break through, yes, but it’s also doable. And it’s a product of your work, your sweat, joy, and death. Your mesmerizing cool-but-playful voice was the vehicle to mainstream consciousness for an entire sub-genre. Were you the first to rap in Yoruba? No. But were you the most impactful at your time? Hell, yeah. Nobody operating at that time had the mix of dexterity, relatability, and elan that you clearly possessed. It was all there for us to see on “Pon Pon Pon.” But even then, you always seemed like the people’s star: possessed by supernatural talent, but at ease with yourself in a way that wasn’t obnoxious.
Almost all the Yoruba rappers that have come out since 2010 have your name on their lips and your influence is visible in their music. Phyno, one of the biggest artists of the 2010s, raps almost exclusively in Igbo. Half of the country doesn’t understand what he says, we just feel something. He represents the ideals you stood for: taking pride in one’s origin and navigating life with that pride. Other Yoruba rappers like Reminisce, CDQ, BaseOne, Chinko, and Lil Kesh, talk of you as the grand pioneer. You’d have enjoyed “Local Rappers” and how it established indigenous rhyming as the status quo instead of an Other. The “Pon Pon Pon” instrumental is still the litmus test for any indigenous rapper looking to underscore their credibility. Ten years later, and it still sounds so real to us.
Did you hear of Olamide before you transcended? He said he never got to meet you, but there’s a part of me that hopes you got to hear him before you left, or even collaborated (the streets would literally have gone wild). He’s told most of the stories that you always seemed to want to tell, and became one of the most influential creators of the 2010s. He probably had more club bangers than everybody in the decade, I celebrate him so fucking hard, but many times I found myself asking what it would be like if Dagrin was here. What would the follow up to C.E.O. sound like if you were allowed to make it? Were you going to be able to top that? Would you have pivoted to something else? Perhaps segued from rap to full-blown pop glory. You mentioned wanting to become Nigerian president, I wonder if that was just wistful thinking but it also registers on me that you always seemed destined for more.
On “If I Die,” you talked about the listeners accepting it if you transcended, something about wanting to rest. Many misconstrued your words, interpreting it to be more than simply demanding things you wished for, but I understand the need to want true rest. In this world, it is hard to find moments of focused, undisturbed stillness and you were always in perpetual motion, carrying the burden of representing an entire demography and charged with telling their story as honestly as possible. It is such a tough balancing act and I understand now that you must have felt tired in your bones.
I hope you are looking down on us all, musicians, writers, and everyone keeping your spirit alive, and finding peace wherever you are. I’ll never forget you Barack O’Grin!