Get to know the Abuja scene through five key artists
The Ballroom is an event space at the heart of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, that’s famous for playing host to glitzy, floral-heavy wedding receptions. But tonight, for the Capital Block Party, the fairytale aesthetic of the space has been stripped and replaced with a surging mosh pit of young Nigerians ignited by the dazzling wordplay and explosive performances of their favourite drill artists. The frantic energy of the crowd here is a significant departure from the usually quiet, albeit politically-charged, city of Abuja.
“When Abuja kids rave, it’s insane,” explains Tomi Obanure, one of the rappers at the show. Rapper and creative director Nathan Ishayen also agrees, making a case for why Abuja happens to be the perfect home for the burgeoning drill movement: “We see ourselves as outsiders in Abuja, so anything weird finds a home here.”
Born in Chicago in the 2010s, drill music went global in 2012 via rapper Chief Keef, gaining prominence in the streets of London through artists like 67, Headie One and Central Cee. Heavily influenced by the UK’s iteration of this sound, a restless new wave of young Nigerian rappers are building a potent, gritty underground version of drill and turning it into an all-conquering phenomenon. Tomi and Nathan are major players in this underground scene through their record label, Kinfolk, with Tomi and fellow drill rapper KVV signed as artists.
Flitting between English and their native languages, these rappers are delving deeper than the genre’s typical allusions to street rivalries and hedonism – instead, they explore issues specific to Nigeria, such as police brutality and corruption. Set to punishing beats, this need to remain uncompromising in their depiction of the Nigerian experience and alchemise the pain of their immediate surroundings feels fitting, especially after one of the biggest youth-led protests in the country – the 2020 #EndSARS protests – ended in a violent crackdown. These protests birthed “Bloody Pavement”, an aggressive song that finds Tomi rapping about his frustration with Nigeria and its flawed policing system, alongside drillers like Odumodublvck and Eeskay.
But with global interest focused on the Afropop-leaning sounds of Burna Boy and Wizkid, Nigerian drill music is an outlier in the Abuja music scene. As with every new sound looking to infiltrate an already saturated market, the city’s drillers understand that underdogs have to stick together, trading in harsh punchlines for hype men attitudes, driving kinetic energy into the crowd for their peers. There’s no competition here because, with the odds stacked against them, each rapper’s win is a win for the entire collective.
As drill navigates its way out from the periphery of Nigeria’s ever-evolving soundscape, these five storytellers continue to amp up the genre with silver-tongued detail, harvesting the sound as just another medium to tell the Nigerian story.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers about who kicked off the Nigerian drill movement. But, as complex as that discussion is, most agree that Odumodublvck is one of the pioneers who first showed the true potential of this alternative rap movement on a large scale. With a heavy-hitting lineup of features, singles and projects under his belt, Odumodublvck’s unrelenting style of drill employs high-life inspired melodies and Nigerian Pidgin English to tell vivid stories about his community and everyday experiences – his narrative style is so specific to Nigerians, it’s hard to pick up on the nuances as an outsider.
Almost always spotted in his signature Okpu Agu – a hat associated with warriors of the Igbo tribe – Odumodublvck never steps out of the ring, calling out the government on the track “Potor Potor”, and the police on “Commot for Sanko”. His candid metaphors and laser-sharp flows also appear on two of the genre‘s biggest collaborations “Agbalagba” with Eeskay and “Bando Diaries” with Psycho YP.
Tomi Obanure isn‘t your typical driller. With a measured yet menacing delivery, he first turned heads in 2019 with his breakout single “Ffpo” – a song that quickly attained cult status in the drill community. His 2020 follow-up EP No Rest for the Wicked further etched his name in the pantheon of all-time greats for diehard drill fans. From straddling the lines between bouncy and eerie on “God Bless Gang” to unleashing dogged flows on “Wickedest”, reinventing drill for a Nigerian audience comes naturally to Tomi.
Despite being at the forefront of this thriving musical movement, Tomi refuses to be tied down by the responsibility of being a pioneer. His music remains raw and reflective without being didactic, as he lets us into his complex world. “Drill is a passion driven for me,” Tomi says. “I feel freer to express myself on the bounce and cadence of a drill beat than on any other regular beat.”
Zilla Oaks has been on the grind for a while now having released his debut EP, NE:GRO in 2016. Born in the Nigerian commercial hub of Lagos, raised partly in the US and the UK before moving to Abuja and calling it home, Zilla‘s discography is a mix of varying sounds from melodic Atlanta trap to the rave-ready beats that serve as the perfect backdrop for his slick rhymes and thundering delivery.
A formidable name in the vanguard of artists expanding the sometimes rigid Nigerian rap scene, Zilla is partly responsible for creating Apex Village, a collective of young rap and R&B artists looking to explore music beyond the confines of Afrobeats. The effects of his multicultural upbringing and ability to feed off his lived experiences are evident on his 2021 album No Zzzz 2, where Zilla dives headfirst into his sonic range. He says it best on the album‘s second track “Still Up”, “Is it grime or is it drill? Anything Zilli Z touches he kills.”
An intense feeling of loneliness trailed Eeskay‘s decision to start making drill music as a university student in 2018. Influenced by the charismatic sounds of UK rappers like Giggs, Skepta and Chipmunk, he dropped his first track "The Matter''. “No one was fucking with drill back then,” says Eeskay. “But I had to keep it moving.”
Now, years after entering the scene with his unique blend of gritty drill styling and Afro-fusion, Eeskay‘s loneliness has been drowned out by a roaring community of fans with over four million streams – and it‘s not hard to see why. Whether it‘s comparing himself to Isaac Newton and Tony Stark on "Hooligans" or comfortably leaning into the “black sheep of the family” title on "Bad Character", Eeskay uses intelligent wordplay, domestic slang and cheeky entendres to create inescapable earworms that are launching Nigerian drill into an exciting future.
KVV had an early introduction to UK rap through the Tinchy Stryder classic "Game Over". Still, it wasn‘t until his friend and label mate, Tomi, played him MKthePlug‘s "Year of the Real" that he finally caught wind of the drill scene in the UK and the one brewing in Nigeria. “I thought the beat was insane,” says KVV. “But I didn‘t understand the movement‘s power until I took time to dig into its lyrics and culture.”
Representing some of the new names on the scene, KVV is cutting his teeth with guest features as he sets the stage for the 2023 release of his debut project. Maintaining a positive outlook on the future of drill, KVV likens the Nigerian music scene to real estate: “To develop an area, you need schools, hospitals and things like that,” he says. “Those things make the space habitable and whole. That‘s the same way drill completes the Nigerian music scene. They need us.”