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By Paul Liam

Alhanislam can best be described as the golden girl of Nigerian spoken word performance, like the night, unannounced she stole her away into the consciousness of Nigerians, with her gentle yet lacerating performances which were firstly presented in short clean videos circulated on social media and then on various stages around the country. Her spoken word videos represented her as a calm northern girl adorning a veil with a striking English accent, who spoke about women and social issues in her performances. Perhaps, what was also noticeable about her was her consistency and unique fashion sense which stands out among the rest of the female acts in the game, plus, she didn’t come off like a nerdy artist in the typical fashion of most artists, and she exhibited the carriage of an elitist inclination. Even though Alhanislam did not come off as a traditional artist, she made sure that her presence was felt in the art space with socially conscious themes which resonated with many lovers of the genre. Her reputation and productivity in the spoken word art in Nigeria are akin to Davido’s exploits in the music industry characterised by hard work and privilege.

While this is not a biographical exercise, it is significant to contextualise Alhanislam’s emergence in the Nigerian spoken word scene as reflected above. However, the crux of this essay is Alhanislam’s poetry Album entitled Layers, a thirteen-track audio rendition of her spoken word poems hosted by the music streaming platform, Boomplay. Layers is a collection of soul-searching poems accompanied by soft background music. The album is best described as a collage of elegiac reminiscences because of its mournful cadences that provoke mixed emotions in the mind of its listeners. At one time the poems are beautiful and rendered in a soothing style that pleases the ears and at another time, the stark realities of the messages embedded in the rendition creep up to boggle the mind at the same time. Thus, while you derive pleasure from listening to the poems, you are saddened by the ugly realities of the messages they bear.

For example, in the first track “Ode”, one is confronted with a mournful lyrical lamentation of the state of the dystopia of the African continent and Nigeria in particular. It explores the intricate relationship of loving a country but disliking its failings. The poem does not pretend in expressing its frustration with the dead state of affairs of the country and bemoans the state of hopelessness thus:

To a country that swears to swallow us whole

Every day here is a death sentence

Sometimes of a name,

Of a will,

Of a currency

In the above lines, one could see the deliberate choice of words; the death of a name implies that a human dies whose name will be forgotten, thus “name” represents the person that dies. Of course, if the country kills your will it means that you have lost hope and the motivation to continue living or pursuing your dreams which have been the fate of many young Nigerians who have lost the will to keep believing and ended up committing suicide. And the last one is the death of the currency. Knowing the importance of currency as a symbolic representation of the economy of a country, the death of a currency is the death of the economy and soul of that society. Nigerians have had to suffer unbearable pains with many losing their lives as a result of the hardship occasioned by the high cost of living which is a consequence of the devaluation of the naira and global economic meltdown.  Alhanislam proves that spoken word poetry can be deeper than it is known to be and can be used as a tool to comment on the ills of society.

In the track, “Heritage”, one encounters a more nostalgic aestheticisation of culture and tradition symbolically represented through the celebration of the cuisines of the northern folks. It reminds listeners of nature’s gift of peace and commonality eroded by modernity. The pastoral aesthetics of the poem is accentuated by the conscious elements employed in the production, for example, the piece opens with the chirping of birds and is immediately followed by voices of women singing a folksong in the Hausa language. This cultural opening instantly puts the listener in an excited and expectant mood for what is to come, and when Alhanislam’s voice comes up eventually it creates a unique appeal. The following lines have been represented below for emphasis:

We sat for the moonlight tales

stuck in my memory, it’s still

a story I grow to tell

my tastebuds accustomed to tuwon dawa,

miyan toka da gwauta,

flushed down with just the right amount of kunun gyada

There is no gain in saying that, Layers is better enjoyed in its audio form. Another remarkable track in the album is “Ignite Africa”, and it celebrates the essence of Africa and Africaness through the valorisation of the historical accomplishment of the continent and its abundant beauties. It speaks of hope, trust, and belief in a prosperous and sustainable future for Africa, and reechoes Nigeria’s role as a big brother that must provide direction for the rest of his brothers. The most striking feature of the piece is its optimism about the future prosperity of the continent waved in a line that calls for self-retrospection and inspires Africans to not lose hope in the quest to reclaim the continent’s lost glory. The line goes, “Remember, within you is enough fire to ignite Africa.” It is a call for Africans to continue in the push for the advancement of the continent.

And in conclusion, Alhanislam’s Layers is a fine collection of spoken-word poems that deserve to be listened to. Although, as it is with every work of art, the album has its own shortcomings, some of the tracks are too short for example, the first track is 00:57 seconds which makes it feel like it is incomplete. And in some of the tracks, the background music seems to disturb the voice of the performer hence a milder and more balanced tempo would have been more befitting. And last but not least, as it is with many spoken word performances, less attention was paid to the poetry of the poems, as many of the lines are just too plain for comfort.

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