American rapper Rick Ross released the Nigerian version of his video for “Hold Me Back” in September, and it became a significant talking point on many online forums as Nigerians debated the portrayal of squalid life in a Lagos slum. The Nigerian version was shot in Obalende, a suburb of Lagos, as a follow-up on an earlier version with the same theme shot in New Orleans in the United States.
The video opens with an American newscaster announcing the end, in 1970, of the 30-month Nigerian Civil War, during which some two million people died. It then shows the military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, announcing that the war had ended “in a victory for common sense.” From there, it descends into images of goats living with human beings, half-naked children running around, people living in shacks, beggars on the street, and other disturbing images of poverty in the slum.
“Hold Me Back (Nigeria)” was overwhelmingly condemned by Nigerians and friends of Nigeria who saw it as damaging to the country’s public image, though a few people did defend the video. You can get a feel for some of the reactions below:
CP-Africa, a Nigerian online blog: “Some might classify the video as ‘poverty porn’ … the ‘glamourization of poverty.’”
Seun Kuti, a popular Nigerian musician: “I feel Rick Ross’s big belly is more worthy of criticism than his video. Is he saying it is right to be obese?”
Africasacountry, an Africa-focused blog: “The negative reaction against Ross is understandable. … 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?”
Eedris Abdulkareem, a Nigerian musician: “If they [people like Rick Ross] want to add value to people, what I expect them to do is to come down and put up a nongovernmental organization that will take care of anything that has to do with food shortage that the United Nations and the World Bank are talking about.”
Tosinadeda, a Nigerian blogger: “Why do you have a problem with the whole world seeing how majority of Nigerians live? … The world is not blind, they can see, they know how we live … they know that majority live in poverty, you can’t hide that fact.”
Tim, commenting on a blog post: “I think we are trying to shy away from reality, the song is about our strength and zeal to be successful looking at the situation of things in our nation. … Over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty but our leaders, media and entertainment industries seem to ignore it. … I like his message. Thanks Rick Ross.”
Whatever his intentions were, Ross clearly got many Nigerians angry. And, I would say, rightly so. The problem with the video is not that it is false but that it is indefensibly biased and unhelpful. Award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie explored this one-sided portrayal of Africa in the West in a TED Talk in 2009. She argued that such depictions, no matter how innocent the intentions, create a “single story.” To quote her, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
So Rick Ross might have made the video with very innocent intentions, but the problem with his work is that it creates a single story of what Lagos and Nigeria are all about. He framed the image of the entire country through the selective presentation of the experience of a slum, but forgot or refused to show that there is a country beautiful and thriving outside the slum. For his American audience, the video only reinforces the stereotype they already hold of what is supposedly a poor and disorganized country called Nigeria.
Nigerians know that their country has ugly spots, but their reactions to the “Hold Me Back” video suggests that they want a balanced presentation of their situation. Rick Ross, in this video, clearly failed to provide that.