Would-be Afrobeats stars need cash to make it in Nigeria’s music industry — and cybercriminals have plenty to burn. The partnership has generated some of the country’s biggest hits, and put famous names behind bars.
By JOEY AKAN in LAGOS
July 19 2019
Naira Marley swaggers on to the stage. He needs no introduction. Instantly, the mood of the crowd at the open-air Eko Atlantic concert venue in Lagos lifts.
Some start to scream his name, and he nods in their direction, soaking up the adulation before launching straight into his biggest hit.
“Issa Goal, Issa Goal,” the crowd sings along with him, and he delights them further with a few steps from Zanku, a popular dance routine.
It is December 28 2018, and Marley is one of the hottest stars in the country, performing here at the invitation of an even bigger Nigerian star, Davido. Issa Goal propelled Marley to stardom, and it is being played in every club, on every dance floor, and was even chosen as the official soundtrack for Nigeria’s efforts at the 2018 football World Cup.
But if Marley’s rise was spectacular, his fall from grace was even more so. Six months later, he found himself behind bars at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos, facing 11 criminal charges relating to cybercrime, fraud and possession of counterfeit cards.
His next public appearance, at a court hearing, was a far cry from his sold-out concerts. He looked chastened as he pushed his way through a scrum of photographers; a video of his mother crying went viral.
In June, Marley was granted bail, but if convicted he could spend seven years in prison.
Marley’s is by no means an isolated case. Nigeria is world-famous when it comes to cyberscamming. What is less well understood is that internet fraudsters are also bankrolling some of the biggest stars in Nigerian music and that these stars, in turn, are using their platform to generate sympathy for the criminals.
On the surface, the Nigerian music scene looks healthier than ever. The country is home to Afrobeats (not to be confused with Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat), which is the most popular — and lucrative — music genre in Africa. Its galaxy of stars includes Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade, Runtown, Patoranking and Tiwa Savage, and industry executives are pushing hard to expand into international markets.
But behind the scenes, and the lavish Instagram accounts of its most successful stars, the Nigerian music industry is in a perilous state. It is plagued by wanton piracy, infrastructural poverty, an ailing royalty collection system, rampant corruption and an abundance of con men masquerading as music executives.
In Lagos, which is the country’s creative centre, the music industry is considered a ruthless jungle, where the laws of the wild reign supreme and serious investors fear to tread. This unhealthy environment for business has been telling financially, with a lack of investors hampering the development of new stars.
Although in recent years major labels such as Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music Group have entered the market, it isn’t enough: the scene lacks the cash to fund emerging artists properly.
Enter the Yahoo Boys. Many Nigerians are sympathetic to internet fraud, commonly known as Yahoo-Yahoo or 419 scamming, after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that deals with fraud.
More than half of the country’s almost 200-million people live in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock, and unemployment is high. In this context, cybercrime is seen as an attractive and attainable path to a better standard of living. Barriers to entry are low, especially with the advent of the budget smartphone, and there is no shortage of willing tutors.
Yahoo-Yahoo has evolved considerably in recent years. Previously, clueless, wealthy foreigners were targeted in sophisticated phishing operations (“Dear Sir, I am a Nigerian prince and I need your help to access my family’s riches …”). Today’s internet scams come in many forms. There are no rules, no codes or exceptions — everyone is a potential victim, according to one source who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity.
As long as there is money to be made, scammers go in hard. They target online dating sites, chatting to lonely singles in the West who are manipulated into sending money to a fake lover. They steal bank card numbers and use these to create fake bank cards that are used to withdraw real money.
There are fake real estate scams, fake visa application scams, fake lottery scams, and — a relatively recent development — fake cryptocurrency scams. The possibilities are constrained only by the imagination of the would-be scammers.
These scammers rarely work in isolation. They operate as a close-knit community, usually out of residential houses known as “workshops”. Most con groups are highly organised and adaptable, depending on the scams.
They have a designated “money extractor”, or launderer, who seals and receives money from abroad, and works it through a combination of foreign accounts and corrupt local bank officials into the system, taking his commission along the way.
Flush with cash, Yahoo Boys, those whose get-rich-quick scams have paid off, need somewhere to put their money and the almost entirely unregulated music business is the perfect industry to receive it.
Because of the nature of the business, it is impossible to quantify exactly how much of the Nigerian music industry is being funded by cybercrime, but it is a significant chunk. Yahoo Boys are launching their own record labels, signing talent and financing expensive music videos and flashy concerts.
Others — such as Marley, allegedly — begin their music careers releasing radio-friendly songs in the hope that their musical success can explain their sudden wealth.
Not all the Yahoo Boys are in it for profit. For some it is simply an ego trip; for others it is a way to “spread the money”, to give back to the community they came from by sponsoring friends and relatives.
“These musicians are just like you and me,” said Jide*, a cybercrime boss who supports a large stable of musicians. “I like what they are doing, so I have to support them.”
For Jide, music is a hobby, and he uses his wealth as his ticket to get involved. He is friends with a number of star musicians, who he supports out of his “church mind”, as he calls it.
This support includes generous donations, subsidised concerts, fully funded album releases and gifts of luxury vehicles. Most of his music projects operate at a huge loss, but he’s not in it for the money.
There are a lot of people in Lagos like Jide. They are generous and serve as benefactors funding the fast lifestyle and projects of many artists. In return, the artists feed their ego and public image — a mutually beneficial relationship that has provided funding for some of the country’s most famous songs.
“Nobody gives these kids funding,” Jide said. “Look around you: the country is hard, hunger is everywhere. It’s the least I can do. I love their music. Why not support them?” Although he doesn’t want artists singing his praises in their music, because it will attract “too much attention”, Jide grinned from ear to ear when he was name-dropped on a past hit song. “Not bad,” he beamed with pride.
On April 7 this year, Simi, a popular Nigerian singer, tackled cybercrime on an Instagram live video.
“Do you know how many Nigerians going to business meetings or just to get the smallest opportunity for themselves to make it and they leave with nothing because they are Nigerian? That’s the only excuse they get: sorry, we can not work with Nigerians,” she said.
Marley, who had not yet been arrested, was quick to respond. “If U Know About Slavery You Go Know Say Yahoo No B Crime,” he first wrote on Instagram, implying that cybercrime is a form of reparation. Davido commented on Marley’s post in support: “Nobody holy,” he said.
Marley escalated the feud with Simi by accusing her of snubbing him at a concert, a claim that she rejects. He then released a new song, apparently in response to the controversy, with his friend rapper Zlatan Ibile. The song, called Am I a Yahoo Boy?, became a local hit.
The answer, at least as far as prosecutors are concerned, appears to be yes, like many stars before him.
The link between internet crime and Nigerian music dates back at least to the early 2000s, when the indigenous pop music industry was in its infancy.
Two of the greatest Nigerian pop records of this generation — Kelly Hansome’s Maga don Pay and Olu Maintain’s Yahooze, both released in 2008 — were celebratory records about successfully defrauding foreigners.
They became instant smash hits, ultimately becoming the soundtrack to the new Nigerian dream. Later, the names of suspected cybercrime lords would filter into lyrics, as singers grew confident enough to publicly pay tribute to their patrons. Nor is Marley the first musician to be arrested in connection with internet scamming. In 2017, Sinzu, also known as Sauce Kid, a veteran rapper signed to Davido Music Worldwide, earned himself a two-year jail sentence in the United States for credit card fraud. Law enforcement agents caught up with him when he tried to board a flight at Boise Airport in Idaho.
As veteran hip-hop star MI Abaga put it in a 2017 interview: “There’s no bank in the history of Nigeria that has given one naira to any label. There’s not one corporate entity that has given any label money. It’s young guys ... In fact, you’re more likely to get money from a Yahoo Boy. Shout-out to Yahoo Boys. May God prosper your business.”
When Tonye* first received an email invitation to relocate from Port Harcourt to Lagos and sign a deal with a newly created record label, he shared the news with his widowed mother, who was ecstatic.
“That afternoon she danced, cried from happiness and prayed for me,” he recalls. “She had always believed that an opportunity will come. On many nights, we held hands and prayed before bed.”
Two weeks later, he was flown to Lagos, where young, smiling executives gave him the five-star treatment. He recalls being met at Murtala Muhammed International Airport and transported in an SUV that was so new it still had the manufacturer’s plastic covering on the chairs. He was driven to a luxury hotel in the affluent area of Victoria Island in Lagos.
That same evening, his new bosses arrived in two luxury sports cars and took him to dinner in a swanky restaurant, where he drank expensive champagne straight from the bottle.
“They spent over a million naira (about $2 800) on that . . .” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “One of my bosses put an arm around my shoulder and said, ‘This is what your life will be like from now henceforth.’”
His current lifestyle is a far cry from that. Tonye makes ends meet by doing “anything and everything” for money, he said.
On the day we meet, he offers to help with research and transcription for a fee. He had signed a four-year deal, which included housing and a car. But getting any money out of his new bosses proved difficult, and after three years he managed to exit the label.
“Those useless people were Yahoo Boys. They just signed me to make themselves look good, and show nosy members of the public that they were ‘businessmen’. They didn’t care about me or my talent,” Tonye said. “They were playing with my career. When I was leaving, one offered to help me learn Yahoo, out of pity for my situation. But my mother threatened to disown me if I did it. She said she can live with poverty, but not have a criminal child.”
Tonye’s story is all too common. Music is a cut-throat business, and only immediate success is rewarded. Any artist who shows early promise is encouraged with more investment, while the rest are relegated to the margins. Sometimes, even the successful ones are left by the wayside if the label bosses’ Yahoo business is going through a dry spell or if they run into trouble with the law.
But Tonye’s cautionary tale is not enough to dissuade aspiring artists who believe they can make it big. “Yahoo isn’t really a crime. It’s a survival tool for young artists without institutional support,” said Yemi*, a 24-year-old trying to make it as a rapper, speaking in a plush bar on Lagos Island.
He arrived in a luxury Mercedes-Benz, which is parked outside. “You see this car,” he said. “I will never have made money to buy this type of car from music. I will have continued to suffer on these streets, without any helper.”
Yemi’s story is a common one. He moved to Lagos from a poor state in 2013 to pursue a career in music. Armed with nothing but his talent, he found it difficult to find anyone willing to invest in the music. In 2015, he was introduced to a potential investor who, according to him, “made him his guy” and taught him “how to hustle”.
These days, Yemi funds his music from the proceeds of internet crime. But he isn’t particular about whether it takes off or not.
“I am very fine,” he said. “I make enough money to not do this music thing again. I have trained my friends and other artists and put them on. My family is taken care of. This music is just because I still have small passion left. Otherwise, it’s only hustling.”
The M&G spoke to seven musicians with ties to internet fraud, and they all echo Yemi’s thoughts. One picked up a computer after homelessness forced him on to the streets. Another watched his mother die from an undisclosed ailment, which he said “could have been solved with small money” — so he turned to Yahoo to make that money.
“The victims are white people, and many of them, we don’t know,” said Yemi. “I would rather be this type of thief than carrying guns and being an armed robber.” When asked if he would ever drop the “hustle”, Yemi said “maybe” — but he hasn’t thought that far ahead.
Nigeria’s ongoing war on corruption threatens to disrupt the cosy relationship between internet scammers and pop music — although so far it has had only a limited effect.
On May 11 this year, operatives of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raided a nightclub called Club 57 in Ikoyi, Lagos. Twelve suspected Yahoo Boys were arrested in the operation. Among them was Sam Sarumi, who is the chief executive of 606 Music.
Sarumi, popularly known by his Instagram handle, @606 Autos, is a “self-made” businessman who also owns a car dealership and offers shipping services. He was held in their custody for more than two weeks. As happened with Marley’s ordeal, musicians called for his release. Davido got involved again, tweeting: “FREE 606.” A very on-brand move.
Since the EFCC was established in 2003, internet crime has consumed much of the anticorruption watchdog’s attention. There have been regular busts of alleged Yahoo operations, but few suspects are ever tried and convicted.
Jide, the cybercrime boss, said that he knows how to make these charges disappear.
“Do you know how many times I have settled for me or my boys?” he said. “There are too many of us doing this hustle. How many do they want to take to court? What they do is that you get to pay a back-hand fine, and you are released.”
Yemi said: “EFCC have arrested me a couple of times. But I know how to settle.”
Yahoo Boys are also allegedly hunted and extorted by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, an elite police unit specialising in crimes involving armed criminals. In recent years, the squad’s members have also targeted Yahoo Boys in large numbers, raiding their houses and allegedly extorting money from them.
Yemi and Jide have had brushes with the special unit. In both cases, they claimed to have earned their release by bribing the officials. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad has been repeatedly accused by local media of arresting, detaining, torturing and extorting innocent young people, under the cover of hunting cybercrime perpetrators.
The Marley case has shone a spotlight on the close relationship between cybercrime and Nigeria’s music industry. Despite this, Marley’s popularity seems undimmed, with his fans blaming the EFCC for making him a scapegoat.
Some “Marlians”, as his fans are known, have launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeNairaMarley, with some of them likening the pop star to Nelson Mandela and Fela Kuti, two Africans famous for their activism.
Acting EFCC chairman Ibrahim Magu, at a press conference on May 23, pleaded with musicians and other celebrities for their help in the fight against cybercrime.
“You have a very wide reach. So, lend us your voices; please, let your works propagate and promote integrity and the right values,” Magu said.
Creatives remain key to winning the war against internet fraud, and corruption in general, he added.
Tonye, who despite his mother’s disapproval is seriously considering a life of cybercrime, disagrees.
“As I am now, if I don’t find work, and nobody helps me with my career, what do you think I will do? My mother can disown me, but she is not the one feeling the hunger, the shame and depression,” he said. “EFCC are wasting everybody’s time. When our politicians decide to make this country move forward, and give young people jobs, that’s when they should tackle Yahoo. Who they help?”
On May 30, Marley arrived in court for his bail hearing. To get there, he had to push through throngs of fans shouting his name. His bail was set at ₦2-million, which he paid after two weeks. The judge did not ask where the money came from.
As he left the court, just before he was about to disappear into his car, he raised two clenched fists, throwing up the Black Power sign. The cheers grew louder. Marley was free. For now, at least, the music won’t stop, no matter who is funding it.
* Names have been changed
Production: Simon Allison and Kiri Rupiah