Africans in Guangzhou Nigerians

Part 3: Nigerian nightlife and money throwing in China



Spraying: ‘Nigerian’ origins?

‘Compared to others, we Nigerians have a very different relationship with money’, I was told by Joe, a few days later, when I further enquired about why people would throw money like that. ‘Do Chinese, or other non-Nigerians, spray?’, I asked him naively. ‘Of course not, Chinese would never throw a cent on you like that. It’s a Nigerian thing. Actually, it’s an Igbo thing more than a Nigerian thing’, Joe asserted. He then proceeded to give me a brief account of spraying saying that it had increased over the last two decades and that he thought it originated in the 1970s.

I kept thinking spraying was an Igbo affair until I spoke to Ade, a young student and entertainment entrepreneur from Osun State in Nigeria, whom I had met in a Nigerian food restaurant in Guangzhou a few years before meeting Joe. Ade had moved to Beijing as he felt Guangzhou’s African entertainment spaces were overcrowding, but just as with Joe, he kept sending me random messages just to ‘check-in’. ‘It’s not an Igbo thing, not at all. We Yoruba also spray and have been doing it forever, mostly during weddings. So, definitely not an Igbo thing’, I was told, emphatically, through a brief WeChat conversation. Through my texting with Ade, I understood that Nigerians have diverging (and somehow contested) stories about the origins of spraying.

As I spoke to more people, I confirmed that there were divergent accounts about the origins of spraying; and, also, that spraying had distinct modalities (i.e. throwing, tossing, flicking, placing and/or attaching), and varying styles (i.e. speed, rhythm, duration, intensity and amount of notes), across the diverse cultural spaces that conform contemporary Nigeria. Two accounts about the origins stood out: the Igbo and the Yoruba accounts (versions of these two stories are widely known and circulate among Nigerians both in the country and in the diaspora).

‘In the 1970s, there were many nouveau riche in Nigeria. It was a time of opulence, and many wanted to show off their newly acquired riches’, Onyeka, an Igbo artist I met in an art exhibit in Hong Kong, explained. ‘Even today, rich people go to the bank and withdraw big bags full of notes, and load them onto vans, sometimes many vans. You wouldn’t believe it’. Onyeka, told me that while spraying became popular against the background of the opulence that resulted from the 1970s oil and agricultural booms, she believed the practice had connections with precolonial West African regional traditions. ‘People think it’s an Igbo thing just because us Igbos are everywhere, and they see us doing it, but it certainly comes from beyond Igboland’.

Olu, a Yoruba postgrad student in Hong Kong, told me that spraying in Yorubaland had clear connections with historic and precolonial practices of ‘gift offering’ to performers and celebrants. ‘In post-independence, modern Nigeria, gifts, like everything else, were substituted by money’, he told me. ‘In the past, people would show appreciation for public performances, especially those of poets and singers, by giving out gifts. This is an ancient practice, I would not be surprised if you could find it across all of West Africa’.

Both Onyeka’s and Olu’s accounts suggested that the origins of spraying preceded modern state formation in the region and reminded me of the griot tradition that Aaron had mentioned. So, I called him and asked if we could talk more about precolonial performances and musical traditions in West Africa. Coincidentally, Aaron was teaching a course on African Music and Culture, at a Hong Kong university, and invited me to attend to one of his lectures – where he spoke in depth about griots and jalis.

Aaron told his students that while griots are often associated with the Old Mali Empire, in one way or another, similar traditions are found all over West Africa. Griots – he explained – are often described as historical wordsmiths, spiritual storytellers, itinerant troubadours, and court musicians, who engaged in singing praises, reciting poetry, telling tales and were gifted for they provided an important sociocultural service. From what I gathered from the lecture, griots and/or jalis, where the carriers of a longstanding West African oral tradition that had been systematised, in different ways, depending on social structures, across all of precolonial West Africa, for centuries.

Much like the griots of the Old Mali Empire, ‘contemporary performers from different ethnic groups in Nigeria often draw upon diverse and complex knowledge about family names and reputations, poetry and epic tales, and geography and regional folklore to create relevant stories that honour addressees’, Olu explained to me at the end of Aaron’s lecture. ‘In a way, even though Nigerians did not have “griots” or “jalis”, there were artists that took up the task of passing on and perpetuating traditions through songs and poetry as well’, Aaron added. ‘Just like griots, in precolonial times, there were Yoruba, and maybe Igbo, performers that would use poetry to praise an individual’s family heritage, and portray his ancestors as heroes in epic tales. When performers would sing these songs, noblemen and rich people would gift them many different items’, Olu intervened. ‘The “singers” you saw in Guangzhou, do the same, they praise. You may call them: modern Igbo griots’, he added, as Aaron raised his eyebrows.

As I was getting more and more lost in my lack of knowledge about West African tradition and history, I managed to articulate that maybe ‘spraying’ was the current form of a longstanding and historical way of retributing (or gifting) for the cultural services provided by artists – to put it in neoliberal terms! So, in its contemporary performative form, spraying could also be understood as a rearticulation of precolonial practices and histories of the West African region, in general, and those of Nigeria, in particular.

To be continued… Part 4 coming soon

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