How cybercrime remixed the Nigerian Music scene
“Vision2020” was a street anthem across Nigeria.
The song, first released in 2018 by Afrobeats musician Bella Shmurda, exploded in popularity after a remix with fellow artist Olamide.
It is an ode to the defunct Nigerian dream — and a reference to a literal policy plan called Vision 2020 imagined by the administration of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The vision was that by 2020, Nigeria would have transcended the limitations of a developing country and become one of the largest economies in the world.
But with 2020 now in the past, many Nigerians felt locked in a nightmare reality with growing global economic inequality and local poverty on the rise — making cybercrime a tempting option.
That’s the world Bella Shmurda sings about for three minutes and forty-two seconds: the economic strife faced by the average Nigerian; the socio-economic pressure to succeed at all costs; the support of friends; and the relentless cybercrime hustle as a way out.
“Ghetto where we hustle; vision 2020
Our government dem promise
You know say boys, go chop every day we scamming; online, no sleeping.”
The singer tells a tale, in Yoruba, of borrowing money from a friend to buy a laptop, hustling for six months, and thanking his friends who paid for his internet connection.
This struggle is the reality many artists face in the Nigerian music scene. Many are often directly or indirectly financed by Nigeria’s cybercrime economy while struggling against an advertising-driven digital economy that rewards controversy and creates a cultural feedback loop.
“It’s your money. Any good producer will charge you well because they know what they’re charging for, so you need to have money, and being an up-and-coming artist, 80 to 90 percent of us don’t have money yet,” said Steven Adeoye, an artist whose recent song “Ali,” hinges on cyberfraud.
“The Nigerian music industry is funded by cyberfraudsters looking to launder their money,” Ayomide Tayo, a music and culture critic based in Nigeria, told The Record.
“When artists are up-and-coming and looking to kick start their career, they turn to the cyberfraudster down the street for financial help because often that’s the only choice they have,” he explained.
Afrobeats Hall of Fame will never be complete without honourary mentions to Yahoo boys who funded and kept alive an industry with no institutional or corporate funding. It's a reality we hate to admit, but huge parts of Nigerian music history and success were built on cybercrime. https://t.co/3jmmAtEGED— Joey Akan (@JoeyAkan) March 24, 2022
It’s hard to pin down how much of the Nigerian music scene is specifically funded by cybercrime due to the underground nature of the economy. But cybercrime is a major part of the Nigerian economy as a whole—which means it’s hard to avoid, especially in costly industries.
“The music industry is an expensive place,” Tayo said.
Nigeria’s relatively stable internet access has allowed musicians to connect with billions of potential new listeners and understand their own lives in the context of global inequality, which is reflected in their art.
“I think the internet is the most important thing,” Adeoye said. “It helps you see how others are doing it. It connects you with people and ‘Ali,’ especially, took off with the internet,” he explained.
“The song started moving on TikTok and everyone else started listening elsewhere,” Adeoye added.
Scamming your way out of struggle
The British established their colonial presence along the River Niger in the 1800s and 1900s, resulting in a colonial state that gained independence in 1960 and became the first Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1963. But the end of colonial exploitation was followed by decades of civil wars and corruption.
Cyberfraud in Nigeria emerged amidst this economic and political instability during the 1990s when internet access became more widely available.
“[A]s cybercafes emerged in Nigeria and provided more access to email, and, in turn, new avenues for communication, veterans of the postal fraud era sensed an opportunity opening for a larger market to direct their scams;” Adewale Oloworekende explained at Nigerian online magazine The Republic.
This development birthed the infamous ‘Nigerian Prince’ email scam and a class of Nigerian fraudsters locally nicknamed ‘yahoo boys,’ after the popular early free email option — Yahoo! Mail — they adopted.
Soon, the ‘yahoo boys’ shifted from the Nigerian Prince scam to more lucrative and efficient scams such as business email compromise (BEC) schemes, phishing, and defrauding the financial system through false loans or benefit claims.
Over the years, Nigeria’s economic condition has worsened as a higher percentage of citizens continue to slip below the poverty line, but access to the internet continues to grow — and it’s inexpensive. Nigeria is ranked 8th on the list of African countries with the cheapest data plans. 1GB costs around $0.88.
This makes internet access a key regional competitive edge, but one that many Nigerians paradoxically now struggle to leverage due to discrimination based on stereotypes about their trustworthiness online.
These conditions made the themes about economic hardship and societal pressure in “Vision2020” resonate with so many young Nigerian listeners.
But while Bella Shmurda broke through with “Vision2020,” it isn’t his most popular song.
Bella Shmurda released “Cash App,” featuring fellow Afrobeats musicians Zlatan and Lincoln, amid the pandemic in October 2020 when many Nigerians were facing even worse economic conditions — including rising inflation and unemployment. By the end of 2020, unemployment in Nigeria had surged from 27.1% to 33%, reported Bloomberg.
Unlike Vision2020, Cash App’s theme is much more direct; go make it big, even (or perhaps, especially) through cybercrime.
Today, “Cash App” is Bella’s most played song on Spotify and YouTube, with over 6 and 18 million streams respectively.
For many Nigerian artists, singing about cybercrime is merely reflecting their reality.
“Songs that promote cyberfraud reflect a bigger socio-economic issue,” said Tayo. “Songs like this are not new, but their recent popularization is also due to increase in poverty and economic hardship in the country,” he added.
A long history of cybercrime songs
Songs about cyberfraud have a long history in Nigeria.
For example, in 2004, D’Banj sang of escaping the British police in the song “Mobolowowon” after being wanted for credit card scams. The next year, Nkem Owoh sang “I Go Chop Your Dollar.”
In the song, Nkem, who is also an actor and who won the 2008 African Movie Academy Award for Best Actor, sings a story about a person who is the master of the “419 business” — popular slang for internet scams derived from the section of Nigeria’s criminal code that covers the fraud.
Nkem describes cyberfraud as a game, where he is the winner and the white man is the loser — and a sort of economic reparations for colonialism.
“You be the mugu, I be the master,” Nkem sings, in Nigerian Pidgin English.
“I go chop your dollar” received so much national and international attention that the National Broadcast Commission (NBC) and the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), the organization in charge of enforcing local anti-fraud laws, banned it.
Vice reported that Nkem was arrested in Amsterdam in 2007 over a suspected lottery-based scam, but released hours later.
That same year, Olu Maintain released “Yahooze,” where he sings about “hammering,” local slang for making it big.
In 2008, Kelly Hansome took the game a notch higher with “Maga Don Pay” singing about having so much money he has no idea how to spend it — after conning so many “maga.” (Maga or Mugu is local slang used to describe the gullible victim of a scam.)
Hansom sings about suffering in the past, but now having enough to enjoy the good life.
His chorus? “My maga don pay. Shout hallelujah!”
In the second verse, he sings of the different formats he’s used on his various “magas”: “Plenty formats, offshore accounts and cc[credit card] numbers…”
However, as African youth-oriented outlet The Native noted, the artist also attempted to deny connections to cybercrime — framing it instead as someone who was thankful for being blessed and even releasing a gospel version of the song called “Jesus Don Win.”
Yet in a signal of just how big of a pop sensation the song was, the Nigerian government and Microsoft partnered with major Nigerian artists to release a response to the song titled “Maga No Need Pay.” (The video of the song seems to have disappeared from Youtube, the Microsoft Blog post about it’s release in 2010 remains online.)
“I go chop your dollar,” “Yahooze,” and “Maga don pay” were popular, but also controversial.
All were banned by the NBC and playing them was often reserved for rowdier spaces — such as carnivals and bars.
“But the truth is that Nigeria has retrogressed from where it was yesterday,” said Tayo.
Today, cybercrime-promoting songs are more mainstream — and, in fact, sometimes even more popular than songs without the cyberfraud appeal.
The Yahoo Wave goes mainstream
A song leading the current development of a Yahoo Wave genre in Nigeria is Adeoye’s “Ali,” released in October 2021.
Ali references the name of a story character from Macmillan English textbooks, studied by most young Nigerians students. Ali goes to school is a short English text repeatedly read — if not memorized — by most Nigerians who attended working class primary schools.
In Adeoye’s song “Ali,” Ali goes to school, isn’t brilliant, so he drops out, buys a laptop and becomes a ‘yahoo boy,’ making money that leaves him happy.
I wanna be like Ali,
Kigboro ma sa mi (hailed and respected by the streets)
Just wanna make this money
Make my people happy
“I had a lot of stuff I could say Ali did,” said Steven Adeoye in an interview with The Record.
“I wanted to say maybe Ali worked from home or Ali played Sportybet but I thought about it and a lot of people in our society — that’s what they do [cyberfraud] — so I had to use that [Ali did yahoo] knowing that a lot of people would think the song promotes cyberfraud, but I had to do it for the street.”
“For real, it’s not something to be happy about,” said Adeoye, explaining that he themed Ali on cyberfraud because it was more relatable, not because he supports crime.
The song has now been shared in videos on TikTok from around the world — some actually appearing to reference cybercrime, but many more appearing to connect to the hustle it represents. TikTok developer ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment for this story by the time of publication.
Olamide, the musician who remixed Vision2020 with Bella Shmurda, has a long history in the Nigerian music scene — and is the head of a crew of musicians making musical waves globally.
He rose to stardom from the working-class streets of Bariga and has long addressed themes related to cyberfraud in his creative work — including through the name of his 2012 album YBNL and record label YBNL Nation, which are an acronym for “Yahoo Boy, No Laptop'' — a reference that plays on the theme of hustling while living without resources.
His music also layers religious references and allusions to the need to deceive to get ahead. For example, in his 2014 song “Prayer For Client,” his chorus translates as a prayer to God to provide him with a euphemstic “client” who is dumb and rich.
Cyberfraud-themed songs also have a history of being career-changing for the artists due to widespread acceptance that often follows.
Eleniyan became popular after singing “Yahoo Lawon Oremi,” where he reveals that his friends are “yahoo boys.”
There have also been points where up-and-coming artists collaborate with more established artists. In “Stay woke,” Otega, a then-up-and-coming artist, features CDQ. They both sing about staying awake to the cybercrime hustle and stacking up the paper like a library.
In “Living Things,” 9ice hustles for the money in every way possible, especially via “wire-wire,” another term for wire fraud.
In “Able God,” the artists pray to God for blessings and economic prosperity and Zlatan chides the listener to get a laptop and start the cyberfraud hustle.
“Infusing cyberfraud was going to let the song move better, but the message I was trying to pass in the song was you do whatever you can do, just to be fine,” said Adeoye.
Songs that promote cyberfraud are now a genre itself, complete with trailblazing artists including Zlatan and Naira Marley who have been arrested and tried by the EFCC over charges of internet fraud.
In 2019, Marley also faced controversy after justifying that cyberfraud was payment for the exploitation of Africa through slavery and colonialism. Many Nigerians say money obtained through cyberfraud is reparations for the African continent and its people.
“If you know slavery, you go know say yahoo no be crime,” he said in an Instagram post he later deleted.
This argument justifies the hurt of cyberfraud victims as the payment for the sins of their ancestors, but does not consider the discrimination other Nigerians face in international spaces — especially when seeking legitimate work online.
The line between sharing struggle and entertainment
It’s unclear how the feedback loop between struggle and entertainment works, but researchers argue it can subconsciously influence listeners to be more sympathetic towards cyberfraud.
In his research report Birds of a Feather, cyberfraud researcher Suleman Lazarus analyzed the lyrics of eighteen cyberfraud themed songs released over the period of ten years.
"Before they were given a microphone, they were into yahoo, or at least embedded in a community where cyberfraud was prevalent, so even after becoming musicians, they still have a strong connection to cyberfraud," Lazarus told The Record in an interview.
The songs often dehumanized the victims of cyberfraud, minimizing the cyberfraudster’s role by shifting the blame onto poverty and economic strife, attempting to “cognitively restructure” cyberfraud into something acceptable — while often glamorizing the cyberfraudster life, according to Lazarus.
The study concluded that the songs embodied a range of powerful psychological mechanisms for disengaging the moral control of listeners.
“Ali” combines those messages with another powerful psychological mechanism of control: the arguably addictive nature of TikTok. In Nigeria, Tayo argues cybercrime songs tell a one-sided story.
“They talk about the money and escape from poverty, but they forget to add that it doesn’t end well most times. You don’t hear them singing about the prison and immorality,” said Tayo.
But still, he seems to understand the appeal.
“The truth remains that Nigeria has retrogressed and most [working-class] youths are left with little economic choice,” he added.
And now, “Yahoo” songs and the artists that made the genre famous are almost everywhere.
B’Danj, the artist who released a song from the perspective of escaping the British police in 2004, joined Nigerian Idol as a judge in January 2021.
Last summer, Olamide’s album “UY Scuti” also broke through on the international Billboard charts — reaching the 11th spot on the Heatseakers index.
Earlier this year, Bella Shmurda clocked 25 and part of his plans for celebration was to feed 1,000 people in Okoko and Alaba, the neighborhoods where he grew up — something he said would be an annual tradition.
Bella Shmurda and others represent a hustle culture and that has now become the Nigerian dream — to make it out of poverty, even if it means through illicit means.
“Bella Shmurda, like Olu Maintain singing ‘Yahooze,’ is singing for all of us, not just himself. He is singing the Nigerian dream of making it, or hammer-ing, even if it means being criminal and normalizing theft,” writes Carl Terver in his review of Cash App with African arts and literature Praxis magazine.
“This is what I see: a crowd at a concert singing to Bella’s music, screaming, falling over itself in adoration to its star. This crowd is us and the star it worships celebrates criminality. Yet he is our star and he sings about our dreams, and we love him.”
But of course, music is art that’s not always interpreted literally.
Adeoye’s music inspired the #Ali challenge on TikTok, which features slides of people across their life journey — a sort of before-and-after they had their big break. “And when it reaches the ‘Ali shey yahoo’ part, they insert slides of their respective hustles,” said Adeoye. “I saw a girl recently who showed that she made cosmetics.” (Others, for example, have shared tailoring skills.)
Instead of focusing on the cybercrime element, “a lot of people, as I would also do, align the song with the experience or hustle that resonates with them, and that makes me happy,” Adeoye said.
Olatunji Olaigbe and Andrea Peterson
Olatunji Olaigbe and Andrea Peterson Olatunji Olaigbe is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. His work has been published by VICE, Al-Jazeera, and The Record. His reporting often examines the underlying factors of societal issues and he was a winner of the International Organisation for Migration’s 2021 West and Central Africa Migration Journalism Awards.
Andrea Peterson(they/them) is senior policy correspondent at The Record and a longtime cybersecurity journalist who cut their teeth covering technology policy ThinkProgress (RIP), then The Washington Post from 2013 through 2016, before doing deep dive public records investigations at the Project on Government Oversight and American Oversight. Their work has also been published at Slate, Politico, The Daily Beast, Ars Technica, Protocol, and other outlets. Peterson also produces independent creative projects under their Plain Great Productions brand and can generally be found online as kansasalps.