When it was announced that Justin Bieber would feature on the “Essence” remix, group chats between Wizkid fans across the diaspora were inflamed.
“But like…why Justin? He be forgetting that he white sometimes” a friend texted me within minutes of the news.
Marketing-wise of course it’s obvious, the song is already big, how can we make it bigger? And by bigger, I mean more financially lucrative. And by financially lucrative, I mean how can you get white people on board. Nevermind that Wizkid got this far on the backs of his Black fans and that a nice gesture might’ve been to throw a culturally competent Black icon onto the remix. Say, Shenseea? Popcaan? Even Beyonce? Or make it an Afropop posse cut (of which the genre has too few) with legends like Tiwa and Burna alongside exciting newcomers like Amaarae and Buju. Why not re-record it, have a mid-song beat switch, sprinkle the lyrics with cultural touchstones that we can scream back while the DJ reloads the track? I don’t know, these are just ideas.
And don’t get me wrong, I love R&B Bieber and at its core “Essence” is an R&B song with Afropop sensibilities, not the other way round. So there was certainly a part of me that was happy to hear Justin reach back into his Journals bag. Still, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed like the rest of my Wizkid FC teammates. When the remix did finally come out though, our sentiments began to diverge. My friend from above took issue with Bieber’s choice of accent, or rather his lack of one. His misstep was that he sounded too American. “It doesn’t fit.” Another friend took offense to Bieber’s saying “fi.” That’s less an accent issue than a language one. Who wants to hear a white Canadian attempting pidgin? Again, “It doesn’t fit.”
I actually had no issue with either. My critique hinged on another word, one that I myself struggle with when I belt out the song by myself and around others. I tensed as he approached it in the chorus, what would he do? Odda, Other, Otha, which would it be? “You don’t need no other body.” Cleverly, Bieber picked the risk-averse choice and stuck to what he knows, how he would’ve pronounced the word had he written the song himself. Once we got past that hurdle, I was able to enjoy his verse, even grow to like it in the coming weeks. It’s simple riffs are charming and disposable, and sometimes that’s all you need.
In that subtle yet profound change, a retreat into his natural accent, Bieber accepts that this is a space his whiteness cannot colonize. Like a non-swimmer watching a seasoned surfer, the safe, shallow banks of his voiced “th” makes space for him to observe and admire the culturally specific (!) wave that carries Tems’ cathartic consonants. If we’re tracing Wizkid’s meteoric ascent to global consciousness from “One Dance” to now, this remix is a fitting coda. Where “One Dance” offered an introduction by diminishing his contribution to an over-processed after-thought of a refrain, Wizkid exacts a kind of revenge by topping the charts on his own and then carelessly tossing America’s biggest pop star on an unnecessary remix where his contribution pales in comparison to its progenitor and in effect is probably driving more listeners to the original single.
After all, he doesn’t need no other body.