Nigeria’s Yemi Alade: ‘Music serves as a bridge between Africa and the rest of the world’

By Jane Roussel

Posted on Wednesday, 21 July 2021 16:07
Yemi Alade, during a concert at the Trianon, in Paris, on 4 April 2017. Youri Lenquette for JA

People haven’t stopped dancing ever since Nigerian singer Yemi Alade released her first hit in 2013. After winning a TV talent show (the Peak Talent Show in 2009), she made a music video for the song ‘Johnny’, which would go on to become a hit with 100 million views. She followed up with ‘King Of Queens’ (2014), ‘Mama Africa’ (2016), ‘Black Magic’ (2017) and ‘Woman of Steel’ (2019).

The prolific but widely recognised Alade has also been the recipient of several awards. She was awarded Female Artist of the Year at the 2015 Nigeria Entertainment Awards; Best Album at the Independent Music Awards; and Best Female at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2016.

She has established herself both in the African and international music scenes. She featured as a guest artist on Beyoncé’s track ‘Don’t Jealous Me’, from The Lion King: The Gift, in 2019.

Afro-pop empress

Even in 2020, she did not slow down, despite Covid-19 paralysing the cultural industry all over the world. Alade does not seem to have seen this as an obstacle as she has continued to create music. In June 2021, she unveiled herself as the empress of Afro-pop with her latest album Empress and released her latest music video Rain. She tells us how it came about.

“It was early 2020, I was in Amsterdam. The coronavirus was slowly creeping into our lives, even in Nigeria. At that time, I was feeling overwhelmed by the situation,” says the singer who usually puts her feelings into song.

Music’s role is to break down these barriers, that it serves as a kind of bridge between Africa and the rest of the world.

“So it made me want to remind people who listen to my music – in light of this situation – that at the end of the day, we’re all just humans: no matter where we come from, no matter what we do for a living, we’re all in the same boat and we hope that tomorrow will be better. We have stopped caring about what it means to be alive, we have stopped being gentle with others. But we all have the same needs, whether we live in Paris or Nigeria. We all need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, a roof over our heads.” This, in a nutshell, is what gave birth to the song Rain, which features the Mzansi Youth Choir.

Bringing sound to life

Alade has a knack for making brilliant videos. ‘Rain’ is just another example. Making music is a process unto itself and video helps bring the sound to life.

“It’s a road map of where I’ve been on this creative journey,” she says. So you have to give it your all. “We are one people under the sun,” she sings, from sunrise to sunset over the hills of Johannesburg, South Africa. The green landscape contrasts beautifully with the colourful costumes that are typical of the artist’s world.

The lively dance performance of ‘Rain’ reminds us that due to confinements [following Covid-19], all these pleasures have come to an end. Alade’s daily life, like that of most of the world’s singers, has radically changed as there are no more concerts, wide-open spaces, choirs or drunken dancing. She admits that these are the things she misses the most.

Rather than lamenting this, Alade chose to reinvent her creative approach. “I had to use my imagination… I went on the internet and read a lot of different people’s stories. It made me want to go back to the roots of what binds us together and remind us that we are all the same when we remove the barriers we have built between societies.”

Goodwill ambassador

Alade says that music’s role is to break down these barriers, that it serves as “a kind of bridge between Africa and the rest of the world”, at least for her generation of artists. It also is a way of educating and reaching as many people as possible, as well as enabling women to rise up. “Men and women are treated differently in Africa, just like everywhere else. You have to do 10 times more as a woman to succeed. You have to make yourself heard, fight to be taken seriously, especially here,” she says.

Music and the messages it conveys can help women realise that they have a voice, that other lives are possible, that they can overcome these obstacles and, above all, that they are not alone in this battle.

Alade owes much of her success in saying “no” and making a name for herself to one woman, to whom she often pays tribute in her lyrics. That woman is her mother: right from the start, she encouraged her to pursue her singing career. “It’s difficult to say: I want to be an artist in Africa. Even though mentalities towards the creative industries are gradually starting to change, as they are becoming increasingly well regarded. There’s still this idea that it’s not a profession, that it’s a hobby, but that it won’t provide food or support your family,” she says.

The fight for women’s rights is of paramount importance to Alade, who would like not only to leave her mark as an artist but also through her involvement in causes that are close to her heart. This is what inspired her to take on the role of goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme on 23 September 2020.

“Everything is different for these women: their access to education, the violence they suffer, their salaries, the way they are protected,” she says. The singer would like to add a stone to this edifice, however difficult the task may be, by providing an alternative option. “Music and the messages it conveys can help women realise that they have a voice, that other lives are possible, that they can overcome these obstacles and, above all, that they are not alone in this battle.”

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