high note

Davido, Burna Boy, Rema… Nigeria’s musical moment

By Nicholas Norbrook, in Lagos and Abidjan

Posted on January 6, 2020 13:49

Davido, D’banj, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage… Nigerian musicians are global stars. But behind the VIP-studded after-parties, and signings with major labels, is the 100% Naija ecosystem that got them there.

“Are you ready?”

Amped up by a string of warm-up acts, the audience at the O2 Arena in London loses it completely as Idris Elba jogs out onto the runway. “Are you ready for Davido?” asks the screen idol, rhetorically.

A curtain falls to reveal the singer – white T-shirt and black shades. He stands on a circular platform suspended from the roof, some 10 metres in the air.

Flames and smoke engulf both platform and Davido, who keeps singing. Pyrotechnicians quietly high-five backstage.

The crowd are young. They know all the words to this newly global sound. Soft harmonies and synth, thudding bass and the omnipresent rrrat tat tat, tat-tat. Knee-high black leather boots. Dreads, with the occasional red weave and shaved sides. Big coats from Italian designers. Swaying, singing, dancing.

Davido is slowly lowered from the sky to the stage. He is being gently manoeuvred into the consciousness of the wider listening public, too.

“You have to let people feel they are discovering things for themselves,” says a senior executive of LiveNation, the UK’s largest live music music promoter. He is impressed by the turnout for the gig. “Not so many people are selling out the O2 these days.”

But only cave-dwellers would be ignorant of Nigeria’s sustained global musical moment. It is not just since the appearance of Nigerian musician Burna Boy on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in August 2019 – although having African entertainment giants on either side of the interview desk during American prime-time TV is no small thing.

In 2017, at the MOBO Awards, Wizkid beat Jay-Z, Drake and Kendrick Lamar to win Best International Act, and Davido walked away with Best African Act for ‘If’, a tune that has now exceeded 90m views on Youtube. Davido’s subsequent single, ‘Fall’, is knocking on 140m views. A year later, Davido won at the BET Awards in Los Angeles and implored global artists to “come to Africa”.

Wizkid sold out at the O2 Arena in 2018, a year before Davido. Beyoncé, never shy of jumping on popular directions, brought together Nigerian stars such as Tiwa Savage, Mr Eazi, Tekno, Yemi Alade, Wizkid and Nigerian super-producer P2J, as well as other African artists, on her companion album to The Lion King movie. Many of these Nigerian acts are making the US festival circuit their new home.

Behind the global phenomenon, however, the demography and purchasing power of Nigerian consumers is driving the industry.

When Nigeria rebased its GDP, adding in things like the music industry and Nollywood, Nigeria’s output leapt from $270bn to $510bn. The music you hear in Lagos nightclubs today is almost exclusively Nigerian – a far cry from a few decades ago.

“I only began to realise that Afrobeats was going to be big when we were all fighting over the D’banj single, which eventually went to Kanye’s label in the summer of 2012,” says Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, president of Columbia Records UK, a subsidiary of Sony Music. “And I was silly enough to think this was going to be a one-off. […] Until I noticed a few weeks later that D’banj feat Davido had just sold out the Hammersmith Apollo. The music has now been adopted into the wider culture.”

Pan-African audience-building

Back on stage, “Are there any Nigerians here tonight?” asks Davido, rhetorically, as the crowd roars. “Any Ghanaians?” Again a huge response. South Africans, too.

The click beat to his hit ‘Coolest kid in Africa’ – jointly produced with South African rapper Nasty C – starts to unfurl, with its shout-outs to countries on the continent.

It feels almost studied, a conscious attempt at pan-African audience building. Go to far-flung villages in non-anglophone countries, and you will find people who know many of his hits.

For those who have followed Davido’s career for a long time, this is no surprise. Davido is strategic in his use of the whole toolbox. He is, for example, one of the few Nigerian musicians to use songwriters.

And Davido is being strategic in management, too. His aim: crack the US. He has asked Efe Ogbeni, founder of Stealth Management and a stalwart of the industry, to get him there.

After the gig is over, the pungent dressing-room party is in full swing. The A-list of black London then rolls through Davido’s chambers: supermodel Naomi Campbell, Vogue UK editor Edward Enninful, (former) Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi to name a few.

Ogbeni is all smiles. As the gig ended, he runs on stage to spray Davido with champagne.

A few hours earlier, however, things were very different….

We arrive in a 4×4 at the artist gate at the O2 arena. Security guards, with the smirk of security guards around the world, ask who we are. “It’s my event,” says Ogbeni, visibly irritated, trying to keep his temper under control.

After some mutterings into a radio the gates finally open, and the car sweeps under the lip of the giant white tent known as the Millennium Dome, a New-Labour folly of the late 1990s that seats 15,000 people.
“I have to keep it cool otherwise they tag you as the angry black man,” says Ogbeni. “I have been fighting this all my life.”

© When Tiwa Savage wanted to make the jump to a major record label, Efe Ogbeni brokered her $1.1m deal with UMG. He will also executive-produce her future albums/releases, as he does for Davido. PRINCE WILLIAMS/WIREIMAGE/GETTY

His long push to bring Africa to the world started with Moroccan producer RedOne, with whom he brought artists like Lady Gaga to prominence.

FROM THE ARCHIVE : RedOne and Ogbeni want to take Africa to Number One

Record-breaking record

Part of the frustration is with the lack of radio airplay that Davido had ahead of the O2 gig. No matter: he sold out the arena anyway.

“Right now LiveNation and AEG are the landlords and gatekeepers. The radio are the gatekeepers,” says Ogbeni. “But next time we want to book the O2, we will be able to go straight to the venue – we have proved that we can sell tickets. And the radios in the US are now playing Davido on heavy rotation.”

Five months on from the O2 gig, and Ogbeni has helped push Davido’s single ‘Fall’ to number 13 on the Billboard chart, where it made history as the longest-charting Nigerian single in Billboard history.

“It’s connecting Africa to the world and connecting the world to Africa,” says Ogbeni, as we meet this time at the Eko Hotel in Lagos. “So I took Naomi Campbell to the Shrine last month, and Femi [Kuti] did what he has never done before, he came up here and performed with her on stage. With the editor of British Vogue there. Then I go to Morocco for Idris Elba’s wedding. I took Davido to do a surprise party. I shot the clip of Davido dancing with Christian Louboutin with their red-bottomed shoes. That’s culture, that is connections.”

Ogbeni adds: “I have been battling the gatekeepers for years. But Joel Katz is my mentor. I don’t fuss. People get to know me in the end.” Katz, the lawyer to James Brown and Michael Jackson, works for US law firm Greenberg Traurig and is considered an untouchable in the music industry. He is the legal representative to the Grammys and to 70% of the top labels in the US.

Rush of the majors

In show business, artists are the product, and you often need to fill a pipeline of hits for the majors to be interested. Slowly but surely, big media corporations are identifying – and fighting for – Nigeria and Africa’s top talent.

African artists – no pushovers themselves – are surfing on this new wave of interest. The most sophisticated are riding it to global supremacy. And as the internet upends business model after business model, the streaming generation of musicians and industry players are trying to keep up.

In May 2019, for example, Tiwa Savage, a huge star in Nigeria and winner of the MTV Europe Music Award for Best African Act, was signed to Universal Music Group (UMG).

© Ikeja-born singer and songwriter Tiwa Savage/ZACHARY MAZUR/FILMMAGIC/GETTY IMAGES

Of the US major labels, UMG, Sony and Warner Music Group are taking Africa seriously.

Warner has just signed up Nigeria’s influential Chocolate City label, which boasts Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) and M.I Abaga. Sony’s deal with Davido was preceded by the signing of D’banj in 2012. The world’s second-largest record company opened a West Africa office in Lagos in 2016. They were followed by the world’s largest, UMG, in 2018.

UMG is a behemoth – cash-rich and courted. Its parent company, Vivendi, is said to be seeking to sell up to 50% of its shares and is in talks with Tencent, the Chinese media giant, which already sublicences UMG’s catalogue in China. Together, they are building ‘Abbey Road Studios China’.

“They are not pressed. They have got cash, top acts. They can influence the whole world,” says Ogbeni. “So I knew if I pitched Tiwa to them they would jump on it. It’s a small deal, but a €1m ($1.1m) commitment is a lot.”

Enter the Don

We are sitting in the late bar of the Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, in early April.

The great and the good are milling about after hours, gathered for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s governance weekend. Bono is propping up the bar. We dodge the conversation to grab some large sofas with Don Jazzy, Nigeria’s answer to Dr Dré.

A super-producer and musician, Don Jazzy looms large in the Nigerian musical psyche, instrumental in creating a new sound for Nigerian pop, much as Dr Dré spearheaded G-Funk in the US.

© The legendary producer Don Jazzy has relaunched his label business with Maven Records / GUIDO DE BORTOLI/GETTY IMAGES FOR JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL/AFP

Don Jazzy set up Mo’Hits Records in 2004 alongside singer D’banj and helped launch the careers of Nigerian musical heroes like Wande Coal, while working with Jay-Z, Kanye West and Beyoncé. In 2012, when D’banj left the label, he launched Mavin Records with the aim of being “the powerhouse of music in Africa in the shortest possible time”.

“You can’t blame someone for being ambitious,” says Don Jazzy. Though the news has not yet dropped that Tiwa Savage is leaving Mavin Records, he is obviously aware that something is afoot. “When you are growing, you are getting to the point – like Tiwa Savage now – where you think, okay what’s next? There’s the big three: there’s Universal, there’s Sony and there’s Warner. If they are knocking on your door and they are like: ‘We can make you like this…’ You need to remember, most of these artists, they look up to the Beyoncés, the Rihannas of this world. They have the right to actually try to see if they can achieve that in partnership with people that have done it before.”

Premier league tactics

A footballing analogy may help explain the dynamics of Nigeria’s music scene. Ogbeni is the super-agent that can get you into Real Madrid and hopefully switch on the entire world to what Nigeria can do. Connected across all the major labels, able to bridge African and global markets, close to musical godfathers like Quincy Jones, Ogbeni can turn you into a star.

By contrast, what Don Jazzy wants to do with Mavin is to create an academy like Barcelona’s La Macias – an ecosystem to nurture the entire industry. “More than building global superstar artists that are going to be big in America, Asia, whatever. It is actually about growing a sector in Africa – have students go to school who can aspire to actually work in the entertainment business,” says Don Jazzy. “We don’t have people that go and read entertainment law, for example. There’s a whole lot of job security that we are trying to actually put in place, more than getting a superstar there.”

And, for Don Jazzy, avuncular and relaxed on the sofa, as one star walks away, another arrives. As we talk, Mavin’s latest addition is filling four out of the top 10 slots of Nigeria’s Apple Music charts.

Rema is certainly blunting any pain at Tiwa Savage’s departure.

© Rema (below), the 19-year-old freestyler discovered by Don’s brother, D’Prince / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Identified by Don Jazzy’s younger brother, known as D’Prince, Rema is a clear talent, but one who also has clear plans. “They [Mavin] accept my sound for what it is, crazy as it sounds. The trap and the rock and everything. Most people would try to change your sound, but they believe in mine,” Rema told journalist Debola Abimbolu in May.

Taking back control

That contrasts with Davido, who has complained of creative differences with Sony, leading to his renegotiating how he makes music back in 2017. He posted on social media: ‘Creative control returned, new music in 2 days.’

Indeed, after his contract was tweaked to allow him to release music in Africa on his own terms, compared to the total control Sony was demanding for his international releases, he released ‘If’ under his own label.

Bobby Pittman, the affable former assistant secretary of state for Africa under George W. Bush, now runs Kupanda Capital, a US private equity firm. In January 2019, Kupanda announced a multimillion-dollar investment into Mavin.

He takes up the idea of creating the ecosystem required to help new artists focus on their creativity. “We have lawyers, accountants, we have social media teams. We have a full suite of data professionals and are really building an engine so that [Don Jazzy] can do what he does – develop artists,” says Pittman. “There are not enough of these platforms today, the majors are not in these geographies really as horsepower builders, right?”

But while there may not be enough of them, Mavin and Don Jazzy are not alone.

Along with the sophistication of Davido’s approach – bringing in the management and the songwriting talent to help crack the US market – there is now a whole raft of new entrepreneurial artists with designs on being the next platform.

Take Mr Eazi – born Oluwatosin Oluwole Ajibade in Port Harcourt and now based in Ghana. He is no stranger to using data. Ajibade founded an e-commerce company, took it through an accelerator and ran it for some time. He is no stranger to hustle either. In 2016, he was selling phones in Lagos’s Computer Village, a sprawling tech market in Nigeria’s rowdy commercial capital.

His latest initiative is to create his own incubator for African musicians. While it may not have the polish of Mavin, it has a similar quest to hand autonomy to artists. Lately, Mr Eazi has been promoting his new initiative called emPawa, a platform he established to help boost talented up-and-coming artists through a competition that gives the winners access to knowledge, equipment, and the chance to perform with him.

Gift that keeps giving

It has been a rewarding project for the 27 year old. “Watching these artists go from amateur Instagram videos to having their careers, successful singles, touring, has just been a blessing to watch,” Mr Eazi tells The Africa Report after a concert in South Africa. “If you ask me what’s the one thing I’m proud of in this music career, the only thing I can tell you is emPawa. What’s about to happen in Africa this year is we’re gonna be changing everything. We’re launching emPawa Distribution, emPawa Publishing and other platforms to empower artists. The end goal for that is to build a new incubator for African music within Africa and the African diaspora.”

Now he has moved his business to London and is striking deals with US artists. And even the structure of his songs has evolved with the new economics of the streaming world in mind. “Take his last three releases, for example. All two minute songs or slightly shorter. Why?” asks The Africa Report’s West Africa editor, Eromo Egbejule. “Music economics to game the system and maximise streaming revenue.”

© The former street hustler and pioneer of Banku music Mr Eazi is devoting a lot of energy – and $300,000 – to his emPawa project, a platform that empowers (as you would expect) talented emerging artists in their quest for global superstardom. / KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES FOR COACHELLA/AFP

Ajibade recently told Rolling Stone: “In the West I can make gambles and book venues by myself, because I have data [about my listeners]. I know that in New York, I have about 500,000 listeners a month. So I know I can have 1,000 people at my concert. And I know 30% are from Brooklyn so I can do a show near where they live. I don’t have that data back home. Nigeria has 36 states. I’ve not even toured 10, and that’s partly because my fans are consuming the music in an alternate way that is not trackable.”

Beyond the music lie those who (mostly) consume it; the kids.

And in Africa, whether or not the kids are alright is proving a vexed question. Both for African governments desperately trying to keep pace with job creation, and for terrified eurocrats, trembling at the thought of migrants crossing the deserts.

For Ogbeni, ultimately, this is the vision. “The youths listen to those artists more than they listen to governments. So I have to be responsible. If I have the number-one female and the number one-male [artist], that is real influence.”

What if the real importance of musicians was their ability to transmit messages?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Nigerians were well aware of the political impact their musicians could have. Your aunties and uncles will tell you that today’s crop appear more interested in shifting product and branding deals.

That won’t prevent another Fela Kuti emerging. Already, Davido has weighed into Nigerian politics, backing his uncle’s failed bid to become the governor of Osun State in May. As Davido once told reporters: “I know eight presidents personally, so you can imagine what I can do.”

With additional reporting by Shingai Darangwa in Johannesburg

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