South Africa: Lojay and Sarz on the making of ‘Monalisa’ & their blend of Afrobeats and Amapiano

By Shingai Darangwa

Posted on Friday, 12 August 2022 10:06
Lojay and Sarz (credit: Dom Sesto)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a song more ubiquitous over the past year than Lojay and Sarz's smash hit single, 'Monalisa'. Released in June last year, as part of the pair's collaborative EP, LV N ATTN, 'Monalisa' flew out the gate and rapidly grew into one of the standout hits of the year. Blending Afrobeats and the distinct sounds of Amapiano, which is becoming increasingly popular across the world, 'Monalisa's' hybrid sound came at just the right time.

It all began in the heart of the 2020 lockdown when the Lagos-based Lojay, who was at the time a relatively unknown Afro-fusion artist finding his feet, was introduced to the veteran Afrobeats super-producer Sarz by his lawyer, who is a mutual friend of theirs.

Sarz was intrigued by the prospect of working with an up-and-comer and found himself drawn toward the young artist’s vocal delivery. “First of all, I love challenges,” Sarz says during our Zoom call. “Second of all, he has a very unique tone, like when you hear his voice it stands out — well at least it stands out to me. There’s something about his tone that I felt like I could harness and make the world listen. I’m also always looking for challenges, that’s what keeps me going.”

Growing reputation

Over the past decade, the talented Afrobeats producer has established a reputation as one of the genre’s most versatile stars having worked with the likes of Afro house star Niniola on her smash hit ‘Maradona’ and Skepta and Wizkid on their anthemic ‘Energy (Far Away)’.

Lojay, who at 26 years old is seven years Sarz’s junior, spoke about how he enjoyed the entire process of working with Sarz, who he views as a mentor. “It was a seamless process because he’s not the kind of producer that tries to get in your face,” says Lojay. “He wants you as an artist to do your thing. If anything, it’s almost like he’s just trying to get the best out of the artist by letting them be themselves and not trying to distract their process with his own ideas. It was really fun.”

During the recording process for the EP, Lojay tells me how he and his team overlooked ‘Monalisa’ and instead were banking on other songs on the project, most notably the title track that features the globally renowned Nigerian star WizKid. Therefore, when the song started to blow up within a few weeks of its release, they were all caught by surprise.

Potential power of ‘Monalisa’

Conversely, Sarz always had a feeling that it would overshadow the other songs. “We actually weren’t gonna put it on the project and that was a decision I came to terms with because I thought the song was going to overshadow the other songs on the project, which it clearly did; so I didn’t want to put it because I wanted people to hear other songs and let other songs have a life of their own.”

Sarz (credit: Wuraola Ajeigbe)

With over 100 million streams globally, it’s safe to say that ‘Monalisa’ stole the show as it became a continental smash hit. Further abroad, the song also exploded over time and was widely supported by huge mainstream platforms, such as BBC 1Xtra A-List, BBC Radio 1, Kiss and Capital Xtra. The Fader also placed it at 30th position on their list of the 100 Best Songs of last year.

It was around that period towards the end of last year that the two artists started to recently consider the potential of a remix.

“When the EP dropped, Monalisa just started popping on its own,” says Lojay. “The song just came from nowhere and started doing its thing. As that was happening, we were like yeah, a remix would be nice and by the end of last year we were already thinking of doing a remix.”

Then along came Chris Brown…

They then started putting together a shortlist of artists that they felt were suitable for the remix.

“We basically just sent it out to different people that we had in mind that we would want on the remix,” Lojay says. “Chris Brown was one of them because he just floated so effortlessly on Afrobeats and we just felt like he was one of the people who could take it to a whole new place and still maintain the same essence.” After they sent it to him, Lojay says Brown sent his verse back very quickly and without much fuss.

“It was seamless,” he says. “There was an air of uncertainty until that happened and then all of a sudden it was time to go.” Today, the ‘Monalisa’ remix continues on this success and makes a mark globally. Lojay is finding this entire experience exhilarating.

“As an artist, that’s one of the things you look forward to, just people listening to your sound and valuing whatever you have to offer. It was a thing of, okay yeah, this is an amazing feeling, but also there was a thought of don’t get lost in it. Don’t think now everyone’s calling your name so now you’re the shit and nothing else matters. That’s how, in my opinion, you start to lose the plot.”

The genre of the song has been a topic of much conversation. The original and the remix have been hugely popular in South Africa where it peaked at #1 on the official radio charts (Rams), and local audiences, who are typically very suspicious of Amapiano spinoffs from foreign musicians, have embraced the song. I ask Lojay what genre he considers the song to be. “It’s an Afrobeats song with an Amapiano influence,” he says.

Lojay (credit: Roderick Ejuetami))

“Sarz had played me the beat before and it had more of a half feel, it didn’t have any of the log drums or anything because he made the beat a long time ago.”

“It just had the drums and the chords and then with time that was when the log drum idea came in because we were basically making it at the point where Amapiano was really starting to kick off in Nigeria, and it just felt like a nice idea, something to spice up the song.” At first, Lojay says Sarz was quite reluctant because he’s more of an innovator than one to follow trends but eventually he did it in his own way and his own unique style and the song worked.

Popularity of South African music

Despite this hesitancy, Sarz says he’s been keen to explore this sound. “I’ve always been fascinated by South African music like I listen to a lot of South African music. I’m a big fan of SA house and Amapiano and I think they are one of the reasons why African music is where it is, so I always take influences from a lot of South African music I like. […] the first time I heard Amapiano music I was fascinated by it and I just tried to see if I could infuse some Afrobeats influences into Amapiano, and that’s how ‘Monalisa’ came to be.”

It’s a life-changing story for me. It’s proof that all I just need to do is just work

At London’s recent Wireless Festival, Chris Brown brought Lojay out to perform the song during his set on the main stage. When he got off stage, Lojay soaked in the moment and said: “First of all, it was just a beautiful song about me just expressing how I feel about this beautiful girl and me wanting her to just keep dancing. It’s a life-changing story for me. It’s proof that all I just need to do is just work.”

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