Music: Taking Africa to Number One

By Nicholas Norbrook in Stockholm

Posted on Monday, 29 November 2010 16:08

They changed the way Americans listen to music and now they want to change the way Americans hear Africa. Moroccan producer RedOne and dealmaker One-Feme Ogbeni are in the forefront of efforts to introduce African talent to a worldwide audience.

The two men have one passion: taking Africa mainstream. The first, Nadir Khayat, otherwise known as Red-One, is the Moroccan producer who created Lady Gaga’s sound. Everything he touches turns to chart-smashing gold. The second, One-Feme Ogbeni, also known as Efe, is the Nigerian behind-the-scenes dealmaker with the vision to bring artists together. He is now working with African talent in the US. Both dream of a stable of artists who can bridge the divide.

Lounging on sofas at one of Stockholm’s most exclusive recording complexes, RedOne and Efe expound their philosophy: to take the production values that propelled artists like Lady Gaga to stardom and apply them to African artists. They are putting the finishing touches to the first album of rising new talent, Zander Bleck, who has an affinity for Africa, having gigged at Mali’s Festival au Désert. Red-One and Efe are executive producing on Zander’s album – with the deal one of the biggest in the industry in 2010 for Efe’s company Regime Societe.

Engaging and committed, Efe and RedOne forged a partnership that was kicked off with another artist passionate about Africa – Akon, the US/Senegalese rapper. “Gaga is signed to Streamline owned by Vince Herbert, but they needed music to get Jimmy Iovine’s attention.” says Efe. “Red and Gaga made a smash song called ‘Boys boys boys’, I was blown away and called Akon to come listen, he took it to Jimmy Iovine [chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records] and we all got involved to make Gaga a success”.

Jimmy Iovine is the man who signed The Black Eyed Peas, Dr. Dre, Eminem, U2 and 50 Cent among others.

Lady Gaga’s first album, Fame, was a huge success, and RedOne quickly became one of the hottest properties in music production with a string of number one hits. He was working with Michael Jackson before Jackson’s death in 2009. “That was particularly hard for us. He was the nicest, most humble human being,” says RedOne. “Working with him was the most amazing experience. He knew everything. And he wanted everything to be a hit, so we would write lots of songs quickly and then take only the best bits from several songs. It’s a way of working that I appreciate.” ?

Ricky Martin, and Enrique Iglesias before him, helped bring Latin music into the US mainstream, stopping it from sounding too ‘foreign’. “The problem,” explains RedOne, “is that when you try to push something all the way too quickly, people reject it. You have to do things gradually.”

Gaga strategy

This was the strategy RedOne took with Lady Gaga. Working her way up through the New York club scene, Lady Gaga was initially dismissed as too ‘dance’. “With Gaga, the US would not play it on the radio at first. ‘People won’t love it, they will say it’s too European, too this, too that.’ But slowly we pushed, and little by little we brought people into the sound. Now it is like we have reset the global cycle of music and now everyone is using the club sound.”?

This method of recalibrating the taste of the mainstream is exactly what RedOne wants to do with ­Mohombi, whom he signed to his label, 2101 Records. Mohombi, with parents from both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sweden, is already seeing success with the feel-good RedOne-produced hit Bumpy Ride. Next year, Mohombi is certain to have a smash with a song that includes lyrics about “making it big in America … just a poor boy from Africa”. Says RedOne: “And the dancehall rhythm you hear on the track – that’s an African rhythm.” ?

When he is interviewed, ­Mohombi talks about his music but also about his roots growing up in Kinshasa until age 12 and winning a 2003 Kora Award for African music. “And that’s what I do too,” explains RedOne. “I don’t put it up front, but I always mention Africa, I always mention Morocco.”?

Efe is planning a similar move with his new signing, Stephanie Walters. A young girl with an angelic voice, Walters fits into the multicultural bridge-building pattern: she was born in the Niger Delta but was brought up in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria. With a Nigerian mother and Swiss father, she has the world at her fingertips. “For the first two songs we will keep it more traditional singer/songwriter music,” says Efe, “and then we’ll start dipping into her heritage as well.” ?

A keen defender of women’s rights, Walters will be able to speak to people in both Nigeria and the US, and her message should be twice as powerful because of this.

But making music work is not just about good intentions. “In Morocco there is no structure for music, so there is no money. My parents said ‘No no no, please just stay here and study so you can have a career and a job and survive’,” explains RedOne. “Everyone is a musician in Morocco because it’s in the culture. People love to have fun and have a party. But since there is no copyright law, it’s almost impossible to make money. One of Morocco’s big radio and television channels – I won’t name them – keeps on talking about how people’s music should be protected, but the irony is that they are biggest offenders in not paying for it.”?

African record label?

This is why the two are planning a record label that will help African artists get started in Africa. “I’ve been in conversations with Don Jazzy,” Nigeria’s influential producer, says Efe, “and there are one or two other directions we can take. The talent there is beyond imagination, but right now there is no trust, no structure, no resources – you have to have a global partnership for it to make sense.” Don Jazzy is the producer who helped build D’Banj into an international phenomenon, and the CEO of the label Mo Hits.

Efe is also hoping to pioneer a new project to distribute music in Africa, to get around the eternal problem of CD piracy that makes it hard to earn a living. Though the project is under wraps, it promises to deliver a proper livelihood to musicians.

At the top of their game, the two men remember to stay humble. RedOne’s new label is called 2101 records, after the New York apartment where he almost gave up. “It was New Year’s Eve, 2006-07. I broke down because I had lost all my savings on studio time and surviving, living with just an airbed and a little TV.” His wife “convinced me to stay three more months for luck. And that January, things just started to happen for me. I never forget where I came from.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options