Emerging in the early 2010s, Afrobeats – not to be confused with the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti et al – is an urgent fusion of African pop, rap, R&B and dance music that’s finally reaching the mainstream. Alex Macpherson meets Nigerian singer Davido, one of the genre’s most central figures.
Last year the Western music press started catching up to Afrobeats as one of the most exciting genres on the planet. But all the talk of crossover potential missed one vital point: crossing over has never been a priority, let alone an end game for African artists. Afrobeats is a pop ecosystem of its own, one that doesn’t need Western ears to be validated. Indeed, there’s a satisfying irony to the fact that its approach to Western pop reverses the magpie treatment that European and American stars have doled out for long, snapping up the shiniest bits of other cultures just to show off.
But the crossover deserves to happen, simply for the deluge of brilliant pop that’s been coming out of Africa for most of this decade – and when it does, domestic stars such as Wizkid, Tiwa Savage and Davido will be front and center. All three signed deals with major labels in 2016, and have been collaborating with American counterparts such as Drake (whose culture vulturing has played a significant role in raising the profile of the genre).
FACT caught up with Davido, the Nigerian singer whose hits include ‘Dami Duro’, ‘Skelewu’, ‘Aye’ and ‘Tchelete (Goodlife)’, before a high-energy show at London’s Koko to chat about his latest EP, the Tinashe-featuring Son Of Mercy, and his journey to date.
Was Son Of Mercy a statement of loyalty to your roots? You’ve been talked of as a potential Western crossover a lot lately, but the lead single ‘Gbagbe Oshi’ is in Yoruba and you haven’t tried to ape Western sounds.
It was really just to verify what I do. When I signed a deal and made some moves a lot of people thought, oh, he’s going to switch up. So I wanted to show this element in me, even if that kind of music isn’t fully accepted worldwide. I call my music “afrofusion” – I like to fuse everything together and make sure that part of the world will still be recognized.
I focused on the instrumentals – they don’t say words but they can mean a lot of things. Even the track with Tinashe, ‘How Long’ – when you really listen to it, it has a lot of African drums deep in it.
Son Of Mercy was a taster. I had songs, so many songs. It was like, OK, it’s the end of the year, let’s give the fans some music. I didn’t go in to record it, I just picked songs from what I already had.
On ‘Coolest Kid In Africa’ you namecheck Kanye and Beyoncé before declaring, “I get my riches from Africa”.
I’m not saying I don’t need the west, but the majority of my career hasn’t been there. Before I signed a deal, my friends and family would talk to me and make sure it’s what I wanted to do, because I was satisfied in Africa. I was getting good numbers and I was doing my thing, I was performing all over the world but the fans were predominantly African. I was just trying to show the west that Africa is cool. Funnily enough, everyone in that video is African – whether Caucasian, Asian or whatever, everybody grew up in Africa.
You’ve had hits with such a variety of styles – super-percussive dance like ‘Skelewu’, relaxed highlife like ‘Aye’, South African kwaito like ‘Tchelete’. Is there anything linking them together that you’d call your sound? What appeals to your ear most?
You know, I don’t really have a sound. That’s something that I can say. All my music is kinda different. But drums appeal to me. I love drums. Drums make me go crazy. It can be very simple or real complicated, but always drums. Some of my favorite drums are from Angola – crazy, just crazy. My other favorite instrument is the guitar, love the guitar. That’s why so much of my music is highlife.
You’ve also got some fantastic layered vocal arrangements – did you grow up singing?
No! I started a couple of years before I dropped my first single. You know, the funny thing is I record myself. I prefer it when I record and arrange before I give the song to the engineers. That’s something I used to do for other people – I was an engineer before I started the music thing fully, so I understand how I was on vocals. I was telling other people what to do – recording and performances – and one day someone just said, ‘why don’t you try yourself?’ That’s when I recorded my first record, and from there it was just… [sings]
You call your music “afrofusion”. When I talked to [Nigerian Afropop singer] Yemi Alade, she called her music “afropolitan”, and talked about how important it was for her to record her songs in Swahili and French to appeal across the continent. Does that apply to you?
I don’t think it’s important to sing in French. I go to the Francophone countries and places they don’t speak English, and when I’m singing they don’t know what I’m saying but they’re singing it back, the same words. I don’t think you have to sing in French to be accepted in those places. Nigerian music is just natural, easy on the ear, the most popular on the continent.
What do you think about the Western press saying that Afrobeats’ time is now, globally?
I don’t know, it’s just the rhythm. But like I tell people, African music has always been popular. Now, I just feel everyone’s paying attention – with social media there are so many avenues. It’s all coming through. And if you ask me, the UK is one of the most likely to accept African music when it comes to the Western world. There’s a link to Jamaican artists, I really think we should be coming together and collaborating. I’ve done a record with Popcaan, we went to Jamaica and I shot a little movie with him. It’s both dancehall and African.
I don’t know why there’s so much creativity in Africa right now. I was with Diplo the other week in LA and he was saying, how do you do it? I don’t know. It’s just the rhythm. There are some crazy Nigerian producers right now – Shizzi, Masterkraft, Young John [sings Young John synth riff]. Artists like Burna Boy, Tekno, Olamide, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage. There are so many and not only Nigeria – the South African scene too, with Nasty C. Africa is just full of talent.
Sean Paul has been talking recently about how big American artists use dancehall artists without crediting them, or treat them like tokens. Do you feel this? How do you avoid it?
I just go in and do my thing. Everyone’s an artist; I don’t feel like I’m less of an artist, but I don’t walk in thinking I’m the big artist.
Sean Paul has kind of Westernized his sound – it’s EDM, pop, whatever, not Jamaican-Jamaican. But he did what he had to do, and he’s done it all and I feel like he wanted something else for his life and career. Another example is Pitbull, he used to rap but he found that avenue where he could take his culture worldwide and that’s what he did.
Would you take the steps they did?
Yeah, definitely. The first step is that I have to be open to working with lots of sounds I’m not used to. But I don’t mind experimenting with different music.
Your story has some pretty interesting chapters to it. You famously grew up in a rich household, and on ‘Dami Duro’ you refer to yourself as “omo baba olowo” [Yoruba for “son of a wealthy man”]. How has that affected your image and popularity at home?
It’s not easy, it’s harder, especially because everyone loves the rags-to-riches story of the young boy from the hood. But I’m proud to be who I am. It was harder in the beginning – everyone was just like, oh, his dad is… – but the music was just too good. When I go in the hood right now my music is the most loved, even if everyone knows where I came from is a thousand miles away. There are lot of rich kids in Nigeria, whose dads have way more money than my dad, so why isn’t it working for them?
At the start of your career, you dropped out of university in Atlanta and went AWOL in London from your family for six months. What were you thinking at the time?
It was really tough. I felt like I had to do it at the time. I had to make a stand and say, this is what I wanted to do – so I kind of had to run away from home. They were looking for me everywhere but I was just recording, hiding. I said to myself that I couldn’t go back to my family and disappoint them, so I had to do something. So I kept at it, kept at it, kept at it.
How easy was it to repair the relationships afterwards?
It was very easy, because the music just healed everything. The success of the music was surprising to everybody, so then it was more like, keep going, keep going. Now I represent the family.
How much would you say your success is down to hard work, and how much to your talent?
Hard work and belief. And not focusing on bullshit, focusing on real shit. Something I had to learn recently in the past year – don’t look at anybody else, just keep doing your shit. Everybody has their own story and right now I’m ready. So you keep doing your shit.
Were there any moments you lost the belief?
No, no, never ever. Well, when I first started, yeah. I got over it when I just dropped the music. The music healed everything. And I had something else to do and it gave me something else to focus on. It’s funny, once you taste a little bit of success, you want it. And that helps you want it more than everything else.
You’ve been promising your second album The Baddest for a while now – it was meant to have been released in 2016. What’s the timetable at the moment?
By the grace of God, early 2017. First quarter. That’s what we’re looking at. We just shot a video for the first single with Rae Sremmurd – I linked up with them backstage at Fader Fort. We exchanged numbers and when I was in LA I hit them up. Young Thug was there too. They’re just so different artistically. Rae Sremm have the No 1 song in the world right now. Young Thug, everyone knows him for his crazy melodies and dresses, the way he dresses is just free-spirited, he don’t care what nobody thinks.
Anyway, we’re going to start from there, blast the album, go on tour and take over. That’s what we’re going to do. I doubt the singles from the last two years [‘Fans Mi’, ‘Owo Ni Koko’, ‘The Sound’] will be on it. It’s not going to be a regular album with one style, there’s going to be music from all over the world – I’ve been to so many countries recording this album. There’ll be a lot of collabs, a lot of fusion.
I don’t choose producers – I’ve just been recording a lot of music whenever I can, whenever I have the opportunity to get studio time. Record on the road, record after the club, catch vibes with whoever’s there. I don’t say, like, one person gave me all my hits, get that person for the whole album – it’s just, whoever we like who’s around, whoever’s in the vibe.
I just wanted to make a good album. When you start with too many criteria you mess it up, it doesn’t sound natural. Would it sound like this? Does it sound like this? I don’t listen to no music when I’m making music – just to clear out my head. People who make trends don’t follow trends.
Unlike a lot of Nigerian pop that came before it, Afrobeats isn’t known for being particularly political. But what do you think the function of feelgood music is in times like this?
Man, these times are crazy. Everything’s crazy. The internet’s crazy. Donald Trump, he’s crazy. I thought it was a joke, then they really did it. I mean, people voted for him! All the rappers I’m working with are like, fuck Donald Trump. Music’s a getaway. Turn up the music loudest, everybody gets up. Turn it off, everybody goes back to their normal lives. It’s very powerful and very, very healing too. Get a drink, party and feel alright.
When it’s time to get out the vote, of course I’m there. I’m happy about the last [Nigerian] elections too – they were free and fair, which is important. Our country’s been through some hard times.
Do you have any ambitions beyond music?
Definitely, definitely. I plan to open music schools across Africa. Big, top music schools. Every country if I can, starting off in Lagos. I think I have a good ear for other artists’ music. If I hear a song once, twice – I know if it’s going to be a hit. And these guys that don’t have the opportunity to learn – if they learn, they’ll be the greatest. I want to make that possible.
You were self-taught, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was self-taught. I taught myself how to record, how to use Logic.
Do you think school would have made you better?
You never know, I could’ve been worse!