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Nigeria’s musical moment

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.”

A sell-out gig at London’s O2 Arena for Davido in January 2019/ MATT CROSSICK/PA WIRE/ABACA

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.”

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.”



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