“London is like a gateway to the rest of the world,” Mr Eazi says mere moments into our phone conversation.
His accent is thick; he's a young man of Nigerian descent, far from his birthplace, but his voice still carries the sound of his homeland. His voice is what took him from Ghana to London in the first place. It's where his music was first embraced, and where the possibilities for a career as an Afrobeats artist first opened up. “London is a city full of different cultures. It embraces new music in a very unique way,” he continues, highlighting that whatever enters the cultural melting pot will trickle down and affect the direction of world music. Afrobeats music may have gotten its start in Ghana, but the explosion in London brought the sound to a larger consciousness. Mr Eazi experienced this firsthand―the rise of his popularity in Nigeria and Ghana happened only after his name began to boom in England.
The Guardian first acknowledged the rise of Afrobeats in 2012, a style of music that fuses the sounds of modern hip-hop with warm, Auto-Tune-drenched R&B, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat (itself a blend of traditional African rhythms with American jazz, funk and soul that dates back to the 1970s), and the cultural vibes of Ghana, Nigeria and the UK.
In 2013, Vice brought more attention to the blossoming genre citing its growing dominance in London. The Guardian returned to Afrobeats in 2014 as the sound redefining Africa, while The FADER saw the Nigerian sound as the future of pop music, and highlighted how the globe was beginning to embrace Wizkid the following year. Wiz is considered Afrobeats' Justin Beiber, the brightest star shining in the Afrobeats community.
You may not be familiar with Afrobeats as a genre, but you've likely seen the name Wizkid, who was featured alongside Kyla on one of the biggest songs of 2016: Drake’s “One Dance.” His appearance is subtle, but being on the smash hit of the summer surely brought awareness to curious minds. “One Dance” charted in 15 different countries and broke Spotify’s most-streamed song record with over a billion plays.
The worldwide attention brought upon by the song’s success spotlighted an old genre of music born in the UK, and also the rise of Afrobeats. If Popcaan is Drake’s link to dancehall, then Wizkid is his guide into the world of Afrobeats. Wiz has collaborated with Drake on three separate occasions―the remix of his 2014 single “Ojuelegba,” his noteworthy contribution to “One Dance,” and the recently leaked “Hush Up The Silence," which premiered on OVO Sound Radio over the weekend to complete the trinity. When Wizkid signed to RCA Records in 2015, he secured the biggest deal in history for a Nigerian artist. His deal, the collaborations with Drake, and the growing attention surrounding African-based artists have given life to the idea that a big boom is coming in the form of Afrobeats integrating with mainstream music.
In 2016, “One Dance” further confirmed that pop was headed in a global direction. The door never opens for just one, a small spark is just the beginning of a bigger fire, and the Afrobeats flame will bring to the masses an array of artists. One of those promising newcomers is Mr Eazi, an artist bringing slow, infectious melody to the uptempo-driven genre. While the lyrics aren’t always the clearest to my Western ears, there’s no denying the rhythm―it's dance music that you can feel in your bones.
Mr Eazi currently has six videos uploaded to his personal YouTube page, and the biggest, “Hollup,” has exceeded 6 million views. His collaborative single with Eugy, "Dance For Me," has twovideos—each has surpassed 11 million views. His music is fun, easy on the ears, and paired with music videos that are easy on the eyes. The Soundcity MVP Awards championed him as the Best New Artist of 2016, and he is currently one of the most talked about Afrobeats artists in London, Nigeria, and Ghana. An affiliation and co-sign by Wizkid is just a cherry on top; Mr. Eazi could very well be Afrobeats next breakout star.
“Labels are literally tripping to Africa,” he said while musing on the possibility of Afrobeats going into the mainstream this year. A fire has started, a demand is growing, and the possibilities are becoming more realistic than imaginative. Surprisingly, despite being in the center of this movement, Mr Eazi didn’t expect to make it in music. Doing party promotion and show booking while in college is what brought the artist, born Oluwatosin Ajibade, to the studio. The offer to record vocals was done on a whim, more of a hobby than attempting to perform alongside the very artists he booked. The music was something to do for fun, but running his e-commerce stock trading platform in Lagos was his primary focus.
That changed when a UK-based Ghanaian producer came across the files from his old recordings and saw something in what Mr Eazi was doing. Connecting on Twitter eventually lead to the release of “Bankulize,” his first official single, and the song that would eventually erupt in London.
When “Bankulize” first started to receive attention, Eazi was more focused on his tech startup than being a recording artist. You can hear the startup history in the way he talks about Mr Eazi―he often refers to his musical persona in the third person, the way one would do a business. Show money was flipped to produce high-quality videos, and the attention from the videos brought more shows.
He talks about marketing, investments, a customer base, and product as if he’s opening a business in Silicon Valley:
"I already had my tech company before, so I set targets for myself every time. I break targets and set bigger targets. I need to do more, I need to be bigger. Once the ball got to rolling I flooded the market. Doing hooks, and doing verses, basically. My sound on every record was the same sound. It was like another Mr Eazi record. So the sound of the radio, the sound of the club changed. Now you hear people say that’s the Mr Eazi sound. I did the Lil Wayne ‘08/’09 strategy by jumping on all the songs that I could. You would turn on the local, West Africa MTV and you would see five Mr Eazi songs in the top ten. You would see on the West Africa Top 20 seven Mr Eazi features. That was just my way of focusing on that market. By the end of the year, I won Best New Artist and had a template that was described as my sound."
Viewing London as the center of world music is a perspective directly connected with Mr Eazi's story. It is where his music was first met with acclaim, and where he found the highest paying gigs, the most streams, and the home to his first mini-tour. He started to pull from his surroundings, incorporating UK elements into his African swagger. Afrobeats, after all, is a genre built on fusion, taking from the old and building something new.
The start of his career may have begun in London, but his humble beginnings are a product of a different environment. For his fans to truly understand where he came from, it was necessary to take a step back, and that became the inspiration for his forthcoming mixtape, Life Is Eazi, Vol. 1 - Accra To Lagos.
"The funny thing about this tape, it's meant for Ghana and Nigeria. It is meant for the two countries. I didn’t make the tape for the rest of the world. Last year, I made 14 trips to the UK between March and December. Because we are the products of our environments, the fact I was in the UK and not over there had influenced the kind of new songs I was writing. I felt I had to take my audience on a journey, from Africa to London before presenting the music influenced by my time in the UK. It’s a journey. My fans will be able to understand the sonic differences between the two. That’s the plan. The first track of the tape, “Leg Over” is doing massively globally. There’s a demand for African music, Afrobeats, and people are finding and appreciating the sound."
Last year, during the explosion of dancehall in the mainstream, The Guardian spoke with Sean Paul about the sudden surge of a genre he is closely associated with due to his success in the early 2000s. Sean speaks openly and honestly about Drake and Justin Bieber using dancehall’s influence, but not citing the sources where the music emerged from. There’s a thin line between exploitation and homage—appreciation and appropriating—that has been an ongoing dialog as sounds from Africa and the Caribbean continues to enter bigger markets.
Afrobeats is expected to grow, but with growth comes the potential for the genre to be drained of its cultural importance. Mr Eazi understands it's his responsibility to make people aware of what his music is and where it hails from.
"I feel like it's my duty to. In the world right now no one wants to learn. It’s a fast world, no one has time to find the roots of a sound or a bounce. People just want to enjoy themselves. It’s so much to be worried about in the world, many aren’t worried about the source of a sound. If it sounds nice, they can dance to it, nobody cares. It’s now left to us to project the culture and be as loud as possible. When artists from other genres want Popcaan, it’s to do his thing, and no one stops him from doing the patois, you know? They don’t water him down. Because the culture has grown and expanded so much it isn’t being ignored. It isn’t being hidden. People are embracing it, and wanting to be affiliated. It’s up to the artists to correctly package Afrobeats. The same way people are aware of where dancehall comes from, and dancehall culture, we need that for Afrobeats. If we don’t respect the culture, then it won’t be respected by others, and it will be our fault."
By taking the Lil Wayne approach to attaching his voice to other artists' songs, his name slowly started to build itself. Hip-hop has been a big part of what has shaped Mr Eazi's mentality moving forward. He admits to not being the most knowledgeable Jay Z fan, but is quick to cite Hov as a mentor, and even began to rap his verse from Coldplay’s “Lost” as lyrics he holds dear. Hip-hop’s hustle and a tech startup background are what has helped shaped Mr Eazi into the artist he is today.
"The power of affiliation I’ve seen in hip-hop, the power of partnering with brands that I’ve seen in hip-hop, that’s the next level for me this year. Looking at all my prime locations as activation. In my mind, I might not rap, but I’m thinking like an emcee. Even recently, how Drake’s listening to all these different vibes, in some of his records he stays true to hip-hop but he’s also making other, more fusion records. This has influenced me in my way of doing new records. Pushing me to sample, to mix, and make more fusion music. I say hip-hop has been very influential in shaping my mindset."
By the end of this year, Mr Eazi hopes to reach stadium status—at least in Ghana. There’s a desire for everyone in Lagos to know his name, so he’s filling Nigeria's largest city with billboards—branding the city with his face. First the mixtape, then the world tour—a plan that was inspired by Drake's lyric, “Drop the mixtape that shit sounded like a album. Who'da thought a countrywide tour'd be the outcome.”
He has big ambitions, but he’s also humbled by the fact that music was presented almost like a gift: “Sometimes I joke and say even if it ended tomorrow I’m grateful because I never expected this ride. It’s like someone gave you a free ticket to France. Free, all expenses paid, you find yourself flying first class—you're not going to think about how you never wanted to go to France, you’re going to enjoy the trip.”
Mr Eazi is all about the journey: enjoying the ride, and making the most of being spotlighted as one of the most anticipated Afrobeats artists pushing the genre forward. He’s found the balance between being the businessman and being the artist. He’s watching the market, catering to an audience, and constantly searching for the next vibe.
Afrobeats is changing the sound of pop music, and when the wave finally hits the mainstream, Mr. Eazi will be there at the forefront.
Mr. Eazi's 'Life Is Eazi, Vol. 1 - Accra To Lagos' is scheduled for release on Friday, February 10 and is available for pre-order now on iTunes.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Eazi aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Instagram