Bankulli is the supreme connector of dots. Born Abisagboola Oluseun John in Lagos, Nigeria, the singer, songwriter, and talent manager has used his influence in the music industry to connect African producers, singers, and musicians with international acts to carry Afrobeats and Afropop across the globe.
“More collaborations across the world means better exposure,” Bankulli explains. “There is acceptance. Everywhere, they’re playing our music. Radio stations are playing Yoruba. Our language is expanding, and it’s rich.”
This expansion has helped Bankulli find a seat at the table with some of the most well-known acts in the recording industry. One of his most notable contributions to date is a collaboration and appearance on Beyoncé’s soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift. The project found THE CARTERS—Bey, JAY-Z, and even Blue Ivy—singing, rapping, and chanting alongside African superstars WizKid, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, and Tiwa Savage. Bankulli earned composition credits and contributed Yoruba vocals on “FIND YOUR WAY BACK” and “OTHERSIDE.”
During a visit stateside to attend the GRAMMY Awards in Los Angeles last month, I spoke with Bankulli for a meaningful and insightful exchange. Our FaceTime conversation began while en route to a meeting a few days before the award show.
The Los Angeles sun was Bankulli’s backdrop, his trademark fluorescent OSHA hoodie in view, pausing frequently to hail up those also in town. Of course, OSHA is both the name of his clothing line and Yoruba for “God.” Bankulli not only keeps his faith on full display, but he lives it for all to see, using both his influence and intuition to create music, connections, and opportunities with the chosen.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Africa is creating new stars every day. As someone who’s worked behind-the-scenes, what are your thoughts on signing and working with international labels and A&Rs?
The genre is growing. More collaborations across the world means better exposure. There is acceptance. Everywhere, they’re playing our music. Radio stations are playing Yoruba. Our language is expanding, and it’s rich. [Our music is] playing in taxis. It’s a two-way exchange when we are conscious [of] what we are doing while doing it. It must have value, core value.
Some people call it “culture vulture” but, when you’re going into meetings, you should be going with your team, making it with your team. They are around you to be able to tell you, to remind you, so you don’t lose focus when it comes to production, etc. You must have your own sound, your own values.
How do you maintain your own sound once you enter the mainstream?
There’s nothing wrong with having an international deal and exposure. A tribe must be able to sell to the other tribe. For example, you may be selling a kind of soup and use a seasoning that is appealing yet won’t cause problems. It has to come out right and not lose the essence of why it’s… Jamaican jerk chicken, for example.
An artist, as an individual, must be prepared to have their signature [sound], mixed with other sounds [from] around the world. A balance. Do not lose your focus by not being original. Mix with different sounds, though, because it’s good to expose yourself to other markets as well.
Jamaican and African artists often link, such as Popcaan and Davido—an artist you’ve worked with—and Chronixx and Mr. Eazi. What is the connection between Afrobeats and Caribbean music?
Reggae music is like one of the grandfathers of Afrobeats because it has been there before us. The only reason Afrobeats is growing fast is because of reggae. Social media is helping. If reggae had social media at that time… it’s still popping, but in terms of excitement, it might be [more popular]. We also have Afro ragga. There is that connection, that link. Afrobeats is sweet to the ears, and we need more of that. Between reggae and Afrobeats, we are brothers. Bob Marley was preaching about Africa. This is the time we’ve been waiting for.
You were blessed to work on The Lion King: The Gift. What impact did the project have on Africa and Afrobeats at large?
The Lion King: The Gift project represents Africa in terms of every artist on there, the future, more like an ambassador to African music, African sound. The Afrobeats vibe is more dominant. West Africans, I believe, are mostly ambassadors on that project. It gave the genre more exposure. Can you imagine working with Beyoncé, one of the biggest mainstream artists in the world? The numbers, attention, attraction, and work on that project? It can only get better from here. It opens up the market, not just for musicians but for everyone: journalists, executives, new business here in America. Not restricted to just music, but for the entire Africa—tourism, the narrative, the conversations about artists coming from the continent. It’s a positive, good thing.
What’s it like working with Beyoncé’s team?
We all know who Beyoncé is. She’s a workaholic, understand? Talented as well. The project speaks for itself. It shows the level of research that has gone into this kind of project. It’s not a joke. The amount of African artists who worked on that project shows you she means business. It’s the real deal.
D’Banji signed a record deal with G.O.O.D. Music after bumping into Kanye West in Dubai. You were managing him at that time. What was that experience like?
Good alignment. Kanye is one of the greatest musicians of all time—a creative and exciting person when it comes to production. We must commend him for [signing D’Banji]. He chose to do it, and by doing it, it’s great for the continent. Even the mental education for artists in Nigeria, working with a conscious African American artist, changed the game for me and changed the game for Africa as well.
It’s an exciting time. All those projects over the years open people’s eyes to what’s happening in Africa. The happiness to come out of the sound. The experience, going to Nigeria and Ghana, and meeting people on the real level. Our African American brothers can now know “missed story”—not history. When you know your story, you can fix the underlying issues with African Americans that live in America.
Afrobeats has formed a robust global connection. How do you feel the music is impacting people living in the Diaspora?
I’m working on a documentary that chronicles Afrobeats, its impact on African music, and the life of Africans living in the Diaspora. I’m telling the story of the beginning, present, and future of the genre. [I want] to showcase the impact that Afrobeats is having on the life of Africans and people living in the Diaspora, but are scared of talking about where they’re from because they’re going to be bullied or laughed at. Now you have music. It gives people confidence. Dialect is used. Music is infectious.
What does African music need right now?
Connecting music with real issues that people are going through on a real-life [basis]. Yeah, you need money, but also to communicate with the soul. People are poor but think about music. The way we think, the way we function, music is the way, the escape route. We want to zone out. Afrobeats gives people an escape out of whatever problem they’re having. The sound is always in our ears: jùjú music, Fuji, Apala, gospel, highlife. There is always a link. The underlying music is always there.
You witnessed the birth and rise of Afrobeats. What inspired its creation?
Afrobeats came out of necessity [and out of the] frustration from young people. Nobody is going to hear them or allow them to showcase their talent. Hip-hop, you can’t compete with that. Artists were able to create with their culture, their vibe, blended into hip-hop, R&B, Afro trap, Afro R&B, Afro-fusion, and Afroswing. Just like that. It didn’t just spring up from somewhere. It’s a lot of vibes. It’s like a mixture, a milkshake.