Nigerian Afro-pop singer Wizkid on finding positivity amid brutality


A few days after performing in a television spectacular celebrating the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British rule earlier this month, Wizkid found himself being insulted by an aide to his homeland’s leader.

The singer, 30, was accused of “crass ignorance, insensitivity and childishness” in a tweet by Lauretta Onochie, personal assistant to Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari. Labelling Wizkid “Dumbkid”, she complained about an angry message that the star had earlier tweeted to his 7.3m followers, in which he addressed the septuagenarian Buhari as “Old man!”

“That just shows you the kind of government we have in power,” the singer, real name Ayodeji Balogun, tells me. We are sitting on opposite sides of a mixing desk in a recording studio in Chiswick, west London, where he partly recorded his new album, Made in Lagos. “I’m from Lagos, that’s my home, that’s who I am,” he says. Its songs are richly textured and languid, with titles like “No Stress” and “Smile”. But an edge enters Wizkid’s soft voice as he recalls his exchange with the presidential aide.

“The only thing that they would take out of that conversation was the fact that I called the president an old man. He is an old man, he’s 77 years old, he’s not young,” he insists. “I’m allowed to call him an old man. He’s not a teenager.”

Wizkid arrives for a concert at a football stadium in Bamako, Mali, 2015 © REUTERS

Behind the contretemps lies an issue that has gripped Nigeria over the past fortnight, overshadowing the optimistically titled “Together at 60” independence festivities.

Two days after independence day on October 1, videos began circulating on social media allegedly showing the execution of a young man in Lagos by a notorious police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as Sars. The authorities denied that the killing happened. But members of Sars have a fearsome reputation among Nigerians for thuggishness and extortion. The brazen nature of the alleged murder sparked an outcry against police brutality and government inaction. That’s why Wizkid called out President Buhari on Twitter.

“They just victimise you,” Wizkid says of the rogue police unit. “They stop you on the road and if you don’t have ID, you’re getting thrown into a bus. You’re getting arrested, you’re getting beaten, you’re getting extorted — like, why? For what reason? Before I became a star, I went through all those things at the hands of the police. I had situations when the police arrested me. It’s crazy for me that things like that happen.”

North American rappers Diddy and Drake have added their support to the anti-Sars protests, which bear a resemblance to the Black Lives Matter campaign that originated in the US. But Nigerian fears of police violence are not new.

“There have never really been any marches before,” the singer explains. “It’s not because people don’t want to, it’s because we’re scared to. You can lose your life doing that. Because the police back home shoot without any reason. If they see you on the street doing something, you’re definitely getting shot. I’ll continue to speak out as much as I can. I want the world to understand what’s going on.”

Wizkid on stage at the Ends festival in London, 2019 © WireImage

Wizkid is hugely famous in Nigeria — his first album, released in 2011, was presciently titled Superstar — while his celebrity also reaches abroad. He is a leading figure in Afrobeats, the music genre that has brought west African pop to the European and US charts. In 2016 he featured on Drake’s huge hit single “One Dance”. Last year, he appeared with Beyoncé on her Afro-centric album, The Lion King: The Gift.

The name “Afrobeats” derives from an earlier musical movement called Afrobeat, invented in the 1960s by the great Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. The original Afrobeat fused genres such as Ghanaian highlife with US jazz and funk. Its pluralised sequel, Afrobeats, emerged in the 2000s. More commercially driven than Fela’s hybridised scene of more than 50 years ago, it unites modern west African pop with hip-hop, R&B, reggae and dancehall.

Afrobeats has fuelled a boom in Nigerian music. It is part of a broader pattern of cultural success. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s film industry, Nollywood, employed more than 1m people and generated almost $2bn annually. “We’re just scratching the surface,” Wizkid said during his television appearance on independence day. But the thriving state of the entertainment industry, in his view, stands in dismal contrast to the lack of opportunity elsewhere for young Nigerians.

“I have cousins who have finished university who have no jobs. They work for me now,” the singer says. “With master degrees, they have no jobs. It’s 2020 and we don’t have 24-hour electricity in Nigeria. This is a country that’s supposed to be the giant of Africa.”

He gives a rueful laugh. “Nigeria is one big ghetto, regardless of how people will paint it to you. The government is so shit. But the most amazing thing about Nigeria, which I love it for, which I’d put my blood on the line for, is its amazing people.”

Mural of Wizkid in Ojuelegba, Lagos © AFP via Getty Images

Made in Lagos is his fourth album. Its songs have an easy, well-balanced feel, the act of a performer who knows what direction he wants to take. “The album is the reflection of a child that was born and raised in Lagos, who’s gone through the craziest hardship to get to where he’s at,” he says. “It’s my story of me getting here.”

He prefers not to specify exactly what the hardship was. “I don’t think I can summarise in a few words to make you understand it. It’s too much. It’s tough. It’s like every other hardship that an African child would go through back home. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had to hustle for every little bit of what I have today.”

I’m never going to go in a studio and record a song about my government, that’s a waste of a session

His family home was in Surulere, a large district in the sprawling megacity that is Lagos. He grew up in a mixed-faith household with seven sisters. As a child, he went to the mosque with his Muslim father, then he went to church with his Christian mother and sisters. As he got older, he was told to pick a faith. Church won out: he had more friends there. It was also where he began singing. “From when I touched the mike, I knew exactly what I was here for,” he says.

The original Afrobeat movement, the one launched by Fela Kuti in the 1960s, also knew exactly what it was here for. An intensely political performer, Fela believed that music was an insurrectionary force. In 1984, he was jailed by Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, who at the time was the unelected head of state following a military coup.

Afrobeats has no equivalent sense of a political role. It is primarily designed for having a good time and spreading positivity. “I want to put a little bit of happiness into the world with my music,” Wizkid explains.

Wizkid photographed for the FT by Omar Khaleel

Despite his participation in the anti-Sars protests, he expresses scorn about the idea of writing a protest song. “I’m never going to go in a studio and record a song about my government, that’s a waste of a session. Fela did that so many times. Fela insulted the same president who’s back here now, ruling the country again.” He raps the mixing desk with his knuckles. “There’s no affecting that.”

Or is there? At the weekend, the Nigerian government bowed to public pressure and disbanded the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. “Next election we show real power,” a jubilant Wizkid tweeted in response. Time will tell — but for now Fela Kuti’s sense of mission has resurfaced in the new generation of Afrobeats stars.

‘Made in Lagos’ (Starboy/RCA Records/Sony Music International) is out on October 22

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