WIZKID interview – Evening Standard, 11 Oct 2019

For someone whose Nigerian sound is now in such international demand that he’s currently clocking up more air miles than Santa Claus, Wizkid seems pretty relaxed. He meets me in a Soho recording studio, booked not for making music but because it’s the environment in which he feels most comfortable for interviews. He’s slouched in the swivel chair at the mixing desk, all in brown apart from some bright orange Prada socks and a Louis Vuitton head scarf draped loose over his short hair. He’s smoking a blunt – that’s cannabis inside a cigar paper, wholesome readers – the size of a Mars bar. He’s also brought along his own photographer to document this momentous meeting of minds.

The 29-year-old, real name Ayodeji Balogun, has come to London after three weeks of recording in Jamaica with reggae and dancehall stars including Chronixx and Buju Banton. Then it’s up to Birmingham for BBC Radio 1Xtra Live, for a headline performance which will end up being cancelled after an incident backstage culminates in Croydon rapper Krept being slashed with a knife. He doesn’t comment on the episode, which happens a few days after we meet, other than to tweet heart and prayer emojis in response to an update from Krept.

Then he heads to Australia, where he’s about to lead 1Dance Africa, the country’s first ever showcase for afrobeats – the musical genre he is exporting with great success – alongside his countrywoman Yemi Alade and Tanzania’s Harmonize. And he’ll be back in London next weekend for Starboy Fest, his second headline show at the O2 Arena with seven homegrown support acts including Ms Banks, Afro B and Maleek Berry.

Phew. “I didn’t start making music to be an African star. I always wanted to be a worldwide musician,” he tells me in an accent that sounds as much American as Nigerian. “Music is a universal language. I always felt there is no soul that would listen to afrobeats and not fall in love with it – only if you don’t love music, and I don’t know any human being that doesn’t love music.”

Afrobeats – sometimes called afropop – is a distant descendent of the jazzy, energetic afrobeat (with no S) sound that Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti took to a global audience in the Seventies. Lively and electronic, it’s characterised by melodic, heavily Auto-Tuned vocals and dance rhythms. “I always make everything a vibe. That’s what Wizkid does,” he says (yes, he’s a third-person-referrer). “Every time you listen to a Wizkid record you want to dance. It’s the African groove, man.”

British acts of west African descent have been filling the charts with it for a while now – there’s J Hus, Fuse ODG, Not3s and MoStack, for starters. Meanwhile other Nigerian stars including Davido, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi are becoming international successes. But it’s Wizkid who has had his name on the biggest example of the genre’s appeal so far: Drake’s One Dance, which almost toppled Bryan Adams’s longstanding UK singles chart record when it spent 15 weeks at number one in 2016.

In truth, his voice is way off in the background on that song, with Drake’s relaxed verses and Kyla’s sweet chorus dominating, but sharing top billing on the credits definitely helped his recognition factor. In any case the cross-pollination ball was already rolling a year before One Dance, when Drake and Skepta added new verses to a remix of Ojuelegba, a track named after a Lagos suburb from Wizkid’s second album, Ayo. In 2017 his third album, Sounds From the Other Side, contained another guest spot from Drake, on Come Closer, as well as featuring big-selling Americans Ty Dolla Sign, Trey Songz and Chris Brown.

Wizkid dismisses any suggestion that he’s been making calculated moves to convert American audiences. “It just happens, man. I never plan stuff. I’m the worst guy to plan with. But everything has been a part of the journey. It’s all a plus, man.”

He even expresses surprise to have been a part of another huge moment for African culture reaching a new audience. Beyonce’s soundtrack to Disney’s The Lion King, released in July, united America (Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar) and Africa (Shatta Wale, Moonchild Sanelly, Tekno, Mr Eazi) on one eclectic album. Wizkid found himself duetting with Beyonce’s and Jay-Z’s seven-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, on the cute ballad Brown Skin Girl.  He heard the song in an early incarnation made by its London-based producer, P2J, and asked to record it, but was told Beyonce had already called dibs. Later he got the invitation to be on it after all. “I already performed with Beyonce at a show in South Africa. She’s cool, she’s amazing. Of course it’s a big deal to be on her album.”

Wizkid says he always had the confidence to do something big with music, even as a churchgoing, grammar school-educated kid in Lagos. When did he first make something he thought was really good? “From the first time, man. I started a group in church, rapping and singing. We used to make remixes of all the big popular songs and turn them into gospel music. We took a [50 Cent’s rap group] G-Unit record and made it about Jesus! We got a little fame in church, recorded a little EP.”

Now he’s in much bigger demand. He’s making clothing under his Starboy brand. “We make everything: underwear, socks, hats… Shoes are the only thing I haven’t made yet but I’m working on a big collaboration that I can’t reveal right now.” The modelling agency Storm recently signed him up too. “I see an ugly boy every time I wake up! But they feel I have an appealing face for the people.”

Then there’s the matter of his fourth album, which has had a title for a while – Made in Lagos – but nothing so concrete as a release date or a fixed tracklist. He says he was going to release it on the day we meet, which happens to be Nigerian Independence Day, but settled for dropping a smooth new single, Joro, instead. His trip to Jamaica made him rethink the album’s contents again. “I made some amazing music out there, so now I have more to pick from. It’s too much stuff. Imagine picking, like, 12 or 13 songs from two thousand.” Two thousand? Really? “Yes really. I record every day. I go in the studio and I’m there to create something that’s never been heard before. That’s what I try to do.”

I ask if the album will come out this year and he pauses for probably the only time in our conversation. “…We’ll see,” he says, but he does offer a few clues about its contents. “I got some guests on it – Skepta, Damian Marley, Burna Boy. I’m in a great place in life in general, so it’s a positive album, a good vibe album. You can play it A to Z and feel good about it.”

It should be enough to seal his status, not as a huge African artist, but as a huge artist full stop. Just ask Beyonce. “For her, one of the biggest artists in the world, to make an Africa-inspired album, it shows how big the music and culture has grown,” he says. “It can only get bigger, right?”

Oct 19, O2 Arena, SE10 (the02.co.uk)

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