The Music Blog: About Yemi Alade’s strategic reinventions and the pop star pitfall

In the summer of 2013, Effyzzie Records released a low-budget video for Yemi Alade’s global hit single, “Johnny” off her King of Queens debut album. The single marked the beginning of Yemi Alade’s Ankara era, her second reinvention since the singer debuted “Ghen Ghen” love with the label. Before this, Yemi Alade attempted a false start with Just Kiddin’ records, her first official record contract, post winning the maiden edition of Peak Talent Show, in 2009.

Yemi Alade’s first trial with Effyzzie records came with “Ghen Ghen Love”, a vocally powered R&B-pop song where the singer embodied both Beyonce’s dauntless candour and Rihanna’s intrepid Good Girl Gone Bad era. Shifts in the industry at the time thanks to the successes of Omawunmi, Tiwa Savage, Waje etc already indicated the becoming of Afropop into its own authentic African genre. So when the Effyzzie tried another vintage visual twist with R&B ballad, “Bamboo” to the same mid-level reaction that came with her label debut, they knew it was time to work another angle. This is how Yemi Alade became the marker for “African” woman superstar, who rocked Ankara prints and made music with the same cadence as her freestyle inclining male counterparts—a detail cheekily reflected in the title of her 2014 debut album, King of Queens.

Noting the widespread success with the new branding of an everyday African girl who seemingly also happened to be a great singer and performer within the continent, allowed Effyzzie to experiment. The result has been a slew of French and Swahili reworks of her hit singles to covet markets outside of Nigeria and West Africa, immersing the rest of the continent in a genre that is also simultaneously slowly gaining global appeal. Yemi Alade became the instant poster girl for what it meant to be an African pop star. The brand steadied and soon Effyzzie was pre-packing Yemi Alade for another album.

This time around Yemi Alade had to become Mama Africa, a prematurely assigned self-proclaimed title still used to reference South African activist and philanthropist, Mariam Makeba. The recourse the label gave for the initial negative feedback that came with a rejoinder that retitled the album as Mama Africa: Diary of an African Woman. Yemi Alade has been busy in the months since the album dropped last year. After a comprehensive tour of Europe, the singer released Mama Afrique, a 10-track EP featuring 4 new singles and alternate versions of the lead singles off Mama Africa for Francophone, Anglophone and Kiswahili speaking markets.

Last week, Yemi Alade debuted the proposed art and title of her upcoming album to be titled ‘Black Magic’. Along with the hashtag worthy album title, the art itself is unassuming. Half of Yemi Alade’s face and shoulders marked with tribal patterns is faded into the dark on a black-ish background with more tribal prints. Clearly, another Yemi Alade reinvention is underway, however, this time the label seems to be pushing towards sustaining the African factor while exploring an outward-facing universal speak.

On the surface, this looks like a positive expansion for Yemi Alade. Capitalising on her place in African urban culture to purport positive ideals for being black in today’s racially tense world is a good look on her resume. However, the problem with Yemi Alade’s serial reinventions has never been the lack of a noble intent. It is the fact that Yemi Alade and Effyzzie records seem to be following the same formula American labels use to create pop stars.

Pop music all over the world is bent on making the best of whatever will work; from vaguely appealing to our personal sentiments to blending the best ideas from the mainstream for hit singles. This is in part why labels spend millions of dollars to establish superstar brands, because otherwise there would be no way for an artist to stand out if they only make music like every other artist on the radio. For Yemi Alade, despite a series of successful brand revamps and tweaks, the disparity between the content of her music and its marketing always leaves a void, a literal emptiness that dampens her post-release staying power beyond a few months on the charts.

The gimmick of Yemi Alade’s Black Magic, for example, is revealed when a closer look at the new album art gleans a mish-mash of tribal designs. The prints on Yemi Alade’s skin are presumably African by concept, however, they are detailed with Aztec influences, an art style that should have no business on an album by a proposed African woman, embracing all that is black and authentic. You can already imagine a board room meeting with a graphic designer who was a given a one statement job description: “Still make it look African, but don’t use ankara this time”.

Branding is like fashion, eventually it goes out of style. Yemi Alade’s many reinventions may strengthen her label and short term artistry, but it puts her career at a long term risk of not leaving any impact on the culture she is currently dominating.

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