Profile: Has Wizkid gotten too big for the music hustle?

Wizkid

On the night of Saturday 14, April, the Texas born diva, recognized by one name only, Beyoncé, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, stopped the world with the livestream of her near two hour long celebration of Southern African American culture. Long in the habit of overachieving, whether it be with forward reaching music videos, surprise album rollouts spectacular live performances, Beyoncé managed to top even herself with the sheer sonic range and magnitude of her historic set. She handily repeated this feat the following weekend, albeit with a different color code.

For a festival that favors hippie new age acts and aging rock stars, the significance of Beyoncé’s Coachella headlining act- she is the first black woman to headline the entire shindig- wasn’t lost on anyone. The former Destiny’s Child star made sure of that (‘’Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?’’). Delayed by a year as she embarked on maternity leave, Beyoncé’s Coachella main event was worth the wait, immaculately planned and meticulously rehearsed, down to the inventive switch cues and ‘’surprise’’ guest appearances.

For many Nigerian viewers plugged in to this year’s festival from various spots around the world, watching Beyoncé play is all well and good, but the top draw for them, was the Lagos born superstar starboy, Wizkid, making his own Coachella debut, and on the same stage too as Beyoncé.

Come for Wizkid, African pop royalty, stay for Beyoncé, Queen of everything.

Sadly, this wish failed to materialize. The organizers tweeted apologetically. Due to immigration challenges, Wizkid’s performance would be delayed by a week.

Nigerian social media spiralled into a meltdown.

Since the lineup of performers was made public sometime last year, months in advance, music lovers had been anticipating the moment Wizkid, perhaps the biggest pop star on the African continent presently, would strut his stuff on one of American music’s biggest stages, one that has played host to Madonna, JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar.

As if the no show wasn’t untidy enough, Wizkid’s apparently nonchalant rejoinders on Twitter, blaming visa challenges experienced by members of his band, wasn’t quite as delicately phrased as it could have been. Contrast this response with Beyoncé who made her fans wait an entire year but rewarded the faithful when she arrived loaded with enough firepower to take down a stadium.

Granted Wizkid isn’t American and Coachella may not represent the same thing to him as it does Beyoncé, a black female singer headlining one of the whitest of music landscapes. But Wizkid has something else going for him, the hopes and aspirations of an entire country riding on his successes. Plus Wizkid had promised earlier to bring on a couple of surprise guests during his show. In some ways, the moment was supposed to ripple beyond him, to embrace a wholesome celebration of contemporary afropop. Naija to the world.

It is a lot of one responsibility to place on one person, particularly a twenty-eight-year-old boisterous man-child who probably never asked for any of it in the first place. However, the moment Wizkid made the decision to actively pursue an international career, the stakes were instantly elevated. On this level,the rules aren’t quite the same and an artiste requires a thoroughly professional management team to navigate the scene.

Artistes will always be rascally but the duo of Sunday Are and Jada Pollock- with whom Wizkid reportedly welcomed a third child- have their work cut out in ensuring Wizkid continues to play in the big leagues. Sadly both managers appear to be dropping the ball.

Star Boy

Wizkid is certainly not new to playing in the game.

He became the first Nigerian to top the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart when he joined Drake and Kyla for Billboard’s 2016 song of the summer, One Dance. His crossover single Ojuelegba has been warmly received by everyone from Alicia Keys to Chris Brown, whom Wizkid has also recorded with, and joined on tour. Last year Wizkid made major headlines when he became the first Afrobeats artiste to perform a sold out concert at London’s storied Royal Albert Hall.

Signed to RCA Records/Sony Music International, Wizkid has to be fair, made some attempt at evolution, with his Sounds from the Other Side mixtape seeking out new vistas. His trophy cabinet is bulging with competitive prizes from the Billboard Music, BET, MOBO, iHeartRadio Music and MTV Music Europe awards.

Back home, there isn’t any major award that Wizkid is yet to win. He was named YNaija Person of the Year in 2017, the same year he was the recipient of The Future Awards Africa’s biggest prize, for Young Person of the Year.

Ever since his career survived a potential landmine when he left Banky W’s Empire Mates Entertainment (EME), the label that plucked him out of obscurity and oversaw his rise to national prominence, it has been one success story after the other.

International exposure has elevated Wizkid above his peers and he currently enjoys a cult like status among his devoted fans. But in terms of the commensurate work ethic, Wizkid has not been forthcoming about putting in as good as he’s gotten. And this goes beyond churning out common denominator hit singles with reliable consistency. Almost a decade after his breakout, Wizkid can still be trusted to breathe life into a song and make it an instant hit. Unfortunately that seems to be all he is about at this point in his career.

It is still early days to be worried about legacy- Wizkid isn’t even thirty yet- but like fashion models and athletes, a pop star’s life cycle is incredibly short and sometimes, only calculated innovation and reinvention can guarantee relevance beyond the sell by date. Wizkid makes the hits and sings the hooks but beyond that, what does he do? Can he do more? Should he be doing more?

Hit maker

Hit making is one of the most basic aspects of pop superstardom and anyone worth their status as a top flight entertainer should be able to do that with some measure of consistency. Davido, Wizkid’s biggest rival makes hits just as reliably. Some have argued he makes better songs, even. Tiwa Savage makes hits. Olamide does as well. All of these folks exert major influence on the culture, even beyond their hit songs. But apart from the international factor, what really distinguishes Wizkid from his peers?

It is hard to tell.

Unlike Psquare in their prime, Wizkid does not make great music videos, neither is he a dancer. Matter of fact, Wizkid rarely dictates trends, merely follows them, just like every other unimaginative pop star working today. If the Azonto is the in thing, trust Wizkid to jump on it. Should the tide change to the Shoki, or the Shaku Shaku, surely he will be there to capitalize on the popularity. Wizkid can sing, has a distinct voice, but he isn’t really a singer, not in the pure vocalist sense of the word. His songwriting skills are sadly, practically nonexistent.

Wizkid has his own Starboy Entertainment but so far, the label has not amounted to much beyond a vanity project in service, first and foremost to his career. Little wonder the imprint has not been able to break out a single legitimate star. Not the way that Olamide has done repeatedly with Adekunle Gold and Lil Kesh. Or Davido, with Mayorkun. LAX had a megahit with Caro but he stood no chance really. It was impossible separating the incredibly dominant Wizkid from that song- or any other project both acts worked on- and LAX was condemned to skulking in the shadows. When LAX left Starboy to try his luck elsewhere, no one was surprised.

Creative deals with Mr Eazi and Ghanaian songbird Efya aren’t properly delineated and it is hard to measure the influence of the star boy on their careers. Both acts seem to be doing quite well with or without Wizkid. At his Lagos concert in December, Wizkid made a huge show of signing up Ahmed, a prodigious rapper, but not much has been heard of the investment ever since.

As a performing artiste, Wizkid has simply refused to put in the work. Or he just hasn’t done enough. He came up at a time pop stars were merely required to do the minimum on stage but he has since chosen not to wake up to the reality of his present circumstances. Artistes with hit songs are a dime a dozen and consistent excellent live performances will usually separate the boys from the men. Two recent performances of his- both on home soil- buttress this fact.

After canceling a much-touted homecoming concert in December of 2016, citing health reasons, Wizkid rescheduled a proper solo show a year later. Playing in peak concert period, with everyone from Simi to Falz also debuting solo concerts, Wizkid was still top draw. Dubbed Wizkid The Concert, the sold-out show, held at Eko Hotel’s Convention Centre and packaged by Flytime Promotions, was more reunion party than concert.

The music was good, for a while, as Wizkid put the live band and backup singers to good use. There was some effort on his part to do songs like Manya and Sweet Love the proper way, but when it became obvious the crowd wanted more than he came prepared to give, Wizkid reverted to cheat mode.

Papering his deficiencies, Wizkid began to roll out his long list of guest stars. The Wizkid discography is so large yet so familiar that any song he attempts to perform is usually immediately claimed by the audience. This heightened level of fandom is a heightened level of privilege but as Beyoncé showed at Coachella, it should be no excuse for redundancy.

At the concert, it was obvious Wizkid’s guests came primarily to support him physically as everyone from 2Baba to Tiwa Savage put on half-hearted showings. If the man of the moment couldn’t be bothered to work on his craft, why should the guests even attempt to outpace him? At that point anyone who made even the slightest effort would have done so easily. Wizkid was so basic, it was hard to believe he had a whole year to plan.

Months later at the Gidi Culture Festival, Wizkid was announced headliner, naturally. Gidi Fest suffered serious technical issues and was delayed up until the wee hours of the next day. By the time Wizkid came to the stage for the show’s final act, it was all he could do to get the crowd pumped. Wizkid was supposed to be the climax of a very long day but the night had already peaked, with far superior performances coming in from 2Baba, Adekunle Gold and even DJ Spinall.

The funny thing is, at Gidi Culture Festival, Wizkid could still have made it worthwhile for the audience if he genuinely had it in him. Because of the crippling sound issues, every act that came up on stage virtually had to start from scratch to hype the crowd. That way, good performers were separated from the pretenders.

Brymo proved his mettle, zipping confidently from his late career material, to earlier Chocolate City favorites, Ara and Good Morning. 2Baba was a master of control and stage craft with his irrepressible set. Even Tay Iwar, with his less than crowd pleasing songs, was an electrifying presence. Despite his headliner status, outsize following and endless bag of hits at his disposal, Wizkid was merely a pretender.

Sounds from the other side

For his first international body of work, Wizkid chose- perhaps bending to label demands- to downplay the Afrobeats origins that made him famous, while embracing a more distant, if familiar Caribbean sound. The disc was a strange hybrid, with the content not quite familiar with his home crowd, yet not quite as exotic or interesting enough for foreign audiences. Even though Sounds from the Other Side was backed by a Sony push, and reviews were more or less decent, sales were not. Notes gleaned from Chart Data, a music statistics company put first week sales of Sounds from the Other Side at a meagre 6,286 units in the US.

After a long spell overseas, Wizkid once again turned his attention inwards come 2017. The aborted D’Banj-Kanye West romance- and before that, foiled crossover attempts by King Sunny Ade and Majek Fashek- had underscored the importance of keeping the home audience engaged. Every act signing foreign management or distribution deals had learned to apply wisdom in carrying along the home crowd.

Apart from Ma Lo, the Spellz produced duet with Tiwa Savage, the quality of Wizkid’s output paled in comparison with his earlier stuff. As industry watchers reckoned, Wizkid had turned his Nigerian audience to some sort of dumping ground for songs not considered up to scratch by his foreign handlers. MUT4Y, one half of Legendury Beatz, the twins responsible for Wizkid’s Ojuelegba came to the rescue late last year with Manya, a groovy if unimaginative interpretation of Ghanaian group, VIP‘s 2005 monster hit, Ahomka Womu.

In 2018, Wizkid has assisted DJ Spinall on Nowo and joined the current Starboy line up including Ceeza MilliSpotless and Terri for the middling Soco. Despite receiving featured artiste credits, Wizkid has been the throbbing center of all of these songs. All have been quick hits. None is likely to be hot about a year from now.

A disturbing history

Social media has bridged the gap between celebrities and their target audience, and just like Donald Trump, Wizkid has taken advantage of the medium to relate directly with his fans. Instead of relying on publicists and press release cycles, Wizkid makes use of his Twitter and Instagram to put out information feeds in real time.

Engaging with the fans directly, as opposed to doing interviews with major media outlets- although he does that as well- can be an effective method of seizing and retaining control of the narrative. The challenge with social media is that they are channels better run by professionals. If not handled with a certain amount of care, engagements can come off as indecorous.

A lot of the anger directed at Wizkid for his first weekend Coachella no show isn’t simply because he missed one event, visa setbacks are after all part of the downsides of travelling with a Nigerian passport. The ire is mostly because a disturbing pattern has begun to emerge, casting doubts upon Wizkid’s readiness to play in the big leagues as well as on the quality of the management that he is getting. By the time he failed to show up as advertised the following weekend, this time without even the courtesy of a decent explanation, the cycle was complete.

Despite scoring the biggest hit of his career, Wizkid failed to appear in the video for Drake’s One Dance. He allowed the speculation mill go into overdrive for months before coming out with a blasé excuse while promoting his own Come Closer. When the video landed, and Drake returned the gesture, Wizkid claimed, on Twitter, in response to a query, that he had a family emergency during the One Dance shoot, while Drake was on tour during the Come Closer shoot. ‘’No bad blood’’ he affirmed.

Wizkid cited health concerns for cancelling his December 2016 homecoming concert as well as other shows in Uganda but was soon hitting the stage for a surprise performance at the annual Rhythm Unplugged event. Earlier the same year, he was removed from the performers list at the Wireless Music Festival in London. The organizers blamed visa issues and Wizkid issued an apology on social media.

Last year, he failed to show up for the much hyped Made in America concert put together by JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. Wizkid was supposed to appear alongside Tiwa Savage and Maleek Berry, but claimed health concerns as he also moved other dates on his touring schedule. An unimpressed Obi Asika, whose Cabal Entertainment midwifed the deal with Roc Nation had this to say, “Roc Nation actually put Wizkid on ‘Made in America’ this year and we were pretty upset he didn’t show up, which is bad for him. These are opportunities that are given to people.’’

Presently at the red hot stage of his career, Wizkid isn’t running short of opportunities to earn a living. His talent is true, charisma sure, but it is also important that he does not under emphasize the importance of strategically seizing all the goodies coming his way. Trolling naysayers on social media and unfurling misogyny in misguided spats with bloggers may win him fans who love authenticity in their idols but it isn’t unusual to hear concerned management professionals wish for his sake, that his energies were directed elsewhere.

‘’My music travel no visa’’

Wizkid’s reason- visa issues for his team members- for moving his Coachella slot is valid, but ultimately not convincing enough. International travel, as every Nigerian who has ever had the experience of travelling abroad is fraught with pesky hurdles and every single attempt is different than the last. The world’s borders are closing, President Trump wants to build a wall and no country wants to put a strain on resources budgeted for citizens. Embassies and consulate offices are capable of ruining the best laid plans with arbitrary visa denials and this debacle should be enough to generate conversations on several platforms on visa and immigration processes.

At the same time, it is embarrassingly basic that a star as recognizable as Wizkid keeps pointing to these same hurdles as challenges every single time. When he missed both ceremonies celebrating the union of his former label boss, Banky W with actress Adesua Etomi in both Lagos and South Africa, Wizkid claimed he was waiting on his passport. At some point someone is going to have to take responsibility for their (in)actions.

Wizkid’s inadequacy at seizing all of the huge opportunities that come his way might be chalked down to the very Nigerian character flaw of avoiding excellence. But Coachella is a teachable moment if ever there was one. If the biggest star in the world with almost nothing left to prove, submits herself to a reported eleven hour day rehearsals, all for a two hour show, what excuse should be good enough for a young man still looking to break into new markets?

A consummate performer like Beyoncé arrives once in a lifetime and no one is expecting Wizkid to measure up in any dimension. But he does owe it to himself, and to his fans, and to his peers, to be the best version of himself that he can be, and to make the most out of his time in the spotlight. Aspiring to this level of artistry isn’t a walk in the park, doesn’t happen by chance. It takes time, effort and discipline.

It is high time Wizkid began to show some.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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