by Wilfred Okiche
To watch the video of Wizkid’s epoch-making performance to a sold out, racially diverse audience at London’s 5,272 capacity Royal Albert Hall is to be proud of the twenty-seven-year-old. Long in the habit of making Nigerians proud – the Billboard number one, the bromance with Chris Brown, the international awards, – or green with envy if you are a frenemy named Davido – the night of 29, September was a huge moment, maybe an important one, and existed to reintroduce the artiste born, Ayodeji Balogun to the world, as a bonafide superstar. In every ramification.
Wizkid had claimed this superstar title as far back as 2010, as a nineteen-year-old, putting out his debut mainstream record and back home, this has always been the unimpeachable truth. The kid’s got that X-factor. But having marketed his wares beyond the shores of Nigeria, by signing an international recording deal, putting out new vistas seeking, if loudly unoriginal mixtape, Sounds From the Other Side, the Royal Albert sessions was a sound move, and a pivotal one too. Especially as he seeks to escape from the uncomfortable shadows where he was starting to be dismissed as ‘’that exotic guy who sang back up on Drake’s One Dance,’’ 2016’s biggest hit.
A top-flight artiste for the last half decade and then some, Wizkid has always been a confident performer, as his vocals alone on a track can, in many cases, be the one element that ensures the single gets a second listen from music’s gatekeepers, thus deciding its eventual direction. Explosive on audio – a verse from Wizkid is enough to take a song from obscure to mainstream – and on video – his lovable boyish good looks on the Hola at Your Boy visuals cemented his popular appeal, his one major weakness had always been his live performances.
And who can blame him? Wizkid comes from the second generation of contemporary Nigerian music, a culture where dedication to stagecraft comes second to churning out hit singles, booking multi-night events and signing endorsement deals. He has done his fair share of all that.
Having a discography as massive as Wizkid does, with virtually every song an inescapable anthem across this side of the continent, it has been easy for Wizkid to get redundant when it comes to his relationship with live audiences. There have been performances in Lagos, where he adopts auto-pilot mode on stage while egging on hordes of screaming fans to help him cheat through his performances.
This wasn’t the Wizkid that showed up at Royal Albert Hall. Indeed it would have been suicidal on his part to take lightly, the biggest chance so far, to announce contemporary Nigerian music (Read: Afrobeats) to a world audience. A storied venue which has hosted music royalty; from Stevie wonder to the Spice Girls, Dame Shirley Bassey to Adele, and a date with history is not one to be taken lightly.
Only a few performers would even think of passing up such an opportunity. In September 2006, American rapper- and then rumoured boyfriend to Beyonce – JAY-Z was lured from retirement, albeit one of the worst in music history, to headline the Hall’s first hip-hop concert. Eleven years later and a similar honour was extended to Wizkid to headline the first Afrobeats concert via the hall’s Albert sessions. Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves and Swedish folk duo, First Aid Kit have headlined previous editions of the Albert sessions.
There was some controversy.
Showing a limited history of African music, spokespersons of the Royal Alberts Hall, on Twitter, in excitement, falsely heralded Wizkid as the first African artiste to perform a sold-out show at the Hall. A claim that did not hold up to scrutiny as further interrogation revealed that Sade, the British Nigerian singer and her band sold out Royal Albert Hall back in 1993. South African Grammy-winning choral group, Lady Smith Black Mambazo recorded their first live album to a sold-out audience at the Hall and the late icon, Miriam Makeba was a fixture at the Hall, back in the sixties.
Then the big one, as far as Nigerian Twitter was concerned, sparking debates and trending hashtags for days. Overeager fans, unaware of their history, but excited by Wizkid’s moment in the sun, declared his artistry greater than the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Comparing Wizkid to Fela might be going overboard, unnecessary and maybe even disrespectful, but a closer peep into the young man’s career suggests that should present momentum be sustained, Wizkid may indeed be onto something significant. He has leaped beyond his peers in terms of seeking out new audiences and has definitely outdone contemporary Afrobeat/soul pioneers like Asa, Nneka, 2baba Idibia, D’banj and the now unravelling Psquare.
No other Nigerian, living or deceased can make a claim to scoring a Billboard chart-topper – albeit in a supporting role – in a whopping 15 countries including in the United States where One Dance was number one for a total of ten non-consecutive weeks. Wizkid has three Billboard Music awards, two BET trophies, two MOBO awards, two iHeartRadio Music awards and one MTV Music Europe trophy.
His forebearers and contemporaries have also seen success in these awards but mostly limited to the African categories. Thanks to One Dance, Wizkid has enjoyed more mainstream support.
Holla at your boy
Born in 1990, Wizkid started out, as a great many singers have, in the church choir. He began recording music, with the support of his parents at age 11 and released a collaborative album with some church members. The record, and the group, Glorious Five, went nowhere fast. So did a later reinvention as part of the duo, SL. Up until 2006, Wizkid went by the moniker, Lil Prinz.
His interfaith upbringing in Surulere, a popular suburb of Lagos, served as fertile ground for Wizkid’s dreams, and he had very big ones. He would visit Point Beat studios in Gbaja, the iconic studio owned by the late OJB Jezreel where 2baba Idibia recorded his seminal Face 2 Face album and hung out in studio sessions with Sound Sultan, Jazzman Olofin and Naeto C.
In his crossover hit Ojuelegba that plays as both autobiography and ode to the streets that formed him, Wizkid recalled paying his dues in the studio owned by producer, Mo’Dogg. He would also visit his Surulere haunting grounds for the joyful, escapist video to his 2014 hit song, Show Me the Money.
The broad strokes of Wizkid’s rapid ascension from studio rat to lovable hitmaker have been documented severally. It goes something like this. Rapper M.I., then shopping his debut album, requested Wizkid’s vocal services for a single, Fast money fast cars. Wizkid promptly seized the show from M.I., a move that would later become a recurring decimal his entire career. It was the first contact many Nigerians had with the boy wonder. Banky W, a wave-making R&B singer and entrepreneur who had set up his own record label, Empire Mates Entertainment (EME) alongside businessman Segun Demuren, heard the sound and was hooked.
The lore is that at an after party of an event, where Wizkid was scheduled to perform at, on M.I.’s invitation, he met Banky W who had apparently been looking to work with him. They instantly clicked and by 2009, Wizkid was a full-fledged member of Team EME.
EME launched Wizkid as a clean-cut, fresh-faced kid and in his debut record for the label, Holla at your boy which became an instant monster, the nineteen-year-old was non-threatening and all pubescent innocence. In the music video, set in an elite private school, and directed by Patrick Ellis, Wizkid was flirty and carefree as he hung out with the boys and seduced the class beauty. Somewhere else, his teacher, a nubile lass had her own designs on him and they were far from innocent.
The light-hearted touch of the video overwhelmed the potentially troublesome element – teacher taking advantage of student – and Wizkid got away without any accusations or outrage. He would get away with a lot more stuff. It helped that audiences knew he was at least nineteen years old but that did not stop conservative fans used to the squeaky-clean image from Holla at your boy – this was before the blond hair, before the tattoos and the expletive-laden rants on Twitter and Instagram – from protesting a year later, the video for his freestyle hit, Tease Me.
Directed by Kemi Adetiba (The Wedding Party), the visuals for Tease Me – Wizkid getting a lap dance in an adult club, Wizkid watching as a stripper works the pole and then touches her colleague – set up as his initiation into adulthood – was considered scandalous at the time. But it wasn’t done without strategy, Wizkid needed to shed the small boy image he had adopted for the promotion of Holla at your boy and Tease Me presented an interesting opportunity to make it happen. Wizkid’s audience was forced to grow up with him and baby mama scandals soon made it clear that the boy was now a man.
Hotly anticipated due to wildfire promotional singles like Don’t Dull and Holla at your boy, the Wizkid debut album, Superstar arrived on 12, June 2011 with an album launch concert at the Eko Hotel’s Expo Centre. All of Wizkid’s superstar friends were present (Olamide, Ice Prince, Wande Coal) but the night’s emotional moment was Wizkid performing Love My Baby, off the album, to his mother, present at the venue.
It became industry truth soon enough. No one could sing a hook like Wizkid and no one could fast-track a song to hitsville better than Wizkid. Prolific and consistent, Wizkid morphed into EME’s most bankable artiste, easily outperforming everyone including Banky W. Wizkid assisted acts such as Lynxxx, Seyi Shay and Saeon in scoring much-needed hits for themselves and went the extra mile on Empire Mates State of Mind, the compilation album from EME All Stars in 2012.
By this time there were rumblings in House EME and the business relationship with Banky W was starting to crack. At the time Wizkid’s much delayed second album, Ayo (Joy), landed, there was no pretending anymore and Wizkid announced the album as his last with EME.
Meanwhile, he had commenced his own Starboy entertainment and had snapped up regular collaborators Legendury Beatz, Maleek Berry and L.A.X., partnerships with Mr Eazi and Ghanaians Efya and R2bees followed in 2016.
With Starboy, Wizkid may have set his sights on the international market, but he is still firmly rooted back home where he makes out time to show up for industry events like the Headies or engage in beefs with arch-rival, Davido, media queen, Linda Ikeji, and even former allies like Skales and Samklef. None of these altercations have dented his career in any way as it continues to grow from strength to strength.
All the world is a stage
Critical reception to Ayo was not as favourable as his first album but the record managed a listing abroad in Rolling Stone’s ‘’15 great albums you didn’t hear in 2014.’’ Wizkid scored with the Legendary Beatz produced Ojuelegba, described by Fader magazine in a year-end best list of 2015 as ‘’a graceful slice of rhythm that does not need cultural translation.’’
Ojuelegba made the trip to the United Kingdom, like D’Banj’s Oliver Twist prior and UK grime rapper Skepta, as well as US/Canadian superstar, Drake were soon hopping on the beat to the official remix. In the West, Wizkid established himself as a collaborator and leveraged on kinships with Skepta, Wale and Tinnie Tempah (with whom he recorded the duet Mamacita), to land recording time with Chris Brown and French Montana. He reunited with Drake for One Dance and even though their relationship isn’t as splendid as it could be, the song was a resounding success. The importance of One Dance is not lost, and Wizkid enjoys credits, but his home-brewed fans consider his brief vocal contributions almost negligible
Wizkid’s musical tastes began to expand and these new sonic appetites are accommodated in Sounds from the other side, his latest mixtape released under the banner of Sony Music/RCA. He’s returned the favour and had Drake on his own Come Closer, and recent dancehall single, Daddy Yo (with Efya) reflects this shift in sound. Much of the criticism with the record at home, revolves around Wizkid’s looking outwards instead of inwards while distorting the Afrobeats sound which he does so effortlessly. Instead of Afrobeat, Fuji, or Juju, Wizkid seems to be favouring elements of Caribbean, dancehall and reggae music. Not exactly the exposure compatriots have been looking forward to.
Nigerian music is presently enjoying a renaissance and Wizkid remains at the vanguard of influencers pushing for worldwide recognition. How he uses this newfound power may determine the next phase of contemporary music. It remains to be seen how the world engages Wizkid. Will it be on his own Afrobeat terms, or will he have to keep adjusting his sound till he comes up with something seemingly more exotic?
Whatever he does, or finds himself having to do, it will be on record.
He was here.