Yemi Alade is one of the biggest pop stars working today. No major show in the country, or this side of the continent happens without her name on the bill. The top tier of the music industry is male dominated but Yemi Alade has successfully broken into the big leagues and has earned herself a seat on the table, right next to the big boys.
For the millennial generation of chart toppers, there is Wizkid, Davido and there is Yemi Alade. Pop concert organisers at the point of drawing up their line-up of performers for their shows usually consider Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage and whoever else is available when the discussion invariably turns to the female side of the divide.
As popular on the continent as she is in her home country, Yemi Alade is currently as big as big gets. Ever since her 2013 star making turn, thanks to the iconic single, Johnny, Alade’s career- and life,- has never been quite the same.
She has had two successful studio albums, 2014’s King of Queens and Mama Africa: Diary of an African Woman which arrived last year. Numerous hit singles have followed, although none quite on the same league as Johnny, with its 60 million plus views on Youtube. A gig co-hosting the MTV Music Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), back to back Best Female Artiste wins at the MAMAs, instant brand recognition across West, South and Eastern Africa, plus a spot alongside Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson on the Shell #MakeTheFuture campaign single, Best Day of My Life.
But for all of her success, Yemi Alade still struggles to elicit critical respect among her compatriots. There exists a wave of anti-Yemi Alade sentiment that rears its head whenever she puts out another sure fire hit or rocks yet another high profile stage. At the opening ceremony of the Big Brother Nigeria television event this year, Alade, who performed alongside Flavour and K9 bore the brunt of the Twitter audience barbs. She was essentially criticised for everything from her lip syncing to her dance steps and inane lyrics. Flavour, whose strategy to pop stardom mirrors Alade’s was mostly let off the hook.
Earlier in the year, at the Glo/CAF awards, Alade’s mobile stage artistry was immediately compared to that of singer Omawumi who sang with a live band and wowed the crowd with a competent, no frills performance. No guesses who came out winner of the contest. Certainly not Alade.
It is certainly an interesting position that Yemi Alade finds herself today, as widely criticised in some quarters as she is vilified in others. Only two years ago, coasting on the phenomenal success of Johnny, Yemi Alade was a national sweetheart.
To trace the evolution of Alade’s career and to fully comprehend the nature of her love/hate relationship with her audience would be to start at the beginning, prior to the fame, before the hit singles and the continent conquering matron.
‘’Yoruba Igbo girl’’
On 13, March 1989 in Abia state, the Alade family comprising a police officer father from Ondo state and his Igbo wife welcomed their fifth baby, a girl whom they named Yemi Eberechukwu. The couple would eventually have two more children. Yemi Alade schooled in Lagos and earned a degree in Geography from the University of Lagos. Her father passed away in 2015.
She fell in love with music as a kid, singing in the choir while listening to the greats. Etta James, Whitney Houston, Yemi Alade, even Beyonce. At some point, Yemi Alade wanted to be all of them at once. One of her earlier attempts at singing was fronting a girl group called Noty Spices and her moniker at the time was Ginger, as in Ginger Spice.
A former classmate of Alade’s at the University of Lagos recalls visiting the singer’s room in school following her win at the inaugural Peak Talent Show in 2009 and listening to her talk passionately about starting out a career in music. She had a plan back then. She would save enough money from her earnings, and with some help from her mother, get Don Jazzy to make her a banging beat. With that, she was going to blow. She was so sure.
The Peak Talent Show is one of the string of talent hunt reality shows that corporate bodies fell out of their way to participate in back in the early oughties. Not quite as classy as the likes of the Globacom sponsored Naija Sings or as splashy as the sole season of Idols West Africa, the Peak Talent Show, with its lower profile and inability to mint superstars by the numbers will probably be remembered only as that reality show which Yemi Alade won. Still back then, she needed it desperately and Alade credits the show with completely transforming her life.
Winning a one million Naira contract wasn’t all it was hyped up to be as Yemi Alade soon found out and she applied herself to the tasking schedule that all up and coming performers must, performing (sometimes for free) at random shows, recording music, throwing new singles out and hoping one of them sticks.
She signed to Jus’ Kiddin’ Entertainment and her first single Fimisile featuring rapper eLDee was released to a market space that did not much care for it, nor anything else that she put out after. She languished in industry purgatory for a while before pitching her tent with Effyzzie music group, an untested entity managed by Taiye Aliyu.
Aliyu and his small team at first did not know what to make of Yemi Alade. Even Yemi Alade at that point did not know what to make of Yemi Alade. She had a powerful voice, good looks, boundless energy, and a burning determination to succeed, but all of that put together, never did a superstar make. She needed to bring it via the music.
Her first major attempt at relevance was the OJB Jezreel produced Ghen Ghen Love in 2012. The video for Ghen Ghen Love is memorable only because it is so laughably kitsch. Yemi Alade struts into view in a white tank top, jean bum shots, fake weave and high heels, the obvious inspiration being Beyonce’s iconic video for Crazy in Love, the lead single for her debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. Alade then begins to contort her body and adopt different sexy poses, all in a desperate bid to entertain.
Ghen Ghen Love did not actually scream quality, but it got Yemi Alade the right notices and she and her team seized on this attention and put in more work. Subsequent singles like Bamboo, Birthday Song and My Head followed in quick succession.
But Yemi Alade did not just drop these songs and sit back, she actively promoted them on and offline. She embarked on a nationwide media tour and on the last stop in Enugu, Alade met a budding young producer named Selebobo. They decided to record music together and their union was the time bomb that exploded and changed the course of both their careers.
By the time she released Johnny, Yemi Alade was building a reputation as a reliable stage performer who attacked every performance with boundless energy. Johnny became that magical moment that every popstar wannabe prays for and only few ever get. Alade performed it with relish. She opened the 2013 Headies with a scintillating performance that made all that came after her appear basic and she was on Funmi Iyanda’s annual Change a Life television programme spreading her message.
At the 2015 The Future Awards Africa (TFAA) event held at the Intercontinental Hotel Lagos, Yem iAlade shut the show down with a closing performance that remains part of TFAA lore. Of course she performed Johnny.
It is easy to see why Johnny became as big as it did even though at the time of recording, Yemi Alade had no idea it would be such a game changer. The beat is inescapable, instantly infectious and summons straight to the dancefloor. Alade then tells a breezy, relatable story in Pidgin English of the title character, a local Casanova who cannot quite keep his affairs in order and her lamentations find kinship with anyone who has ever fallen in love or had their heart broken.
For the video, Alade ditched Paul Gambit who had directed most of her videos and hired Clarence Peters, demonstrating her readiness to play in the big leagues. Clarence Peters came prepared and in one of his better outings, cut a wonderfully colourful video peopled by guest appearances from comedian Bovi, actor Alexx Ekubo and vixen, Beverly Osu.
If an ingénue had been turning up in Yemi Alade’s previous visual work, it was a superstar that showed up in Johnny. Appearing robustly confident, while tastefully showing some skin, Alade danced, shimmied and seduced her way into superstardom. Her moment had come and thanks to years of practice and waiting, she was ready to embrace it.
Yemi Alade worked for five years to become an overnight sensation. She was everywhere, understandably, as everyone wanted a piece of Johnny. Her debut album, King of Queens followed shortly and she went on a massive promotional drive. Away from the continent, Alade cultivated her following in East and West Africa by investing in collaborations with local acts like Diamond Platnumz and cutting a French version of Johnny.
Gradually Alade began to adopt an afrocentric look, keeping her hair natural and making interesting choices in her costumes. Inevitably she began to fancy herself the spiritual descendant of formidable divas like Angelique Kidjo and the late Brenda Fassie. By the time Alade was ready to release her second album, her moulting process was complete and she had taken up another identity yet again, this time as Mama Africa.
The sophomore Yemi Alade album is titled Mama Africa: Diary of an African woman and Alade anticipated its arrival with pictures of herself dressed in full South African attire, complete with over the top plaited hairdo, giant beads and a whole new attitude.
If the content of the album was a bit disappointing in terms of the reflection of the true spirit of Africa, the execution of the campaign was quite successful. Beyond the costumes and the colour, Mama Africa had an impressive sound that was marred only by the lack of depth to the song writing and unwillingness to explore the North of Africa.
In a sound which she has come to describe in the most unoriginal terms as ‘’Afropolitan,’’ Alade adopts influences from Ghana’s Azonto (Kofi Annan), Ivory Coast’s Coupe-decale (Do as I do) and comes back home to deal in Fuji (Kelele) and Afrobeats.
To ensure her crossover bonafides reained intact, Alade dueted with Kenya’s Sauti Sol, Ivory Coast’s DJ Arafat and rapper Sarkodie from Ghana. Sauti Sol’s lead singer Bien-Aimé Baraza even helped Alade out with a Swahili translation of album lead single, Na Gode. The result is a threading of various influences into a cohesive whole, more derivative than original.
One of the biggest criticisms of Mama Africa; the album and the artiste that has stuck is the promotion of crass materialism and the unintelligent manner in which it is done. Alade is hardly the first pop star or fabulous female to sing about wanting all her needs fulfilled by a willing suitor.
Marilyn Monroe it was who famously declared in film that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. The inimitable Dame Shirley Bassey in the classic Bond tune, Diamonds are forever, observed that the precious stones ‘’won’t leave in the night/have no fear that they might desert you’’. And the material girl herself, Madonna, captured this ethos when she declared in her 1984 hit, that we are all living in a material world.
Yemi Alade has seized upon this narrative but has not gone about it with any of the wit or sensibility of her predecessors. Hers is merely a promotion of sexism and commercialism for its own sake. In her world, it is enough for a female to be pretty without bringing anything else to the table while expecting the male folk to do all the spending merely on that account.
Depending on how seriously one takes the otherwise excellent Ferrari,- and some groups have indeed taken it literally,- a hit single from Mama Africa, it sets the whole feminism movement steps back. Powered by serial hitmaker, DJ Coublon,- he of the high strung guitars and intoxicating brew of rock and highlife,- Ferrari’s lyrics are laughably unoriginal. Alade sings, Oga I don tire to stay Mainland/ E no go bad if you buy me mansion for Banana Island/ Open supermarket for me for Netherlands.
Her message on Ferrari is suspect, a full on endorsement of transactional sex and tackily put across too, but good luck resisting the feel good finish of the entire production. A similar vein runs through her earlier work. On King of Queens, she betrays the album’s independent woman theme by cutting tracks as vulgar as I Like in which she chants repeatedly to a paramour, I Like your money/I want your money. She then asks her gentleman lover to buy her the finer things of life and is suitably impressed as he flies her to Paris. It is all done very crudely with no pretensions to class or coyness.
In several interviews since her continental campaign kicked off, Yemi Alade has been quite incapable of putting into context, her reasons for adopting such a broad moniker. She explains it as a harmless tag thrust on her by friends and colleagues back home who have been frustrated and prevented from meeting with her because her schedules are dictated by the crazy demands of touring the continent.
Critics have argued that at 27, Alade has not had the breadth of experiences that qualify her for such a title considering that Miriam Makeba, the late South African diva who embodied the name was an active part, politically and culturally, of her country’s struggle for independence from the evil apartheid regime.
Direct descendants of Makeba like Yvonne Chaka Chaka (South Africa), Angelique Kidjo (Benin) and the late Brenda Fassie (South Africa) spent years documenting the struggles of their people and propagating their culture through song and it seems like some form of rude appropriation for Yemi Alade to visibly make a bid for the title merely on account of commercial crossover appeal.
But that is not all of the criticism that trails Yemi Alade these days. It would all be well if her lyrics at least made some form of sense most of the time. But Alade is a product of her environment, hence when not singing about money or cheating boyfriends, she is content using popular foods as metaphor for her thoughts (Tangerine, Tumbum) and repeating inane sounds till they begin to grate.
Yemi Alade does not care what you think, as long as her formula makes her successful. In a rant filled Snapchat video that went viral sometime late last year, Alade defended her lyrics and urged her ‘’dumb critics’’ to do some research before deigning to criticize her work.
She went the predictable, yet unnecessary route of rubbing her wealth in, claiming to be ‘’smiling to the bank’’ and addressed double standards in industry reportage, urging the critics to go after the male artistes with the same gusto at which they come for the females.
The critics have a point.
From her King of Queens album, Yemi Alade once released a song, Sugar that was as perplexing as it was senseless. The 3:17 seconds song enters its first minute before she utters a full sentence and even then, all she can manage is You want some sugar. The rest is just a cacophony of sounds that merge and fold into the other. In places where she manages better, she goes for minimum effort, words that can be relatable to everyone everywhere. I give you bread tumbum/ She give you butter tumbum she wails on Mama Africa’s Tumbum.
But there is also some truth to her badly presented observation. The music industry like many spheres of life is partial to the guys and the biggest names in the business; from Wizkid to Ice Prince, Psquare to Flavour, even current fave Tekno are all guilty of penning dismal lyrics set to banging beats. They get called out for it of course, but there seems to be a quiet agreement to tolerate their shtick.
If Yemi Alade feels unjustly victimised, it is partly because higher standards have always been expected of females and she is unwilling to go out of her way to do what the boys do not feel compelled to do, especially when her present formula is working for her. But it is also because her peers, females working at her level have raised the bar continuously and Alade has made no attempt to keep up.
Tiwa Savage for instance, is one of the finest songwriters in the business and has a Grammy award nomination (for Fantasia’s Collard Greens & cornbread) to show for it. Even when she is taking her clothes off or slumming it through Don Jazzy’s African Waist, the quality of her song writing manages to shine through. Omawumi and Waje have the big voices, they know how to make hits but no one would ever accuse them of penning watery lyrics. They make the effort. Alade doesn’t.
Yemi Alade also gets knocks because the quality of her live performances, once her obvious selling point, have waned as her bookings have ascended. It used to be that a Yemi Alade performance came with all the fire of an artiste with plenty to prove; all sass, fury and bass. But these days, Alade just appears uninspired and uninspiring. In many ways, she’s gotten too big to bother.
Juxtapose her recent performances at this year’s Glo/CAF awards where she was blown away by Omawumi’s live set and a mediocre showing at last year’s Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards ceremony where she was easily outclassed by South African soul stress Zonke, with her scintillating Headies opener of three years ago, or the TFAA performance of 2014 where she closed the show and did not let the small crowd that remained get in the way of a spectacular performance. The difference is quite clear.
As long as Yemi Alade lets commercial considerations determine her career choices, she is likely to continue with what works for her and in the process, will open herself up to further censure. But don’t be surprised still should the tide begin to turn and Alade begins to stretch herself should such an option prove lucrative.
For the woman who has progressed from Beyonce-lite vixen to continent hugging matron in only a matter of years, this shouldn’t pose much of a challenge. Reinvention is only part of the game and there are few people better at it than Yemi Alade.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.