Once, while on a Greyhound layover in Birmingham, Alabama, David Adedeji Adeleke, the Nigerian pop star now better known as Davido, spotted a familiar face on the CD rack of a bus station rest stop. Packed between sections for Top 40 and oldies was an album by Asa, a Nigerian-French singer not widely known in America. Davido had visited this station before, on trips to and from his college in nearby Huntsville and the home of relatives in Atlanta. But this was the first time he’d seen Nigerian music earn shelf space in a random Southern town, and it felt like an omen.
Davido was 16 when he had arrived in Huntsville, a year earlier. His father, Dr. Adedeji Adeleke, a well-known businessman and Seventh-day Adventist in Nigeria with an estimated net worth of over $300 million, dropped him off with his passport, $2,000 cash, and freshman registration documents for Oakwood University, a historically black Christian college. (People often attach the honorific ‘Chief’ to Dr. Adeleke’s name, referring to his wealth and power, largely earned through his founding of Pacific Holdings, a company that deals in steel, oil, gas, and more.)
Davido had already spent time in the U.S.—he was born in Atlanta, and sometimes visited in the summer—but much about life in the States was new to him. “That was the first time I had a phone in America. There was unlimited calling. I never saw nothing like that before,” he remembers. “In Nigeria, you gotta pay before you get what you want.”
The school roomed him with another international student, a Rwandan track athlete—“I was like, ‘Okay, wow. They just put all the African people together?’”—but he gravitated toward an upstairs neighbor named Jaymo, an American kid whose speakers constantly rattled Davido’s ceiling. “One day, I went to go check what the noise was. I went upstairs, opened the door, and the guy had a full studio in his room,” he says. “I told him that I was trying to do music, too. He asked me, ‘How much do you have to invest in equipment?’ And I said, ‘$2,000.’ He was like, ‘That’s too much.’” They went to Guitar Center with $500.
From then on, Davido spent most of his time making beats and recording vocal references to send to a cousin in Lagos, a fellow musician with a trove of industry contacts. His grades slipped, and after three semesters, he dropped out and left town without telling his father. First he went to Atlanta, where he used his older brother’s ID to get into clubs, and funneled the money Chief Adeleke sent for school and living expenses toward drinks and motels. Later, he threw out his SIM card and hopped on a plane to London, where he went MIA for several months as he shifted his focus from production to vocals. “There was no Snapchat, no Instagram. There was barely Twitter,” he says. “I just went off the radar.”
Chief Adeleke, meanwhile, had been on the hunt for his son. When Davido finally returned to Lagos in 2011, with new tattoos and piercings, his father had him apprehended by police officers at the airport. Having failed to bring home the business management degree he’d been sent to America to complete, Davido reached a compromise with his father: he, still a teenager, would attend a private university two hours north of the city. His music dreams would be sidelined until he had honored his family by graduating. Davido returned to school, but often snuck out of his dorm room to hobnob at industry parties and blew off exams to record.
“People always say, ‘Oh, he’s just some rich kid.’ And he is,” Davido’s current manager, Kamal Ajiboye, tells me over coffee in the lobby of a Lagos hotel. “But they don’t realize that this music stuff—at first he did it alone.”
For the past three years, Davido, now 23, has lived in the posh Lagos neighborhood of Lekki, in a three-story house that welcomes a revolving cast of employees, friends, and hangers-on, with imported weed and liquor in constant supply and demand. On a Friday afternoon in December, he’s sitting on a couch in the home’s top-floor lounge, telling his life story to an audience of a half-dozen people. A television is queued up with YouTube videos of some of 2015’s most potent grime beefs and freestyles. With an omnipresent gold chain swinging around his neck and a pair of traditional leather slippers dangling off his feet, Davido waves and claps his hands to underscore some points, and spits out Nigerian exclamations like ah-ah! and eiiiish! to emphasize others. A pair of deep symmetrical dimples and a generous flashing of teeth make even his wildest stories seem like harmless capers.
Davido’s childhood home is just a few minutes’ drive away. Inside, there’s a grand marble staircase, and family photos spanning several generations line the walls of multiple living rooms. (Davido’s godfather, it should be noted, is Aliko Dangote, a construction magnate whose estimated $18 billion net worth has earned him Forbes’ title of Africa’s richest man for the past three years.) At Davido’s house, the walls are dominated by portraits of Davido.
Most of the pieces, including a five-foot tall Old Masters-style painting, have been painted by fans, who camp outside for as many as three days, waiting for Davido to accept their offerings. A painting of his late mother has also been hung up, and so has a Jackson 5-era portrait of Michael Jackson, which keeps watch over the battered second-floor studio where Davido tracks demos and records one-off collaborations.
Davido released his first singles in 2011, while he was still in school. In the previous years, artists like D’banj, Wande Coal, and P-Square had developed a new sound for Nigerian pop, by pulling elements from R&B, hip-hop, and house, and blending them with Nigerian rhythms and melodies. The wave’s primary currency was its cool, led by singers who wore designer clothes and engineered songs for the clubs. Their music was more concerned with letting loose than standing against the country’s corrupt, oppressive government. “Before, the most popular Nigerian music was a way to give expression to the people. You could still dance to it, but it was a way to challenge politics,” Michael Ugwu, general manager of Sony West Africa, tells me later. “But these new guys, all they wanted was to have fun. It was a new image for Africa.”
This brand of slick, innovative pop resonated across the continent and beyond, frequently under the vague descriptor “afrobeats,” a term popularized in the U.K. In 2011, D’banj landed a U.S. record deal with G.O.O.D. Music, then helmed by Kanye West. Soon after, he released “Oliver Twist,” a global dance-pop hit that climbed to No. 2 on the U.K. charts. “Guys like D’banj, they were legendary status. They were doing shows internationally,” Davido says. “I was looking at them like, Damn, these guys are really big out here. Can I do this African thing? I need to take the opportunity now.”
Davido found an audience with just his second single, “Dami Duro,” an uptempo track with a frenetic vocal melody and rattling drums, on which he introduces himself as omo baba olowo, Yoruba for “son of a wealthy man.” With its mix of glossy synths and familiar Nigerian references—its second verse features a lyrical nod to Yoruba folk songs—“Dami Duro” endeared a then-unknown Davido to both young clubgoers and fans of more traditional fare. It would go on to become one of his biggest hits, gaining traction on Nigerian radio, in Lagos’ nightlife scene, and with his father. After the song blew up, Davido, still a student, declared he no longer wanted to study business, and Chief Adeleke paid for the university to erect a music department for an inaugural class of one.
Last year, he finally graduated, after taking time off to attend to his career. After that first single, Davido remembers, “everything just happened. I was being booked in, like, Botswana, all over Africa in under six months.” He self-released a debut album via his own HKN label in 2012, and has since worked with a global crew of producers and songwriters on a steady stream of singles. Some, like 2013’s muted “Gobe” and 2014’s traditional “Aye,” typify one style he favors: mellow love songs with lightly Auto-Tuned vocals and beats constructed out of kora riffs, buzzing electric guitar, bright keyboard sounds, and stuttering programmed drums. Others are more indebted to house and hip-hop—like 2013’s clattering “Skelewu,” which was remixed by Major Lazer, and 2015’s Meek Mill-featuring “Fans Mi,” for which he says the Philly rapper was paid $200,000—and traveled the internet to African diasporic communities in cities like New York and London.
“We always wanted to create a new sound that everybody wants to follow,” says producer and longtime Davido collaborator Shizzi, while sitting in an elaborately furnished office in Davido’s sister’s home. “Nigerian music is evolving, and there’s something about our music that’s easy to listen to. I always do a fusion—I take from here, from South Africa, from America. I like to take sounds from different places and bring it together, to be able to sell to people all over the world.”
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