The last twelve months have been a whirlwind for Nigerian superstar Yemi Alade. From touring the world, to dropping an EP and a new album, 2017 held nothing but good things for the twenty eight year old. Not surprisingly, pinning her down to arrange her interview and chat for this feature was a herculean task; thanks to her extremely packed schedule. Between numerous performances, filming her new music video and filming the Nigerian version of hit TV talent show; ‘The Voice’, she took out some time to reflect on some of her most special moments with us, as well as walking us through her creative process.
So many amazing opportunities have come before this twenty-eight year old musician that listing them was a process in itself. As she mentioned one, another would come up in her mind, followed by another and another. “I went on my very first [international] tour last year. That was definitely a huge landmark for me,” she begins. Last April, Yemi sold out Le Trianon in Paris, making history as the very first African artist to perform on this Parisian stage. Following this, she worked with five other artists from around the world in the Gravity Light initiative by Shell- a project that widened her international appeal working with the likes of Jennifer Hudson and Steve Aoki (USA), Luan Santana (Brazil), Pixie Lott (UK), Tan WeiWei (China). Yemi was the artist chosen to represent Africa in a campaign seen by millions of people around the world. “It was a huge project,” she recalls. “The whole idea was to reach out to regular people who have amazing ideas on how to provide green, clean, sustainable energy without any toxic stuff. I was very excited to be part of that one.”
Yemi’s rise to fame has been gradual. After winning a talent show in her native Nigeria in 2009, she released a number of songs, which enjoyed moderate success, but the one that propelled her to fame was the 2013 hit ‘Johnny’– a catchy tune which went on to become one of the top most played tracks that year in over 5 African countries. Her winning formula is a blend of Afro pop with a splash of soul, high life and everything thrown in (even dance hall). From her videos to her sense of style, Yemi is fiercely and proudly African. Even her lyrics usually portray everyday dialogues that take place in Africa. Where most African artists chose to shoot their music videos abroad to make it more appealing to a more diverse audience, Yemi has been a true champion of made in Africa, opting to shoot her videos mostly in an indigenous setting. It’s a formula that has served her well. Today she is regarded as one of the most authentic African artists on the scene.
“This year I’ve been the highest viewed female African artist online,” she says excitedly. At the time of our interview, she has had well over 76 million views for ‘Johnny’. “That’s one million views away from the highest viewed video which is for Personally by P Square.” We’ve seen Yemi release music video after music video this year, all different in their story. Indeed, one of the characteristics that sets her apart is her unique sense of style- usually leaning towards the artistic. “It will be interesting for people to see the videos I’m shooting for Black Magic,” she tells me, ahead of the release of her third studio album (which will be out by the time you read this). “The script is super silly, but it’s so realistic because it happens in every community. Shooting the video for Tumbum (from Mama Africa), was interesting because I got the opportunity to play fight. I was in character and it was fun to play that role. It was exciting for me. It was different and very un-celebrity like. I got to be myself.”
And there’s more reason to be excited. After the release of her EP ‘Mama Africa (which was released in 6 different languages including Portuguese, Swahili and French), her song Tumbum, will be going with the likes of Rihanna and Katy Perry in the hit consul game Just Dance.
With each new project, Yemi’s fanbase diversifies. I wondered how it felt to perform on different stages around the world. “I personally believe that the minute I get on stage, it’s like a second home. It becomes my playground,” she says. “I’m there to have fun and fall in love with people who already love me.” But of course the reception is different; performing in Nigeria, is a different atmosphere to performing in New York. “At home they see you a lot. They know about you, they know where you’re from. When you’re outside your comfort zone, everyone is super excited and the energy is unbelievable. The love is always unfathomable. It’s always a beautiful thing to experience.”
Of course I had to find out more about her latest album, Black Magic; I asked what the meaning was behind the name? “Black Magic is the fearless version of anyone out there,” Yemi begins. “Magic is the manifestation of the unbelievable. I put black in front of that word, because it has been used so negatively. The word black doesn’t always denote something nice. But I see so much beauty in black. Black Magic is raw, uncut potential.”– This phrase correlates very closely to both the album and its composer. “This album is a link between me and my fans out there. I have been working on it for about a year; I was recording from the minute I dropped Mama Africa. I’ve put in so much emotion into this; my pain, my emotions, my struggle and my reality. I tried to paint a mirror reflection of every emotion I was feeling on every song. You cannot say no to good music. That’s exactly what this album is. It’s good for the soul and for the body. I’m very excited to share it.”
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where Yemi’s inspiration comes from, but I was curious to find out if she had any other musical influences? “For almost every girl, Beyoncé is an inspiration,” she says first. “Being able to have kids, married and run the game like you never left is a huge example. I’m also motivated by the regular woman out there. The market woman, the mother with seven kids, selling stuff on the roadside so that her kids can go to school and not face the same challenges she did.” This is why I think her fans really love her. Despite her fame, she’s shunned glamorous videos and lyrics in favour of well-produced videos nonetheless, which show the everyday struggles of African women in their natural setting- in the village, at a local cafeteria or even by the road side. It gives her a girl next door appeal, because she’s relatable. “No matter how busy I am, I still come across these people,” she says. “You can see their plight on their faces. They all come together to inspire me” . She also counts her mother as being one of her biggest sources of inspiration. “She’s been there since day one, through thick and thin. She helped to make the impossible possible.”
When she’s not making hit music, she’s busy nurturing the next generation of artists on The Voice Nigeria, where she’s one of the judges. “It was super emotional,” she says about her time on the show. “First of all you go through the auditions, you have a team, and then one team member at a time starts going home. My team went from about eight to two in a short period of time. It was like losing a family member!” But of course there are countless advantages to being on a show of that magnitude. “We had spent so much time together, that we grew together. The experience was good. I got to sit down and watch other people shine. I got to pass on some knowledge from the little experience I have. It was very nostalgic for me. It kind of reminded me of the hustle and where I started. From the point, when I was trying to discover myself, trying to find out what kind of artist I wanted to be, how I would sound. I could see all of them trying to deal with that too, and you can tell them so much, but then experience is the biggest teacher, and I would definitely do it again.”
With such a high precedence already set, what will another year of aiming high bring? “I definitely hope to be alive,” she says with a smile. “I hope the songs on my album will be number ones. I would love the opportunity to explore other genres of music. I always try my best to translate and include the stimuli I get from my environment into my music. I want to put more effort into making sure that that representation isn’t lost. Ultimately I also want to be more involved in charities. When you become a popular person you aren’t just called to do one thing. There are so many things that we can be involved in and it definitely begins and ends with humanity. I also pray to be able to have more business ventures. I’d like to work on super international collaborations and be higher than where I am right now.”
While African artists are being celebrated at home and abroad for the inroads being made onto the Global stage, it’s easy to forget that many artists are still operating in sometimes very challenging environments back at home. It isn’t a level playing field between them and their international counterparts, and more needs to be done to bring the African music industry in line with global practices, especially with regards to how artists are paid. “One of the biggest problems I see for all artists is in publishing and royalties- being able to get what is actually ours.” Yemi jumps right into explaining the various issues here. “Most of us only get returns for our concerts and show profits; that’s the only way we get paid. It shouldn’t be that way. It makes it difficult to balance what is profit and what is a loss. Unfortunately the media and people out there don’t consider that. They compare us to the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna. These are people who can spend thousands of dollars on one music video alone. How is it right that such artists are compared to African artists, knowing the struggles we go through?” This is not the only issue that is on Yemi’s mind. The lack of infrastructure is a pressing problem too. “Most of us are entrepreneurs. But it’s so difficult to do this when you don’t have power or transportation. I do know that there has been progress and things are getting better, but I think it’s the hope and the hustle that’s keeping us alive.”
As I’ve buggered our Glam Africa team for their New Year resolutions for this issue, I ask if she’s made any herself? “I’m always trying to be as close as I can to God,” she says. “I [want] to stay true to my spirituality, and not be easily distracted by the lights of this industry.” One of her tips for remaining grounded in an industry where one can easily get carried away with the fame is always carrying a book with her. “I’m still learning to tip the balance between celebrity and being a regular girl,” she confesses. “It’s easy for the regular girl in you to fade out and become a celebrity that’s untamed, wild, and unrooted. Thank God for technology and Bible apps. Whether celebrity or a regular person, the environment in which we find ourselves isn’t always going to be perfect. All we can do is to keep trying.”
With her years of experience and the priceless knowledge that comes with it, we could think of no better person to seek advice from for our readers who are hoping to pursue a career in music.
- You need God all the way. There will be dark moments, where God will be the only person you can reach out to.
- The most important thing is individuality and originality. It would be unfair to your originality to be a copy and paste of anyone else. The only way forward is to be unapologetically you. If you try to be a Beyoncéor a Yemi Alade, who is going to be you? Who is going to fill that void? You’ve been specially made. So stick to your true self.
- Put your ears to the ground; be open to advice and constructive criticism. And sieve the grains from the shaft when people are talking to you. Some of the most amazing moves I’ve made in my career were inspired by those who had trash to say, but amidst that trash was one sentence that made everything right. You don’t need to absorb everything, but retain what is important. Have one person who will tell you the truth no matter what.