Mr Eazi, the master of the great Afro-Latin party

Nigerian Oluwatosin Ajibade is an afrobeats star who has toured with J Balvin, made tracks with Bad Bunny and Beyoncé and travels the world to discover new musical talent. His dream is a more just music industry in which African labels get a larger share of the profits

Mr. Eazi
Mr Eazi, Nigerian singer, songwriter and producer, in London.Manuel Vázquez
Ana Carbajosa

African music is everywhere. A long time ago, rhythms like afrobeats stopped being classified as “world music” and were simply considered music. The blame lies with talents like Oluwatosin Ajibade, better known as Mr Eazi. Nigerian, small and slow, Mr. Eazi composes, sings and produces. He is an Afrobeats megastar, with tours around the world alongside giants like J Balvin. Some of his songs — Like a baby, with Bad Bunny— have accumulated tens of millions of views, but what really interests him now is that African culture travels beyond its borders and is founded with other rhythms. The first on his list is Latino, because he believes that the marriage of Latin and Afro is something organic. Mr Eazi’s Afro-Latin pop threatens to make us all dance. “I think it will be a very, very big party,” he says.

Mr Eazi has also proposed that the music industry divvy up its profits in a most just manner. Or at least, that his own continent get a bigger share of the pie. Yes, the world listens to African music, but he wants those songs to be produced in Africa, and to change how Western labels often wind up with a majority of their profits. He aspires to helping African culture become a driving force of the continent’s development. “I think that’s my role now, to show the world the business of African music, African art, to hold African cultural IP from arts to music to film to sports … It’s a great time for African arts, but also the economics. It’s only gonna go bigger and bigger. Now is the time to get in,” he says.

It’s a great time for African arts, but also the economics. It’s only gonna go bigger and bigger. Now is the time to get in

Calm Down, a song by his fellow Nigerian artist Rema, is in Mr Eazi’s eyes, a very clear example of how profound this shift could be. It topped European charts for weeks, and was written by a Nigerian, produced by a Nigerian and distributed by a Nigerian label, Mavin Records. The director of its music video is Nigerian, and so was its stylist. “Yes, there’s been investment from the West, but part of the value is returning back to Nigeria and seeing this cross pollination,” he says. Mr Eazi recalls how, years ago, when he launched his own record company EmPawa, there were few local afrobeats labels. “Every day there’s a new record label in Nigeria, in Ghana, in South Africa, there’s a new distributor.” His now serves as a kind of music incubator and distributor through which he works to make African artists famous.

"The Evil Genius" Art And Music Experience 1-54 London at Somerset House on October 12, 2023 in London, England
Mr Eazi presents his artistic and music experience ‘The Evil Genius’ last October 12 in London’s Somerset House.Manuel Vázquez

He’s explaining all this while sitting in an exclusive club in West London, where he has arrived dressed in black from head to toe, on a Saturday morning. He’s somewhat chagrined, just having returned from a trip. His agent has told him that tomorrow he’s getting back on a plane, this time en route to Lagos. It’s independence day in Nigeria, and the country needs its super-star for the celebration. The problem is, his partner, Temi Otedola, is not pleased that he’s making such a brief appearance in London — and that, on top of everything, he has this interview scheduled on his one day in town. Otedola is a well-known actress, blogger and the daughter of a Nigerian oil tycoon; another African celebrity. They make a stylish couple.

The world is currently enjoying a celebration of African culture. Its musical genres are exploding, and afrobeats is leading the way. But it hasn’t always been like this. Mr Eazi recalls how the first time he arrived in the United Kingdom in 2016, he ran across some former schoolmates. What he heard surprised him. “When they were speaking to me, they were speaking with the accent I know them by. When we just leave the house, they were speaking by different British accent. I was seeing over there that at that time, [being African] was not something to be proud of. You had to be shy.”

He also remembers the meetings he had with record labels during those years. “They would say, ‘Your music is great, but you need to tweak it so that it can cross over. You need to speak more English and you need less of your language. You need to make it like more EDM, more pop.’” In other words, they wanted music more easily palatable for Western tastes. “That was the reason why I decided that I was never going to sign to a label. I was going to have my own label and keep the freedom to make music how I make it.” Now, he says, “More and more [widely available African music is] homegrown and it’s undiluted. It’s not even in English.” Mr Eazi cites ampiano, the South African electronic music that can now be heard coming from speakers halfway around the world.

He believes that everything changed with the popularization of certain dances via the social media platform once known as Musically (now, TikTok), which is filled with young people dancing to African music. “Now it is cool, it is something to be proud of. Now when I go places and I say that I’m Nigerian, immediately they say, ‘I listen to afrobeats, I watch Nigerian movies!’ A lot of people are discovering different parts of Africa through the culture.” Then there’s the children of Africans who emigrated to the United States and Europe and who are now reconnecting with their roots. “Visas and borders might stop you from travelling. But with true music, true dance, true art, true fashion, you reconnect. Art has done what politics and borders could not do, it has bridged the gap. Artists have become the new ambassadors,” he says.

Visas and borders might stop you from travelling. But with true art, you reconnect. Art has done what politics and borders could not do, it has bridged the gap. Artists have become the new ambassadors

He spends his life travelling the globe. But he’s a nomad because he wants to be one and above all, because he can. He lives between Lagos, Acra, London and New York, which could explain his obsession with borders. That may be part of it, but he also comes from a continent where so many people must choose emigration out of a lack of other options. “People should be able to move. People should have the freedom to escape war, escape death. The way human beings evolve is the way laws need to evolve,” he says.

Mr Eazi speaks in a soft voice and doesn’t stop for nearly a half hour after his arrival at the London club, where young people from around the world with impressive hair and the latest sneaker models hang out. From the upper-story room where our chat takes place, we can see the immensity of the British capital on a standard rainy day. Mr Eazi has ideas, lots of them. What sets this Harvard University engineering graduate apart is how he executes them, with the meticulousness of an entrepreneur and the creativity of an artist. The latest of his creations is a fusion of visual arts and music. On his album The Evil Genius, each song is associated with a work of art by African creatives, which were exhibited at London’s Somerset House last fall, in a show that coincided with the album’s release.

Mr Eazi
The Nigerian singer, songwriter and producer poses in the former London location of BBC Television Centre.Manuel Vázquez

He’s also obsessed with building bridges between Afro sounds and pop and Latin rhythms. His collaborations with Beyoncé, J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Burna Boy are well-known, and he even has a Latin Grammy. His big upcoming project is an entire album dedicated to the fusion of afrobeats and reggaeton. “I think there’s an even more organic corridor there than the one with pop,” he says. This upcoming release already has a name: London to Medellín.

The idea for the album began with a conversation with Sara Rosati, an Argentinian journalist who tipped him to the music of Rosalía and told him about Colombian and Puerto Rican reggaeton. Then, on a trip to Haiti to perform, in a Port-au-Prince hotel, he met with Michael Brun, a well-known Haitian DJ and producer. In just an hour, they had created a fistful of songs on the computer. “It was exciting. It almost reminded me of African music on the drums, but it was different,” he recalls. A week later, Brun called him up. He had a friend who he wanted Mr Eazi to meet: a one J Balvin, known throughout the world as “the prince of reggaeton”. The two became friends and met up in London, where they recorded a song together that would wind up on Balvin’s next album. Balvin wound up bringing Mr Eazi on his Vibras tour.

Mr Eazi sees great commercial opportunity within this meeting of the Afro and the Latino. “Seeing what reggaeton has done globally and seeing what afrobeats does globally, and you see the African kids dancing, and you see the guys from Puerto Rico dancing, you can see the melody.” Mr Eazi even goes a little further. He thinks that their fusion has the potential to bring about a certain empowerment of the global south through music. “We have the power,” he says.

Boredom as motivation

“We ended up doing all that music and I thought the next project was really going to be London to Medellín. But somewhere in between, by the end of 2020, I was like, I’m not even interested in putting out any music, period.” He said he was tired of doing the same thing. Though the majority of mortal beings would consider what he had been working on to be a dream of galactic proportions, to Mr Eazi, putting out albums, going on tour, doing promotion and posing for photos was becoming akin to a groundhog’s day. Tedium was the motor that impelled him to create, network, invent. “I’m inspired by boredom,” he says. Mr Eazi stopped everything, and turned to the world of business. He launched Zagadat, a major investment fund and incubator for African start-ups. “They didn’t care that I was Mr. Easy. They could see me as a human being again. Yeah, feeling more real.”

His distance from music lasted until one day when Kel-P, Burna Boy’s producer, came to see him. “This producer had been following me my whole career. Any time I came to Ghana, he would fly from Nigeria to see me. I would like, run away, but at one point he came and got an apartment next to my apartment. It was spooky. But instead of me working with him, I had him work with emerging artists. I’d go with him and I would say, these are artists that maybe less than 500 followers on Instagram. If you’re able to work with these artists and make good music … I was trying to make him pay the toll.” Two years later, Mr Eazi was travelling around Africa making deals for his mobile money business. Kel-P’s musicians and producers followed as he moved around the continent, obtaining licenses and speaking with central bank directors. “I would tell them, you know what, I’m here for business. You guys have fun. But any time I’m free, I’ll come back to the hotel and we make music.” Mr Eazi meant to make a Latin album, but wound up back on his own continent.

That interest in exploring Africa was in his blood. His father served in the Nigerian armed forces and travelled on peace missions to Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries. “He’d tell me about Senegalese people, how tall they are, and he’d tell me stories of landing in Senegal, stories of Cameroon. I started to have this interest [in life] outside of Nigeria,” he remembers. He studied in Ghana at the pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah University. “We had people from Equatorial Guinea, from Gabon,” he said. When he started making music, his tours would take him to Uganda, Zimbabwe, Goma, Kigali.

The album that took shape on those business trips and that eventually see the light of day is different from what he had been doing before. “Usually, I like to sing about dancing, women, party, you know, just enjoyment. But this was the first time I was saying some things that I had in my head. Maybe I was mentally fatigued. From 2016 to 2020, my life changed so quickly, it was very intense. I never took any vacations.”

Suddenly he was able to speak about personal issues with his friends, with people like J Balvin. “I remember this one time, we were in New York on a Sunday, going to different hot dog spots and we would just talk about life. We could talk about our feelings without feeling like somebody would judge us. The vulnerability that I was putting towards the music started helping me to speak my mind as a human being to people, including even family.” He remembers that he wrote a message to his father in which he told him “I love you.” “My dad was wondering, ‘Are you okay? What kind of drug are you on?’” The answer was simple, but also felt profound. “I feel more connected, I’m more grounded now,” the afrobeats star says.

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