" I feel like the bridge that we have been looking for has finally been built."
Early in our interview, Nigeria’s D’Banj prefaced a deeply personal story by saying, “Usually when people ask me this question I’m ready with answers like, ‘When I was a young boy, I was in a choir.’ I was in a choir, but I don’t think that’s where my love of music came.”
It’s hard to imagine him ever giving out a canned answer to a journalist. Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo, the king of the Naija pop, the Koko Master, spoke incredibly candidly and in great detail about anything and everything volleyed at him. His famous charm was undeniable even through a transatlantic phone call. Maybe he was just in a good mood that day, but his answer to the soft ball question of “How did you first get into music?” was incredibly moving.
“My love of music came from the love of the harmonica, which is the instrument that I play. I stumbled upon the instrument when I was a teen, because I lost my older brother and he used to play the harmonica. When I was in high school, he was in a plane crash. I came home from school and my mother told me what was recovered was in his room. I walked into his room and I saw the harmonica and I picked it up. When I went back to school, I started playing it whenever I got any song in my head or any song that I liked.”
From that traumatic experience D’Banj has risen to become one of Africa’s biggest stars. He is currently readying himself for his tenth anniversary as a recording artist. Since his first album No Long Thing came out in 2005, he’s trail-blazed the idea of a modern African singer who has one hand in global R&B and pop music trends and the other staying true to fans of more traditional Afropop. His 2012 hit “Oliver Twist” debuted at number 9 on the UK Singles chart, a predecessor to Afrobeats’s international rise. D’Banj is fiercely proud, not just of his own accomplishments, but of others on the same path, saying, “I’ve seen Fuse ODG topping charts as well. I’m in London sometimes passing through and you’d hear P-Square or 2Face or Wizkid on primetime radio. I feel like the bridge that we have been looking for has finally been built. You can take music from here in Africa you don’t necessarily have to change anything.”
In 2011, he signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, with great hope leveraging that for its crossover potential. A few months before West released the sonically groundbreaking album Yeezus last year, he appeared on the official remix of D’Banj’s more radio-friendly song “Scapegoat.” But news has been quiet on the D’Banj/G.O.O.D. Music front since. When D’Banj recently switched out G.O.O.D Music in his Twitter bio in favor of DB Records, there were some rumors that he might be breaking from the label. His management has denied the split and when asked about it in our interview D’Banj was characteristically diplomatic, saying “Before my time, they classified all African artists in one category. They weren’t understanding. But with Kanye coming on the record, it just makes them see that music is universal and we can all appreciate it as long as you love what you hear.”
He’s taken his diplomacy quite literally as of late as both a United Nations Youth Ambassador for Peace and an ambassador for the Nigerian government’s youth agriculture initiative. He spoke about being influenced to accept the position from work with the ONE Foundation last year and the fact that the African Union declared 2014 to be the year of agriculture. D’Banj explained, “I got to be educated about what opportunities were out there and how we can move to small scale farming. Small-scale farmers actually contribute to major production in agriculture and I thought to myself, that’s a good cause.” He also simplified the rationale behind appointing celebrities for these types of positions saying, “I see it as a big opportunity for me to connect with my fans and also letting them know what the opportunities we have and see how we can take our continent from where we are now to that place we know we should be.”
The first roll-out of D’Banj’s 10th anniversary year as an artist is the single “Bother You.” The singer was inspired to write the song after seeing an early private screening of Half of a Yellow Sun, a new film starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor based on a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He commented, “I thought I would be seeing something like Hotel Rwanda or Last King of Scotland where you see brutal killings and all, but it was a love story.” The song is a whimsical, melodic love ballad accented by the catchy hook from Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long.” The video shows the star and a special lady gallivanting along a windy beach with a white horse. African love never looked so dreamy.
D’Banj continued to talk about the song by saying, “I saw love beyond everything — beyond trouble and war. So I am bothering everyone in the world with ‘Bother You.’ We need love in our lives.” If this song is any indication, he and all of his fans are going to be able to savor year ten.