Whether in Rags or Riches, The New Nigerian Star Stays True To His Roots
It’s rare that a teenager knows what he wants to be when he grows up, let alone that he sticks to it years later, despite the headaches. One of the reasons Brymo is such a fascinating figure is that he knew, without a shred of doubt, that he wanted to be a musician at age 17. Armed only with his will and organic talent, he eventually built his way up from the Lagos ghettos to the recording studios.
Brymo, born Ashimi Olawale, has since been collaborating with some of the biggest stars in the business. He was featured on Ice Prince’s track “Oleku,” and his first single “Ara” has become one of the biggest Naija tracks of the year. Its success was a shoe-in — Brymo’s lyrics and melody hail from local Fuji music traditions fused with Western music, making “Ara” a unique, anthemic, and delectable pop track. Brymo was basically born knowing what the people, everywhere, want.
We spoke to the new star, now in his mid-20s, about his ascent, his mother, meeting Ice Prince and M.I., his upcoming album SonofaCarpenta (so named because of his carpenter father), and the ever-expanding Naija music scene.
What is Ara about?
“Ara” is a song about victory. I’m from from a quiet, humble background, and I’m speaking to the people who are from where I’m from, and saying that somehow, someway we’re going to work hard, we’re going to get a lot of success. We’re gonna come together and have drinks and have a party. It’s a song for the man trying to work hard. I wrote that it time in my career when i was trying to break in. I wrote the whole song, and a part of the song was an old Yoruba folk song that goes “Ara m be ti mo fe da,” which basically means: there’s a lot of great things I wanna do a lot of great exploits I wanna make, and we’re gonna succeed.
Tell me about your upbringing in Lagos, and when came into your life.
Okay, I grew up in a place called Okokomaiko. It’s quite a ghetto. It was just me and my parents, I’m an only child. I grew up being very stubborn and I wanted to do whatever i wanted do to do. I was always getting in a lot of trouble with my dad, but it was all good. My mom used to play a lot of local music when I was growing up. The genre is called Fuji music, it’s the local music of Southwest Nigeria. She played a lot of that, so I grew up in a home listening to that. But as a teenager in secondary school I got introduced to R Kelly and western music. By the time I started out myself — I started doing music officially when i was 19 or so, and by the time I was 17 I wanted to be an artist. Also, my mom is a great composer. She can take out lyrics in a song and put in her own lyrics. She sings a lot of funny songs to my dad whenever he’s angry. But she never did music professionally.
So would you say you got your music composition ability from your mom?
Yeah I got the ability to write songs from her. After listening to her over and over again, I got some ideas and how she does it. It is just genetic. I’m grateful.
You composed Ara?
Exactly. I wrote the song but someone actually gave me the beats. I listened over and over again until it worked for me.
Watch Brymo’s video for “Ara”
It’s been a big year for you!
It has! “Ara” is arguably the biggest song of the year. So basically it’s really been a success. And of course my second single ["Good Morning"] is picking up gradually. I wanna put out an album, and lets hope everything peaks when that happens. I’ll probably be releasing the album in the last quarter of the year.
How did you hook up with Ice Prince?
Oh, in 2010, I got a phone call from a big brother of mine. He made a phone call and said I need to call M.I. At that time I had never met M.I. before, I knew he was a rapper, a great Nigerian rapper. I would talk to my friend and say, that man can rap! [laughs] So he said you need to call M.I., and it was like a miracle. I made the phone call and met with him and Ice Prince and Jesse Jagz. Before I knew what was happening I would come over and visit and be there and come back and forth. A few weeks later, he said ‘I think I wanna work with you.’ By the time we recorded “Oleku,” it was sometime in 2010.
Did you feel like that was your jumpoff point?
Yeah that was how it really really started. Previously in 2008 I had a song called “Shawty,” but afterwards I didn’t have a break because i didn’t have proper management, it was more like me being a free agent. It was quite tough. But I knew that I had to be an artist, and in the process of being broke, you cannot appear in rags. I needed to stay away from the streets and no one would could see me look broke! At the end of the day when the phone call came it was a new page for me.
What would you do to avoid looking broke?
What I would do is, the few stuff I did have, I would make sure they were clean and ready. There’s not so much stuff to wear, and you have to ration it. If I am wearing the same thing I wore two weeks ago, no one notices because they don’t even know me. If they managed to notice me they would have known I was wearing the same clothes two weeks ago — even if I was wearing Louis Vuitton! so basically, I’m grateful for everything right now.
How has the Nigerian music changed since you were growing up, in your opinion?
There have been a whole lot of changes. The present factor in our music is a little more refined, there’s a little more soul. For myself, singing has really become different. It’s a better fusion of western sound and local sound. Afrobeat is a beautiful genre, but for me, I have a lot of Fuji music in my own sound. So I’m fusing some Fuji music with raw soul, everything is about fusion.
What are the main characteristics of Fuji music?
Well, it’s the local pop music in Southwest Nigeria. It’s pop basically. The drums, percussion, how the music is being created is very local, and it’s mostly about dance music. Every time a Fuji singer is singing soul, they’re trying to get a message across — don’t be fooled just because they’re dancing around. Local Fuji music tries to keep the tradition. The tracks are very long, sometimes the music is just one stretch, unlike how we cut our tracks at 3-4 minutes. What I’m out to do is start a new generation, and it’s necessary for me to be able to fuse it properly and to be able to actually do it with universal sounds. People don’t really care about the traditions all the time, it’s a global language in the song — but you don’t wanna cut yourself off from the home.
Do you visit home and keep in touch with your family?
As soon as I have the time I make sure I see my friends and my mom and my dad. I talk to them about three times a week. I’m most likely going to be home this weekend.
Do you feel like you have the support of your home community?
Of course. Well, when my first album came out in 2008, and I did a lot of R&B. The old one was absolutely R&B. I tried to speak all of the English I had, so I could do it like R Kelly or Asa or Chris Brown. But it didn’t fly, because the ordinary Nigerian might not connect with it, even if they understand English. All they’re talking about is a pretty girl, a pretty house, a Mercedes, which doesn’t translate in my country because the average person here is probably drinking locally-brewed alcohol, so when you’re talking about champagne and stuff, they can’t afford it. Now with my music it’s not as much of a reach. I’m making music for them.
What messages do they connect with in your opinion?
They connect with anything. They are happy people. They just wanna have fun. The attitude usually is yes, yes, yes, we know we have a problem. Why do you wanna remind us of that? Let’s party, everything is going to be fine anyway. Smile. My songs can be about love, dance, anything.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten a lot of support outside of Nigeria?
I did a show recently in Malaysia! I’m gonna be Ghana again, where I have a lot of support. There are so many beautiful things happening in Nigerian music. I’m one of them, and I’m going to partake in it naturally. Support internationally is really coming in, and we are looking forward to getting bigger.