<p>Wizkid photographed by Flo Ngala on Oct. 5 at Poppy in Los Angeles.   </p>

Wizkid photographed by Flo Ngala on Oct. 5 at Poppy in Los Angeles.

With 'Essence,' Wizkid Wants to Chart a Global Course for African Artists

This story is part of Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season. Read our cover story on Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here.

In the middle of a giant, empty plot of land in the middle of Sacramento, Calif., the African and Caribbean diaspora is alive and thriving. Over 20,000 people — predominantly Nigerian, Ghanaian, Haitian and Jamaican Americans, cloaked in metallic gold and royal purple Ankara fabrics and waving the green, yellow, red and black flags of their motherlands — have traveled here from across the country for the United States’ first Afrobeats festival, Lost in Riddim, on the first weekend of October. As they await the headliner, Wizkid, around 10 p.m., the artist himself is changing from head-to-toe gray Gucci into a red Maison Margiela track suit — and waiting for some Chick-fil-A.

He has been working up quite an appetite. Just off the plane from Los Angeles, he’ll close out the first of the festival’s two nights before jetting back three hours later to continue his first U.S. tour at The Novo. After quarantining in Accra, Ghana, for the last eight months, Wizkid is finally on the road again and eager to perform the songs from Made in Lagos — his fourth album, released almost exactly one year ago on RCA Records and his own Starboy Entertainment label.

“Rihanna came, A$AP Rocky came, Alicia Keys came, Ty Dolla $ign came, Saweetie came,” says his manager, Jada Pollock, of the buzz around her artist. “How come all of these people want to go see Wizkid? So let me pay attention now, because that’s how the world works.” Pollock, who is British, first met Wizkid in 2012 when she was managing Chris Brown, who brought Wiz out for the Lagos show on his Carpe Diem African tour. Two years later, she started managing Wiz, too.

Lost in Riddim is a pit stop in the middle of Wizkid’s tour, but it’s a pivotal one. For the first time, he’ll perform his summer smash “Essence” with rising Nigerian singer-songwriter-producer (and fellow Lagos native) Tems. For Wizkid, the hit song is a watershed moment in his career. After years of African artists edging closer to the center of Western pop music — and the music industry’s gradual realization that the continent is fertile ground for its business — he is the first African artist to truly make a major pop breakthrough in the United States and seems best poised to do so globally, too. “It sounds as good as every other music in the world,” says Wizkid of Afrobeats, the vibrant genre in which he works. “So I hope it gets everything it deserves, from setting up records to selling out the venues for the artists.”

Since 2016, when Drake featured him alongside Kyla on his smash hit “One Dance,” Wizkid has been changing what a career can look like for an Afrobeats artist. In 2019, producer P2J — a frequent collaborator of both Wizkid and Beyoncé — recruited the Nigerian superstar for Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” (also featuring young Blue Ivy Carter and SAINt JHN) from The Lion King: The Gift. Both songs yielded Grammy attention for Wizkid: a nomination for album of the year as part of Drake’s Views and a win for best music video for the latter.

“He creates a safe space in his musical world because it’s really about love, romantic love and positive vibes. And you can dance to a lot of it,” says Tunji Balogun, who guided Wizkid’s career as executive vp A&R at RCA for four years before recently departing to become Def Jam CEO. “The texture of the music is very adaptable, so it kind of hits the sweet spot culturally.”

Wizkid’s rise has also paralleled the Western-based music industry’s entry to the continent: Over the last few years, labels have steadily opened local divisions — like Universal Music Group Nigeria in Lagos and Sony Music Entertainment South Africa in Johannesburg — while increasing access to streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Audiomack. By next year, PwC estimates, Nigeria’s total music revenue will reach $65 million as digital music consumption surpasses physical revenue and the streaming sector grows.

“The African voice in that global conversation is getting louder and louder,” says Balogun. “More people are coming online, data is getting cheaper, the streaming platforms are opening up for business on the continent. You’re only going to see more artists emerge and become global stars.”

Wizkid has been one of the strongest proponents of those artists, starting his label in 2013 with the express purpose of sharing his spotlight with them along with his many collaborators and friends. And now, with “Essence,” that spotlight has become much wider. As the world emerged from the COVID-19 shutdown and started dancing again, “Essence” became part of its soundtrack and, with help from a remix featuring Justin Bieber, crossed genre lines to top Billboard’s R&B, hip-hop, rhythmic and world charts. Coming up on the one-year anniversary of its release, it reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and became the first song with lyrics in Nigeria’s Yorùbá language to debut on the Global 200 chart, with 269 million on-demand global streams, according to MRC Data.

It could also be Wizkid’s Grammy breakthrough — proof that he has moved beyond needing an English-speaking pop star to bring him along for the ride and can now reciprocate. (Plus, the last time Bieber joined a territory-spanning hit, the Recording Academy responded pretty well: three nominations for “Despacito,” including song and record of the year.) A decade after winning the BET Awards’ best international act: Africa award, Wizkid has grown beyond success defined by where he comes from — and insists it’s time for the industry to look at his fellow African artists as stars beyond their home borders, too.

“I don’t even call my music ‘Afrobeats’ or ‘Afropop.’ I just make good music,” he says. “You just have to keep proving people wrong. We make quality music in Africa. You can take our music anywhere, and it will stand the test of time. It stands up qualitywise to any music anywhere in the world.”

Pollock describes his ambition in even grander terms: “He’s a global artist. We never looked at Michael Jackson like, ‘He’s an American artist.’ We looked at him like, ‘He’s a world artist. He makes music for the world.’ And that’s ultimately what Wiz’s vision is — to make music for the world.”

No one expected the Little Prince to take the throne.

Growing up in what he calls the “ghetto madness” of Lagos’ Surulere neighborhood, the artist born Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun was serious about music from age 11, when he first started recording with his church friends — who ditched the choir for their love of hip-hop — in a group called Glorious Five. When Wiz was 15, he met renowned Nigerian producer OJB Jezreel, who welcomed him into his Surulere studio to study soon-to-be international breakout artists like 2Face Idibia and taught him to take his time making music. Four years later, Wiz scored his first record deal with rapper Banky W’s now-defunct label, Empire Mates Entertainment. In 2010, he released “Holla at Your Boy,” the debut single from his album Superstar, with a vibe and music video that embraced American hip-hop swagger at a time when Lil Wayne and his Young Money crew were running the genre overseas.

At first, the artist nicknamed the Little Prince — a moniker that would evolve into Wizkid — struggled to be taken seriously. “Every room I went to, people didn’t even want to hear me talk because they felt I was too young,” recalls Wiz, now 31.

“He was the first sort of kid star that carried a youth fan base with him,” says Balogun, who is Nigerian American. “He felt like a forebearer of a new era.”

As Balogun explains, when he and Wiz were growing up, Nigeria’s established stars, like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé, “were grown men in their 40s and 50s.” Prior to his death at age 58, Kuti created the blueprint for Afrobeat, which gained a global following because of his percussion-heavy fusion of funk, jazz, fuji and highlife with unabashedly political lyrics. Its 21st-century polyrhythmic offshoot, Afrobeats, is rooted in popular West African music but incorporates influences from outside the continent (U.K. grime, Jamaican dancehall, U.S. hip-hop) along with heartfelt lyrical content that resembles R&B’s.

Wizkid’s rise was concurrent with that of Afrobeats, though he took it in a more hip-hop-infused direction. He had sharply honed freestyling skills and rapped about taking out girls, wearing designer clothes and hustling out of the hood. His 2014 track “Ojuelegba” — named for an area of Surulere — told the story of his grind and his loved ones’ prayers throughout his slow-burn career, and offered a glimmer of hope to the young Nigerians who worried they would never make it out of their own environments. It ruled airwaves across Africa, landing at No. 1 on Capital Xtra’s Afrobeats chart in February 2015.

“It tells an incredible story that a lot of people in Africa can relate to,” says Pollock of the song, which Wiz calls the “African national anthem.” “Wizkid gives people in Africa hope. There are kids that have grown up with nothing, but then they see, ‘Oh, Wiz had a very similar journey, and look at him now.’ Songs like ‘Ojuelegba,’ where people can lyrically relate to it because they’re physically living it, gives people hope in their heart, like, ‘F--k, this can actually happen for me.’ ”

It broke out beyond Lagos when Wiz’s comrade from across the pond, U.K. grime artist Skepta, played it for Drake, who was so “in the moment” when he heard it, he said at the time, that he decided to hop on the record. In July 2015, the official “Ojuelegba” remix premiered on Drake’s OVO Sound Radio, where the rapper continued to feature Wiz’s songs as well as their future collaborations and still-unreleased loosies. After the success of “One Dance,” Wiz was ready to take on the world: He joined Chris Brown on tour in Europe, headlined the One Africa Music Fest at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and by 2017 had signed a multialbum deal with RCA and Sony Music International.

What was once Wizkid’s handicap had become his secret weapon: He had harnessed the power of youth, especially locally. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is also one of the youngest in the world; the United Nations Population Fund approximates 43.3% of the population is under the age of 15. Over the last decade, Wiz courted the digitally savvy Nigerian youth on social media and continually built his platform online, retweeting his fans and thanking them for coming out to his shows with high-quality montage recap videos rather than bragging about his latest wins.

And those efforts likely weren’t even necessary. Balogun compares Wiz’s fans to those of a K-pop star’s — they’re devoted and resourceful, using available streaming and sales numbers to predict future chart positions — and credits them for alerting him that “Essence” was inching toward its Hot 100 debut this summer. “They’ve been in it and fighting for him online for a decade now,” he says. “The most that we’ve been really doing is just making sure that they’re well fed and that they know what’s going on with his projects and what’s going on with him and his growth, so that they can then telegraph that information to the whole world.”

With his 2017 RCA debut, Sounds From the Other Side, Wizkid cemented his hip-hop bona fides, reconnecting with collaborators Drake and Brown, and adding new ones like Ty Dolla $ign, Trey Songz and Major Lazer. And as his unfettered access to North American star power increased, Wiz quickly started thinking of how he could bring others into his universe.

“The sky is big enough for everyone to fly,” he proclaims. “Africa has so much talent — there are too many countries in Africa for you to have just one or two artists come through.” In 2019, he launched his own Starboy Fest at London’s O2 Arena with a lineup that, at the top, looks exactly like the inaugural one for Lost in Riddim, featuring the likes of Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage. The hundreds of thousands of British Nigerians living in London have helped Wizkid sell out the famed venue five times, three for his upcoming Made in Lagos tour. When he sold out its first stop there in 12 minutes, only five other acts had ever achieved it in that amount of time or less: Beyoncé, Rihanna, The Rolling Stones, Spice Girls and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Still, says Wizkid, he never wanted his name only on the arena’s marquee. “What’s the point of doing it alone?” he asks. “I want to bring my brothers and sisters. I’m always trying to move together, move the culture to the next level.” Before the sold-out 2019 fest began, he made a mission statement that guides him to this day: “Tonight isn’t about Wizkid or Starboy. Tonight is about African music.”

“Do you know that we just witnessed history right there?”

It’s one day after Lost in Riddim, and Wizkid and Tems are backstage at L.A.’s Fonda Theatre, where an especially fervent fan is approaching a particularly famous attendee: Ugandan British actor and Academy Award winner Daniel Kaluuya, who quietly nods in agreement.

It’s Tems’ show, but as always, Wizkid is there to support, and they’ve just come offstage following their third “Essence” performance of the week. Since the song was released, 26-year-old Tems has been soaring: a feature on Drake’s “Fountains” from his Billboard 200-topping Certified Lover Boy, a label deal with Since ’93/RCA, an “Up Next” spotlight from Apple Music. Tonight’s show was originally set for the 500-capacity Roxy Theatre but sold so fast it was moved to the Fonda, which is twice as big.

Tems is the latest of the emerging African artists whom Wizkid has brought up next to him, and on Made in Lagos, she’s joined by Nigerian talents Burna Boy, Tay Iwar and Starboy Entertainment’s latest signee, Terri, along with international stars like Ella Mai, H.E.R. and Damian Marley. The album — which has 289.1 million on-demand U.S. audio streams and reached No. 28 on the Billboard 200, thanks to its deluxe edition, in August — is about Wizkid “claiming his identity, being proud of it and showing people the breadth and depth of how amazing the culture is,” says Balogun.

Wizkid is well aware of the industry moves he needs to make to bring that message to a wider audience; performing on NPR’s Tiny Desk is, for instance, a gig Balogun says the team has been trying to book for years. While he waits for those opportunities, he has also created some of his own. His nearly three-hour “A Day in the Live” YouTube stream in November — which Balogun calls “one of the most transformative” Made in Lagos marketing strategies — offered a glimpse of the artist’s life in the studio and at home with his family and team, plus performances of nearly every song on the album; it has amassed over 2.5 million views. Now, says Pollock, Wiz has his sights on expanding Starboy Fest into a multiday event in America like Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival, where “you just walk into your own world.”

As Made in Lagos approaches its first anniversary at the end of October, it’s still making a mark on both global listeners and kids in the African diaspora who view Wizkid as a kind of superhero. “In this generation, you have at least a Wizkid, you have a Black Panther. There are few examples of African excellence, whereas I’m 38 years old, and when I was in elementary school, it was like, ‘You are an African booty scratcher. Are you from N—eria?’ ” recalls Balogun. “There was no context other than things that put African life in a negative or distorted light. That’s another reason why Wiz’s mission is so important, and he knows that. He knows that he is one of the first millennial/Gen Z iconic African figures, and he knows that he has a responsibility to shed a positive light on the culture and the community.”

When asked about the follow-up to Made in Lagos he’s currently working on, Wizkid smirks but doesn’t say much — just that he’ll be working with “mostly new artists” from around the world including, no doubt, some from his home. When one African wins, he knows, the whole continent does. The African proverb “Each one teach one” holds true: Victory is better shared than kept to oneself.

“I promised myself, ‘Yo, I’m never going to make it hard for anyone to get their shine,’ ” says Wiz. “I’m giving this light to whoever deserves it.”

At Lost in Riddim, when it came time for “Essence,” he did just that. While Tems sang the seductive hook — “You don’t need no other body” — in her velvety alto, he would hang back, turning toward her even when his verse returned to the forefront, as mesmerized by her presence as the audience. He pointed to her as if her name was at the top of the festival’s bill, rather than on the second-to-last line.

The following night, he brings her out as a surprise guest at his second show at The Novo. After they finish another performance of “Essence,” he pauses for a moment onstage to reflect. Two kids from Lagos — where “the parents never really wanted the kids to make music because they just thought it was not lucrative,” says Wiz — have made it, waving their green-and-white striped flag proudly all the while. “I’m just so happy that I was able to make a song with my sister from Nigeria!” he exclaims, flinging an arm around her shoulders. “And we actually made a worldwide record.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.


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