The lens of the global music on Afroebats is mostly focused on Afro-Pop and mainstream music. Superstar acts like Davido, Wizkid, and Burna Boy are regular features on the biggest media publications across the world, rising stars like Ckay and Amaarae found a home for their sound on Tik Tok and they would go on to top the global shazam chart – CKay's “Love Nwantiti” reached No. 1 on several charts around the world and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Global Chart.
Other artistes like Rema, Omah Lay, Fireboy DML, and Tems have all enjoyed varying levels of success on the global front – the latter became one of the recipients of the first RIAA platinum plaque for a Nigerian song, Rema is one of the few Nigerian artistes to have received a plaque in France – and this he achieved with his first hit single, “Dumebi.” Omah Lay's "Godly" swept across Africa and even enjoyed significant positive reception in European countries like Norway, Sweden, and the UK.
So with so much happening with Afrobeats on a global level, where does that leave the arrays of traditional sounds made in Nigeria? The Highlife renaissance is being championed by The Cavemen, whose first two albums have enjoyed commercial and critical acclaim. With Flavour, Umu Omuligbo, Larry Gaga, and Phyno, music emanating from the South East has become even more mainstream in the last few months. At one point in November, Flavour had three of the biggest songs on TV in Nigeria. The South-South has enjoyed a level of success especially with Port-Harcourt bred-artists such as Omah Lay, Burna Boy, and Ajebo Hustlers; each of whom have at least one song in the Top 50 Songs of 2021.
A cursory look at the Top 50 Songs of 2021 will show that ten of these songs have mostly Yoruba lyrics – more than any other traditional language spoken in the country. Due to this overlap, South-Western genres like Fuji, Juju, Apala are often relegated to “alternative” or “folk” status. However, artists in these genres such as Qdot and K1 De Ultimate enjoyed considerable success in the mainstream in 2021 – the latter’s reimagined version of “Ade Ori Okin” emerged as the No. 1 Traditional Song of 2021. Lagos’ status as Nigeria’s economic and entertainment capital means that the local dialect (Yoruba) is automatically a mainstream dialect and artists that sing predominantly in the language are automatically exposed to the mainstream market. Although whether they can achieve the desired level of fame and success is an entirely different issue.
This geographical positioning has left emerging artists from other parts of the country with the tough choice of either migrating to Nigeria’s Big Apple to try their luck to break into the mainstream. Or making music in their base and hoping they can exploit social media and available digital machinery in pushing their music beyond their borders and into the Lagos market. After which, they can make the move to the Center of Excellence and build on their success. These options are by no means easy as they are both capital intensive and daring. And when the uncertainty of the outcome of either ventures are considered, it becomes even more challenging.
Top record labels don’t have a history of taking a chance with an upcoming artists based outside the entertainment hub of Lagos. There are also no impressive precedents of top labels throwing their weight behind artists who sing majorly in a dialect that’s not Yoruba.
While Duncan Mighty was able to record an impressive level of success from his base in Port Harcourt and his music was able to get into Lagos and go national, not many talents have been able to replicate this feat. Many of those bold enough to try have either had to make the move to Lagos or settle for local fame in their base.
When considering a way to bridge this gap, one viable means that presents itself is the backing of a big name with the resources to propel upcoming artists from their local base to the mass-market and expose them to a wider audience. A label that is making a precedent in this department is Empawa with their Arewa talent Namenj. Secular music in Northern Nigeria pretty much begins and ends within the region. Arewa artists have identified that they have no notable audience outside their region hence there’s no pressing reason for them go to tweak their sound and employ a style that suitable for the mainstream Lagos market.
Today, there are Arewa artists who are quite popular and successful within the metric of their industry. Some of these artists have impressive numbers on YouTube which has turned out to be the DSP of choice for the larger proportion of the consumers of Arewa music. However, none of these artists have any recognizable song outside their base. Namenj is however one Arewa artist taking the bold step of taking Arewa music to the mainstream.
Strongly influenced by mainstream Nigerian music as a result of growing up in the South-Western City of Ibadan, Namenj is bringing an urban and pop touch to his Arewa-styled music.
It takes a lot of courage to see the potential of pop music originating from the North with the aim of taking it to the rest of Nigeria and eventually the world. It was this ambitious and daring expedition Namenj has undertaken that made TurnTable Charts got together with the artist and his manager to get a better understanding of their plans.
TurnTable Charts had a sit down with the rising star from the North whose eyes are set on the western market to discuss his career, aspirations, and his debut album “The North Star” which is a ten-track album that features Arewa sensation Hamisu Breaker and fast-rising star and label mates Joeboy, who appears on the track “Tired” amongst other artistes.
TTC: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
NAMENJ: My name is Ali Jubril Namanjo, I was born and raised in Ibadan, I did my primary and secondary school there. I attended the College of Art and Science in Kano. I also did a diploma program at Olabisi Onabanjo University, so currently I am a student at National Open University studying Business Management.
TTC: As a Hausa-born man who grew up in a major city in South-Western Nigeria. How does the fact that you can speak both Hausa and Yoruba influence your music?
NAMENJ: I am very lucky to grow up in the midst of the Yoruba and Hausa people and I see it as a benefit and opportunity as I can sing in both languages. So the kind of music I’m doing is a different vibe and I want people to recognize me as a guy from the north that can do justice to Afrobeats.
TTC: Because of the fact that you can speak both languages, do you think that has influenced the kind of music you make?
NAMENJ: in life, it’s good to diversify so that’s why I featured Joeboy in one of my songs and that was like a window to give people a reason to believe in me. Most songs you see in the North are the same but as for mine, the language is from the north, the lyrics are from the north but the beats are from south, so it’s like me combining the north and the south in one sound.
TTC: What is your journey on getting signed by Empawa?
NAMENJ: Back in 2019, Empawa launched this music competition online, you upload your video and use the hashtag Empawa30. So that’s how it all started and it was a video I posted 2 weeks before the challenge that made someone tell me about the challenge. I uploaded my video with the hashtag and woke up the next day and saw my video in the Top 10 and for like 3 weeks plenty people kept uploading their videos with the hashtag and every morning I will check to make such my video was still in the Top 10 and that was how it all started for me with Empawa and it has been great so far.
TTC: In this line of work, it’s almost impossible to not be inspired by an artist from this part of the country. Which artist would you say has been your biggest influence in Nigeria?
NAMENJ: In Nigeria, I think it's ASA because I play the guitar then Sound Sultan, 2Baba, and. Outside Nigeria I am influenced by Westlife, Bruno Mars, and a host of others.
TTC: That’s a wide range of genres. This list contains someone that does Pop, R&B, and someone that does folk music.
NAMENJ: From my perspective, if you want to learn a lot about being a musician, you have to listen to all the genres of music. You listen to Reggae, Afrobeat, Fuji music, Nanaye, and after listening to all these music, if you want to compose or create your music, something else will just come which will bring a different kind of vibe.
TTC: So what can we expect from you this year?
NAMENJ: So I am about to release an album. I have some artists featured on the album and I am excited about its prospect. I believe my album will be a hit both here and in the North. I am trying to use my music to change the narrative of how people view us in the north. We from the north like entertainment and music and there are a lot of talented upcoming artists over there.
TTC: Do you think the perspective you are trying to change has affected other artists from the north that have tried to break into the mainstream?
NAMENJ: Yes it has and is still affecting them. Many people down here believe that there is nothing good coming from the north. Once an artist does music in Hausa, the music and the artist doesn’t really stand a chance. But you see with other songs like "Jerusalema" that they didn’t even understand the language they still listened and vibed to it. So at the end of the day, it’s all about the vibe and the emotions in the songs.
NAMENJ’S Manager: In his case, he is one of the best musicians in the north that can work with different sounds to show his range and versatility. Namenj wants to extend beyond the North. The majority of musicians in the North don’t like extending but in his case, he is extending because he wants to be global. Take Phyno for example, he understands Igbo but he is extending because he vibed with the people here.
TTC: When you were making your album, what kind of headspace were you in, what did you want achieve with it?
NAMENJ: So while I was creating songs on the album, my mind wasn’t in the north. It was just like people in the north know me already so my aim now is here and the rest of the world.
TTC: What will be the focus tracks on the album?
NAMENJ: The focus tracks will be “Tired ft Joeboy”, “Say it again” and “Baby Nagode”
TTC: Those three songs that you mentioned, I’m guessing the one with Joeboy is more like what we are used to here
NAMENJ: The beat is Afrobeat but the song is in Hausa and the other two songs are in Hausa as well but are Afrobeat. If you listen to them you will see that these songs represent the popular sound but the language is Hausa.
TTC: As you said, we already have a perception of what the north is and what comes from it. Do you feel like at some point the way the world sees Nigeria as a place with terrorism, bad roads and the rest but because of the kind of music we release everybody still want to be a part of it, do you feel like that is what is going to happen to you and the North?
NAMENJ: Yes because the aim is to change the perspective and once we can do that everything will fall in place.