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Yemi Alade: Nigeria’s Mama Africa

Producer Morgan Greenstreet is currently in Lagos, Nigeria, working on our upcoming Nigeria Hip Deep series. He interviewed superstar Yemi Alade at illustrious director Clarence Peters’ studio, where they were filming a music video for her feature with Bez, “You Suppose Know.”

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Morgan Greenstreet: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! Obviously you’re a very important artist in the Nigerian music scene, but could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, about what you do?

Yemi Alade: Hello, my name is Yemi Alade, my birth name and my artist name, and music is what I do. My music is best described as Afropolitan, which is a merge of both pop and r&b, highlife and Afrobeats.

I see! I feel like your sound fits really well with what’s going right now in Lagos, the style that’s hot right now. How would you define the sound of Nigerian pop right now?

I think Nigerian music…the Afrobeats sound is ever-evolving, even though our Oga [chief], the top Fela is the one who is the pioneer of Afrobeats, the sound itself. I think we found a way of using that as the foundation and keep interpreting it in the ways that best reflect our artistic sides. It’s an ever-evolving, ever-changing sound.

You’re one of the top female artists in Nigeria, maybe in Africa. How do you feel that role of women is the music scene right now, especially as leaders, and how do you see yourself in that regard?

Well, if I’m right, the population of women in Nigeria still exceeds the guys, so our position as female artists in the industry isn’t just a thing of gender, but it’s a very important position, because it encourages the many females out there to stand out and do what they know best to do. We are a very, how should I put it, mentorship-position people.

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A number of your songs deal with issues of infidelity, of men not respecting women, for example, “Johnny,” which was your first big hit, but also the recent tune, “Tumbum.”


Why does that issue speak to you, or what are you trying to say with those songs?

I’ll say two things: Someone has to talk about it, right? Because everybody’s talking about how “love is so beautiful,” so why don’t we talk about the other things that happen when in love? And second of all, it’s one of the things that relates to every guy, every woman out there: Everyone has been a Johnny, everyone is playing games with someone. Even if I might be a female, it’s not always a thing of the guy cheating, females do it as well, and very well I must say [Laughs].

So, love, in general, is a theme that many artists treat, it’s one of the central themes of music. Do you find that you’re expressing yourself creatively through the theme of love, or it’s a topic that’s just simplest to resort to?

Well, no, no, no, love is not a simple thing, if you’ve ever been in love, even a common friendship, you realize that it’s not as simple as it seems! They tell us about happily ever after but no one talks about the quarrels and misunderstandings and all that. Love is one of the most complex situations one could ever find oneself. I think that’s why it always feels good to sing about the good part, because it just makes it easier to believe that it’s easy. And yes, most of my songs are from personal experience, and “Johnny” was definitely a personal experience.

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I think it touched people who are affected by those situations. Lately, you’ve been referring to yourself as Mama Africa, which obviously has some historical connotations…

Well, everywhere I go, I know in my heart that the ultimate Mama Africa is Miriam Makeba. Reading her history, even though I’ve never met her, her soul rest in peace, I’ve read so much about her, and she stood for so much! She was more than just the word “legend,” she basically fought a battle that no one thought a woman would agree to fight. She was someone powerful. And I just felt, as an African and as a woman, it was just my time to tell my own African story, and what better way to put it than to title it “Mama Africa.” And funny enough, I already started getting the nickname Mama Africa because I’m almost always not in my country, I’m in some African country or somewhere in Europe or wherever, spreading the good news of Africa and African goodness.

So, I’m very interested how things work in the Nigerian music scene, and what it takes to get to where you’re at, which is the top. Could you describe your journey, your hustle, how you got here?

Well, thank you for saying that I’m at the top, I hope I stay there long! [Laughs] But the journey here has been one of both good and bad, some challenges and triumphs, some failures. But most of all it’s a very encouraging story, because we find a way to make something out of nothing in Nigeria, in a country where the musical system in terms of royalties isn’t exactly paying off. It’s almost nonexistent, yet we still find a way to fund our projects and still go around the world and do what we know how best to do.

I would say God has brought us this far and I’m thankful to a team that doesn’t sleep, shout-out to Effyzzie Music Group, and shout-out to my fans who have been there since day one and who support me and who run to get every one of my songs that drop, whether on iTunes or what-have-you. But it’s been a group effort, a group effort all the way.

So, tell me about day one, what was day one like, when you were like, “I’m going to be an artist, I’m going to make it.”

Phew! Well, I’ve been singing forever, like as a kid, and in the bathroom, at church and things like that. But when I won a talent show in 2009, after I won, I told myself, “O.K., Yemi, no more thinking about the negative parts of trying to get exposed to the world, going out there to get what’s yours, it’s time for you to ignore all that.” So I sat myself down in front of the mirror; I won’t say I denounced my name, or where I’m coming from, the background I’m from or whatever. I just told myself, “Yemi, you’re going out to get what’s yours, you’re starting on a clean slate, just go out, just go out.” I had to give myself that little pep talk. I’ve very happy I made that bold step, because I was a very indoor kind of person.

Do you think that there are advantages or disadvantages of being a woman in this scene?

Hmm, I think the advantage of being a woman on the scene would be two things: We easily express our emotional side. What’s the world without some emotions, you know? And, as a woman, I know that when you empower a woman, you empower an entire generation, so that’s a power-stand for me. So as far as disadvantages go, I would say, to an extent in Africa, females are viewed as the lesser gender, we’re not seen as a powerhouse, if you know what I mean, the guys are given preferential treatment in terms of respect and every other thing that comes our way. But through it all, we shine and we conquer, and we’re very much among the best.

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Definitely. You mentioned the struggles of the Nigerian music scene, economically. What are the ways you’ve found to fund your projects?

Sincerely, I’m just gonna call a spade a spade: The only way, in Nigeria, at the moment, is via your performance fees. You use that to fund, of course, the performance itself, you use that to fund the videos and everything. That’s the only actual one. And maybe sometimes some endorsements come in, but that’s pretty much the only one.

That’s pretty much true everywhere, unfortunately.

Yes, unfortunately. Well, other places there are other things online that bring in trickles of cash, but…

But they’re trickles.

Yeah.

So, in terms of themes that you sing about, some artists like to sing a lot about cash, about making money, is that theme you like to sing about?

Well, I might just touch the subject lightly but it’s not like my main focus. A lot of people are just singing that from fiction, most times. A lot of people don’t have as much as they claim to have, but nah, it’s a topic I lightly touch, if I ever do.

What are your goals? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

Well, it’s 2016 and I’m in a beautiful place, I’m thankful that I’ve gotten this far, but I’m very, very, very far from where I want to be. In 10 years, that’s a very far shot, but I’d love to be alive! And, definitely, I hope to have gotten my Grammy or two or three or four or five, and an Oscar maybe.

Can you describe where we are, what you’re doing here today?

Well, we are on set right now, shooting a video for a song I was featured on by the amazing Bez. He’s an amazing artist and happens to have an entire gallery of guitars, I don’t know if there’s a name for a group of guitars but he’s a showoff in that department, I’m sorry.

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And we’re here shooting the video with Clarence Peters. Clarence Peters has been responsible for a lot of my shoots, he has directed a lot of my shoots, from “Ferrari,” to “ETC.” He’s amongst the very good directors in Nigeria, in fact in Africa, let’s be all out there. And other than that, I’m right here talking to you, and it’s good.

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Is there anything you’d like to add about the Nigerian music scene, about what you’re trying to do with your music?

Hmmm. I think I’m just trying to be a living example in the way that I can, and I’d like to encourage everyone not to get carried away by so many social media antics and forget the reality of life, and I’d like to also use this opportunity to holler at social media bullies: I wouldn’t say go get a life, but I think you should really focus on getting a life, literally. Yeah.

I feel like the image is really important, your image is very crafted and very beautiful, the way you present yourself.

Thank you.

What is the role of social media, and online media in general, for the Nigerian music scene?

It’s a total package. So far, Nigeria has somehow been the one setting the pace in terms of quality videos, and image and how well you package your social media, whatever. Because it’s very important! The whole world is looking in and the crazy part is that there’s a possibility that only five percent of your fans in the entire world will ever meet you, so the only way they will ever get to meet you is on social media and on TV and all that. So, I don’t think that is something to play with.

Just The Other Day … #ABCRELAXER #EJIROEMOSTAFIRI

A photo posted by Yemi Alade (@yemialade) on

So you feel that, in some ways, it’s something that you give to your fans, or that you almost owe to your fans to make them feel engaged?

Oh yes, I always do that for my fans, and shout-out to a team that doesn’t sleep, they always make sure that I come correct. But I don’t try to hide my flaws. Because in all that creativity, I think my flaws are the most beautiful things.

[Laughs] What do you mean?

I have flaws, just let it be. [Laughs]

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What about partnering with brands and corporate sponsorships? This has been growing phenomenon in the Nigerian music industry; is it something you’d like to pursue? Do you think that this is a way that the Nigerian music industry can grow?

What kind of corporate sponsorship do you mean?

I mean like the partnership you recently did with Shell, “Best Day of My Life.”

Oh yes, that’s a good one. Especially if they have the same vision as you, why not? And if it’s something that they’re looking into to profit from financially, something that can be discussed and applied to our reality, you know. Make sure that when you put in one naira here, it comes out on the other side, if not, no deal.

Understood. And you feel like that one, particularly, they were on board?

Well, for Shell, I was most personally engaged because it was more humanitarian than just, you know, being in collaboration with such a very big company. For instance, we visited places where I’d never been in my life. There were places that we visited where I had to wear rain boots because we were going to literally step on human feces. People who really, really needed their lights to be lit, literally, we brought lights to them. So I feel blessed to be the one who was chosen from Africa to represent.

Well, thank you so much!

Pleasure!

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