Exclusive: How D'Banj became Africa's king of music

2015-03-22 07:40

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Nigerian superstar D’Banj is celebrating the first decade of his career in royal style all over the world. As part of his 10th anniversary, he popped into SA and, over some Cîroc, chatted to Gugulethu Mhlungu on the view from the top of the African music game

How long do you want to speak to him for?” D’Banj’s manager, Tara Hecksher, asks me when an interview with the Nigerian superstar is confirmed.

“Can he spare half an hour?”

She laughs, the kind where it’s obvious someone doesn’t mean to, but it bursts out of them. “He’s very impatient. Shall I tell him 15 minutes and, if you get more, then cool? Even I struggle to get him to sit still for 15 minutes.”

So when I arrive at his Sandton hotel on a hot Monday afternoon, I have plans to be quick and get as much of the Koko Master as I can. He’s in South Africa, rather quietly, as part of his 10th anniversary celebrations.

When 34-year-old Oladapo Daniel Oyebanjo appears, I am half-disappointed it’s not with a flourish and his now distinctive “I’m D’Banj!” heard at the beginning of many of his hits.

His Monday afternoon “casual” look is a pair of jeggings, a black Balenciaga tee with patent snakeskin detail and a Cuban gold link chain worn over it, a black pair of bejewelled Christian Louboutin sneakers, two watches (one on each arm) and a covetable pair of black Miu Miu half-moon sunglasses with gold detailing. His swag says “I’m D’Banj!” without him having to say a word.

He speaks in a kind of whisper, as if he’s telling you the secret to selling a million copies of your debut album – which he did with No Long Thing in 2004 – but it’s also part of his charm. A charm he’s well aware of.

When I introduce myself, he makes me repeat my name because it sounds so much like “kokolet”, a slang word he made popular. Kokolet refers to a good-looking woman. He refers to attractive women as kokolets and himself as The Koko Master.

“You are a real kokolet! Jesus is Lord!” he exclaims, clapping.

The singer-songwriter and harmonica player has as many names as he does talents. There’s The Koko Master, D’Banj, Mr Endowed and, lately, DJ Bangalee.

Mr Worldwide

I ask him about his travelling schedule. “I leave tomorrow?...?[off to] Lagos for a day and then Dubai for another party. From Dubai we’re going to come back to Nigeria?...?and then America, then back to South Africa?...”

I ask him what will be bringing him back and he says: “Maybe a video, but also maybe a performance. But if it is a performance, I don’t want it to be in Joburg. Cape Town has been trying to show me love. So has Durban, and I have never performed there and want to perform for them.”

He continues: “When we started, I said to my team I want to do a minimum of 50 performances. We are at three so far. We are going all over the world. Australia just came in, Brazil, and Canada?…?We have about 16 already, and we are going everywhere so that my fans can feel me.”

He says he has plans for a double-disc 10th-anniversary album with one disc of new music and the other with some of his hits.

I ask him what the reception was to his two performances in Joburg: “Recently, I found out that the love in South Africa is?…” He gestures with his hands, recreating what looks like an atomic mushroom cloud above his head. He says he had no real indication of what kind of following he had in Africa’s second-biggest economy.

“I knew there was love, and I experienced it a little bit at the Africa Cup of Nations here in 2013, but I had no real idea. I performed two nights ago and people were shouting ‘Oliver Twist! Oliver Twist!’ and then knew all the words when we did it?…?Man!”

He, of course, would have missed what his global hit Oliver Twist did to local dance floors in 2012. “I think there’s now competition between South Africa and Nigeria in terms of the support and love.”


You’re only as good as your last match

Despite his late-2014 single Feeling The Nigga lacking the pop appeal of hits like Oliver Twist, and rumours of mounting debt and money troubles, he still singles out 2014 as his best year yet.

“You are always as good as your last match, so I would choose last year as the highlight of my decade so far.” He explains: “2014 was really good. I got three endorsement deals, one of which was more an appointment than an endorsement [referring to his One Campaign ambassadorship].”

In October 2014, he was named the first official African global ambassador for the massive Beats by Dre headphone brand, now owned by Apple. Befittingly, his range of Beats products are black and gold. He’s in a whole other universe to his first endorsement for an energy drink, Power Fist, a decade ago.

“My work with the One Campaign, which focused on youth and agriculture, has been so important, and it was funny when they called me at first.” He calls global One Campaign ambassador Bono his godfather in music. “And then we got together and did it. We won best African collaboration [for the song Cocoa na Chocolate in support of agricultural investments] in December last year at the All Africa Music Awards.

“After February last year, it really got crazy big, and I was invited to different stages, including speaking at the World Bank, World Economic Forum and TEDx.”

He says it’s precisely because it was outside of music that 2014’s successes were so important to him.

“I’ve always wanted to be seen outside of just entertainment?...?for people to look at me and say: ‘This is a businessman.’ We know what we are doing; we are entrepreneurs. And if you give us the opportunity, we will turn a stone into a palace.”

Undoubtedly, he’s turned a few stones into palaces with his business and Koko brand interests. He’s done everything from mobile content to bottled water, in addition to having sold more than 3?million records worldwide.


Content is the new crude

“Ten years ago when I started, I said I was an entertainer, and I have always been passionate about the music business. When we started, there was really nothing there. We had to make it.”

He says now is the time for artists like him to concern themselves with the business of music, “because music is big business, and there’s so much that African artists still need, and they don’t understand the corporate side of it”.

He explains that while businesses see music as a valuable industry, they are unsure of how to get involved in it.

Artists also don’t know how to make money beyond just making songs. “Where I want to go is beyond the music and focusing on the revenue streams: content, publishing, branding, endorsement, licensing and building up the back end of it. I am seeing myself in the business position more, because content is the new crude [oil].”

In the end, my conversation with D’Banj lasts more than three hours. The dinner gets moved to later and, while we drink his new endorsement vodka, Cîroc, I ask the man who has casually featured Snoop Dogg and Kanye West in his music videos what it is like being D’Banj. He pauses, looks up and says: “I don’t know.”

He thinks for a moment. “It’s because when you are working, you’re just going and you don’t have time to think about all that stuff and what it means. And sometimes people think they know you.”

He says he used to hate it when artists were separated according to local and international.

Now that he is signed to West’s GOOD Music, has a major international distribution deal with Sony, is endorsed by global brands, and his song Oliver Twist rocketed to number one in 11 countries (“I have never even been to some of them,” he says), this African success story can call himself whatever he wants.

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