Meet the pioneers who are forging Abuja’s new alternative creative scene
As the federal capital of Nigeria, Abuja is the country’s political, judicial and military home. Constructed in the 1980s in the geographical centre of the country, it’s an ordered, purpose built place, meaning that when it comes to the creative industries, the city is generally overlooked in favour of Lagos, its more frenetic and glamorous older sibling down south. But times are changing as a small but growing band of artists and entrepreneurs are working hard to develop a new, alternative scene. Thanks to co-creative hubs such as Bantu Studio, co-founded by brothers Terna and Tay Iwar, immersive music events organised by Root n Raw and a cluster of other initiatives, hot spots and happenings, Abuja is beginning to define it’s own unconventional cultural identity. Here we meet six individuals making a difference across music, fashion and entertainment.
“When I try to describe my sound, the only thing that comes to mind is that it’s about honesty. It’s who I am,” says Ayüü. “I draw on different genres, approaches, writing techniques, but the only way to make a genuine impact is to do it my own way by reflecting upon where I am in my life at that time.” Right now, the singer is in a good place thanks to his recently warmly received Mango Juice and Bad Decisions EP. It exudes bouncy R&B flavours, and purposefully references the likes of Sisqo, Craig David and Lil Pump, while showing off the range of Ayüü’s voice from smooth crooning to battle rapping via falsetto notes. “This is about my interactions with girls who ended up bad decisions. Three of the tracks are music for the women but the last one, Pull Up, is for the guys. It’s more braggadocious and has become my anthem on the project.”
Ayüü grew up being influenced by his musical siblings but originally didn’t see the art form as his path. “I was naturally gifted at sport at school and just made music for fun but life happened and sports didn’t pan out. I had depression and anxiety and gravitated toward music as a way to genuinely speak to others,” he recalls. “I put in a lot of practice and sought advice, even when it was hurtful, to try to understand the higher meaning. It’s difficult to be comfortable being yourself, rather than the next popping guy.”
He dropped In That Order in 2016 followed by H. E. R. (His Emotions Recorded) and ØÜ By ØÜ, and now he’s working on his first mixtape. “I’m grateful for the response so far. There’s progress and growth but I definitely want to achieve more, to master my art, to influence my generation. I want people to listen to my music and feel different.” And for him, there’s no better place to do that than Abuja. “In Lagos it’s more saturated so you get copycats. Here everyone is unique and doing their own thing. The talent is incredible and there’s so much space for creativity. We just have to realise that it’s a sensitive city and people aren’t so spontaneous so let’s play to those strengths. It’s dope.”
Ihu Anyanwu is a woman of the world. Born to Nigerian parents in Missouri, she’s lived in Paris, Lagos, New York and Vienna and has called Abuja home for the past five years. She’s worked as a photographer, she’s published the music zine Repellent, had her own imprint Hezekina Pollutina and as G-Rizo is a singer, producer, DJ, promoter and makes music both a solo artist and as part of a band. Oh and she’s also a businesswoman with her own beauty store, which is what originally brought her back to Nigeria. But since 2017 she’s been stealthily bringing her specialist talents in all things funk, dub, disco, house and techno to the capital, too.
“The electronic music scene is very small here so people just think of EDM in its most commercial form and aren’t informed,” G-Rizo explains. “So I started out organising my own event, House House House, and then began being asked to DJ and perform, and now the sound is getting a more discerning following. Electronic music comes off at elitist but I don’t want to just play to ex pats, so my sets are more off kilter and wonky, which draws people in. And now I’m noticing young kids identifying with it and making afro house interpretations. I see it as my job to present, to be authentic and to pass out that message.”
Regular electronic parties in Abuja now include Bush Bar Sessions and Element House and likeminded local artists include Aldeen, DJ Sam Zeal and Evamic Nzei. And while the naijapop sound still dominates across the country, G-Rizo sees scope in her city for more nuanced horizons. “Abuja is insecure compared to Lagos but it’s also dynamic and awesome and people are oddly more receptive to new sounds. As long as songs are funky, they’ll find something to relate to. I’m not changing the world but I’m happy that people are getting into it and every time I play it’s a blessing.”
“It’s my city. It’s authentic, it’s easy going and growing up here, surrounded by hills, is one the reason I’m mellow,” says Lady Donli, who’s quietly and confidently on a mission to put her home and the north of Nigeria in focus with her conscious music. “At the moment I’m taking influence from Abuja, Kaduna and Jos. I’m going back to my Hausa roots – in the choice of my words and instruments, doing research and documenting sounds. There’s so much culture right here in Nigeria and we don’t make as much of it as we should.”
Donli discovered her love of performing at school and began writing and rapping poetry, progressing to putting songs online. While studying law in the UK, she started building a fan base with releases such as 2016’s Wallflower and since then she’s worked with Mr Eazi and Diplo, been recognised by Complex magazine for her hit Ice Cream and made waves with Letters To Her. She’s also toured the US and Canada and is a sought after live fixture in London, Lagos and of course, in Abuja.
“The Cube Café is a nice spot to perform, as are the Bantu Sessions and Root n Raw and I ride so hard for Tamerri Festival, which is a super important event for giving a different perspective,” she says. “Abuja is the political capital and it’s conservative so the entertainment scene has only thrived at a specific level. But now we’re encouraging the younger generation to express themselves and crowds are turning up more.”
Donli is also part of the band project The Cave Men with Kingsley Okore and working toward her debut LP, which she promises will be all about love. “I used to make a lot of love songs directed at certain people. But now I’m writing about what love should be. We should love each other, love the Earth that we’re on and live in the best possible way that we can. I want to spread love and share good energy.”
In the 1980s, Cef's family were among those who built Abuja’s physical and civil infrastructure. Now he’s building its culture with his music and through Root n Raw, an organisation he co-founded with business partner Michael Njoku, which hosts meaningful music moments. “Growing up here there were good roads, electricity, new buildings. But there was no juice, no soul. It was a plain canvas,” he recalls. “I listened to a lot of music – Bob Dylan, Biggie, Tupac, Fela, Asa. I started to rap and then my mother bought me a guitar and that put me on my path.”
He started writing songs while at university, dropped out and after some “seeking and searching” decided to organise his own acoustic nights in 2015. This progressed the following year to Tamerri, an ambitious independent festival attracting 2,000 guests to enjoy native music, fashion, food, dance and art. “We had no sponsors. We were just young people trying to make an impact. It was a first of its kind so we had a lot of discouragements but just seeing it come alive and everyone come together was electric,” he recalls. It’s now become an annual occasion with G Rizo, Ayüü and Lady Donli joining the likes of Brymo, Femi Leye, AYLØ and Jeremiah Gyang on stage.
Cef has also been known to perform, his self-styled “overground spiritual” sound creating an intimate live experience. “When I’m playing I am not an entertainer. I’m there to give freely and to share messages that have been given me from on high. I go into a trance and travel somewhere else, I can’t explain,” he says. “My music is about consciousness, the beauty that lies within and who you should be. I want to wake people up.”
For such a centrifugal force in Abuja, he’s reticent to promote his music online, shies away from social media, and has put little of his work out into the world so far, other than an acoustic album in 2017. But he promises two new singles soon, Pray for Me and Take What’s Mine, produced by Tay Iwar. And he’s acutely aware that more needs to be done. “The alternative scene is in its infancy. We are making efforts but we need some top-level engagement to help us grow a solid, tangible way of living. It takes time and support for these seeds to flourish.”
Sessi Koshoedo dresses in-the-know women (and the odd guy, like Denola Grey and Burna Boy) in Clearly Invincible. Inspired by her mother, who also has a fashion house, she studied design in Lagos before establishing her bespoke line in Abuja in 2016. “My aesthetic is clean, simple and functional with every piece having a dual function or the ability to be dressed up for down,” Koshoedo explains, who also works in styling and creative direction.
Her most enduring hero piece is her velvet trousers with lace-up the sides and slits from the knee. And for her recent capsule collection she’s looked to her father’s career as an architect. “Most of our car journeys are spent analysing buildings so I was thinking about those random starry nights driving past sky scrapers in big cities. There’s a backless corset dress, a satin wrap top with detachable sleeves and see-through bell bottoms with metal zips.”
While Koshoedo bemoans the lack of a formal fashion structure in Abuja such as reliable production facilities or seasonal fashion weeks, she appreciates its low-key energy. “I love the creative scene here because those involved are true to themselves and their craft. We work from a place of expressing ourselves. It’s a small, serene city and it’s growing as more people become open to their artistry,” she says. So what’s next? “I’m releasing a kimono capsule. I’m going with the flow and savouring every bit of it.”
“My vision is to cater to our generation who want to buy African streetwear. This market is not catered to in Abuja,” says Gabriel Ugochukwu Solomon, founder of menswear line Russell Solomon. He cut his fashion teeth in Lagos, initially assisting at direction label I.Am.Isigo and then working as a celebrity stylist. But after a family loss three years ago, he decided to relocate to Abuja to find a calmer environment within which to rejuvenate. After working as a designer for two local upscale brands, he struck out alone in late 2016.
“My aesthetic is influenced by earth forms and rustic artworks. We like to experiment with intricate cuts, edgy lines and eco friendly fabrics in order to push ourselves as a brand,” he says. Having made his catwalk debut in Addis Ababa in 2017, he showcased at Lagos Fashion Week in 2018 with his SS19 collection, Code of Conduct. “It’s talking about the new guidelines we believe in when addressing issues of gender based violence and mental illness. We want people to consider how to handle each other and the inequalities in our society.” As such, clear PVC jackets allow their wearer to proudly show who they are underneath, while also wearing logo t-shirts, city shorts and simple blazers in natural hues and pops of upbeat yellow.
Solomon views the fact that Abuja’s creative scene is in its infancy as an opportunity and he gives props to Bantu Studio for bringing likeminded people in his circle together. “Terna Iwar was my first contact in the city and has created a family of writers, designers, photographers and stylists. There are a lot of us who are hungry and ready to work so everyone can come to Bantu to support each other and to create,” he says. “From here I want to get to the position that I’m taking my brand to the world.”
Nataal would like to thank the British Council’s West Africa Arts programme for supporting our editorial focus on Nigeria