Zagadat! The Banku Music boss puts the business in show business. Here he shares his road to success from Lagos to London – and beyond
The first time I saw Mr Eazi perform was at The Shrine in Lagos last July. It is a major milestone for any Nigerian artist to headline a show at Fela Kuti’s spiritual home but for Eazi, it was just another achievement to add to his long list. “It lived up to my expectations but it’s them ones that you always want to do something and then you do it, and then it’s a ‘What’s next?’” he tells me. This may sound nonchalant but given the rate of knots that this artist chalks up moves, it’s no wonder he hasn’t had time to reflect.
In the past year alone Eazi has shared a stage with Jay Z at a Tidal X charity gig, performed on the Late Late Show With James Corden, hosted his own festival at The Roundhouse, been an Apple Music Up Next artist, come on for Diplo at Lovebox, and played everywhere from Afropunk Paris to Ibiza to Notting Hill Carnival to Amsterdam.
Among his stream of releases have been the latest banger-cum-political satire Keys To The City (Ogede), hit singles London Town with Giggs, Overload ft Slimcase & Mr Real and Property ft Mo-T – as well as more guest spots than it’s possible to keep up with. Eazi has jumped on tracks for Riton & Kahlo, Lady Leshurr, Shekhinah, Popcaan, Raye, M.O x Lotto Boyzz and Rudimental & Major Lazer to name just some.
What’s the secret of his enviable success? In conversation with this confident pop star in a café near his current east London home, he reveals that it’s less about an unadulterated love for music than his steadfast entrepreneurial approach to everything he sets his sights on.
Oluwatosin Oluwole Ajibade grew up in Lagos with his strongest early memories being of long road trips to visit family in Port Hartcourt each Christmas. “My dad would play Igbo gospel music in the car the whole way, which has beautifully delirious lyrics,” he recalls. “Gospel was the soundtrack for every driver on these routes because in them days the roads were bad and the security wasn’t great so this music gave people a hopeful feeling of protection from your creator.” He sang in the church choir and used his voice to his first advantage on the last day of high school to serenade his female classmates with Boyz II Men. “My friend wanted to make the girls like him so we went to their hostel and sang End Of The Road. They were all screaming and crying!”
He moved to Kumasi to study mechanical engineering at KNUST where he started hosting club nights and concerts and became known as “Tosin Swagger, the ultimate party boy”. By the final year he’d started making music as a member of The Nakamura Boys and released the track My Life as Eazi Nakamura in 2012. After a short stint back in Lagos, he returned to Ghana for his master’s degree, during which he established a small-scale gold mining business and released his first EP, About To Blow. “One of the songs blew up in the UK but I had dreams of having the biggest mining company in Ghana and didn’t want music to interfere with my image as a young entrepreneur, so I stayed away from it,” he says.
Then a dispute with his business partner meant he had to refund the working capital and step out of the mining game, which he admits left him “broke but with more time to record”. In 2015 his track Skin Tight featuring Efya helped him become known for his feel good, self-styled Banku Music sound. Nevertheless, once he got home to Lagos, he continued to prioritise the business world and got involved in marketing his friend’s phone store, securing substantial funding from a tech firm to establish it as an ecommerce business.
Then came an offer of £12,500 to do five gigs in the UK. “I saw it as a vacation and laughed about it. My neighbour from the phone store acted as my manager and we came. We were surprised to see 2,000 people a night turn up. So I used my fee to shoot five videos and returned to Nigeria with £20. I used the knowledge I’d gained in digital marketing from the phone business to market the music and then came back to London to play Ghana In The Park [a festival he now co-owns] and do my own headline show. Then Lauren Hill invited me to open for her in Brooklyn and people started paying me for features. It started getting real. This was making me more money than the other businesses that were taking all my time. It was in July 2016 when I decided that I was going to be a full time musician.”
His early 2017 mixtape, Life Is Eazi, Vol. 1 – Accra To Lagos cemented his Banku Music imprint and homegrown fan base thanks to collaborations with the likes Falz, Olamine and Phyno and the big tune, Leg Over. And since then he’s signed deals with Columbia Records in the UK, Universal Africa and Diplo’s Mad Decent. Those innate entrepreneurial skills have clearly come in rather handy, then?.
“Actually nothing has changed. It’s just that I’m selling a different product now,” he reflects. “Instead of mobile phones it’s music. I’m selling happiness and good vibes. It’s a better product and it’s easier to sell.” So what’s the magic that makes Banku Music so damn bankable? “It’s just the mood. People can relate to it because it’s a fusion. The melodies might be draw from dancehall, R&B or pop. In one verse I can go from English to Twi to patois to Yoruba to slang. That’s why it has travelled very far and so quickly.”
“Instead of mobile phones I’m selling music. I’m selling happiness and good vibes”
His next major release will be the mixtape player, Life Is Eazi, Vol. 2 - Lagos To London. The grime-laden London Town with Giggs acted as the first drop from this project, and the soon-come pop song Oh My God will be out soon, too. “My entire career will be episodes of trips. Anywhere I’m feeling, I’ll go and soak myself in it. About To Blow had a lot of azonto. Accra To Lagos included Nigerian sounds. Now Lagos To London is mixing up the influences I like from here,” he explains. “It’s about bringing my European and the African audiences together. Hopefully this project will find that balance. On a singles level, very few African artists have done it – D’Banj’s Oliver Twist, Ayo Jay’s Your Number – but if we’re lucky we’ll connect the dots and it will be beautiful.”
And after that, the rest of the world better watch out. “I want to get a Latino sound. I went out to Cuba to shoot a video with Raye and loved hearing reggaeton in the clubs so I’ve been listening to Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny and J Balvin [who he’s also recently toured with]. I also have a crazy idea to go to Kingston for two weeks and record a song a day. Maybe I’ll collaborate with Chronixx and Cranium. And in 2020, I’ll be putting out the project, Coming To America. Let’s go on this trip together!”