Lessons in life, music and how to entertain women from Nigeria’s waviest afrobeats star

With a wise head on his young shoulders, YCEE is taking on the afrobeats business and winning. The Nigerian artist has been tipped by Billboard, Westwood and DJ Edu, received MAMA nominations, signed a distribution deal with Sony and collaborated with the likes of Reekado Banks, Maleek Berry and Seyi Shay. Fresh from slaying London’s O2 Academy with his Juice Concert, here YCEE (real name Oludemilade Martin Alejo) breaks down the story of his beginnings, late night vibrations, and growing global success.

I’m from Festac Town. It was originally created for FESTAC 77, the world festival of African arts and culture, and has remained a hub for creatives. There’s always someone big coming out of Festac. 2face Idibia is from Festac and I’m from Festac.

I went to military secondary school so I’m very familiar with a certain level of discipline. I used to get into a lot of trouble and be punished but looking back I’m thankful because the school exposed me to people from all parts of the country and all walks of life.

I used to be able to sing any song that was popular, and so decided to write my own lyrics. At first it was headless stuff but over time I got better and became one of the best rappers in my neighbourhood. By 2012 I had signed to Tiny Entertainment and Tiny asked me what I wanted to do with the music. I started thinking about the bigger picture and seeing myself as a superstar. Coming up there’s a lot to learn and I made some rooky mistakes, so after a while we took a break to restrategise. Then in 2015 I recorded Condo with Patoranking, which was my first hit on a countrywide level. It’s all been up from there.

What makes my music wavy is that I’m rapping and then I’m singing. I blur genres and let the vibe lead me in the best direction. Growing up I enjoyed hip hop and R&B, so I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t focus on both sides. My vibe can sound lazy and drunk, even when I’m 100 per cent sober. It’s just how I am, how I move. That lazy feel is what can get you hooked. You can listen to my music any time or anywhere.

I released the First Wave EP internationally last year. I worked with different artists and producers so that this body of work could show different sides to my music and introduce me to new audiences. It was well received from the first song to the last but Juice was the one that has become the biggest. The beat was amazing and the stars aligned. When its spun in a club, people go crazy.

My recent song Don’t Need Bae is about wooing an independent woman. She doesn’t need your money so what can you offer her? When I first released the track, fans thought I was saying I don’t need bae, you know their dreams were diced. Then they understood what I was trying to say.

Something Light with Falz was a result of a conversation we were having about when you meet a beautiful girl who looks posh but at the end of the day, she’s just hungry. Give me, give me, give me - I need money for transport, buy me dinner. I’m not saying you shouldn’t spoil your significant other but it isn’t a one sided deal.

I won’t lie; most of my fans are female. The guys don’t have any choice but to like what the females like, so it’s a good thing. I enjoy the company of women, so to be in a position to entertain them, to make them feel this way, is great.

Right now I’m working on a full-length album. I want to put out two albums and a joint EP in 2018. I’m also thinking about partnering with a friend on a fashion line. And I’m still at university finishing a degree in marine biology.

I also have a project with secondary school students. I feel younger role models should be in touch with kids at a stage in their life that they need motivation to help them make the right decisions so I’m planning a seminar-type tour to see how we can work with the school system to make things better.

My best-kept secret in Lagos is this grimy, 24-hour street chow place near where I live. I’ll be on the island at 3am, having had some low-key cocktails at the Oriental, and then decide to drive and go get suya. And when I get back from traveling, it’s the first thing I want to eat.

Words Helen Jennings
Photography Lakin Ogunbanwo

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Published on 13/01/2018