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Monday 27 April 2020

Blaqbonez: The Best Rapper In Africa Faces His Biggest Battle Yet With Covid-19

“Bro, I have been watching anime, and trying to get my mind off everything that is going on,” Blaqbonez tells me. We are cooped up in his room on Lagos Island, where the 24-year-old refuses to come close to me because of social distancing. Shirtless, with a bottle of groundnut, he’s worked up about the state of the world, scouring the internet for new ways to navigate the temporary shutdown of live music spaces.
“Everything has stopped. Nobody can perform, nobody can promote music using traditional methods. Only online and social media. So, that changes everything,” he tells me, taking a swig from a water bottle to step down the peanuts he was clearly enjoying. “From how you create, market and engage, everything has changed.”
He is right. Nothing is the same anymore. Nothing feels like it has been for years. Nothing makes sense. In March 2020, the world ground to a halt as the Covid-19 pandemic speedily tore through countries, leaving scores of people dead, and a lot more sick and requiring intensive medical care. World leaders have shut their borders, cities have imposed lockdowns, banning mass transit, and large gatherings of people. As a consequence of these measures, the global economy has taken a nosedive, as businesses watch revenue drop, and their value, incinerated. 
The music industry has been one of the worst-hit. Across territories, musicians and the companies that have handled their businesses are experiencing an unprecedented drought due to the shutdowns. The ban on large public gatherings has killed live music and touring. A string of concert cancellations means artists have lost one of their strongest income sources. Brands who interface with music for their marketing campaigns and sales activations no longer have the financial bandwidth for projects. According to reports, music streaming has experienced an 8% decline, further deepening the losses to the industry. Essentially, the only creators making money in Nigeria, are the people who market products to their fanbase, and the ones with any sort of streaming power. The rest are going through it. 
Born Emeka Akumefule, Blaqbonez has distinguished himself as a maverick of sorts. A former hardcore battle rapper who joined Hip-hop in protest of weak songwriting, he’s transitioned into a hybrid pop artist with a flair for weaving witty narratives in his records. Signed to 100 Crowns—an imprint with solid affiliation to Chocolate City, the rapper’s found a functional intersection between art and humor—He’s been playing this hand with skits designed to inspire laughter, as well as promote his records. He says he discovered it by accident and has never looked back. 
“I can have what I'm selling and this guy is just walking by, he doesn't know that this is what I'm selling. If I can do something that'd make him come here, whatever reason he comes here for, he would discover that this is what I'm selling,” he tells me, throwing more nuts into his mouth.
As the self-proclaimed ‘Best Rapper In Africa,’ Blaqbonez has made promo skits calling out pop superstar Wizkid as a non-supportive peer, used Pornhub branding for his Instagram live broadcasts, and utilizes Twitter as his core marketing platform for his brand. When he isn’t in character, what you find is an introspective strategist, who draws out elaborate plans, executing with precision and flair. He’s hands-on with his music and the business that drives it. He speaks broadly, drawing up numbers, and charts, and introducing me into his world of analytical intelligence. It’s a stark contrast to his goofy public persona. This mad man has a method, a winning one which he’s happy to share with the world.
What drives Blaqbonez? 
I take entertainment like a full-time job. Like a 9-5, The same thing that makes the guy wake up in the morning and go to the bank. I have ambitions. Asides that, I have to take care of my everyday needs. But then, it's one thing to be hardworking and it's another thing to add that icing on the cake. The icing on the cake for me is I want to obviously be the greatest. I want to be one of the guys that when everything's said and done, everybody will always mention me. That's who I want to be. I just don't want to come and pass, make money and just go, and when my time is up nobody cares. I want to live like a proper man. So those are the two things that are driving me.
Everybody keeps saying ‘greatness’. How do you visualize that for yourself?
If I'm being specific, what I'd categorise as greatness is longevity. There are so many artists that come out and they're the hottest at a particular time and it doesn't last a year or two. But there are the Drakes. It still seems like Drake is getting bigger after like 10 or 12 years in the game. And I feel like the reason why that is, is because unlike every rapper, you can't really predict how Drake would approach his next single. Sometimes Drake is doing a Jamaican thing, sometimes a UK thing. Drake is doing a trap record, or Drake is doing R&B. That's why when people listen to me, I push myself to distinguish between the previous thing and the next song. That's the only way I can keep doing it and people would never really get tired. That's what drives me. Longevity most especially. I want to be here for a long time.
A lot of fans say hopping around ruins their connectivity to the artist.
If you weigh the pros and cons of sticking with the same thing and reinventing yourself, you'll discover that reinventing yourself always wins. Now let's say you decide to stay with the same thing, yeah? You're giving the audience the same thing over and over. That audience would definitely get tired of it and 100% you would not be around for too long. That's a guarantee. But in that time that you're around, they'd love you and everybody will sing your praises. But when you reinvent yourself, the worst thing is that you'd lose people that you had when you were rapping. But you'd gain, maybe the Jamaicans. When you reinvent yourself again, if you lose Jamaica you would gain maybe the R&B guys.  And that guarantees longevity. That's just a worst-case scenario. I'm just showing you that the worst case of reinvention is still a success, as far as what you're doing has quality. 
Every time I pivot from this to this, a lot of people are mad that 'he's not rapping as much'. But those same people—no matter how much they try—they still find themselves listening to these other songs that I put out. Because even when they want one particular thing you still know that this other thing is fire. So the most important thing is maintaining quality. A lot of people, when they pivot and try different styles, I feel like it's half-baked. I have a full album that nobody has heard and in the process of recording that album, I've dropped so many tracks. And I don't intend to release that album in six months or maybe it might take a year. I would still record more and a lot of songs would get dropped by the way. So before you hear that different sound, I've already finetuned it enough to make sure that it's good enough. So when you hear it, even if you wanted me to rap, you can't deny the fact that this is still fire. When I see comments like 'I wish Blaqbonez was rapping, but this 'Haba' is still a banger', you can't deny the fact that what I gave you is still quality. But when you stick with the same thing, people are going to get tired of it no matter how dope it is. By the time you do the same thing over and over, there's no way people won't get tired. And at the end of the day, you're out of the game. Longevity is my watchword. 
If every rapper pivots, where does this leave hip-hop?
Wow, see my sub (laughs). I think hip-hop is in a good place right now because...
Local hip-hop?
Hip-hop generally. Local hip-hop is better than it used to be. There are a bunch of guys that are doing stuff right now. Hip-hop can be fused with so many things.
...because At the heart of it is sampling.
Yes, 'cause I've always said one thing. I've seen the growth of so many people and I lowkey realise that for you to sell people a commodity, you need their attention. There are a lot of hip-hop songs doing well on our Nigerian charts. There's the late Pop Smoke on our Nigerian Apple Music Top 20. There's Roddy Rich’s 'The Box', there's DaBaby's new song 'Rockstar'. So the only reason why I feel those songs are successful in Nigeria is that those songs already have our attention. When I make all these other songs, I know that my end goal is still hip-hop 'cause I'm a hip-hop guy. But I need the attention. I believe that if I have a million followers and I can put hip-hop on the chart when I drop it, I'd bring more attention to the game than ever. It's easier to do that than try to force people when I don't have their attention. To give them something they are not necessarily craving for at that moment. Nigerians are naturally craving for Afrobeats because that's the sound that we grew up with. So for you to give them something, they have to like you. 
Also, because I'm signed to a label, it's easier to make sense of that. I can't go to my label and say I believe this is going to be a smash hit and when they check they're like the demand for hip-hop is not high enough to invest blah blah blah. You know there was a point last year that you'd be like if Naira Marley gives you any genre, as far as it's a dope song, it's going to scatter everywhere because he had everybody's attention. So at this moment, I'm just trying to gather everybody's attention. I've done the rap thing. I've seen how far it can go when you don't have attention. I've seen it and I have immediate needs every day. So I'm not trying to take too much risk 'cause I have to take care of my family. I have to pay my rent. I have to do so many things. So my plan right now is to get attention and focus that attention on the culture. 
Me and Pyscho YP are working on a joint project. And that's going to be pure rap and everything. Because two of us together is so big that there would be so much attention. We can fuck up the charts. If you're at home and you see hip-hop is top 10 in Nigeria, it makes you feel like ‘wow hip-hop can sell.’ But when you keep trying to do it at a small scale, every time you don't succeed, you're telling people that hip-hop cannot work. So I don't want to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. That when I pivoted to making Afrobeats and everything. 
Rema had the biggest hip-hop song last year probably. Okay, I think I had the biggest hip-hop song. I have to give myself some credit. Kind of yeah? Rema had 'Why'. Everybody knows 'American Love'. If they gave us those songs before 'Dumebi,' it wouldn't do well on the charts.
Rema is a rapper...
Yes, if he gave us 'American Love' everyone would be like ‘who is this one that Don Jazzy just bought?’ But the moment he captivated us with 'Dumebi', whenever he gives us something, everyone is like eats it. I think that that's the template on how to break it. 
What’s the sole difference between being signed and unsigned in Nigeria?
I think one important thing is money. Budget. I've always been a very hands-on artist. I study a lot of things, I study a lot of trends. I'm always thinking of ways to move my content. So I feel like the one important thing between me being unsigned and signed is budget money. At this point, I'm starting to feel like I need to create my small team and just get sponsorship for my label. Because I feel like I know everything already. I probably even know more than a lot of people because everybody's release, I'm checking everything. A lot of people don't know how obsessed I am. Every time somebody releases, I'm checking and I know where everybody is on the charts.
What chart informs you? Apple Music?
I use every chart. Audiomack, Apple Music, Boomplay. I check everything every day. Even the Soundcity top 20 and everything. So I always ask myself why is this guy successful? What did this guy do that we didn't do? I was doing all these before I got signed. I think the major leap is just the availability of budget to spend. 
How important is money in making music?
It's probably the most important thing because it's a business. People these days ehn, everybody wants to collect money from you. Now more than ever, it's harder to push music for free. It's crazy hard. Before, girls would make videos and post for free because they like the song. Now, even those girls that really like the song would not want to post for you because they want to get paid. At this point, everything you could have gotten for free, you have to pay for now, because everybody has realised that each of them has the power. Everybody is fighting for playlists. It's crazy what playlists have become right now. There's this song that was rising on the chart. All of a sudden, they took it off one playlist and all the work that the artist had been doing to get the song to keep going up was undone in like four days. I personally know that the song is buzzing and I can hear the song everywhere on social media. But the power is in the hands of one guy that's the curator. And I'm 100% sure that if it's not money, people can get those things through other means. 
For instance, if you were the curator and I'm your brother. If you're the curator and I'm your girlfriend.  Right now, if you don't have money, you have to find ways to get favours because everything is crazier than before. Normally I don't show off my Spotify numbers at all because I genuinely feel like it means nothing. It doesn't show my growth or anything because it's simply playlists. There's this playlist I usually get one. Spotify is not in Nigeria, but I'd do like 500k streams. People would do one million, two million. They'd come and post it and say ‘thank you my fans.’ It's not your fans. Nobody gives a fuck about you. If you're a nobody and you put out a song and Apple Music playlists you in top two in all the top playlists, you'd go up the charts like you're a star. I heard that there's something called a marketing budget. You need money. Without money right now, you're just wasting your time. 
But then, where's the place for things like artistry, talent, good music? Where does that exist?
All that exists. It depends on what you're making music for. If you're making music just to entertain your fans, your artistry and all is great. But when you drop, it's going to fall off the charts after like a week. For example, everybody is raving about how great Brymo's album is. It was trending all over, all the songs went up. But after one week, everything was already out of that place. So no matter how you look at it—artistry and everything—if you don't do the needful behind the scenes, no matter how good the music is, it might not go far. It might be the greatest thing anybody has ever heard, but nah. Let me give you an example; Tems' 'Try Me.' That's one of the best songs that came out last year. When she initially dropped it before she put out the video, the song went up the chart and later left the top 200 entirely. It just goes to show. If she did not do the work that she had to do promo-wise, that song would have been forgotten so fast. All the good music and the blah blah blah things that you want to do, if you don't want to do the work behind it, then you just made it for your fans. 
I think you're a marketing genius
Yes, I'm starting to think so too. (laughs)
You always find new ways to sell your music with humour. What made you start this?
I've always been a crazy person. But there was this standard; there's this way that rappers should be that stopped me from showing who I really was. A rapper is supposed to be just chilled, mean, intellectual, just hard-guyish. There was an interview and I said: “I'm just a humble guy” and that's all I said throughout the video. And the people that never said anything about my music at that time were engaging. It now dawned on me that maybe I need to try this when pushing my music. I tried it when I put out "Bad Boy Blaq." I was at number 19 when I made that one video. I moved up to number six. It now made me realise that I can have what I'm selling, and this guy is just walking by here. He doesn't know that this is what I'm selling. If I can do something that would make him come here, whatever reason he comes here for, he would discover that this is what I'm selling. 
And you always tie everything to you music
Yeah. No matter what, I'd always put my music there and put it under the tweet or whatever. At the end of the day when you get there, you'd realise that ‘Blaqbonez, I've been hearing of this guy, let me check out his music.’ That has been my M.O ever since. All I need to do is to bring people to where I am so that they can consume what I have. Just bring them there somehow.
See Teni, good example.
Exactly. When you have that kind of following that Teni has, you can even choose to not do music. Just do whatever you want. And the truth is, look at Kanye today, he's a billionaire and it's not music that made him billions. But what music did is that it gave him the clout, it gave him the leverage and the attention to sell the shoes. You can always bring people to you somehow. Asides music and everything, I feel like I'm interesting enough to have a show. Like a program or a podcast that would go on for years. I believe I've not even found what would make me super rich yet. Music would get me into the door, but I'd do so many things eventually. That's why I am open to any idea that comes to my head. I don't think about how people would see Blaqbonez. Because at the end of the day, right now, I have more character than most people. I am one of the few artists that can do what he wants or say what he wants and people would understand that ‘it's Blaqbonez.’ Unlike some artists who've built a brand that they cannot necessarily be themselves. They have to follow some laid-out rules. 
You get a lot of love for it but also get a lot of hate. 
The one thing is, whatever it is that people love you for is going to make people hate you. No matter what the thing is. It's something I've realised. If you rap hardcore and people love that you are the hardest core rapper. It would be the reason why people hate you and be like, ‘give us banger. What's this nonsense.’ I've realised it. Anytime I post something, people would be like ‘how can you hate this guy?’ And I'm like ‘this exact thing you like me for, is the reason somebody hates me.’ Because someone else expects that ‘why would this guy be making fun of himself?’ He should be serious. So I'm never bothered about it. All I want to do is what I want to do. 
Have you ever gotten into trouble or a hairy situation because of your videos?  
It hasn't yet. I hope it doesn't. I think I'm careful enough with what I talk about.
What did you have to lose or add to move between rap and Afrobeats?
I don't think I had to add anything or lose anything. It was just me.
How's the process different?
I think basically, maybe the producers. Asides making Afrobeats to make hit songs or to make money, sometimes I'd want to entertain myself the same way people entertain me. So I listen to my songs a lot before release. There are some of my songs that I know are not going to come out. They are not really great songs but they entertain me, so I listen to them for myself. There are some songs like that. For me, the process is fun because I just want to create something that I will enjoy. It's never really like I had to add anything. I just had to open my mind and vibe and just let it out. And the more you do it, the better you get at it so, that was just it. It's not that hard or deep or anything. It's just vibes. 
What inspired 'Haba'?
I usually say this thing that sometimes I feel like I write songs from my subconscious. It's whatever inspires me, I would not know at that moment. Because at that moment I'm just hearing a beat and I'm just writing what the beat is telling me. Obviously, what I'm talking about is what I've experienced. So there's a story of a friend that was telling a babe to calm down. She was riding hard at a party. That happened like six years before I made a song about it. I didn't think that ‘oh, I want to make a song about this guy.’ It just happened. I think things, and my subconscious just comes out and leads the way. 
What do you think of the concept of rap battles?
Ha! I love it. 
Why do you like battling?
That's how I started rapping. On Facebook then, the only thing a rapper could do was battle. Recording in studios was mad expensive back then. And you can't just keep going to studios when you have no way to market, you have no way to promote. The only thing you can just do is write your raps and post it on Facebook. And competition is always sweeter. When competing against somebody, it makes more sense. That's how for many years before I kicked to the studio, all I was doing was rap battles. This thing that I do about Best Rapper In Africa and everything, it came as part of me realising that I should just be myself. So now, coming into the industry, everybody expects a rapper to just coast through. Just be nice to everybody. That's how everyone expects a new artist to be. Like a Joeboy, Rema, Fireboy, they don't have trouble. No one has trouble except Blaqbonez (laughs). So I realize I'm going to be who I am and being a battle guy is part of me, so I'm not going to become this rosy artist. So I also let that part out.
How does rap beef add value to the artist?
For me, asides the fun that I get from it naturally, it's a tool that you can use to your own advantage. You just have to have like a second plan. Beef cannot be your main plan. It's just like I said about bringing people to your page or to wherever you are so you can sell them something else. You cannot sell beef as your commodity. You just need it to bring people. Let's say I go out now and say I'm beefing with Khaligraph Jones. If I just put Khaligraph Jones on a track nobody would really care as much. But if you see that Khaligraph Jones and Blaqbonez are beefing, many people from Kenya are going to tune in to what Blaqbonez is doing. Many Nigerians would tune in to Khaligraph Jones. At the end of the day, we both have a unique opportunity to enter a new audience with whatever we are selling. 
To me, that's how beef works. But a lot of these underground people, it seems to me like they just beef for beefing sake. You have no plan, you have nothing you want to do after. You just want to attack this guy. So every time I see those kinds of things, it's always funny. The Best Rapper in Africa saga was to build up to my song 'Shut Up'. I recorded 'Shut Up' even before I recorded 'Best Rapper in Africa'. I already knew what I was going to do before I started the whole ruckus. You have to always know how to market yourself. Look at Machine Gun Kelly. After that beef with Eminem, he dropped an album. You have to know what you're doing. If you're just beefing to beef then you're clueless because, in this day and age, nobody wins beef anymore. How you win is if you win in real life. If I and you beef now, for example, people would always argue that this guy won. But six months later, if one person is visibly the biggest artist in the country and the other one is not doing well, that one has won the beef. So at the end of the day, you have to put your eye on what's really important. 
Beef as a means to an end.
Beef as a marketing tool.
Yeah, marketing tool because people love them. See, if I drop a beef track right now at somebody, I can do the numbers of one of the biggest artists in Nigeria. That's how much people love when people are fighting. If I drop a beef track, that's subscribers to my YouTube, followers to my Audiomack. You're gathering these people, you need to be gathering them for something. 
But how about the existence of actual bad blood? The one where it becomes personal?
For me personally, I've never gotten to that stage. I don't think it will actually get that deep. If I actually don't like somebody, it's almost unlikely that I'd even make a diss-track at the person. 'Cause I've always believed that everybody you diss, you're not killing anybody, you're giving the person attention. And if I really don't like this person, the last thing I want to do is give him an opportunity to take the attention and run with it. So if I really don't like somebody, I most likely would not drop a diss-track.
What are your views about succession in music generally? 
I personally think that no matter how you look at it, somebody paved the way. You kind of have to respect those people. Let's say I'm selling Calvin Klein shoes to people that have never worn shoes before. The moment they start wearing my shoes, if somebody else comes with Timberland, the Calvin Klein guy could be fighting to make sure that the Timberland guy never succeeds. But the truth of the matter is that those people now wear shoes because of Calvin Klein and now you have people that are ready to wear shoes. Calvin Klein already created a market for you. People always say breaking out is the hardest point in an artist. Whatever you are doing, convincing people on the road that they should wear shoes is obviously harder than going to somebody that has shoes say ‘this is also a nice pair of shoes.’ The person is already accustomed to wearing shoes, so he'd be like ‘let me also try this one.’ That's how I see Afrobeats and everything worldwide. Somebody went there and gave them Afrobeats. Even if it's 2face that went there and got 10 people in the US tuned in to Afrobeats, the next time somebody else comes, there are already 10 people that are listening to Afrobeats and want to hear somebody else. Another version of the Afrobeats.
It's so much easier for us. Ckay that his song is doing well, has someone like Winnie Harlow playing the song on Diddy's live and posting on her IG page with a million followers. Many years ago, there's no way an artist would come with his first breakout song in a month or two into have someone like Winnie Harlow on Diddy's live. But that’s because of everybody that has been working, the attention they brought to Afrobeats. How long did it take Rema to get all this international acclaim? See Tems is on a song with Khalid. All these things are happening so fast for people because of the work everybody has done. No matter how small it is. Before, it was crazy that D'Banj was linking up with Kanye. Now, it's not really a big deal if you tell me Rema is with Drake. It's awesome but it's not ‘O my God!’ It's no longer like that. Back then it was outrageous. One direct way to say people paved the way is, now there are Afrobeats playlists everywhere. The reason why there are those editorial playlists is because of the work somebody has been doing. Wizkid, Davido, 2face, whoever has been pushing, they created those opportunities. Now they can just add a Rema to that playlist and the whole world, every single soul that listens to Afrobeats would have the opportunity to hear Rema in that moment. The way I see it, no matter the way you look at it, somebody paved the way. The person might have not helped you personally. Succession is important.
How does it all make sense for you in the end?
If I'm rich, it would make sense (laughs). If I'm rich in a mansion at the end of this thing, it’ll make sense. If not...

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