Zaaki Azzay is an ace singer. The Benue-born musician is self-proclaimed to be the pioneer of Hip-hop music in Nigeria. In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle’s Pelumi Bolawa, Azzay discusses how he, alongside other local hip-hop artistes, fought for the international recognition of Nigerian talents. He also talks about the inspiration behind his hit song ‘Na Me Go Marry Am’, his upcoming projects, and the role of the new Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) in the music industry.
TheCable: How are you, Zaaki?
Zaaki Azzay: Well, I’m doing my best.
TheCable: You’ve been away from the studio for some time now. Is there any project you’re working on at the moment?
Zaaki Azzay: I’ve been doing a lot of things. I have a TV programme that I’ve been running for the last 15 years called ‘True Nigerian: Heroes of Our Time’.
We also have an award every year called the ‘True Nigerians Award’. But apart from that, I’ve been singing. My latest song is about a year now in the market. Some time ago, Dija, the former Mavin record singer, called me to say she had finished her own part of the song which we are both working on, although it’s not a new song.
It’s a remix of a popular song that I did in the Hausa language on women empowerment titled ‘Mata Da’. But apart from that song, I am also working on another new song. So, this year, I will be releasing three songs.
TheCable: What is the inspiration behind the remaking of that song with Dija?
Zaaki Azzay: I strongly believe that women are important. If not for my mum’s tutelage and how she taught me when I was growing up, I don’t know what would have happened to me. She gave me good principles of life.
She told me to work hard and trust only in God, which is what I have used all these years and it worked. So, I think the society and future of the world can effectively change if more emphasis is given to women. Yes. That is what informed that song.
TheCable: So, at what production stage is the song now?
Zaaki Azzay: We’re in the mixing. Very soon, you’ll hear it.
TheCable: You have been in the music industry for decades. What challenges have you encountered?
Zaaki Azzay: Well, you know my style; my music is very unique. So, there’s no competition for me. I’m different. But asides from that, there are a lot of things that have happened. Nigerian music is now global.
We have hit the milestone. And this is what we fought for. When we first started, it was 95 percent western music and only 5 percent of Nigerian music on the airwaves.
People prefer western-American music. We fought for it. We kept pushing until what you see now has happened and we are happy. For me, I would say the challenge right now is payola (the illegal practice of paying a commercial radio station to play a song without the station disclosing the payment).
But I think that the cost of promoting music now is too expensive. It’s more expensive than what it is supposed to be and any part of the music itself. It is more expensive than paying a producer, shooting a music video, or anything that concerns music.
So, that is also making the real musicians, those who have talents shy away from music just because they can’t afford it. And it’s now paving way for people who are not qualified but have money. There are people who are not talented; who do not have the calling to be musicians and who are not professionals.
You have to be gifted. Because those people who have money by means of drugs or internet fraud, sometimes use it to cover up for the crime that they committed. So, they just dabble in music.
People then see them as celebrities and everything is covered up. At the same time, it is now depriving those who have talent [of opportunities].
Another thing is, even if you have money, you may not have the kind of money that these drug lords have to promote music.
To promote one song now you’re looking at up to N70 million to N100 million. That’s a lot of money. Some artistes would say, well, even if I have this money, I better put it in another business.
TheCable: Do you still receive music royalties?
Zaaki Azzay: Yeah. That is what the Performing Musicians Employers’ Association of Nigeria (PMAN) is doing now.
That is why I am still with the association, especially with the leadership of Pretty Okafor, the president. I know that if not for his kind of person, his pedigree, and his qualitative leadership, I won’t be in PMAN.
Do you know what PMAN used to be? Nobody wants to be a part. They would say “I am busy”. “I have performances outside and within the country”. “I have a TV programme”. “I have events”. “I have a lot on my hands. “I’m really busy.” Some would even say “why should I go and waste my time in PMAN?”
But now, PMAN is working. It’s not the kind of PMAN that we used to know. Those issues you spoke about (royalties) are one of the main reasons why I also agreed and accepted to work with him.
Also, we have children who are coming up and want to be musicians. Do we now wait for them to suffer the same things we suffered?
Now at PMAN, we have what we call biometric cards. You know, if you register as a member, you will have access to health insurance, in case you are sick or do not have money to go to the hospital. We have intellectual property protection. We recently had a meeting with Professor Bankole, a lawyer of intellectual property here in Nigeria.
PMAN has also just bought a huge building at Chevyview Estate, Lagos. It has never ever had an office before in the history of Nigeria. Now we have one, in a good location, and a beautiful building.
That, for me, is one of the greatest things that has happened to PMAN. In PMAN now, we have the likes of Asha Gangalee, Ruggedman, White Money, who just came in, and myself.
We also have some loans for our members. You can also have loans with the same biometric card, once you register as a member. We also have a radio and a TV station coming up. The online radio station is already running. So, we will help with payola. You don’t have to pay too much or spend too much money on promoting your music. You can use PMAN.
On the protection of intellectual property, there is also the issue of copyright, which is a serious one. People just go and do things with no structure in place. Nigerian musicians, and entertainers, think that the biggest money is on stage. That’s the wrong thing. There’s so much money that you’re losing in different areas because it’s not only by live performances that you make money.
But overseas, once you make one hit, you can become a billionaire. Your generation to come can also become one because the structures are in place. There are a lot of things apart from streaming and other things that entertainers rush into yet there are a lot of other ways where they can make money from.
TheCable: Do you have anyone you admire among the new-gen singers?
Zaaki Azzay: I think, Chike. Now, I met Chike for the first time and we took pictures together in Eko Hotel. I think I was rushing to perform. He just came. I am not saying this because we had a picture together.
Yeah. I’ve always been worried that I like all the songs I am listening to. We are international. But you know, not every song should be a club banger.
There are some songs that are missing. Like, inspirational songs, and normal videos that you can sit down with your family and children and watch. It doesn’t have to be nude or the kind of videos that we watch with girls.
That is why I do say I miss people like Dare Art Alade. Chike is replacing that for me. He has that feeling; those songs that you can just listen to and enjoy. It’s just about love. It’s not dirty. The videos are clean. I have a lot of respect for him. You can do a club banger without being vulgar, you know.
I am saying that we should also have songs that will outlive every musician. Look at Timi Dakolo’s music. Most of his songs will outlive him. So, there are a lot of ways I think musicians can do songs without being dirty. Musicians should try and balance it.
Right now, I’m feeling ‘Asiwaju’ by Ruger. Nice concept, and nice lyrics. I love the song.
TheCable: You keep your family away from the public eye. Why?
Zaaki Azzay: Before corona came, I was wearing masks to disguise myself and go to places. Now that corona is gone, I’m still wearing it. People will think it’s the corona, but I use it as a disguise.
Now I’m already public, so no, I don’t have any privacy. I don’t have any freedom. You now think about your family again; your only place of privacy. They’re also popular.
So, if tomorrow I feel like eating roasted plantain, who am I going to send to buy it? Your wife and your children are famous? Who’s gonna buy it? Nobody.
I think that was the reason why [Micheal] Jackson made sure that nobody knows his child.
TheCable: What inspired your hit song ‘Na Me Go Marry Am’?
Zaaki Azzay: Well, there was a time I was in love with the daughter of the Borno state monarch. I really wanted to marry her. We were both in love with each other. But the family rejected me because I am a Christian and she is from a Muslim family.
You know, not that I was ready for marriage. I was quite young, but we were discussing how I will go to school. Those days it’s easy to pinpoint who is going to marry who, and then, when the time is ripe, you guys will get married and all that.
Yeah. And they refused. So that was what inspired this song. Her name is Hajia Gana.
TheCable: Let’s talk politics now. What’s your take on celebrities publicly disclosing their candidate of choice?
Zaaki Azzay: I’ve said it before. I will say it again. I think celebrities should be apolitical. You know musicians are like ambassadors of the people. They console people. They solve pains. Musicians are meant to bring joy to people, and happiness.
So they’re like water no get enemies, just like what the late Fela Kuti said.
Let’s say Psquare is supporting Peter Obi, for instance, it’s a personal choice. But it becomes a problem when they start talking against another party.
Because if I have friends in Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and they’re doing something, would you say I should not support them? Would you say Davido was wrong for supporting Ademola Adeleke, his uncle, and governor of Osun state? That is his family.
If my father is in the All Progressives Congress (APC), I will campaign for them. But because my father is in APC doesn’t mean that if PDP calls me, I would say no.
If I say no to PDP, it means I am not being apolitical anymore. I am not playing my part as a musician.
Maybe I have a song that they really need, they really love. I am just saying that musicians should just be neutral.
TheCable: What inspired your signature dress code; the torchlight and white-black cap?
Zaaki Azzay: The torchlights are like, you know, I pioneered hip-hop in Nigeria.
When I was coming up, there was no hip-hop and I needed to come out. Everybody was doing reggae and raga. I had to resort to prayers. I tried everywhere. Most of the recording companies turned me down.
Eventually, I got a deal and then I was given money by the recording company to go to a studio. While recording, I was praying for a hit, since it was hip-hop. I wasn’t sure whether they would accept it.
So I saw a torchlight on the floor that the security man kept. I grabbed it and said a prayer that this is my covenant with God. I said if he makes me rich and famous, I will hold this torchlight to remind me of the covenant that I made with him. I said I would constantly and permanently acknowledge him all the days of my life in all my ways.
Now for the cap, if you check my first song ‘The Hero’, I wasn’t wearing this cap. But after that rap song, I was opportune to perform and be around the ‘Naughty by Nature’ then. They were looking for me when they came to Nigeria.
When they met me, they were very happy. They said they liked the way I do my hip-hop; they said it is African. It has an African chorus, the Hausa language. They said, “we feel so ashamed and bad when we hear our brothers in Africa doing rap music and trying to sound like American. Trying to claim African Americans. Portraying Africa”.
So when they said all that, I was encouraged now to do more traditional things. I said, okay, you know what? I am going to start wearing a cap to be more traditional, apart from singing. So that was how I started wearing the black and white cap. That’s the story.
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