If it’s not the cultural reservedness or the seeming dearth of support systems, then its the so-called linguistic blockage or financial strain. A number of forces smother out emerging artistes in the north at the thought of exploring mainstream music genres. Even with sociopolitical realities yet to get a mention, many talented singers readily relegate styles in a manner that subscribes to conservative preferences of the clime, overlocalising records so that impressions became that, perhaps, hip hop music isn’t really a thing for northern Nigeria. Going by the stage name ‘Zayn Africa’, AbdulMajid Aliyu, a Kaduna-based R&B, pop, and Afrosoul crooner is on the roll — poised to lead change in the northern music narrative and create a platform targeted at bringing his likes and many more aboard the mainstream of the Nigerian music space. In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle, he discusses the ideas behind his acclaimed projects, the challenges that plague creativity among music geniuses from his region, as well as how consistency and perseverance play into his plans to birth a new trend pertaining to inter-ethnic collaborations.
So, Zayn, give us an insight into your background. What does Zayn Africa stand for and what’s the concept behind your choice of stage name?
Well, Zayn Africa is a songwriter, an artiste, and a record producer. The word Zayn itself means a king, although it also describes a handsome man. I look to justify all. It’s not such a bad idea if people dub me the king of African music. There are many artistes but what I offer is sure different.
My musical theme so far has been tainted with romance. This is even as I do creative combinations with the Afrobeat genre, which we all as music makers agree is giant of African music. I describe my style as being avant-garde because it’s intended to communicate and provoke poignant thoughts.
You just spoke about you making romance-oriented songs. What inspires your choice of theme for music production/writing? What’s your creative process like?
About music production, I had learned that five years ago in 2015 because of the issues I always had with producers. There was this time I went to the studio and I was in haste. The song ended up being recorded poorly. I never got to better communicate my preferences and I didn’t really like it.
So I had to learn music production because I didn’t want to be stressing out producers. Learning how to produce music on one’s own as an artiste can be very useful. In so doing, one can help these music experts understand what one likes and what one doesn’t in terms of style and originality.
You have to learn to do things yourself sometimes. When it comes to writing, I love writing my own songs too. I don’t like people doing it for me because, when I write, I’m able to weigh my own emotions and experiences into songs. I don’t fancy the idea of singing about other people’s feelings.
I’ve done lots of songwriting that I can now write new songs in 30 minutes, once a theme is chosen. I can record a song in like one hour while it takes like a week to produce. Getting around mastering could take five to six days alongside strategizing on how and when to start promoting it online.
I’ve so far written mostly about romance because you can’t really separate romance from life itself. Once there’s no love, there’s no life either. We break up and makeup in a cycle that continues to repeat and fold in on itself. This makes romance an ideal and relatable theme to write about.
My ideas for music writing and production could also come from daily experiences: what’s happening in the society at the time, the betrayal, breakups, the hurt, made up relationships, and the likes.
Successful artistes often turn out to have had a humble outset. What were your early days like and what musical achievements are you currently proud of thus far?
I released my first song in 2012. It was an exciting feat for me. It was difficult because it was my first. I can vividly remember how even my gait changed after that time. It was ridiculous but I was bouncing like, “yeah, I just made my music debut, I’m now a superstar.” I was humble but a bit of the ego had temporarily taken over. I would later come to realize that it was just the beginning.
I had big dreams I looked to actualize. When I started, I took off as an R&B artiste. However, one thing about this genre was that it wasn’t fully accepted in Nigeria at the time unlike in the United States. So I submerged myself in Afrobeats which had me start everything from scratch. I had to change the way I write my lyrics too because Nigerians always like something to dance on.
At that time, I realized Afro is the Africa genre. If you don’t know how to do Afrobeats, then you’re not representing Africa. I worked around this and I’ve excelled. It took me eight good years to get verified on Google, with a knowledge panel of my own telling searchers that I’m a Nigerian artiste.
Even more is that it took me nine to get verified on Spotify, Audiomack, Deezer. Those are commercial platforms representing musicians worldwide. I’m very proud of this achievement. That meant my music is everywhere. In 2013, I was awarded ‘Northen Nigeria Best Singer of the Year’.
Four years later in 2017, I would later win another category ‘Kaduna Best Singer of the Year’ at the Northern Nigeria Entertainment Awards. In 2015 I got to perform at the Kaduna Festival (KADAMFEST) with the likes of Yemi Alade, MI, Tuface Idibia, and artistes like DJ AB, Feezy, Geeboy, and Ice Prince. Since then, I’ve been getting booked for stage performances and events.
I must say the passion with which you drive your career is admirable. Yet, you say talent was something you were born with, not something you acquired. At what point did you realize that music was the thing you wanted for yourself as a profession?
I was born with the talent of music but I never realized until 2012 when it ached to unravel itself. Even when I didn’t have the instrument, I would fantasize about detailed guitar solos in my head on hearing the crappiest R&B or pop song and enjoy singing along anything that comes to mind. I would later realize it was time I let this thing out. That was how I then decided I would do music.
Tell us about your journey to being signed under Yaran North Side (YNS), will you?
YNS is a north-based record label. They have their own studio and virtually everything a musician needs to thrive in their art. Before I got signed, I would often go to their studio, record songs, and thereafter, pay for the music production. There was a time I became broke from this routine.
I made two friends running the record label, Likita and DJ AB. I accosted the latter and told him I was considering quitting music. He was shocked and asked me why. I told him I had problems financing my projects and promoting them and I had decided to leave the craft for my own good.
He was like, ‘No, no. Come and I’ll produce you a song and I’ll help you promote it.’ Since then, we became even closer and that was when I sang my fifth song.’ When he listened to it, he was like, ‘You know what, I think we’re going to sign you under YNS Records. You’re an asset, you can sing.
‘And we don’t have a lot of singers in our team. We mostly have rappers. So, I’ll contact my elder brother and hook you up with him.’ I agreed and got to meet Likita, who met with the management after which they contacted me and we signed a deal. I’ve been with YNS since. I’ve been releasing my songs under its brand and we’re almost like family now.
Okay, there’s this thing going on with labels in Nigeria. You find that an emerging singer would agree to a documented deal before being signed only for issues to crop up when they hit fame, even when the contract hasn’t ended. Speak on it.
As an artiste, no one wants to be in one position. You’ll normally want to excel. So when an artiste gets signed and becomes popular, there’ll be a time when they want to leave the record label and become free, not continue being managed by another person. Artistes want to build their own.
In that kind of situation, the manager in the label under which they’re signed feels hurt, especially when such an artiste has been yielding lots of returns. They’re always like, “We’ve already built you. Why would you want to leave us?” You move from being a talent reserve to being a bag of money.
Who wants to lose the latter? On the part of the artiste, they equally want to earn a sizeable part of that which they’ve worked for. Oftentimes, it’s the record label that makes it difficult, leading to unnecessary altercations. Everyone is hustling in this showbiz; we all want more. The only way this can be addressed is when both parties aren’t being overly selfish. Mostly, record labels are selfish.
They should understand that an artiste would always want to move forward; most successful artistes you’ll come across in Nigeria are independent. Most of them started under a record label. But, as time went on, they left to create a thing of their own. Nobody wants to remain on a spot.
There’ve been renowned Hausa singers. I mean, we have the likes of Ali Jita. But you find that mainstream music hasn’t really been a thing for the north over the years due to what many described as cultural reservations. How did you overcome this?
Well, that’s part of the challenges I’ve had to grapple with. Differences in cultural norms. In some parts of my country especially the north, not every clime accept music as a form of business or even a career. This single fact is hard to cope with. If one isn’t careful, one could end up losing out.
You see (scoffs), I really worked hard, suffered. There were times that, when I release songs, people don’t really like downloading simply because they lumped us all into one category and decided that the hip hop culture is evil. When some see us on the street, they would say, ‘Those people are evil.’ But I think the language problem in the north is more striking; not everyone understands English.
So, when you don’t speak Hausa, then you’re not communicating. This leaves many caught up in singing just cultural songs solely based solely on Hausa. Even if you’re going to rap, you have to do so in Hausa. You can’t include English, you have to sing those cultural songs they use for weddings.
Once you switch, they take it that you’re spewing evil words they don’t understand. Before I became accepted, I had to do mine in both languages. I couldn’t sing completely in English without bringing Hausa in. But education has now increased in the north. 50 to 60 percent of my fans understand English because they’ve studied. Yet, I won’t dare sing or rap a song completely in English.
Everyone agrees Lagos is a sort of commercial hub for musicians, home celebrities and entertainers. But you still ply your trade from Kaduna. Doesn’t this affect you?
Well, I must say it did in the beginning but not anymore. In fact, it has become one of my selling points. To me, moving to Lagos will make no difference. I’ve been including culture in my songs and that’s what northerners wanted. To build a fan base, you have to understand what they want.
How have you been able to maximize your listeners and fanbase while considering that not everyone speaks Hausa and that there are those who would conclude you sing for only northerners just because of the language used?
I belive that’s where the English component comes in. If I were to work with Phyno and Davido and their fans don’t know Hausa, we’ll do a combo with English. Igbo and Hausa singers have had to work together and they were able to overcome that language problem. I belive Hausa isn’t different.
Your songs span Afro-soul, R&B, and pop. But you did Hausa rap a in ‘Da So Samu Ne’. How did it feel collaborating with all those artistes? Have you always rapped?
‘Da So Samu Ne’ was a collaborative team song. The beat for the song was complex. As an R&B artiste that I was, I had to learn rap to participate in that project. At that point, I realized I needed to explore some other genres like hip hop and rap. But even before that, there was another song I did, which had become the first I started rapping on. I’m currently looking to explore reggae.
What other realities have you had to grapple with over the years in your career?
Aside from having to get around societal differences, there was the issue of hard work. I realized I wasn’t the only upcoming artiste there was. I sometimes couldn’t sleep at night thinking if I don’t wake up to create super music, someone else out there is working to beat it. So, I’m sometimes caught in sleepless nights, working and working. If I don’t do it, somebody out there would.
As Nigerians, we’re all not proud of the insecurity in parts of the north. But there are those who believe, “If musicians were proactive in their responsibility of educating the populace, insecurity would have reduced significantly in the north.” Speak on it.
I don’t really agree with this claim. You see, these criminals are evil. They don’t even listen to songs, not to talk of paying enough attention to hear the words being said therein. In Nigeria, we have two categories of music lovers. There are those who only want to dance. Others give priority to lyrics.
As for insecurity, most people in the north only want to dance. To be factual, only 40 percent of the music lovers in Nigeria would sit down to understand the words in songs. The remaining 60 percent often want something they can dance to, making some singers prioritize beats over words. That’s why I think the issue of music helping to fight against insecurity is never going to work out.
You studied computer engineering but opted for music. What was the idea behind that combo? Where do you see yourself in terms of success in the coming years?
About that, music itself is full of engineering, especially when it comes to sound waves. The waves in music are a function of engineering. You have to be intentional about the pitch, velocity, and frequency of sound, all of which I believe come from engineering. Music and engineering go well together. That’s how I got the hang of music production. There’s a course called sound engineering.
Without physics and engineering, music production is difficult. In five years, I see myself becoming a mogul with a record label of my own, signing artistes. In my previous project, I edged towards romance. In the next, I’m going to be addressing other life issues. I’m working on my second album with 16 songs focused on lifestyle, life experiences. My single is also up for July 2020. Wait for it.
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