Interview October 26, 2017
2baba Talks: “The Future Is Bright For Nigerian Music”

In the late 1990s, Innocent Idibia gained fame as a singer under the name 2face, one-third of the foundational group Plantashun Boiz. Plantashun Boiz was heavily influenced by hip-hop, r&b and reggae, and they were one of the first groups making new-school Nigerian music to achieve nationwide popularity. As a solo artist, 2face took the new Nigerian music international with his hit "African Queen" in 2005. He has maintained his position as one of the most respected artists in Nigeria, even as the music scene explodes with new faces and sounds, and the style--now increasingly dubbed "Afrobeats"--has gained growing global popularity. Producer Morgan Greenstreet and expert assistants Kazeem Akinpelu and Joh Olayini met 2baba at his home in Lagos. Humble, generous and wise, he shared stories and observations from his unique perspective as one of the foundational figures in the industry who is still on top today.

2baba: Hey, what's up my people! My name is Innocent Idibia, they call me 2face Idibia, now they call me 2baba.

Morgan Greenstreet: Why do you they call you 2baba now?

They’ve been calling me 2baba for a long time, you know, the “baba” is always a sign of respect, somebody who has been there and done that, so naturally I just gravitated towards doing that, and that’s the name I’m using now.

You've been around the scene for a long time, since the beginning. Can you describe how you first got into music?

Music for me has been something that I discovered myself from a very early age, from when I was 6, 7, 8. I just discovered that I could sing and I loved it. But then it was just dreaming, about someday I'm gonna do this thing professionally.

Growing up in Jos, what kind of music were you hearing?

I listened to all kinds of music. My dad had a very wide collection of albums in the house, from Boney M, to ABBA, to the Temptations, to the O-Jays, to the Jackson Five, U Roy, Bob Marley, Fela, Sonny Okosun, Bongos Ikwue, Felix Liberty, I mean the list goes on and on. So it was like a very diverse range, an eclectic collection of music in the house. So I listened to all, but I gravitated towards reggae music more. Bob Marley was my favorite, you know, and I guess that's the basis of most of my music, reggae.

You can hear that in your style, in your sound. You said that even from a young age, you knew that you wanted to do music. Were there local Nigerian musicians that you looked up to who were professional musicians?

Yeah, back then it was Sonny Okosun, Chris Okotie, Bongos Ikwue, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, just a few of them. Fela was particularly interesting, because of the reggae influence, and the things they said in reggae music back in the day. Fela was directly like that, out here, talking about the ills of society and all that kind of stuff. So, I looked up to a whole lot of people. Growing up a little bit further, Majek Fashek came about and he became my favorite. Majek Fashek. But for me, when I decided to start doing music, I didn't want to stick to just do reggae, I wanted to blend it with a whole lot of other stuff, and hip-hop was a big influence on the Nigerian youth at the time. So that also became part of the whole process of creating this new sound that we have.

When did you started working with Blackface?

Me and Blackface, we actually went to the same secondary school, we lived in the same town in Benue state, and we started hanging out and started writing songs together. Then when we found ourselves in the same school again, IMT Enugu, we used to do shows separately, but at one time we started doing shows together, but we were not a group, officially a group then, we were just doing songs together then. Then we just call Eli and Pirate, his name used to be Pirate then. So they’d just call us together, like Chaka Demus and Pliers, you know.

What would you use as the music?

We would just get instrumentals from local DJs, and then we’d write our own song on the instrumentals, our own melody. That's what we used back then in school. And, you know, we could turn a crowd up, so…Later we decided to officially turn it into a group, and that's when we came up with the name Plantashun Boiz. And that was in 1997.

That was in Enugu?

Yeah, before we came to Lagos. After we came to Lagos and continued, and we included a third member, Faze.

How did you guys go from being a college group to becoming one of the foundational groups of the new generation?

[Laughs] It wasn't easy. We started very, very humble beginnings, it was rough, it was tight. We'd go to weddings, say, “Can we just sing for you guys?” We were not expecting any pay or anything, we just wanted to put ourselves out there for people to feel us, and that's how it started. We'd go to clubs and ask them, “Please, can we just perform, can we just do stuff.” And then when we hear about a concert or show anywhere, we would try to link up with the organizers or the promoters and ask them “Please, can you put us on the show.” And that's how it gradually started, and people started noticing us. The response was always nice, the response was always cool, like “Wow, you guys are cool.” And like that we started getting little little attention.

And our first big break was when they did a tour across Nigeria, it was Rothman’s Groove in the Hood. So they did it across 30 cities in Nigeria, and we know this man called Eddy Lawani, a very huge background mover in the industry, he's into stage production and he produces shows and all that. He's a huge music consultant, let me put it like that. And he was put in charge to get artists to be part of the tour. It was an audition and he called us and we went.

>span class="s1">But it was not easy, you know, no money, no backup. We had to just wake up every morning, looking for where to go, what to do. But while doing all this we were recording songs, trying to hook up in the studio, write songs. So we were just doing that, basically in the beginning.

Were you on Dove Records then?

It was after the tour, we met Nelson Brown through Weird MC. There was this artist called Weird MC, she was big! We used to do backup singing for her back in the day. Through her we met Nelson Brown, and Nelson Brown was one of the biggest music producers back then, he produced Daddy Showkey, Baba Fryo, Fada U Turn, Junglist--Junglist had Oritse Femi as part of the group back then as well. And you know, at that time it was Ajegunle [Lagos neighborhood]. Ajegunle was a stronghold of entertainment, all the stars were from Ajegunle at that time.

Having said this, music was still around in Nigeria, because we had Ras Kimono, Majek Fashek, like I said, and a couple of other guys, Mandators. But once hip-hop came into the scene, it became a totally different ballgame. So hip-hop influenced our generation a lot. So our sound became, how do I put it, now? It was a fresh, new type of sound. It had a lot to do with hip-hop and r&b and reggae as well, but with a twist. It became a very contemporary, and the doors are wide open right now.

A lot of people have told me how at that time when you guys were coming up, for a while, you would barely hear Nigerian hip-hop on the radio…

Exactly!

But then there was a breaking point…

Exactly! In fact that's what I was look for to say, you just said it now. Back then, Nigerian music was like, I mean, if you want to do music, people look at you like [sucks teeth] no future ambition. Music was like a curse, if you want to go into music. No parent would want their child to go into music. "You want to be musician, abi? Abeg oh, go read your book, make you turn to be a doctor or lawyer or…Abeg no dey do dis kind of ting." Dat time, to do music be like taboo, but you know, we didn't think that way, we just went ahead.

I have a question about language and ethnicity. When you were coming up, you were singing mostly in English?

It was a mix, some were in English all the way, some were in our language, but the majority were in pidgin English, because that's the language that every Nigerian understands. Every Nigerian knows how to speak pidgin English, except the really, really ones that have refused to…[Laughs]…but 90 percent of Nigerians speak pidgin English.

There's a way in which the new music kind of brought everyone together.

Yes, so gradually they started playing our music on the radio, and then in the clubs, because it now became appealing to the generation that was on ground. They now had something to relate with, which was not foreign, which was equally as good as the foreign stuff they had been hearing, so they welcomed it with wide-open arms. The revolution has come so far now, it's mad now.

We'll get there! First, could you tell me about the moment you went solo?

I decided to go solo in 2004, it was just my whole mind, body and spirit told me, “Yo, do this thing, try this on your own.” And I went for it, I started recording my album. I started recording in 2004, and I finished in 2004 and I selected a couple of tracks and I put them on my first album. There were a couple of labels then, but I went with Kennis Music. Because Kennis music was the biggest in terms of everything. So I went with Kennis music and I spoke with Mr. Kenny Ogungbe, we came to an agreement and you know, the album came out and it was a huge success, it was mad, you know. It was a huge success, and the rest, like they say is history now…

And particularly “African Queen,” what was that like, when that song came out and everyone was playing it everywhere?

It was a good feeling! Like, when you do stuff, you hope that people will like it, you hope that people will react positively to it. And once it started happening, I'm like, oh O.K., this thing has grown wings, it's crossing borders, it's going places that I never even… I mean I hoped for it to be like that, and once it started happening like that, it was surreal, it was crazy. It felt good, at the same time, it was like, O.K., now I've gotten myself into trouble, now I have to…I have to meet up, you understand? That pressure, when you have a first successful album, whatever you're going to do next is going to be judged on that pedestal.

And not only you, but all Nigerian artists. You were the first African artist to be on MTV. So somehow everybody's now looking up to you.

Yeah! You understand, so the pressure becomes very massive. But music for me is not a competition, it's something you do for the love of it, for people to have fun, for people to enjoy, for people to have something that speaks for them. When they can't sing, they play the song you've done, to interpret how they're feeling to somebody, or whatever music makes you feel. So I decided not to look at it like something like oh, I just do music for people to enjoy, and for me to survive, to live [Laughs.] I'm not going to say I do music just for the love of it, it's my work, it's my career, it's what I earn a living from, so for that as well. And because of that, I have to keep bringing out good stuff. Even though I have to entertain people, I also have to make sense.

So, what kind of themes were you working with that touched people?

I tried to do every kind of topic, from socially conscious topics, to love, to some funny hilarious stuff, to party, to whatever comes in my head at that point in time, whatever the inspiration is at that point of time.

How did the success of “African Queen” and Face 2 Face come about? How did that tune come to be all over the world?

I think that's where Kennis Music came in. Kennis Music was a huge promoter. They knew how to hype, how to promote stuff. And that was mad. And then, I think the people as well, the credit would go to the fans, I think they are the ones who actually took it out there. Because I didn't go to America to give it to any radio DJ, I did not go to U.K. to do that, it was the fans that took it out there. Because it became a phenomenon, something that Africans were not used to, having a superstar, let me use that kind of word. We had stars, but back then, nobody will say “Let me take autograph,” or “let me take picture,” it was not happening, they would just say “Hi,”from far. But our generation changed all that. So I think it's a generation and the fans who did that, after Kennis Music had done the work of promoting the music properly, like taking it across the whole corners of Nigeria and Ghana and South Africa. So I think from there it just started exploding on its own, and I just have to give credit to the fans for that one.

You mentioned the business side. You were also leading the way for how the business is supposed to be. For example, you started your own label.

Yeah, when I started, I decided to get a manager and hook up a couple things. I mean, back in the days, the artist was his manager, his stylist, his publicist…The artist was his own everything. And back in the day, they use your age to determine how much to pay you. So back in the day, as a young guy, you couldn't charge some kind of fees, because they'll you, “Dis person never charge that kind of money and now you wan charge?” But the idea was who was hot at the moment is who the people want to see. So back then, if I say, this is the fee I want to collect, and they say “Ah! Come on!” I'd say, “O.K., no problem, let's leave it like that. It’s not fight, it's not quarrel, if you can't afford it, it's no problem.” Or, I'll say, “O.K., this person, at least, give that money to this person, because if I go for it, it's like I'm shortchanging some people, at the same time I'm bringing down the standard. Give it to this person, because the person is also coming up, but the person cannot charge as much as I can charge.

So I just try to maintain a standard. And I think that most people who came after that started riding along that standard, started creating all these standards for themselves. Many of them started having managers, and then many people started getting interested in becoming artist managers. So many doors opened after this whole explosion, many people started realizing that you can make money out of a record label, to be a PR person, O.K., entertainment lawyer. Different branches of the entertainment business started opening up, because people started to see that this thing can actually become big, it can actually become huge, it can actually become a huge money maker, and many people started to become interested in that.

Why did you start your own label?

Yeah, I just wanted a place where I would own my own stuff, you understand? Just like they say, you can't work for people forever, so I wanted to be my own boss, I wanted to be able to learn by myself, grow, but majorly it was just because I wanted to own my stuff, I wanted to own my publishing and everything. I'm not good at the business, I'm more of a creative person, but I just did that Hypertek just to secure my own materials and my work.

I've noticed in your music, for example that song, "No Shaking,” there are examples of language people use in the street. Did you bring out that phrase “no shaking?” Would you say that's accurate?

[Laughs] I would not say that's completely accurate, I would say I'm the one that made more people…because some of these words, we just say them in street language, but I made them more popular. I mean, there were some that it was me, I think actually, “no shaking,” “nothing dey happen,” “yes ooo, na so,” some of these things were words that people use in the streets, you know, but I made them popular, I made them, you know. I won't sit here and say "Nobody has said 'no shaking' before, because I'm not sure, you understand what I'm saying?”

But it seems to me that in your career you've been able to manage the balance between being international and local. You're still very relevant locally. How have you been able to manage your career locally? Jimmy Jatt said, I think there's only one artist who could not put out an album for a year and still be relevant.

I would attribute it to the quality of the music. When I want to do a song, I want to do something that you won't just play today, and tomorrow it's no longer relevant. So I think it's the quality of the music. Even if I haven't brought out any albums, they still find stuff on my past albums. People will still call me today and say, “Oh man, it was today that I just listened to this song that you did on your first album, it's today that I'm actually understanding what you said in this part.” And then I just try to…I don't know, I just try to be a jolly good fella…[Laughs]

Two things: Corporate sponsorships. You are a brand ambassador for a few different brands.

Yeah.

What's that like for you, what are the advantages and disadvantages to working with corporations?

For me, I don't see any disadvantages. It depends how you look at it, you know. From my own angle, I don't see any disadvantage. I was the first. I think I can say I was the first Nigerian entertainer that a major company decided to say "Yes, this person is going to be our brand ambassador."

Who was that?

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And it's become very common now.

Yeah, companies use artists now a lot, but back then it was unheard of. "Ah, carry money go give this person, say, for what?" They didn't see value, the need to use somebody as the face of something.

You’ve won a lot of awards, both international and national. What do they mean, were they purely symbolic or did they change how people saw you, and how much money you were bringing it?

Yeah, it did all that, it changed the way people saw me, it upgraded the pay, but most of all, it shows that people are watching you and they're recognizing what you do. It shows that people are appreciating your stuff. So it's just like a pat on the back, yeah, job well done. it's just like encouragement, at the same time it's more pressure. But all in all, it's more of acknowledgment, it's more like "Yeah man, we see what you're doing and we want to say thank you, we appreciate what you're doing." But it came with all this other stuff.

So, with the perspective of having been in the scene since it started, how do you see the scene as it is right now?

Wow, the scene as it is right now, it has exploded! There are so many things now on ground that were not there before, we have so many radio stations, so many TV stations, we have social media now, we have the Internet, we have a lot of people that are willing to invest huge sums of money on artists now. We have so many talented record producers now, you understand. We have brilliant songwriters that have come out of the shadows, who have seen that you can also make money from this. Like Harrysong for instance, he's a good songwriter, he's doing his own thing now as well.

But he was behind the scenes before?

Yeah, you know. We have many entertainment lawyers now, we have so many stylists, makeup artists [Laughs] PR people, PR agencies are springing everywhere now. So the scene has exploded, it has grown from that mediocre type business to massive, money-generating machine right now, and many artists are beginning to understand how to package a brand, how to move from step A to step B.

I'll tell you something, there was one point in time Nigerian music was massive, we had proper record labels in Nigeria, record companies in Nigeria, but at one point, I think after too many military coups, many multinational companies started leaving Nigeria. And record companies as well, also left Nigeria. Money was not being put into it like that. So there was this period where music became very, very dry, you had to be extremely lucky before you could make it, before you could become a household name. So it was like that for a long time before it's reversing, it's going back to the proper way now, it's going back. So I think it's headed in the right direction. It’s exploded, Afrobeats is worldwide right now, you understand what I'm saying, and I see it getting bigger and bigger, I don't see it slowing down anytime soon. I mean, we actually have the ears of the world right now…

I was going to ask, even the word Afrobeats, do you think it's a useful genre descriptor?

Yeah, I think, in order not to start creating names up and down, I think that just makes it…Afrobeats keeps it plain and simple, Afro…African beats, let's leave it there like that. Even if it's r&b, African style, it's Afrobeats. If it's that style, that Nigerian style.

It seems to me too, as an outsider, that Nigerian artists are becoming more comfortable bringing their roots into the music now.

Yes, exactly. There was one time, if you sing in your dialect, they look at you like bush, local. You know this mentality of Africans in general, our brains have been so f—ed with that we don't believe in our own stuff, we tend to give priority to foreign stuff, so we look down on our stuff. So when we started doing songs in our language, many young guys started embracing that fact, they started realizing that, O.K., you can actually be a graduate, you can actually live in U.K., and you can sing in your language comfortably. But back in the days they would look at you like a bush person. There’s this stigma, this mentality, but gradually that has been erased, gradually.

What can we be expecting from 2baba now?

Definitely, for me music is forever for me, there's nothing, except I lose my voice or I die before the music will stop for me, so I'm going to keep bringing out music. I'm gonna continue performing until I don't have the energy to do so anymore. But apart from all that, I'm just gonna continue doing any business that I find myself interested in, minding my business and minding my family and that's it. But the music is definitely going to continue.

I was going to ask about your foundation, and you've been connected with national and international organizations.

Yeah, I've worked with One Org before, I've worked with Oxfam, I've been working for the past five years with an organization called Little Big Souls. They cater for preterm babies, that's premature babies, so I've been doing that for five years now, raising funds and donating to hospitals, incubators, prenatal, premature care stuff, you know? And two years ago I started a project called Vote Not Fight. it's a voter awareness campaign, it was massive during the last general election in Nigeria, and I'm happy to say that many people actually listened.

So you feel like it was effective?

I feel so, yes. Because the violence was greatly reduced this time around, it wasn't like that last one, that last one was now corner everywhere, everywhere was…you know... and thanks to the move that good luck did. Even though many people were ready to kill themselves, to make people kill themselves: They will cause the trouble but they will sit down in the comfort of their homes, but they are the ones that caused this trouble, and they just let people just…And after everything they will sit down together and share the loot. [Laughs]

We were talking with Sound Sultan about the difficulty or challenge of trying to sing about, about real issues here, or politics. He felt that it was because people tire of hearing it.

Yeah, exactly, people tire of hearing it, and at the same time, the people that it's supposed to affect their conscience, don't have a conscience, so it's like you're preaching to the choir. You're just talking to the air, because there's no shame, no dignity, they don't have it, it's not in their DNA anymore.

Fela used to name names, he actually named names, but I don't know how he did that, I don't know if he had proof or it was just blatant boldness [Laughs]. I don't know how he did it, but he named names, but for me, I'm not gonna call a name if I don't have proof. So I'm going to keep it in the open, like “these people are thieving money,” you understand. But if I go call person name, I say, "This person thief money,” I'll have to prove it. He might, he'll have the right to sue me to court if I say something like that, that means I'll have to prove it. This is the modern society, you understand. That's why it's kinda difficult to do some of those kind of songs and name names.

And then the masses, the mentality of the masses has changed, people are…Fela had this saying “suffering and smiling,” that is a correct description of Nigerians, Africans. Suffering and smiling, this thing happens every day, it has been happening since, and when the people, when they stand up, just give them two or three days, everybody will go back home, “Me I can't do this thing again, ah ah…" You understand? So people are afraid to die for what they believe in, they are afraid to die for good. "Let it just continue. Me, I can't die, me I can't, I just bought a car, I haven't bought a car…" All those reasons.

Sometimes you write a song about government or some aspect of the government. The people's family will start attacking you, even though you didn’t name the person, they will just start attacking you.

Like, I did a song and I said, "I dedicate this song to all the shady politicians." And I was on this flight, and one of our so-called senators also was on the flight, he was sitting next to me, and he said to me, "2face, you this small boy, you are the one who are calling us shady politicians?" And I just looked at him and I said, "Are you a shady politician, sir?' He said, "No I'm not…" I said, "Eh heh, I wasn't talking to you, so why do you think I was talking to you? Unless you are shady, that's when you'll know I was talking to you. If you're not a shady politician, then I wasn't talking to you! If you are one of the few that are trying to actually do the work and put Nigeria on the right track, then kudos to you, but if you are a shady politician, you know yourself. I wasn't talking to anyone in particular, I was talking to the people, the ones who are actually blocking the progress of Nigeria." And he just laughed and said, "O.K., now I see it from a different perspective…” I'm like, look at this guy, he started feeling guilty already, for him to say that to me, he was feeling guilt already, like I’m talking to him.

He was guilty!

You understand the mentality of the people, these days, these people, I think if you try to do the right thing, you are the abnormal person in their eyes.

What about artists? It seems like most artists don't want to touch social issues.

Except money is involved.

What do you mean?

When they want to to touch social issues, they will praise sing for somebody, when money is involved, they will praise sing, the person will give them money, they will sing and praise that person, even if everybody sees that that person is messed up.

You mean these new artists?

Yeah! A couple of them do that, they…you know. But many of them don't even sing about socially conscious stuff, it's all about Bugati, how much money they got and [Laughs].

Why do you think that is?

I think it's a generation, it's what they see on TV, it's the influence of hip-hop, once again. So I think it's the major media, mainstream things that they see. They hardly play any socially conscious songs on TV or on the radio, you'll hardly hear them, and if you do hear them, they'll select the hours that people are sleeping. But I think it's because nobody wants to be depressed, in this type of situation, and you now add the pressure, you'll just kill yourself. So you have to keep the spirit up, and how do you keep the spirit up? You have to just be happy and just gyrate and…So I totally understand that.

But we have a couple of guys that are doing really brilliant music out there that is not following the bandwagon. Like Simi, like Asa, like Timi Dakolo, like Sound Sultan, Darey, Omawunmi, there's a whole lot of them that are doing brilliant music. Tiwa Savage, I mean the list goes on, there are plenty of them that are actually doing genuine stuff.

Joh Olaniyi: As one of the pioneers , how do you feel now? You opened the door, at times when you sit back and relax and think, I'm the one that opened the door, how do you feel?

I'm part of the beginning of this movement, I'm part of the spark wey dey light the whole ting so. For me, I feel very, very happy to see that something that…Just imagine the way people who started football, the way they use one ordinary paper, they play for their backyard, imagine if they were alive today, imagine how they'll feel, looking at the baddest stadiums, the baddest players, they will feel very, very, like, look at this thing we started, like magic, look at what it is today. So for me, I feel happy. I feel there's still a lot to be done in terms of copyright protections, royalties being paid, especially royalties from music usage, you understand, radio, TV, all that licensing stuff. We still have a long way to go, but at least, so far, we've been moving in a good direction. We're not there yet. So for me, I'm happy that many people have become interested in moving this thing to the promised land. I'm proud of many of these young guys, I'm proud of the way they've been handling themselves and doing their business, and the future is looking bright for Nigerian music.

Thank you so much!

Thank you! One love!