Features February 7, 2024
Sean Thomas &friends out to remake Afro-house

&friends is an Afro-house music collective led by Sean Thomas, an American producer and entrepreneur, and fronted by four young Nigerian singers. Rich in talent, backed by business chops, a humanist mission and irrepressible passion and ambition, &friends is out to shake and remake global dance music.

I reached Thomas in Dubai where he was in the process of moving the &friends business operation from New York, and arranging a spring tour for the ensemble. The move to Dubai has partly to do with the challenge of getting touring visas for his Nigerian artists, whom he says are like family to him at this point. “The last two years,” said Thomas, “trying to even just get a Shenzhen visa with me in a business from New York has been a nightmare.” But that’s not the whole story. “I find I just don't really relate to American culture anymore, and yeah, it's tough as I'm blonde hair, blue eyes… I couldn't be any more white, but for some reason, I have fallen in love with Middle Eastern culture. I just deeply appreciate the way people operate here, especially when it comes to music. People are really there for music. House music for so long has been a place of cathartic release, and I think there's no better human definition of that than the Middle East. It's just been the best crowds I've ever had.”

Such are the contradictions of &friends. Thomas grew up as a San Diego boy, in love with hip-hop, into writing poetry and attending underground raves. He was already producing his own hip-hop tracks when he first encountered house music, and that was it. “I had just started college and ended up dropping out in three months. ‘Cause, like, school is just not for me. Let me go figure out the school of life. I left home at an early age.” He started producing and DJing parties with a close friend. They launched a podcast, and in 2009, started doing shows. Thomas had found his calling.

“This is where I felt most alive. You know when you see artists where the music just moves through them? That's how it felt for me. It took me to a whole other place. From 2009 to 2012, my friend and I were a duo, and we started to do really well. We were playing shows in San Diego, in LA. We started going to San Francisco, New Mexico, Arizona…”

Sean Thomas (this and banner image by Austin Morales
Sean Thomas (this and banner image by Austin Morales

Then, just as suddenly, it all went sour. Thomas fell out with his DJ partner. His beloved younger brother died tragically. And just like that, the feeling was gone. From 2013 to 2020, he left music entirely. He started a digital marketing company called Jump 450 with five other guys. They moved to New York City in 2016 and the business boomed, growing to a company of 70 employees in just two years. Thomas says their timing was good, as there weren’t yet big digital marketing agencies. He was working 100 hours a week and having a lot of fun doing it. “We ran our company like a hedge fund. It was like Wolf of Wall Street, but digital marketing.”

Of course, there was plenty of pressure and stress as well, but these guys were running on pure adrenaline. Then came COVID-19. The digital marketing business survived, but life in New York became “horrible.” Meanwhile, Thomas was finding himself drawn back into music. He had a nail-biting experience taking a gig at a favorite SoHo nightclub, Gospël. “I hadn't touched Ableton, nothing. Cold turkey for six years. I just put together a mix of all the stuff that I loved, and I liked a lot of Afro music. I played for six hours and it was one of the most incredible experiences I've had. It literally brought the fire back.”

From there, things moved quickly. Jump 450 was bought by Omnicon. Thomas left the company and rededicated himself to music production. He was guided by a philosophy he associates with his early love of hip-hop. “I'm white. I have a lot of privilege. I'm very aware of that. The whole philosophy I had was, ‘Okay, I'm in a good position where I can create something really special. How can I use my privilege to help those who don't have it?’”

Thomas was a Fela Kuti fan, and into Afro-soul and Afro-house. He was inspired by Prince, who believed in “collaboration over competition.” He and his new production partner Michael Scheinker—Mikey—set out in search of vocalists. Scouring the web, they began to make African connections, first with a little-known Nigerian singer, Oluwadamvic, or Dammy, as Thomas calls him, and eventually with Nitefreak, a leader in Zimbabwe’s Afro-house community. “He is one of the main vocalists in all of our records and the best human being on the planet. The tonality that he has, it's unbelievable. There's nothing like it.”

Thomas and Dammy bonded quickly and deeply. “He's gonna be the next Davido or Burna Boy because his flow is incredible.” Dammy had planned to study in the U.S., but his student vis was denied and he was at loose ends in Lagos. He and Thomas became brothers in the “school of life.” Thomas offered Oluwadamvic double his asking fee, and they produced a first song in 2022, “Gbagbe E,” meaning “Let go.”

From there, the collaboration rolled. Thomas wanted a female singer, and Oluwadamvic introduced him to Phina Asa, half-Nigerian, half-Cameroonian. “Oh my God,” recalled Thomas. “Is this Rihanna? Is this Adele? Is this Sia?” He immediately sensed star power and got to work. He and Mikey traveled to Lagos with a videographer. “It was the craziest trip I've ever done in my life. The stories are endless, very intense.” But the experience only confirmed his instincts and before long, &friends was working on solo albums for both artists. Thomas is confident that their careers are just getting started. “I talked to Dammy’s mom and to Phina's dad,” he said. “This is something that can not only change their lives, but generations below them, their kids and their grandkids. One thing you can’t accuse Sean Thomas of is thinking small.

Subsequently, Nigerian rappers El Jay and Dotun, Oluwadamvic’s cousin, have joined the &friends fold, and Thomas isnow working to move all four artists to Dubai. He told me, “We had our first live show in Egypt in August with the four of them singing live, played a three-hour live set with all of them singing. It was magical. And so now we start the live tour in the spring. It will be the four of them with percussion, keys, guitar and trumpet. I think we're really bringing something unique into the house music industry. We’re creating our own lane.”

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