Yemi Alade was one of the early breakthrough artists in the global Afrobeats movement. Born in Nigeria in 1989 to a Yoruba father and an Igbo mother, she broke the scene open in 2013 with the song “Johnny,” and has been riding high ever since, including plenty of live touring. Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow caught up with her at the Nuits D’Afrique festival in Montreal last week, as she was preparing to headline on the main outdoor stage. When they spoke, Yemi was sporting big hair and a casual look, but once on stage, well, it was a whole different story...
Heads up: Yemi Alade will perform at Sony Hall in New York City on August 11. Details and ticket info here.
Photos by Banning Eyre.
Banning Eyre: Yemi, welcome back to Afropop Worldwide. It is great to see you in person. It was fun speaking over Skype last year, but this is better. We don't have a lot of time, but I'd love to hear a little about your early life, how you became a musician in the first place.
Yemi Alade: I have loved music my entire life. One day I participated in a talent show in 2009, and for some reason, I won. That was all the conviction that I needed to finally make it a career. But from the age of six, I was already writing my own songs. I remember I used to make small phrases that I would repeat and repeat and my mom got tired of it, so I started recording on tapes. I was very much involved in music. I just loved it. I didn't want to make it a career, yet. But winning that prize… That changed it all for me. It chose me. And because I was chosen, I surrendered to it.
Beautiful. And how were your parents about that? Did they support the choice?
I feel like my parents always saw it coming. Because like I said, I was all over the place with music. My mom would ask me a question and I would sing a response to her, you know. And in school, I was in the choir in every level of school, representing the school. So I believe they saw it coming. We never had a conversation of, “Oh, do you really want to make this happen? Do you really want this?” We never had that conversation. It just took a natural flow. And they supported me.
Your career took a big jump with the song “Johnny” in 2013. What was that like, the moment when that song hit?
I will never forget it because I literally felt my life changing for the better in a way that I couldn't explain. You know, in 2010 I won the talent show, and I released my first music in 2011. I was trying to understand the kind of artist I wanted to be. You know, I was in the artist development stage both mentally and in the actual work of it. And then in 2013, when this song “Johnny” came out, I saw that the response was quite a huge wave. It started from the east of Nigeria, moved to the west and then eventually the south. And next thing in other African countries, we were getting calls. That's when I knew something big had hit me. Just in a blink of an eye, the entire world was gravitating to it. I knew something huge had changed in the world, at least for me.
We were listening to a your music driving up yesterday from New York and I was noticing that your songs often have a very interesting soundscape. They are minimal in the sense that it's very open and spacious, but there are a lot of unusual sounds in the mix. Did you have an engineer or producer that you bonded with and came up with a vision of how to make the music that would support your voice?
Not really. Musically, I'm just who I am. When I listen to music or instruments, I allow the sound to resonate with me. It must resonate with me before I lay my vocals on it. It's just something I can't explain. When it hits me, I know it's the one. I work with several producers, but most especially, I'm an open book, I don't like to be put in a box. I could be singing music today that is more R &B, next minute I could switch to techno. But this is because I am a musical vessel. I am who I am at that point in time.
There's one song on the album from last year, African Baddie, that has a bit of a highlife feel, “Get Down.” It's very interesting to me the way artists of your generation either choose to refer back to older sounds or not to. What's your attitude towards drawing influences from the classic styles like juju, highlife or afrobeat?
The core of my music, the foundation of my career actually, is juju. But the foundation of my musical journey, that is from the beginning of inception when I was born, the foundation is R &B, blues, jazz and then rap, even before the highlife and juju started to make more prominence in my life. But as I unraveled and became myself, I found that highlife and juju were sounds that once they hit me, I would feel like some kind of electrical volt went through my body. This is the one for me.
Sean Barlow: In the Nuits D’Afrique program, they refer to you as the Queen of Afropop. And that struck me because actually I created the Afropop brand for our radio program in 1986. I believe that was the first time it was used it in any kind of broadcast context. We became Afropop Worldwide in 1990, in order to include Brazil, Haiti, Cuba and so on.
Anyway, how do you feel about being called the Queen of Afropop?
I have been called so many things. The most important part of my being is my name, because it holds so much meaning. When I was just starting off my career, I had the opportunity to choose other names I liked. Like I wanted to go with Electra. I wanted to go with Ginger. These were names that I felt would describe my personality on stage. But after much thought, I realized that my name should be Yemi Alade, which means “the one who holds the crown.” Yemi Alade. Thanks be to God, “the one who holds the crown.” That one just solidifies everything that I am.
And if you notice, all my album titles are towards royalty, towards the dynasty of being royal. And at the end of the day, that is what is most important to me. My name is also Mamma Africa. They call me Afro Queen. They call me Afropop Queen. They call me Afrobeats Queen.
Banning: That's interesting. I have to say, Yemi Alade is a name that sounds very nice when sung. And you sing it a lot.
I know. Sometimes people walk up to me and sing, “Yemi Alade.” I'm like, okay, I did that to myself. But I love it. I love it. It's beautiful.
Speaking of album titles, take the last one, African Baddie. In song “Baddie,” you talk about someone making you want to spend all your money on them. So I wondered: who are you addressing? Are you the baddie? Or are you addressing the baddie?
“Baddie” is a song where I drew inspiration from the dancehall vibe. I put some R&B into that. But the baddie in the song is definitely me. And I am, in summary, trying to say that this particular person that I'm interested in is kind of making me want to spend my own money. Whereas normally in the world that we live in today it’s the other way around. The guy should spend on the lady, right? So I'm like, you make me want to spend my pounds. You make me spend my dollars. You make me want to spend my time on you. But I'm a baddie still.
A royal baddie.
Always. The crown does not move.
I like the gender role reversal. You're basically telling some guy, “I'm not going to just keep handing you money.”
I said you make me want to. I didn't say I ever spent it. (laughs)
Okay. But it’s interesting because the cliche is the sugar daddy who's paying for his woman. But you've turned that around. I remember the first time we talked, we talked about your song “Boyz,” which also was another gender twist.
Yeah. True, true. Sometimes I see things from... I think I go through the angle that maybe the guys are normally known to sing from, the direction in which they would throw their words. Most times they come from that direction. Because I mean, if you have all that money, you might as well spend it sometimes, right?
I suppose. So, Yemi, how do you see the scene developing now? We talked a couple of years ago and about women on the Nigerian scene. And, you know, obviously there are now some very prominent ones, with you leading the way. But do you feel a change? Is this a slow process or is it really starting to move in terms of the openness for a woman in this profession?
I think many years ago it might have seemed kind of slow. But at the moment it's moving at such a pace. It's moving at the speed of light to be sincere. We have to make sure that the moment doesn't pass us. We need to latch onto it and make true meaning of it. A lot of people believed and still believe that by now the spotlight on Afrobeat would have dwindled or disappeared, would have gone. But it's still here. And it's still here for a reason, because the propagators of Afrobeat, the people, are not stopping. We are lighting that fire every day. And as long as we continue to do that, even if, for instance, whatever spotlight lives, we will have created something bigger than us.
And that is exactly what is happening right now. It's moving at the pace that it needs to move up. We just need to make meaning of it.
Many people have noted that Afrobeats careers can rise and fall very quickly. An artist who are really on top can be suddenly overtaken by others. Do you have any kind of sort of strategy for longevity? How to stay relevant in the scene?
To be sincere, if I were to tell you that I knew, then that means everybody would know the exact same thing and we would all now have the answers. My team and I, what we do the best is just be ourselves and do what we can with all that we have. While making sure that we're making sense of it. You know, we're doing it for ourselves and not just rushing to try and please or grab for the attention. I love music. Sometimes I say, oh, I'm gonna take a break, but then I can't even last a day. I mean, what am I gonna do?
And so for as long as that passion, that zest is in me, I will keep going and so will my team. And I think that is definitely the backbone of longevity. And also being original. I'm original to myself. As far as I'm concerned, there's no one like me. There's the only Yemi Alade. There's the one Yemi Alade. You might see some likeness in certain people, but there is no Yemi Alade other than this Yemi Alade. As long as I stay original, the same way we refer to people like King Sunny Ade, we will be here forever, even after we're gone.
Sean: Can you tell us about songs you’re going to play tonight? Will they come from your recent album?
So African Baddie is actually an EP, and my new album will be out in September by God's grace, but I do have a new single out now and it's called “Fake Friends.” And I will be singing that one tonight for sure. And some old songs and some songs from Queendoncom (2021). We’ll just be mixing and just going with the flow.
Tell us about that new song.
Fake Friends! I mean, who doesn't have them? It's high time they had a track. I mean, the problem with this is that the Fake Friends will also be dancing with you while you're playing the song. So I really do wish you guys the best.
You know who you are, right?
You know who you are. I couldn't have said it better.
It's a critique of the social media idea that people can become friends with the click of a button.
Yeah, I mean, the word friend has been used loosely these days. And it's also unfortunate sometimes that you find that people gravitate more to you and maybe you have more likes on Instagram. Whereas the reality of life is beyond the digital space. Reality is separate on its own. Life is really life. You know what I mean? And I just wanted to use this song as a point of reference just to remind people in their own way to remember to call a spade a spade. Because sometimes our friends and sisters and brothers, bros, sis, they are the snakes in the green carpet. You know? So just watch your back.
Good advice. Most of the great hits of Afrobeats are created in a studio, right? So talk about bringing songs to the stage. What's your approach? What kind of a band do you stage, and how do you take something that was crafted in the studio with all the time and energy and technology you can use there and bring it to the stage?
The stage is my playground. The minute I record a song in the studio, I've done my job. And when I come to the stage, I come to play. So at that point in time, what I'm going to do is take the music to the point where it didn't get to in the studio. I bring twists to it. I render it in the way that it comes to me at that point in time. I try to keep it interesting even for myself, because if I'm bored on stage, you will be bored too. So I'm having fun. I am really just exciting myself. Even my band, as much as we rehearse, I'm spontaneous. Whatever the music tells me to do is what I will do, and we just go. And it's never failed.
Tell us about your band.
Well, I operate a 13-man band, but when I'm on tour, you reduce the number. I think at the moment there is a six, seven. I think there's seven, so that's half. And the most important… my favorite instrument is the talking drum. I love the melody; there's nothing like it. And the talking drum is on stage with us tonight.
Sean: Can you make the sound of the talking drum?
It's impossible, because the talking drum speaks in its own language. It has the vibration and depth that no other drum has. You know the talking drum the minute you hear in. In the very olden days, and even up till now, the talking drum can convey messages. When it hits certain rhythms, if you understand the Yoruba language, you will know what the talking drum is saying. You need not say anything; it'll speak to you.
What languages do you sing in?
I sing in English, I put in the Pidgin, and then I definitely need to put in some Yoruba and Igbo because my mom and dad are from two different tribes. So I mix and blend and I go with the flow.
Banning: What was that like growing up in a household with both those influences? How was that different for you than it might have been growing up in one or the other during that same time? Did it challenge you, or open you, in certain ways?
I think it challenged my mom and dad more than it challenged me. Because they were the ones from two different tribes and they had two different families with two different cultures. And they were just really trying to make it work, right? But I, on the other hand, was enjoying it. Because first of all, the food, I got to eat different delicacies. And, you know, my people love culture, so I got to enjoy both cultures, from the clothing to the language to the people and their essence. I really enjoyed it. And then to have both names; I have both Yoruba names and Igbo names. And I get to feel whole with both of them. It's a blessing for me.
Sean: Yemi, in September, we are doing an honoring, we call it the Afropop Hall of Fame, for the Cuban percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez. He's a Cuban Yoruba, and a Santeria priest.
He sings in Yoruba and plays bata drums. So he's showing how powerful Yoruba culture has been in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and so on. It's a beautiful thing, because a lot of people in America don't know about African culture in America.
Banning: Well, they're getting wiser. We're working on it.
Yeah, they are getting wiser. People are getting wiser.
Amen to that. Thanks for speaking with us and have a wonderful show tonight.