Ycee is the rare rapper who has found mainstream fame. He captured the streets and our hearts with early releases, Omo Alhaji and Jagaban. Juice was also a massive hit. That said, things have been on the low for the University of Lagos graduate. He has been on the receiving end of the negative stick of the music industry over the past year but he counts the experience as a lesson; an opportunity to reflect, make the needed changes and create a sound that will keep him at the level he belongs to.
On getting to our meeting point – the CCX lounge in Victoria Island, I call his number. He picks up and directs me to the table where he’s chilling with Lord Vino and A-Q this Sunday evening. We exchange pleasantries and he asks that I allow him round up the conversation. A few minutes later, he joins me at my table to discuss the creative process behind his new album, his experience running his own label, why he speaks out on social issues and his growth as an artiste. He politely declined to talk about his former label but emphasized that his focus is on his new album, Ycee Vs Zaheer, a body of work that best describes him as a rapper and singer.
Our conversation, loosely edited for clarity, follows below.
You seem to have found your voice in expressing your views on issues. What inspired this?
I will say it has been a shift in my person because of the transition from being an artist signed to a label to an independent artist. That transition comes with a lot of responsibility and it has influenced how I see things. When it comes to social issues in Nigeria, a lot of artists or celebrities tend to shy away from it, to avoid saying something wrong. But I have realized that if you fail to speak against something, you’re already speaking in favour of it with your silence. I decided I will be among the group that will speak out and hopefully influences someone to do better.
What brought you to this place as a person?
The fact that I don’t practice activism through my music because my music is strictly pop doesn’t change the fact that I have a voice and a large following online. So, I owe it to myself to say something positive to shape the minds of people that are looking up to me. The older I get, I realize I am responsible for the future I want to see in Nigeria. If I can’t speak about it in my music, I will talk about it on social media.
What are the two social issues that are important to you and you’d want it to be addressed?
Number one will have to be illiteracy. A lot of children in Nigeria are out of school and they don’t have access to good primary and secondary education. We don’t recognize this issue especially in the highbrow areas of Lagos like VI (Victoria Island) where we are at the moment. Because a lot of us on this side of town are comfortable and well to do, we don’t care about it because it doesn’t affect us. The numbers are increasing before we know it, they will form the next generation. This will pose a bigger problem in the future. Another issue I am vocal about is women’s rights. In this part of the world there is a lot of unlearning that needs to happen before women are respected and treated the way they should be treated. Slowly and surely, we are getting some positive responses in that light. But, hopefully, in the next five years, I want to see a lot of improvement in how we treat women here.
A lot has happened between the time Ycee was first introduced to the world and now, did you reflect all these experiences in your new album?
I will say there are subtle references to all I have faced and have been through musically – relationships, business relationships, life and everything in general. Music is an escape for what I am facing in my day to day life. So being in a position where I have to put out an album and infuse a part of myself into the album, is one of the things I am very proud of making music. Ycee vs Zaheer will reflect a bit of my struggles, experiences, and triumphs.
What was the creative process behind Ycee vs Zaheer?
The main thing that drove me towards making this album was the conversations and questions about me being a singer or a rapper. Some people said Ycee doesn’t rap. So the creative process behind this album was to make people have a better understanding of who I am as an artist. I am Ycee and will always be Ycee until I stop making music. But Zaheer is an identity that was created to make people better understand who Ycee is. Ycee is a rapper and singer but to create a better understanding, Ycee is a singer and Zaheer is the rapper on this album. So when you hear me singing or rapping in a song, you can easily identify the part of me that you’re listening to. This album will be a blend of rapping and singing. There will be songs that I will be singing that has the Afrobeats vibes, the elements people have come to recognize me with over the years. While Zaheer will be everything rap and hip hop.
Should we expect a lot of rap songs from Ycee vs Zaheer or a balance between both?
I will say expect more rap songs than you’ve ever heard from Ycee. In the entirety of my career, I don’t think I have put out as many rap songs as there are on the album.
Who are the artists you worked with on this project?
Ms. Banks, Phyno, Davido, Niniola and Dapo Turbna.
What has your experience been running your label?
The first and major thing is there is a larger amount of responsibility. From being in a label where all you have to do is make and create music. Then I had a lot less to worry about, but now I am a lot more involved in everything that has to do with my music, the business and the financial part of it. I have decisions to make about my music. Now I have to think about the direction for my music, come up with ideas and strategies. I am fully involved in everything that is happening. It has been a very welcoming and learning experience for me. It’s been very pivotal for me because I am at a point in my life where I am transitioning from a young adult to a grown man. So having my own business to worry about and cater for, has also helped shape my sense of responsibilities. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been very fruitful. I am learning a lot more, growing and it can only get better.
What do you think is the state of hip hop in Nigeria?
Right now hip-hop in Nigeria has come to the same thing we see every year. There is a period where everything is all quiet and a bit of conversation on social media, a couple of disses and people taking shots at each other. At the end of the year, it is always the same end product. But I think what the hip-hop industry needs in Nigeria, is people that understand the sound and package that sound in a way that can appeal to the Nigerian fans. The more people understand this, we can see more returns to hip hop music. Hip hop should be able to put money in the pockets of artists that are making this kind of music. Once we see that happening we can have more growth in listenership and an increase in the number of people doing hip hop in Nigeria.
What will your album Ycee vs Zaheer add to the conversation about hip-hop in Nigeria?
With my new album, I am bringing my craft, by making hip hop music the way I feel it should be made in Nigeria. It doesn’t necessarily have to be indigenous rap like what Olamide and Phyno do. Ycee vs Zaheer is all about things that people will relate to when they listen to the album they can connect with it because we share the same experiences.
Hip-hop music in Nigeria has produced superstars like 2Shotz, MI, Ice Prince and Naeto C. Who were all commercially successful. What changed this trend and what can be done about it?
I think at this point Afrobeats is the most important thing people are listening to from this part of the world. The fact that Afrobeats has become a global force in the music scene, has seen the emergence of more Afrobeats artists as bigger stars than other artists that make other kinds of music. This is not just about Nigeria, it is the same thing across Africa. The biggest artists in Africa are Afrobeats artists. So that pushed a lot of people to start making Afrobeats songs because if you want to get international recognition you have to make the kind of music Wizkid or Davido are making. As this happened a lot of people started paying less attention to every other genre and more attention to Afrobeats. It has gotten to the point where the rest of the world sees any music coming from Africa as Afrobeats. Back then we had these hip-hop superstars because we had a lot of people with a better understanding of the hip-hop industry running things, handling things, being in positions to push finances to these projects. Presently, most people want to finance the next Afrobeats star. The only way for things to change is for someone to come in, invest in pushing hip-hop which is an aspect of Nigerian music to the level of Afrobeats. Until people are ready to make that investment, financially this conversation about hip hop music in Nigeria will not change, because that is the most important thing when making music. The talent might be there, but when you don’t have the right financial resources you can’t push the music. The resources need to be made available to the hip hop artists, hip-hop producers, and hip-hop labels.
You’ve done so well in staying off the conversation about the on-going rap beefs in Nigeria. What do you think about rap beefs?
Rap beefs are detrimental right now. The industry on its own is not strong enough to stand. Why should we be fighting amongst ourselves? In the grand scheme of things, we have a bigger job to do, in the sense that we all need to work together, we need to collaborate. Our fan base needs to tie into each other so that our music can get to the level it should get to. I don’t get into beef that has nothing to do with me, because there is no need for me to respond to any situations. I am a good guy, I don’t have a problem with anyone. But will only respond when someone has an issue with me. We are at the point where we should be building together and not bring each other down.
What are your thoughts on rap cyphers?
Rap cyphers are a very important aspect of the culture, not just in Nigeria, but everywhere in the world; it’s a pivotal part of hip hop music. It is one of the avenues for showcasing rap talent. Big shout out to brands like Hennessy and Martell that are actively putting money behind the creation of these cyphers. I feel it’s a welcome addition, those are the conversations we should be having. Not about beef and social media clout.
Who are your favourite hip-hop producers to work with?
Beats by Kamar, 2Seven and Sess.
Who are the producers you worked with on Ycee vs Zaheer?
Synix, ElMore, Fanatics, Adey, Legendury Beatz, J Popping.
Tell me the new hip-hop kids that have gotten your attention in Nigeria?
Psycho YP, SK, and Blaqbonez. These guys are making their music regardless of the industry. The energy they are putting in, they are getting it back. Big shout to them and I wish them nothing but constant growth and return on their investment.
Did you feature any of them on Ycee vs Zaheer?
Nope. I am working on a different project that will have other artists.