“If we do not know you, we can neither like nor dislike you, we can only ignore you.”

For all of Afrobeats’ supposedly one-of-a-kind charm, the songs on rotation at radio stations, in cars, clubs and on people’s devices, are often variations of the same winning beat. Think Mad Over You, Leg Over and Do Like That. According to common industry tropes, the average afrobeat listener is in search of good vibes and a nice time, celebrating any song that can get them dancing their worries way. This all-inclusive nature, however, is not extended to the artists themselves, who face innumerable hurdles in search of elusive superstar status, despite the homogeneity of the Afrobeats space.

Afrobeats is having a field day on the global stage. With the emergence of new and alternative acts in the Nigerian music industry, and the meteoric launch of established acts onto the global scene, it is important to examine what distinguishes the biggest artists from those stuck in the “up and coming” limbo. A notable example of this phenomenon is Kiss Daniel, who announced his presence with the hit song Woju (whose remix pulled the much celebrated Davido and Tiwa Savage) and continues to deliver quality songs like Mama and the more recent Sofa. Quietly but consisentely, he has shown his range as being one of the most proficient pop stars in the Nigerian space. Despite Kiss Daniel’s impressive body of work which is on par with those of his more popular contemporaries like Reekado Banks and Korede Bello, he is yet to fully break out and garner the type of attention which the others enjoy.

Likewise, Maleek Berry has been consistent in his contribution to the genre for almost ten years now, but has failed to unlock the next level of celebrity in Nigeria. Berry, who started out as a producer with hit songs like Sinzu’s Carolina and The Matter, featuring Davido and Wizkid respectively, has made a seamless transition from Producer to Recording artist. Known for releasing bangers like Kontrol, Eko Miami and Juice, on which he assists YCee, he amasses over 1million+ plays on Spotify monthly and performed at the just completed Made in America Festival. This was no small feat as the only other Nigerian performer was OG superstar, Tiwa Savage. Maleek Berry has undoubtedly been one of the most prolific Nigerian artists in the last 18 months, and yet, is not recognized as the star he rightly is.

The careers of these two artists tell us a great deal about the Nigerian music industry. Their music is of great quality, enjoyable and has all the hallmarks of what the afrobeat audience wants. Despite this, they are struggling to rise above B-level celebrity status. This may be due to how the consumers perceive the artist outside of their music. With Nigerian songs often lacking in personality, the Nigerian audience turns to the artists’ personalities and the image we have of them to help in deciding who rises to the top and who stays trying. Consciously or unconsciously, we become invested in the careers of certain artists, permitting them to rise well above their peers if we assume them to be cool or interesting enough.

In a country where life is much harder than it should be, everyone loves a good come up story and Wizkid, one of the largest brands in the music industry, gives us that. Wizkid pushes the guy-next-door-who-rose-from-grass-to-grace persona, and wears his story well enough that we all want to tap into his anointing. He has attained the money and success that millions dream of, but still remains relatable to many. Conversely, Davido, self-titled “Omo Baba Olowo”, is the rich kid we either wish we were or could relate to, depending on where we lie on the income spectrum. With his money bag, playboy image, lyrics like ‘30 billion for the account’ are that much more believable, and have us willing it to be as true for us as we imagine it is for him.

Artists like Wizkid and Davido have, from the inception of their careers, exhibited a level of confidence and charisma which has led us to think of them as the best at what they do (whether they are or not is a discussion for another day). They have sold us these images so expertly that we are now equity shareholders in the lives they lead, rooting for them at every turn. On the other hand, acts like Kiss Daniel and Maleek Berry who make music just as good are left to their own devices, without a die-hard following simply because the ideas we have of them do not inspire much emotion in us. In plainer, harsher terms, it might be said that these artists are too boring for the Nigerian audience.

One might be quick to counter with the fact that I do not know either of these artists personally and am in no place to make such an assessment. But that is precisely the problem. We have no conception of who these individuals are. Nigerians like to be in the know, something our Yoruba fam refer to as amebo, and this has inadvertently found its way into our relationship with artists. If we do not know you, we can neither like nor dislike you, we can only ignore you.

In a 2015 interview, when asked about the effect of living in the UK on his career, Berry responded “I guess it just gives me more space to breathe. I can escape whenever I want and just clock out from “the matrix””. While this may be beneficial to his creative process, it is easy to see how it lends itself to a disconnect from the Nigerian populace, hindering his rise to stardom.  Without regular contact and engagement with an artist (the individual outside the music), it is difficult for the Nigerian audience to become invested in the artist’s career. Like in our personal relationships, communication is key.

In Kiss Daniel’s case, the lack of a coherent image is further compounded by the obscurity of his label, G-Worldwide Entertainment. His peers like Reekado Banks and Korede Bello leverage on the popularity and good will which their record label, Mavin Records, enjoys on account of founder, Don Jazzy. Kiss Daniel, on the other hand, does not benefit from such an arrangement. A prime example of the effect of management on the course of an artist’s career can be seen in the events surrounding the 2015 Headies Next Rated Award. While Reekado Banks took home the plaque (and car), the drama which erupted as a result, between megastars Don Jazzy and Olamide, ensures that no one will forget his or Lil Kesh’s name any time soon.

Ultimately, maximum success in the Nigerian market depends on both music and image. Neither can exist without the other. Artists who wish to rise to the next level of their careers in the mainstream music industry must present an image of themselves, preferably believable, to the Nigerian audience. If we can reconcile who we think you are from Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, with the words you have us singing and the person we see in your music videos, you may well be on your way to becoming the next big thing, fanfare and all.

Photo credits: @wizkidayo