As we reflect on the last decade and its potential significance for the future, a key theme emerges. Globalization, that idea of the world as one global village, particularly resonates. Nigerian culture serves as an apt example. Nigerian pop culture references are not as exotic as they otherwise would be in foreign climes because, with the massive adoption of the internet and social media, they have traveled farther and quicker than they ever have. In the course of my conversation with British-Jamaican singer, Benji Flow, this shines through. As an artist with no prior links to the Nigerian society and its culture, it would be weird that the singer spends as much time in Lagos traffic as he does, but this is 2019 and Lagos is where it’s at.
The Universal Music Group office in Lagos is our primary base today. Sat on a couch, Flow speaks of growing up in Edmonton, a North London suburb that would ideally result in a Spurs fan card but ends up in one of the Arsenal variation. He perceives himself as “a musical space to fill gaps in people’s lives that they might be missing.” It helps that his larger family consists of musicians and singers, and the music was essentially the only path he could take. He says he was not good at everything: “I was mediocre at everything else; I was mediocre at my grades; I was mediocre as an athlete; I was mediocre at everything else but I was always really good at music.” As a result of his family’s musical exposure he had a choice to make, “I had to either sing or play an instrument,” he says. “Because if you’re not singing, you better pick up a piano.”
Like some of the greats, Flow started out as a producer. As a kid, a chance experiment served as the initial trigger. “One day my uncle took me to a producer’s house and he was in the studio. This guy (producer) picked up every single instrument; he went to the piano, played on the piano and moved to the bass guitar and played strings, then the guitar, then the drums, and I was like, I want to be this guy. I remember saying at that point I want to be a producer because in my family they’re all amazing singers and I thought it was just better for me to produce.” As a producer, he’s earned credits for his work with acts like Avelino, Sipprell and Wretch 32. Reflecting on the experience, he says that it served as “a massive learning curve because it helped me get to where I am today because when you produce you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You have to see what’s the best way to bring the best out of the artiste and that was just my goal. I never saw myself as the artiste, I always put myself in people’s shoes and it helped me to maneuver and know what to put into the records.”
However, it became necessary to make the transition to artist when he felt the things he was asking of his artist friends were not executed as intended. Speaking carefully to ensure his words are not intended to slight, he says, “It wasn’t about perfection. It wasn’t about trying to get the best things, it was emotions in each song I had was the reason someone else couldn’t execute it the way I want. So, when you hear my songs it’s not about perfection but the emotion the song gives you.” There was also a selfish aspect to it, he openly admits. Millennials have seen producers like Kanye West and Pharell try their hands at music partly in a bid to get high off their own supply and sample the goods they were producing. He speaks of “conversations with my friends. My friends are involved in my musical process quite a lot where I like to speak to them about how I’m feeling. So, I was just on the phone speaking about the things I have. From the phone conversation I was just like I can’t give this to anyone and it’s going to sound the same no matter how much of a good singer they are. It just fits with me because I knew the pockets, I knew where it started. From a conversation, I just went I’m going to do it. But it was always in me, so I always kind of wanted to be like Kanye or Pharrell (Williams) who was producing for everybody and then he would just sing and just make, like, a banger. And Kanye would make everything for Jay Z and everybody in the world. I had been influenced so much by those people, it was always brewing, waiting to blow up.”
In days bygone, it was common to find artists stigmatized by society. It’s particularly common within the black community where success tends to be interpreted in the frame of a high-paying corporate job. These days, as the barriers of entry to music have diminished and there’s more success to be found away from the mainstream, it could be said that there’s a greater degree of acceptance. However, in his case acceptance could only come in the form of a certificate to present to his mother: a music technology degree.
It’s increasingly common to find collectives amongst creatives as they seek to leverage their collective strengths for a common goal. Benji is no different, he is one-fourth of the Mini Kings collective. Speaking of how he joined the group, he says, “there was already Mini Kingz before me, there was Ragz Originale, Oscar WorldPeace, and Cartae, they were already Mini Kingz. I had been friends with them from young but I wasn’t in the mix because I hadn’t decided to become an artist. But it happened so naturally, I was producing and we were always hanging together and it just became a thing. I was like the last piece to the puzzle, came in and it all clicked. Now, we’re just like a strong team of music people.”
Deep End, the record which essentially put him on the map and created a pathway for him to the big time, was a fine vocal performance which told a tale of seduction – an attempt to take his muse to the literal deep end. The inspiration behind his music is as tangible as a single moment so he prefers to create as it comes and that is how Deep End was made. “With all of my songs at the time, when I’m making them, there’s not a lot of thought into what I’m saying until I finish making them,” he confesses. “When we made that song, Ragz Originale and I were just chilling, eating KFC and playing Mario Kart, and it was like 1 am in the morning. He was like, ‘should we go home’ and I was like ‘maybe we should just make a song.’ He was like, ‘you do this every time, every time you do this.’ We never plan to make the song, it’s on the day we plan to chill because we’ve been making music all week that we make another song. There’s never a time we’re in the studio and we don’t make a song. When we made it, there was not a lot of thought process behind it, we just talked about the young lady I’m speaking about; how she can put all her trust and insecurities on me and everything would be alright. It doesn’t seem like that when you listen to the song because it seems like a groove but there’s always a meaning behind it. But there wasn’t much thought behind it. I think that’s the magic of music.” Speaking of his creative process, he says “I produce then write. When the beat is made, I start the writing process. I have to go through life experiences and the melody inspires where I’m going to go with the music.”
The variation in the sound of Deep End and Can’t Lose is borne of a conscious desire to keep people guessing by serving a plethora of options. “I think it’s better to give a variety of yourself from early on so that people can understand that you can do more than one thing. So, there are references to the type of music and interests that you have rather than coming up with five of the same type of songs. When you switch up, there is always a shocking moment; and I want to give everyone shocking moments. I’m trying to challenge everyone’s ears as much as I can.”
Benji Flow’s visa to the contemporary Nigeria audience came in the form of a feature on Take Me Home off Lady Donli’s debut album Enjoy Your Life. After working together and developing a friendship while in the UK, Take Me Home came out the blue when he received the song from Donli. He requested that she “give him a night” and turned it in the next day. He has noted an uptick in the reception for him after this. “They were already playing a lot of my stuff since Deep End. The radio stations were already showing me love but when I got on Take Me Home, I was like, you guys are really messing with me.” From the outside looking in, he observes that the current demand for Nigerian music is “because the melody is so good, the melody and rhythm is so good. American and UK music, the melodies and rhythms are not as strong as Nigerian music and it feels like they’ve found a way to mix old school music to today’s music. So, you see like Burna Boy, the actual musicality of the new Wizkid stuff, Teni stuff; it’s very musical so you can hear old school stuff like Lagbaja influences, you can hear Fela influences in the music they are making but they are making it into today’s sound and you can’t take that. In America, you can’t emulate that. It is something that is worldwide, rhythm is something that connects us internationally. And I feel like the way the music is in Nigeria hits the nail on the head and is being resonated in America and the UK feels amazing.”
While some players fear that with the lack of structure and investment to build sustainable impact within the industry, the current moment in sun could go the way of music originating from the Caribbean in the Noughties where the likes of Sean Paul, Elephant Man and Beenie Man found mainstream success, he seeks to allay those fears positing that, “I think music back then was very different. A lot of the Jamaican artistes don’t even own their songs or have any rights to their songs, there was hardly any knowledge about the music industry in that decade. Today, we have black owners, black A&Rs, we have people who are teaching people about the music and, luckily, Nigeria is the championship of that. They are leading the pack to the world for them to understand that it can be sustainable.”
This conversation is particularly important in the context of everything that is happening in Lagos right now. As the zeitgeist shifts to Afrobeats and Afro-Fusion, it’s not as surprising to hear that a Londoner of Caribbean descent has taken to Lagos as a base to record and socialize. In the week after the interview, I would see Benji Flow twice – once, outside Muri Okunola Park as the chaos of Nativeland ensued and, later, at a Culture Custodian night at Club 57. Reflecting on his December experience in Lagos, he keeps it simple and with a laugh, “I am tired.” Speaking of the African influences he says “I think there are African pop influences in everything I make. From the rhythm, you can kind of see, when you hear it, there’s a kind of swing so that’s why it resonated here. I always try and make things that are not directly in the pocket. So, I won’t make direct afrobeats, direct RnB, or direct pop; it’s the influence of where it comes from, enough for people to love worldwide.” As we discuss King Sunny Ade, the artist he’s most inspired by, he is at his most animated and superlative in his use of language. He describes him as “untouchable” and says of potentially seeing him live “I think I’ll just shed tears because he is, hands down, my favorite”. The other faves? “I had no choice but to listen to Fela. His stuff was very much in my house as well as other types of music, I think he took it worldwide quite early. There are new guys that I’m loving too like The Cavemen who’ve found a way to make highlife acceptable.”
January tends to mark new beginnings. And for Benji Flow, new work should come in January. He intends to set the year in motion by releasing a debut project. “We are not stopping the music for the whole year. I’ve deprived everybody of music for the last year, so, this year, you are going to get music.” It’s time to go to the deep end; sink or swim.
Photography by Ugo Emebiriodo