From Benin to the Universal Music Group: The Alpha P Story

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“The reception has been great,” Princewill Emmanuel tells me one Friday late in November, about the welcome he has received from his musical family, as we sit in a spacious office situated on the fifth floor of Landmark Tower in Lagos’ Victoria Island. The office offers a spectacular view of the beach below but Emmanuel has an intensity that fills the room and cannot be ignored. He is 17-year-old but speaks with the clarity and magnetism of someone in his mid-20s; conveying lucid thoughts and expressing his ideas in broad strokes that are measured but leave nothing to chance. That maturity is reflected in his approach to life despite being on the books of one of the biggest record labels in the world: he is eager to put in the work, wants to make “positive music” and has dreams of world domination. Except, there is only one nagging issue, he is not Princewill Emmanuel to you and I. He is Alpha P.

Alpha P’s story begins miles away from the opulence of Victoria Island, it starts in the heart of Benin City, Edo State. The fourth child in a family of seven, two brothers and a duo of sisters, he didn’t pick up his musical influences from his siblings or parents who liked music but “weren’t into singing and stuff.” Alpha P started crafting gospel bars as a youngster at a Christ Embassy church in Ekenwan Road, however, unlike the archetypal musician who starts out as a member of the choir; he did not join the singing. “I was just rapping, I didn’t want to be a part of the choir,” he says.

His age was not something he was comfortable divulging to his acquaintances in the early years as he enjoyed hanging out with the older crowd but his musical prowess counted in his favor. Promoters and show organizers soon began to invite him for concerts in Benin off the success of one of his earliest singles, Boom. Alpha was also an inaugural member of a group called 7th Dimensions – formed in children’s church – that he says he was still a part of till last year. As a young wordsmith growing up in the midst of the Internet’s proliferation across the world and globalist trends of the decade, his music was shaped by American acts like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar as well as Canadians like PartyNextDoor and Drake more than others. I ask if there was any Nigerian music in that mix and he shakes his head blithely before saying, a little understatedly, “MI is the only Nigerian rapper I used to listen to but I try and listen to people like Vector now.”

Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic and possessing a unique importer-exporter position within global conversations about music, Lagos remains a top destination for musicians in Nigeria and beyond. It was a combination of these factors and his search for the bright lights that brought Alpha P from Edo to this city of dreamers. There is an insistence that he didn’t feel like a big fish in a small pond there but needed a breakthrough that felt out of reach from Benin. “I just felt like I had to leave that space at that time because the energy wasn’t right,” he says. “In Benin City, there are a lot of talents but the platforms are not there. And I knew that everything concerning music happens, here, in Lagos; everybody who has sense has to come to Lagos.” (He adds that he knows a lot of “good guys” from his time in Benin though.)

Coming to Lagos was not the limit to his dreams, however. At the beginning of the year, he made a request while praying: he wanted to be signed to an international label. “The kind of music I make – I don’t make just Nigerian music,” he says about his prayer, smiling sheepishly. “I was thinking of what labels would be able to push…I used to look at Universal, Def Jam, and it came. And they can push it (his music) not just in Nigeria, Africa but they can push it to the whole world.”

Alpha P admits that it was hard at first after his deal with Universal Music Group Nigeria was sealed but he is confident that he is getting the hang of it. The freedom to work as he wants is a particular appeal. “In Benin, there were so many things distracting…there were not really good studio set-ups,” he says with surprising candor admitting that he used to make the 325 km trip to Lagos from Benin to record in previous years. “Here, you can work with a lot of people. You can meet with producers anywhere and work; so, everything is easy here.” Although, he confesses that there is no room for comfort in the ever-bubbling maelstrom that is Lagos: “You have to put in a lot more work, you know that you actually have to work unlike Benin when you can feel comfortable with one song.”

The fruit of that work is his debut EP, King of the Wolves, released in November. The five-track project is an eclectic fusion of influences and sonic references that are held together by the charming charisma and velcro voice of Alpha P.  Project opener, Fayah, gives a glimpse into Alpha trying to win a love interest over as his vocals swim dreamily over a slow-paced pendulum of drum kicks that rise and fall with his voice, it is an impressive spin on afrobeats and dancehall that makes the song sound both fresh and exotic. If Fayah is rooted in the familial, Paloma is a trip into the unknown combining lyrics that seemingly have no discernable meaning but becomes an earworm with every play because of its stellar production; both tracks are marked by an attraction to a certain Amaka. The third song is Radar, spun over a wanton minimalist beat that accentuates the needy ache of the singer while More is a return to earlier influences for the creator as he is at ease trapping as well as laying out the catchy repetitive hook. King of the Wolves is rounded off with the wispy, dark reverse-engineering of rock and RnB that makes Tonight sound both like a dirge and a call for friendship.

“My name (Alpha) inspired King of the Wolves,” he tells me about the project and the persona presented on it. “An alpha is the leader of the park…king of the wolves, so basically, me. I was just telling people that this is me (leader of the park). This is where I stand in these times, in this industry; I am the king of the wolves.” He says that he had a number of songs for the project – recorded between January and October 2019 – but went with the ones that he felt would connect with the audience. Between the warped production feel of King of the Wolves and Alpha P crooning intimately on tracks like Fayah and Paloma there is little rapping on the body of work and for a hip-hop junkie that Alpha says he is, this stuck out as an oddity. I ask why he doesn’t rap on the project and he says that when he came to Lagos he had to “rebrand and refine” his art after studying the music industry; for him, hardcore rap was not a vehicle to the mainstream. His journey in Lagos has had to come with an accompaniment of re-education. “I actually lost the passion for hardcore rap because I started to learn new things,” he tells me. “I started learning new ways to express music that did not involve hardcore rap.” When asked if he considers that selling out, he shakes his head and answers: Nah. “It’s just me experimenting. I still make hardcore rap music but I focus more on what everyone can relate to. Let’s wait and see if I put out a rap album or mixtape. It can happen,” he says with a smile on his face.

Prior to relocating to Lagos in the first quarter of 2019, he was a student at the University of Benin and was about to begin his sophomore year. I ask if school is off the table as things stand and he answers that he is, in fact, still a student; just with another institution. “I’ve gotten admitted to Unilag,” he says, pointing out with seemingly genuine interest that he is looking forward to starting what he reveals will be a program in history and international studies. There is also a passing interest in fashion – he enjoys the thrill of creation. Don’t be confused though, all roads in Alpha P’s universe invariably lead back to the music.

In the last few years, a new class of musicians has broken through in the Nigerian music industry that have expanded the sounds of our time and widened our musical tastes by rehashing and rejigging works from other eras with modern takes. In discussion with Alpha P, there is a clear hint of the willingness to do just the same. He wants to move unencumbered through genres to find new and puzzling ways to adlib a word, to straddle a beat, or be at total unity with specific flows. He would use afrobeats, fuji, dancehall, trap, or sing a whimsical incoherent bop if it pulls at the core of your heart. That is the curious challenge he has set himself: to always find the music to move you, however that happens. And this promises to be fun to watch.