Interview: Sam Onyemelukwe Leads Trace To Inaugural Awards and Festival

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Afro-Urban multimedia and digital initiative, Trace, is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary with the launch of a live Awards and Festival Ceremony. The event will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 19th to 21 October 2023.

The Awards ceremony includes a list of 150 performing artists across 30 nomination categories, and it covers music genres such as Dancehall, Afrobeat, Amapiano, Afro-pop, R&B, Rumba, Zouk, Kizomba, Genge, Gospel, Soukous, Coupé Décalé, Rai and Bongo Flava.

Launched in 2003, Trace is a leading multimedia platform that caters to African and Afrocentric music and culture. Since its inception, the platform has been responsible for the promotion of Afro-Urban music across the globe, harnessing the power of the internet to provide entrepreneurial opportunities, vocational training, and business expertise to artists and other people within the creative industry.

In an interview with Culture Custodian, the Senior Vice President of Global Business Development for Trace Sam “Samo” Onyemelukwe talks about the growth of Trace and her forthcoming 20th anniversary and inaugural Awards show.

For 20 years now, Trace has established itself as a unique Afrocentric, Afro-Urban platform for celebrating music talents and other creatives. What has the journey been like from the beginning till now?

Such a huge amount has changed in the last fifteen to twenty years around the entire space that Trace has occupied. Obviously, music is global. We still have some ways to go because the landscape has changed. I’m just happy that ten or fifteen years ago, I refused to call artists and ask them to perform without payment. Those were times when people used to ask artists to perform for exposure without paying them. At least, I made sure we covered the costs of transportation. Recently, it’s been difficult to lure some of the biggest talents out there, and it’s not because they are not close to Trace or not still part of our ecosystem. For Trace, there has been a huge shift in dynamics, and that’s just an example of the differences in the industry. It spans across content creation and other aspects of the industry.

Trace has announced the inaugural edition of the Trace Awards- what inspired this? Why did you think this was necessary? 

We have been wanting to do awards for several years. Personally, I have been working on coming up with an award show. I believe it’s now happening at the perfect time. With the level that our music is getting to, it’s the fact that the Grammys, BET, MTV VMA are the biggest music awards in the world. It was time for Trace, one of the biggest music platforms on the continent, to step up and do an awards show that could rival those and really be a true celebration of what the African creative space has achieved. So, it just happens to coincide with our 20th anniversary.

As the inaugural edition of the Trace Awards and Festival ceremony inches closer, what are the expectations like, seeing that an array of award shows already exist? How do you ensure this award holds the requisite prestige from the jump?

For viewers, fans, and the creative community alike, they can look forward to an award show for Africans whereby there would be no question mark, an award show that would stand chest to chest with any other awards, including the Grammys, BETs, and VMAs. It will be a spectacular event, something everyone can be proud of. For those who will be there in person, it will be a seamless experience right from the moment you arrive in Kigali.

Initiatives like Awards and Festivals are very important in promoting African Music and culture. It is important to note that many award shows started out with a similar vision, but along the line, they’ve somewhat deviated from their goal of promoting African Music. How is Trace as an Afro-Urban platform looking to protect its initiative from derailing from its main goal? 

We are not in fear of that in a sense because this award we are doing is a combination of the work we’ve done for twenty years. It’s actually the pinnacle of that work, so it’s not a new thing that we might derail from. It’s already the body and spirit of what we do. We have 30 channels across the world, and with our partners, we are going to broadcast the Trace Awards live on Trace Naija on DSTV, amongst others. It’s also going to be on live stream on our Trace music channel on YouTube. We expect over a hundred million people to watch and see the awards. For me, it’s not like we are just trying to see what we could do.

The decision for the awards ceremony to feature 150 performers across 30 categories is rather daring and quite unprecedented. What informed the choice of nominations and creation of categories?

There’s no special handbook for that. We consulted far and wide and took on board the best we had. I told my team from the outset that you can not do an Award without controversy. So, we received a lot of complaints and questions when the nominees list was released. We were even dragged by the incredible director TG Omori. There was a lot of validity in some of those questions. We initially had the music video director category on the list but had to take it off. We wanted to be ambitious. We knew that we needed the stars and celebrities to be present. The list of performers expected for the occasion includes Davido, Tiwa Savage, and Rema, as well as Uncle Waffles from South Africa, and Tayc and Aya Nakamura from France. Most importantly, regarding the selection of our nominees, we used data. Of course, it’s easy to consider streams, views, and popularity, but we also considered the requests of Trace viewers. For the 22 categories that are out now, we are influencing the nominations but they are open to public voting. Voting can be done at It’s important that people vote because those votes are a big aspect of the final decisions for the winners.

Being an Afro-Urban initiative, it’s obvious that Trace is committed to celebrating young music talents. As much as promoting youth creativity is a healthy and forward-thinking culture, it’s impossible to overlook the contributions of music icons from the older generation. Does Trace have any plans to recognize such outstanding individuals?

Right now, only the 22 award categories open to public voting are out. There are still other categories that are not for public voting. We are making that decision amongst Trace and some stakeholders in the music industry. Part of these non-voting categories is an award for an icon from the past. You know, when we say an icon from the past, this could mean Mozart, Fela, and the rest. But we want to focus on genres such as Afrobeats and Amapiano. So, I expect some of my old friends and others who reigned in the past to be amongst the nominees and winners.


What more Trace-led initiatives should we look forward to?

In the last twenty years of our existence, which includes my ten years of running Trace in this region, we have been lucky to maintain a special place in the hearts of people. People consider the brand a premium player in the music industry and creative space. We are not going to sit back and take that for granted. It’s important that we continue to evolve. You may have caught wind of what we call Trace Academia which has been active for the past year. We now have over 200,000 active users getting free training and certificates from Google and others through the initiative. Next month, we will unveil a new platform called Trace Cross which will permit our community to do three key things: learn, get entertained, and grow their careers. If you are a musician, you can have access to our different content and upskill yourself. As Lagos is considered the center of the entertainment industry in Africa, we will continue to do incredible things with artists here. We also look forward to bringing more special packages in 2024.