One night in April last year, as people across the world sought to deal with the stack of bad cards that was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, pleasure came from people who had a decade worth of experience in providing auditory pleasure albeit on warring sides. Sarz, of Sarz is not Your Mate fame who had once held a place within the industry as one of Wizkid’s closest collaborators took on Shizzi, a prolific producer whose break had come as a part of Davido’s camp in a Battle of the Hits- a home-grown spin-off of the Verzuz format which Timbaland and Swizz Beats had pioneered and would prove to be the latest cash cow for two of Hip Hop’s greatest producers. The consensus was that Sarz emerged as the victor. At times, he sneered at Shizzi in a manner that suggested he didn’t view him as an equal. The thing is, Sarz has no equal. Sarz is not your mate. And when he says deadpan “I think I’m the most influential producer in this music space” to me, you know that he truly believes it.
Sitting next to Sarz is Lojay, the latest artist to benefit from the Sarz stimulus package. Previous beneficiaries include Drake, Wizkid, Da Grin, Niniola, M.I Abaga, Reminisce, and Wurld. If there’s any difference, it’s that those artists were of a certain cache- well known and further in their cycle. But that again, captures where Sarz is at. He says “At this point in my career, I feel like I have the freedom to express myself however I want to. I think I can take more risks. This is one project I saw and was like let me just do this and see what we can do. Obviously, it’s very challenging for me ‘cos he’s a very new artist and I had to go back and forth so I can bring him up to speed to what’s happening or to the kind of music he’s making. And those are the challenges that move me these days. Making a song with the usual suspects is kind of normal to me now and I’m trying to push and challenge myself.” And what makes Lojay a worthy collaborator? “He has a very unique tone. He doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve heard before. And I just asked myself, what can I do with this tone he has?” For Lojay, this is the culmination of a career that started as a University student in Portsmouth in 2016. As the rearview of his Marketing degree approached, he asked himself what his ideal future looked like. Would it come in a “boring 9-5” or would it come from pursuing his musical dreams? He chose the latter and hasn’t looked back. Last year, as he went through the process of developing himself as an artist, a mutual friend introduced him to Sarz, and thus, their professional relationship was born. Conversations about collaborating on a single eventually led to an entire project.
For Sarz, an evolution from a behind-the-scenes actor to a front-line innovator has been the hallmark of the last couple of years. That has come in the shape of his attempt at deejaying and then releasing music under his own name. This was borne of a desire to grow and position himself as the premier producer of his age. In his words “It gets to a point where you become a shark in a pond and you want to swim in the ocean, so you have to do other things in order to grow. Nothing grows in your comfort zone so you have to try new things. That’s why I tried DJing, making my own music featuring artists’ just to get more opportunity out there just to get the brand bigger than what already is.” As an innovator, perhaps the greatest proof of his powers was his work with Niniola whose claim to fame came from a 3rd place finish on the talent show, Project Fame West Africa. Her true breakout came in 2017’s Maradona. An unlikely monster hit, Sarz’s South African House-inspired production matched with Niniola’s extremely suggestive writing wrapped up in the Maradona metaphor opened the floodgates of a wave of fusion. In a world where the Amapiano sound is the genre du jour, Sarz’s influence shines through. “I’m glad people accept that genre here and I think when we started it, it was creeping. It wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. So it was a bit difficult to break in with her kind of sound, but now people understand it. There’s a lot of fusion with Afrobeats, and you know that South African sound, they’re calling it Omopiano.” This mainstreamification by Nigerians of a sound that has roots in South Africa triggers a conversation around appropriation. By virtue of its status as Anglophone Africa’s cultural capital, Nigeria’s role in repurposing from other parts has inspired many a debate and brings to mind Chris Brown doing the Azonto on BET’s 106 & Park and crediting Wizkid and Nigeria with it, which naturally rubbed Ghanaians the wrong way. That said, the Omopiano wave has seen South African stars like Busiswa, Focalistic, Sho Madjozi, and Cassper Nyovest centered. He says “it’s not entirely wrong. I just think Nigerians know how to amplify things and also put things together, from our fashion to our food, we just know how to put different cultures together and make it one piece and make it our own. I think that’s something we do naturally so even when the Ghanaian wave was big, Nigerians knew how to just take this, take that, take some lingo from there and just make it our own and it now makes it bigger and we champion the sound. I won’t be surprised if the Amapiano sound gets international credit and it’s Nigeria that takes it there.” Another embodiment of the level of Sarz’s influence takes shape in the form of the Sarz academy. Buoyed by constant requests for mentorship from aspiring producers, the academy was designed to incubate and nurture aspiring Nigerian producers. Beneficiaries include Kel P, P Priime, Tempoe, STG, and Dunnie.
There’s a video flying on the internet where we see Lojay sitting quietly taking in a cut off LV N ATTN. Next thing you know a familiar voice booms over the speakers. It’s the one and only Ojuelegba Michael Jackson! The OG conduit of Nigeria to the World! Wizkid, the original superstar of the Afrobeats age makes the sole outside appearance on the project. For Lojay, the excitement is clear. His mouth is open as his face contorts in disbelief. Then his head goes into his hands and he starts to tap it in a manner reminiscent of Papa Ajasco- Wale Adenuga’s iconic creation. While in London, he talks of getting a 2 am call to come to Metropolis Studio where Sarz and Wiz were working. Vibes were caught and words of encouragement were shared. All in a day’s work. The project, due today, will build on the success of its first single Tonongo which pays homage to strippers with possibly the most memorable line to emerge from Nigerian music this year “You win the ass cheek Ballon D’Or”.
Naturally, the conversation winds up at the state of the country. With the rising insecurity and never-ending failures of the Buhari administration, the creative industry has been the rare beacon of hope. Can it be the catalyst of a turnaround? What can be done to accelerate the growth of the industry? In Sarz’s opinion, it’s imperative that there’s increased investment in the space. “We need to actually invest in Nigerian music in Nigeria and build our structure. As long as we don’t have the structure, we will always have to export our music to make a living. Nigerian music is booming outside, that’s why it looks like the music industry is growing. In Nigeria, it’s not growing. We don’t have new venues for shows. There are so many things that can be done here with the number of people we have. When you go to shows, you see how big Nigerian artists are and the music and how it’s impacted people but when you look at the numbers it doesn’t translate. We need to make it translate.”