20 Minutes With Davido: The Afrobeats Giant Talks Confidence, Timing And Strong Foundations

Davido can’t sit still. Maybe it’s early afternoon energy or impatience or knowing that his press rounds for the day aren’t winding down for some hours. Or maybe it’s just the fact that he’s sitting on what he considers to be an audio goldmine. David Adeleke, the gifter of astronomical hits like “If” and “Fall”—two-year-old songs with gravity still strong enough to pull Snapchatting wallflowers and clumsy dancers to the center of the floor—knows there’s much more where that came from.

“It’s an album for everybody, I’ll say,” he says of his forthcoming album, A Good Time, with a smirk. “I feel like everybody will have at least three songs they love in different genres.”

Technically speaking, the Atlanta-born and Lagos, Nigeria-raised artist has made a moderate splash on the Billboard charts, the metrics most artists use to quantify their success and measure progression in the industry. (In 2019, “Fall” became the longest-charting Nigerian pop song in Billboard history thanks to admittedly delayed radio push.)

However, Davido’s worldwide footprint speaks louder than a few hard figures. This year alone, he’s sold out shows as intimate as nightclubs and massive as London’s O2 Arena, rocked sets at Essence Music Festival and Hot 97’s Summer Jam, and was an international headliner abroad at Oh My! Fest in the Netherlands, Afro Nation Portugal, and eventually Afro Nation Ghana alongside afrobeats greats he can safely consider peers.

July summoned his album’s breezy lead single “Blow My Mind” featuring Chris Brown, and a burst of new guest spots this month are carrying that same fresh energy into October. Davido was featured alongside Jeremih in “Choosy,” a new release from Fabolous, as well as on Brown’s “Lower Body,” a newbie on the extended version of his Indigo album. To say he’s ready to fan the mainstream flame with fellow afrobeats and afro-fusion hitmakers is an understatement. “Let us in, open American doors,” he jokes, knowingly. “We will finish everybody.”

In between banter about the turnup we’re missing in West Africa—trust, December in Africa is a thing—Davido opens up about his A Good Time (a genre hodgepodge guaranteed to please), the source of his success (part luck, part work ethic), and afrobeats’ undeniable global appeal.

VIBE: Tell me about how your 2019 has been so far?
Davido: 2019 has been a journey. It’s been the longest time that I’ve spent away from Lagos probably since I came to school in America. Reason being, just wanted to focus and get new energy, new environment to record the album. There’s just so much going on back home, so we’ve been out here the whole year, basically. “Fall” blew up and then we just came out here and worked with it. That album is about to come out and it’s gonna be crazy.

Given the momentum and expectations that come with it, are you more excited or nervous about this next album?
I’m not nervous because I’m confident about the music. I’m just anxious to see what the next stage is, the next step. I like to challenge myself. When you reach a stage, you want to challenge yourself to reach higher stages.

You said it’s been the longest time you’ve spent away from Lagos. Is that a good or bad thing?
No, that’s good. To me, it’s a new energy. The people miss me, of course, but sometimes it’s good to be away. To just step back and see where you’re at in your surroundings and stuff like that. I think every artist needs that.

Sometimes when you’re too present, people think they know what you’re going to deliver.
Exactly, and me being out here recording, all my producers I flew in from Nigeria. It’s not like I left my team. The whole team is here, so people ain’t really heard the music. Back home, in my studio, it’s like everybody comes through, so I can imagine recording my album back home, four or five of the songs would have probably leaked already.

You had a great year and so has music from African artists. What has it been like to watch that happen, to see us latecomers catch on?
I felt like it was always going to happen. Even when I was in school in Alabama, when I used to play Nigerian songs from artists that were the top artists then—they were the biggest artists, like D’banj, P-Square—when I used to play their music in my dorm room, my American friends would love it. I always knew it was a thing that once America heard it, they would love it. Afrobeats, you hear it once, twice, I promise you, it’s going to ring. So I feel like it was just for the people to hear it. Give us a channel to be heard. Radio, now you have social media. Back then all those things weren’t in place. Now you have things in place where even if it’s not in your face, one way or the other, you can find it. I think if you had all those things back then, social media and the support, it would’ve been the same.

Were you frustrated with how long it took?
Not really, because we’ve got our stuff going back home, too. You know what I’m saying? Even me today, I make most of my money from back home. And even before afrobeats got mainstream in America, we’ve been coming to do shows. I did a show in New York in 2013 to 5,000 people, and this was when I didn’t have most of my big records I have now. Sold it out. But now it’s mainstream. You have Live Nation now partnering with us to do shows. Back then it was just like local promoters selling tickets at the clubs and we still had the numbers. Now, our fans can put on the radio and hear us.

It even gives them more confidence. Confidence to be like, you know what? Let’s go out and support this culture. So that’s why the Afro Nation festival in Portugal, it was bigger than Coachella to me. It just shows that you just needed that platform, and then the fans needed the confidence to come out and really support. The next step now is getting the fans to buy the music because we have the numbers, but you’ve got to come out and buy it. That’s the only way we can really break. The music is spreading. It’s on the radio. Everybody’s doing shows. Everybody’s touring, but now the next step is getting these sales up.

In a way, that’s most artists’ problems now. Touring is the moneymaker. That and streaming.
There’s nothing really wrong with streaming. That is why they want us to appeal to the Western crowd because those people buy music. Those people buy merch, blah blah blah. But we have to do what we know how to do. So the Western [crowd], they’re actually buying it, but we need our real fans to come and be like, yo, Davido album dropping. It’s a campaign—80,000 copies the first week, let’s go out and buy. Look at the Latin industry. They’re doing numbers. So apart from the music getting big, I feel like, yes, the music is getting accepted, but where are the numbers? When you walk into a building, it’s all about numbers. It’s not about if your music is sweet or this, or that—it’s all about the profit. That’s what we’ll be working on getting up.

What are your thoughts about seeing really large artists pay so much homage to the afrobeats sound?
I mean some people find it offensive, but I actually don’t. I mean, first of all, people in Africa do hip-hop, right? So you can’t come and say these people are taking our sound when we have artists back home doing trap, doing all these things. I feel that everybody should feel free to do what they want to do, but maybe it won’t hurt to evolve. Like, I feel like it was nice how Swae Lee had Tekno produce that record for him and Drake, stuff like that. And they have more of our producers more involved in the sound because those are the ones who really know how to get the sound. Yeah, I think the producer side needs more shine but apart from that, doing afrobeats is [for] everybody. Any artist is free to do any kind of music they want.

Who are some of the producers that we should know? Give us a starter list.
I mean, first of all, Shizzi, that’s my producer. He did most of my stuff. And we have Kiddominant, that’s my other producer. And we have Speroach, this dude Rexxie, he’s the one that’s doing all the Zanku songs. So he’s going crazy. But I feel like they should bring all these artists out here, get a camp, put ’em all in one room and trust me, they’ll make magic.

Do you still consider yourself an afrobeats artist now? Some of your counterparts like Afro B and Burna Boy have classified themselves as afro-wave or afro-fusion.
I’m just an artist, man. I’m just a musician. Every kind. Of course I do afrobeats, but I’m just a musician. Worldwide musician. World music.

You mentioned the Latinx music scene. Is there anyone you’re looking to collaborate with from that space?
Bad Bunny, Maluma. I really want to work with them. I might get a studio session with them when I get back from Nigeria.

How would you say your sound has progressed over the years from your try at making music to now?
Of course [when] you’re growing, you learn. Sometimes I don’t even listen to some of my earlier records, even though I always used to put a lot in my records so it’s not like that shit was whack. It was cool but I can see the growth and the quality of the music. Back then we didn’t really focus on our sound and mixing and mastering. We’d really just record, next day release. Right now, it’s a whole package and music has to be perfect. Right now, they’re playing Nigerian music on the radio, African music, and after African music, they start playing American music. You don’t want the level of the quality to drop. And planning. I’m at the label now. Before I could just wake up and just drop, but now they gotta submit the single two weeks before. You know how it is. So, of course, it’s way different now from like four years ago.

What else have you learned about yourself personally and the way you work?
I’m really, really, really free with my work. I don’t really bother myself with strategic planning and stuff like that. What’s most important to me is the music. Once the music is good, I feel that’s really all you need. And, of course, a good team around you and they’re doing what you want. Connect with your fans. Very important, connect with your fans. Don’t lose touch of home because that’s your foundation, really. Without that foundation, you can’t really be big in America when you don’t have that foundation in Nigeria. An example is, I’ve known a lot of American artists for a while who are bigger in America, but when they came to Nigeria they saw the love I get at home. Then coming back is like, the respect is different. They’d come and they were like, Yo, you’re the president. You know what I’m saying?

Stacy-Ann Ellis

When was the first moment that you realized where you stood with your hometown? That they would be such a solid support system?
That was probably for my first song, really. From the first record, man, it’s just been love. Davido this, Davido that, negative, positive, negative and whatever.

Negative? What’s the biggest critique you’ve seen of yourself?
I don’t know. Probably my voice. That’s the worst I can think of. I can’t think of nothing else.

What’s the most memorable place you’ve ever performed?
I’ve got a couple places. O2 Arena [in London]. I just did [Madison Square Garden] with 50 Cent [for the Power premiere]. That was cool.

Walk me through that.
He [50 Cent] brought me out. It was just crazy cause I ain’t really met him before. I met him at the pool party or something like that, when I was performing at the pool party, and the reception when I performed was crazy so I think it got his attention. The next day he called me up to perform at MSG.

And then in July, you headlined your first international festival.
Oh yeah, yeah. Amsterdam. Yeah. Oh My! Festival, and then Afro Nation, too. This summer was lit, but next summer is about to be dumb lit. This fall’s about to be lit. Album’s coming October.

One thing I notice about you and the progression of your career is that it’s fueled by a strong sense of faith and confidence. Where do you get that?
It just depends, man. Honestly, it’s not even confidence. I wouldn’t say that Nigeria spoiled me, but like bruh, they just showed me so much love. Like, I didn’t really go through like a lot of things. I just dropped and it just took me… I didn’t really have to overkill myself. They just kept me there. I don’t know why they liked me so much, (Laughs) but they just kept me there, kept me comfortable, kept me confident. Always came out to all the shows, supported all the music. It’s just love, everywhere is love. Even the love for Davido spreads to everybody around me. My family members.

Have newer artists in Nigeria or on the continent asked you for advice? If so, what do you tell them?
You have to be very hardworking and ready to play the part. That’s what they’re always asking. But everybody has their different ways of getting to where they need to get to. My way might be different from somebody else’s way, but most importantly is just be ready to work hard and the music has to be good. Once the music is good, get your team right, and just work hard. I feel like the other steps, you kind of figure it out yourself.

Who do you think is next up in terms of afrobeats artists? 
I mean, there’s a lot of other artists. It’s like 500 of us. Let us in, open American doors, we will finish everybody. There is a lot of us. I feel like before you stand up and leave Africa, like, yo, I’m going to chase the dream in America, I’m going to chase the dream in Europe, you have to make sure your foundation, your home is super strong.

Is it still a goal to capture or change up the American market?
No, not [to] change it, we just want to join it. Add us. We should have our own chart, I think. You know what I’m saying? Like if reggae could have their own chart, I think we can have ours, too. Or let us in the main chart, something. But I feel like it’s gonna happen, man. It’s been happening, man. Most importantly, I’m happy that American artists themselves open their arms for us as well. I got a lot of records dropping that are not even myself, they’re their songs featuring me. Stuff like that helps us as well.

What can we expect from the new album?
Just a lot of good songs. It’s an album for everybody, I’ll say. I feel like everybody will have at least three songs they love in different genres. It’s going to be 13 songs. Well, I’ll probably have “Fall” and “If” on there, so it’s really like 11 new songs. But yeah, it’s going to be an album for everybody. Trust me. Every type of song is going to be on there. Predominantly afrobeats-infused, of course. Mainly my producers and a lot of your [American] producers, too. With features, me and Chris got a second record.

And lastly, since you speak highly of your foundation, what is the best thing about Nigeria?
The people. The attitude, rich or poor. It’s just a jolly place. You would laugh, comedians everywhere. There’s some bad, bad spirits sometimes, (laughs) but for the most part, it’s a very beautiful place.