"It's happening naturally for me," says Nigerian star Mr Eazi, reflecting on his crossover to Latin America. "I think it's because of the rhythm. We understand the rhythm.""
Oluwatosin Ajibade, known worldwide as Mr Eazi, is one of the go-to names in Afrobeats. Songs such as "Leg Over" or "Miss You Bad" ft. Burna Boy can be heard around the world. He's a household name in Nigeria and across Africa who wants to extend his culture even further and make his mark on music in Spanish, one of the most competitive music markets. "My manager was laughing at me because my Spotify's insights for this year showed that I was putting out more songs in Spanish," says the Port Harcourt-born artist.
Eazi is building a pretty impressive resume in Latin music. He was part of "Como un bebé," one of the greatest songs of last summer, which is also the final track of the album Oasis by J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Then, at the beginning of 2020, he collaborated on Balvin's experimental album Colores. And now he joins him again for "Lento," a single where Balvin sings a part of "Suavemente," an iconic song by the iconic Puerto Rican musician Elvis Crespo.
We called Mr Eazi in Ghana via Zoom to talk about "Lento," his career, Afrobeats, reggaetón and more.
Can you describe a normal day of your life?
There are no normal days, to be honest. No day is the same, but the closest to having some sort of normalcy is me going to bed at 3AM, and up at 7AM. Then I start working with my team for some of the new artists. And then, I start working on some of my other businesses, having meetings, phone calls, and Zoom meetings. Then dinner, and then I just pass out.
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You now have three collaborations with J Balvin. Three amazing songs. My question is: Why not explore the possibility of a joint album?
Why not, right? Someone on my team showed me your tweet, and then, there was another person that commented something on YouTube saying: "Mr Eazi and J Balvin better give us an album." And I was like: "Ok, why not?" José and I have been talking about it. We always send music to each other, so if we decide to do it, I don't think it will be hard, because we are family: Sky (Balvin's producer), Fabio (Balvin's manager), my team, Michael Brun (he started this). So, I am sure that if we decided to do it, it has to be perfect.
When I uploaded that tweet to my Instagram Stories, J Balvin answered me and told me: "Yes!"
Really? I'm shocked because when Michael Brun introduced me to Balvin, I played my song for him, and we started vibing and talking and got on tour. We became like brothers. He was the one taking the first step. He said: "Eazi, I want to introduce my people to this sound," and then, we did the record with Bad Bunny. I didn't even know Bad Bunny was gonna be on it. That's why we connect, because I'm always trying to expand, to share this sound as wide as possible to the world, and I think I can connect with Latin music and the rhythm. So it's almost natural. I want to be heard all over the world.
Do you think a lot about the cultural impact you have made on African music?
To be honest, I only realize it when people tell me, my friends, or when I meet people. The first time it really hit me was when Balvin's album won the Latin Grammys. I couldn't believe it. It was crazy because, on this record, I speak my local language, Yoruba, I speak English, they speak Spanish. My fans are getting into their world, and he's showing his fans these Afro beats. That is how everything is connecting.
It's happening naturally for me. I just feel humbled to be able to be part of this connection. We cannot deny impact because these worlds are connected. When I went on tour with Balvin in 2018, I would come on stage, and just a few people knew the sound. But I could see in people's eyes they were wondering: "What sound is this?" and then, by the second or third show, we saw that people started moving because of the rhythm, we understand the rhythm. I think it's just beautiful, and I'm very grateful to be able to be part of this movement.
And you are not used to people not knowing your songs. You opened for Balvin in the Vibras Tour, right?
Yes, I opened for Balvin, and that was my first ever tour in which people didn't know my songs. I'm used to just coming out on stage on my shows in Africa and the rest of the world, even in America, and performing to my audience. I love performing to my audience because of the energy, but on this tour, there was a new challenge for me, and I just did it. At the first show, I realized I was performing to a full arena where 90% of the people didn't know my songs. They didn't even have heard Afro-beats before. So it was very scary, but it was a great challenge, and I loved it and enjoyed it.
How do you measure your success outside Africa?
For me, what gives me more joy is when I see those videos on Instagram, and I can tell it is a new audience. I remember a song I dropped early this year, it's called "Nobody," and then I saw people from Colombia dancing to the song on Instagram, on TikTok. The connection is there. For instance, my manager was laughing at me because my Spotify's insights for this year showed that I was putting out more songs in Spanish. I think it's a little bit of everything, from the new fans on social media to the streaming platforms. And we've not toured this year so, I'm sure that by the time I start touring I'll see a new set of people.
What do you think Afrobeats need to go even more global?
I think it's gonna happen naturally, especially with more collaborations like this. I'm so happy it is happening from our world. We are not going through the normal channel or breaking to the US scene. Right now is happening from the Caribbeans, and it's coming to Mexico, to Colombia. There's no record label purposely pushing it, this song is independently released. It's more about collaborations between producers, songwriters, in terms of the making of the music, touring. I can't wait to tour with Balvin now that we have three songs. And of course, back on the continent, once the internet becomes affordable to kids back home, then the numbers will start to show, and the world will begin to connect. Then there will be Spotify across Africa. Apple Music is there. The kids can't get on Apple Music because they can't pay, there are no proper payment systems. Once this is solved, with the development, everything will come together. The African diaspora is very strong, very large, so I think it will happen in the end. And, of course, more investments are needed.
I'm from Venezuela, a very troubled country. Do you feel responsible, as an artist, for having to write political songs if you live or came from a complicated country or with a complicated political background?
I mean, Nigeria, for instance, has had its time, especially this year, and since like forever. I want my music to take you away from all the troubles. I want that in those two minutes and 30 seconds, you find peace. And then, I can use my platform in other ways to send messages or have conversations with people that I can have access to.
During the EndSARS protests in Nigeria, what I was doing was providing support to protesters in terms of making sure people are getting legal representation or getting food, and that kind of thing at the top level. I also personally went to the protest in London to lend my voice. These are the ways I prefer to do it, not just going it via the music but doing it via the platform the music has brought, that gives me a voice. I'm not just speaking on Twitter or singing the problems, we all know the problems. In some cases, I have access to some decision-makers, and I can call them out and tell them: "We need to do something about this." During the lockdown, when COVID hit, I was able to use my platform to raise awareness, to rally some of my friends, send food supplies to families, to people who depend on the day-to-day hustle to survive. That's how I like to lend my voice to political conversations.
The internet era has given us access to a lot of music. Do you think that's why music has evolved?
Definitely. I think music has evolved and will continue evolving. Even the barriers to entry to the music scene have dropped. You can make music from your room and put it on Soundcloud, and before you know it, people are listening to it worldwide. You could reach out to an artist or producer by just Instagram DM or comments, or in Twitter Ads. I can listen to music from anywhere in the world. Sometimes I'd bump into music that I never knew about. So I think that is making music evolve but in a positive way. I think it is helping the fans to have access to music more easily, and it's helping the artists to be more creative, to get inspiration from different parts of the world.
I think reggaetón is stuck right now. Everybody's doing the same. And I think that one of the solutions may be mixing it even more with Afrobeats or African music, like going back to the root. What do you think about this?
I'm new in the culture, in terms of reggaetón, so I can't speak in terms of whether it is stuck or not because I just got into the scene. I'm just learning things every day. I'm like a kid in a candy store. The other day I saw an artist called Paloma Mami and I was like: "Oh, my God, who is this?" so I can't speak in that regard. But I think there are only positives that could come from exposing our scenes together and exposing our fans to the sound because whether we like it or not, we all draw inspiration from ourselves.
I remember walking in the streets in Cuba, and I listened to these guys playing this song, and I was like: "Why are these people copying my song?" Because in my head, I thought it was an African song. So I was like, "these people sampled this song, and I'm not sure they give credit." I went to check the song, and it was older than the song I thought was the African song. That means somebody somewhere has heard those calypso vibes and has mixed it to its high life and just taken the same rhythm and used the same melody and changed the language. So I feel in some ways we've already been connecting. The internet is just making it more evident, easier to spot and do. So definitely, we should always draw inspiration from different places, especially places that are the source, like I did in Brazil. Somebody introduced me to DJ Calvino, and among the sounds, I heard my local language. Then I realized that there are Yoruba speaking people in Brazil who has come from Lagos during the transatlantic slave trade, so they had brought the culture and still maintain the language.
It's a reconnection, and it's beautiful that the exodus doesn't need to be people physically working, it's good that people visit the motherland, but you can also visit spiritually, through the music, through the culture, through the movies, through the dance. I think that only beautiful things can happen when we all connect.
Do you regret anything in your life so far?
No, to be honest, I feel like, in my life, every point leads to another, so for you and me to be speaking right now, everything had to happen to get us to this point to where we're having this conversation. So if I feel blessed to be able to talk to you right now. I can't regret anything that has happened in the past because even if they had changed, then this would not be happening right now, so no regrets. It's all gratitude, like Steve Jobs said: "Every time you look back, you see how dots connect." So I'm just grateful for everything. I'll do my best, and whatever happens, is because that's how it was meant to be.
Photography: Walter Banks