Teezee is using his platform to take African voices global

Teezee is using his platform to take African voices global

The Nigerian musician, producer and label owner has built a reputation for being a mouthpiece for nonconformists.

Hearing Yoruba or pidgin used to be something third-culture kids might only hear at home or over the phone. Fast forward to Afrobeats’ global spread and its rise in prominence in pop hits is as fast as the ‘millennial whoop’ was in the 2010s in the UK and US music charts. With such cultural dominance comes the idea that there is a winning recipe for pop music coming from the continent. “I think there was a format of how Afropop feels and when you’re not doing that format, people did not understand what the music was,” says Teezee. “It was like, this is too foreign, it's too European or whatever.”

Born in Lagos and living in London, the musical maverick is thought of as a pioneer of Nigeria’s burgeoning alternative scene because he harnesses the power of constant reinvention and rebellion against the dominating sounds and cultures, while maintaining a distinctly Nigerian flavour. After all, with a population of more than 200 million, the country’s art shouldn’t be monolithic. Naturally imbued with a sense of pride in his heritage, Teezee eschewed a teenage “identity crisis” while studying in London, inspired by his new environment and blending that into his love of homegrown African percussion and phrases. As he declares on ANCESTORS: “Omọ Yoruba ni mi o” – he’s a Yoruba child.

“My sound is a fusion of different things I heard as I was growing up,” he says. “It’s basically just something that is different from Afrobeats. It’s a combination of that: hip-hop, RnB, even indie rock and bands like Oasis. They’re all mixing up in a melting pot to create the sound and narrative I find myself in.”

So far, Teezee has had an impressive career as co-founder of NATIVE: a festival, magazine and label. He was also part of DRB LasGidi which his school friends Boj and Fresh L formed in 2007. It was their DIY ethos, youthful bravado, and maverick style that led to them being regarded as pioneers of alté – the buzzword that encapsulates Nigeria’s offbeat underground scene.

His secret sauce comes from collaboration: “I think there's a magic when two people put those creative juices together”. And his projects have an impressive list of trailblazers on them from Tems, Pa Salieu, and Kid Cudi, to Deto Black and Cruel Santino. I’ve had the pleasure of partying with Teezee and his impressive circle of friends that span musical, fashion and artistic talent pushing boundaries in the creative scenes of Africa, Europe and America like Skepta (Teezee has a two-year old son with the rapper’s manager Grace Ladoja), fashion designer and singer Mowalola, and Vivendii Sound. Throughout his career he’s illuminated the talented underground but having just released a solo album, he’s stepping into the spotlight.

The cover art for Teezee’s latest album Arrested By Love shows a “holy trinity” of the artist: hair horned and body adorned in Mowalola; a carefully straightened mane as he holds his infant son Zac; and flying and angelic in a white suit. A party boy with an excellent fashion sense, a wholesome father figure (a nod to him becoming a first-time dad), and a businessman whose limit is the sky: these are the architectural layers that have seen Teezee build an impressive name for himself at the bleeding edge of Nigerian youth culture.

We met him at The Standard Hotel in London to discuss how he’s built a rep for being a mouthpiece for nonconformists, and taken African voices to the world.

When writing your lyrics – how much are you writing for your fans in Nigeria and how much does the diaspora influence you?

When I write it’s for the people who are going through similar experiences as me from all over the world. I put a lot of cultural context so my people everywhere can relate but I never want to alienate new listeners. Just want them to be intrigued and bring them into my world because the vibes are so sweet.

Is there a recipe for what’s going to be a smash hit in Nigeria and what’s going to travel?

I would have an inkling but you can never say you know, 100% – sometimes you can be certain this is the best song you’ve ever done and it’s a dud. That’s happened to me on different occasions. Certain moments the stars align like with ‘Declan Rice’ [which recently went to number one in the Nigerian charts] because Odumodublvck had so much momentum and the [football] topic has cultural relevance in both the UK and Nigeria. It’s God’s grace that it has done so well.

I think it’s always super important to use our language as much as possible.


How has it been becoming a father? Are you teaching your son Yoruba?

I do try to teach him, his grandparents, especially, do too. I think it’s always super important to use our language as much as possible. Fatherhood is the best thing that has happened to me in my life because it’s given me meaning. I’m not just doing shit because it’s cool, I have someone to take care of [laughs]. I do want him to think I’m cool and I want him to know his mum is a genius.

But Zacai is a musical genius, he can play the piano! He knows the words to Asake and says he wants to listen to Burna Boy. My song ‘Stamina’ is his favourite song right now. It’s interesting to see a two-year-old exploring music.

You’ve had your fingers in a few pies but explain what NATIVE has been up to since its inception.

We did a festival in 2016. Even prior to the festival, we were the first people who brought Virgil [Abloh] to Nigeria to do a DJ set. We were the first ones to have Santi or Odunsi perform on the same stage with a Davido or a Wizkid. I had been recording music with my friends and seeing the impact we were having on other kids because we were the first group of young guys who were making music for young people.

Your festival was going well, so why did you decide to then get involved in digital and print publishing in addition to your musical projects?

As we grew up, my partner Seni had this brilliant idea of starting our own cultural commentary in terms of having a magazine as well. We studied XXL, The Source, and The Fader at the time. Those things were super important culturally, in the global space, but in Nigeria nobody was really covering those things.

It was either you’re the superstars or no one gives a hoot about what you were doing. For us that made us think how do we champion the people who are not yet seen as the biggest thing in the world? How do we tell their story from the ground up, and I think that’s how we built a lot of organic relationships with people doing amazing things in the fashion industry and the music industry, the entertainment and the tech space.

You’ve recently become a label as well.

Yeah, we got the opportunity to start a record label with Def Jam in the US. The current CEO Tunji Balogun was a big fan of what we’ve done with NATIVE. I think he always saw our community and the actual impact of what was going on culturally. He had the foresight to see that Native were in front of that. When he had the chance to do the first joint venture label in Africa, he reached out to us and that was perfect timing for me and my partner Seni because we’re just transitioning from doing the festival and having the magazine to really conquering the music space for Gen Zs.

Where did your passion for music come from?

When I was growing up my dad used to run a nightclub. Music was something that was always around whether that was listening to Fela, Usher or Boyz II Men – it was whatever was hip at the time. It was just natural to me, music was my first love.

What influenced your unique aesthetic?

Nollywood was a big inspiration for us. That was probably the most iconic stage in Nigerian entertainment. It was so forward-thinking stylistically, the way they dress, even the way the women’s narratives were super important – it’s always about them being the bosses. When I was growing up the guys that influenced me had big video budgets. Hype Williams was shooting $5 million-videos for Missy Elliott, and Puff Daddy and Jay-Z and Eminem. That’s the kind of stuff that we really grew up watching. Shiny suits, flashy cars. There’s a lot of similarities between the early to late ’90s hip-hop scene and Afrobeats as it’s taking off now.

Who are the lyricists that hit you deeply that you draw on for your own work?

For me, it’s always topics and subject matter that are close to the heart. I’m not a deep lyricist like Nas or Wretch 32, but there’s still storytelling. Stories I connected with because of how they were delivering the message, artists like Skepta. It’s not super laced with double entendres but I just connect with them instantly.

You pioneered the youth buzzword alté, but is it a genre or a way of life?

I see it as a way of life because that’s how we saw it. But I think as it evolved from the state of myself and Boj, like the SDC (Show Dem Crew), to Tems and Santi – people then took it on as a sound. But you might ask different artists in that space who don’t associate with the alté title for their music. Personally it’s more like freedom of expression. It’s like when Fela was doing Afrobeat other artists in Nigeria were doing High Life. It’s not a specific genre, it’s about doing something different in the musical space.

Burna recently said Afrobeats doesn’t mean anything, do you think that’s true?

Personally, I don't have thoughts on the statement. There’s subject matter that is more associated with Afrobeats, which are songs about love, girls, having a good time and having fun. Even though Nigeria is hard and all that, Nigerians also love to party. But there’s variation of what can come from a country. Some artists talk about pain, hardship, struggle, theft, drug dealing – the music coming out of Nigeria is multifaceted. People go to Afrobeat artists for different things. I feel like what Tems gives me when I listen to her is not what I’m looking for when I’m listening to Omah Lay. It’s a place that has the most black people in the world. So no one can expect it to all be the same.

What’s coming next?

Now that I’m a label boss I'm transitioning into executive producing a lot of projects, with my artists Odumodublvck and Brazy.

What I always wanted for myself was for people to see me as more than an artist. The people who inspired me the most, who I wanted to take elements of to replicate were always more than artists, whether it was Pharrell or Dr. Dre or Kanye or Puff Daddy or Don Jazzy these are people who didn’t let themselves be boxed into one thing.

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

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