Originally published in
July 2012
D’banj’s 2012 began with a bang when BBC1’s countdown to the new year, which was marked by a huge fireworks display along the Thames as Big Ben struck midnight, was followed by his hit song Oliver. “All my friends in the UK were calling me up to tell me. I couldn’t believe it. It was 5,4,3,2,1 – Oliver.” says D’banj aka the KokoMaster aka Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo. He’s all smiles today as he takes off his Balenciaga biker jacket and gets comfy on a sofa in the corner of an East London photographic studio. So do you get remunerated for this privilege? “That is why I am here in this cold weather. A-hmm!” he says, with a comedic Nigerian grunt. Snow falls outside. “I want to get paid!”
Kanye has promised to guide me. He likes the way I am, the way I sound – he understands the ‘Ha’ in Africa
Photography: John de Lima

The Charles Dickens-inspired song was a best seller across Africa toward the end of 2011, no little thanks to the YouTube dance competition that accompanied it. The winning entry by My Back Yard Crew (seven men who twist and turn to the track’s clunky beats in front of various Lagos landmarks) won a cash prize and has been viewed over 200,000 times. Its since been playlisted by the UK’s Radio 1 and Choice FM stations and Estelle has recorded her own version. D’banj has now come to town to secure a distribution deal to make Oliver his first official UK release. “This year is all about the international market. I’m coming,“ he adds. Oliver is just the beginning of a year that will catapult him to global recognition thanks to his newly-inked deal with Kanye West’s GOOD Music. “God has ordained my steps. It’s not me, it’s God. And now I’m coming to America.”

As arguably the biggest naija pop star of them all, he already has a mound of MTV, MAMA, BET, KORA and Channel O awards. He’s performed alongside Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot and Wyclef Jean, the latter dubbing D’banj the “African Michael Jackson” when he saw him live in 2008. And as proud co-founder of Mo’hits with producer Don Jazzy, who he calls “the Timberland of Africa”, D’banj sits atop the label’s tree that has also spawned hit makers Wande Coal, Dr Sid, D’Prince and K-Swtich. With a legion of fans around the continent, it’s little wonder that recognition in the United States is the harmonica-wielding singer’s next step.

“I’ve always dreamt of the top spot but I knew charity begins at home,” he reflects. “I wanted to be big in Africa first because when you go to America, you have to be the best. I want to do what Fela didn’t do, what other African legends didn’t do – win a Grammy or an Oscar, be as big as Madonna. I want to be someone people of my generation can look up and say, ‘If D’banj can do it, there is hope for us’.”

In 2010 he began to put feelers out for US collaborations and had the likes of TI and Pitbull on the line but nothing came to fruition so he asked his friend Chris Aire, the Los Angeles-based jewellery designer to the stars, to hook him up. Aire duly called Snoop Dogg, who listened to D’banj’s single Mr Endowed and loved it. They recorded a remix and shot a video in LA complete with Rolls Royce, mansion, champagne and lingerie-wearing lady in a dollar bill-filled bathtub. “I remember hearing his voice on the remix for the first time and thinking, ‘That’s Snoop. D. Double O. G. And when we met for the video he was so humble. I told him I was in grade three when Who Am I (What's My Name)? came out so to be doing a song him, and dropping it on the whole of Africa, was amazing.”

The remix was released on Mo’hits in late 2010, around the same time as D’banj took his first trip to Dubai to perform at a party. Post show, he heard that West was staying in the same hotel as him. “I thought it would be great for him to hear some of my records but I’d heard so many stories about him being unapproachable, arrogant and all of that and didn’t want the stress. So that passed around.”

Fate, or God’s will, would not give though, because when he stepped out of his limousine at the airport, an airline employee came running up to him holding a sign with West’s name on it. “She said ‘You Kanye?’ I said ‘I can be but I’m not. I’m D’banj,” he says in his song voice. “Everybody’s eyes opened. As we were checking in, we saw him from afar. My PA spoke to him, and five minutes later I was in the first class lounge playing him my songs. He told me he was going to do the same thing with me as he did with John Legend and Kid Kudi and invited us to New York. I was like, ‘I’m coming-oh!”

He and Don Jazzy made the trip in January 2011. “We thanked him on behalf of African music, and we all agreed to work together. If someone like that backs you up in a market you don’t know, it’s a blessing.” D’banj signed the deal on June 8, West’s birthday, and West signed it on D’banj’s birthday, June 9.

They made it very public at a KokoKoncert at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in August. West made a surprise appearance on stage to duet with D’banj and hang a GOOD Music chain around his neck, officiating the union. “It was a hot moment in the game,” says Radio1 DJ Tim Westwood, who was there to witness it. “When he came on stage to perform and then passed the chain to D’banj, the crowd went crazy.” With that act, naija pop had officially arrived.

Don Jazzy and D’banj have not only done deals for themselves but the entire Mo’hits camp as executive producers. “It’s not just my partnership, it’s a partnership for Africa so that’s why Mo’hits is on the table. If I get through this, I’ve built a bridge for others behind me to cross over to GOOD Music.”

He’s currently working an album with Mo’hits artists as well as other afrobeats stars including 2Face, P-Square, MI, Nameless and Fally Ipupa. He’s recording with West too, who pops up in the official video for Oliver. West is also cherry picking from D’banj’s back catalogue. The much-anticipated first US single release is imminent, which will ride on the success of his major US Live Nation gig in New York in February

“Kanye has promised to guide me. He likes the way I am, the way I sound – he understands the ‘Ha’ in Africa. But he will make sure my music translates to the global market too,” he says. Is D’banj worried about having to dilute his USP for Western ears? “It’s funny. Nigerians who have never left Nigeria can do English and American accents. Information is power. I’ve learned a lot from America but now I need to teach America about home.”

Naija pop’s growing crossover appeal is unstoppable. From the raw and raspy early days of The Remedies and Plantashun Boiz to today’s refined acts, the scene has fast become world class. With P-Square, 2Face and Wizkid buddying up with Akon and labels including Storm360, Choc Late City and Empire Mates Entertainment joining Mo’hits in producing artists who sell out tours and nightclubs around the globe, it’s also a scene that transcends boundaries. But what makes the music so damn infectious? “Our sound has evolved over time. The beats are up to international standards and blend well with melodies of African culture, which people are more open to now. And then there’s the energy. A-hmm!”

Anyone who’s seen D’banj live will know that he’s not exaggerating when he boasts of the high-octane performances he and his contemporaries deliver. He views himself as much as a comedian and entertainer as a musician and understands the value of offering the whole package. “People see me jump from stage to stage five times in a night and say ‘That nigga must be on some black juju.’ But the only Juju I know is Jesus. My dad was in the army, I went to military school and as a kid he’d wake me up early for daily devotion. So I learnt the hard way. When it’s time to work, I’m ready,” he says of his early years. “We [Nigerians] have had survive and entertain ourselves. You imagine you’re wearing a diamond chain even before you own a watch, and you have to have the courage to live the life. Some take it the wrong way, some the right way. But if all of us put our energies together, we’d be one of the best countries in the world.”

This tenacity has always held him in good stead. Born in 1980 in Kaduna state, northern Nigeria, his brother was training to be a pilot when he died in an airplane crash. D’banj learnt the harmonica from him and has cherished the instrument ever since. He studied mechanical engineering at Lagos State University but persuaded his family to send him to London to finish his final year. Instead of going into school, he went into the studio, where he met Don Jazzy who was already as established musician and producer working with UK artists such as Jamelia and Lemar. They went back to Nigeria together and launched Mo’hits in 2004.

His first solo album No Long Thing was released the following year and there have been two more solo albums and a Mo’hits All Stars album since then. His last album, 2008’s The Entertainer, featured his most famous tune Fall In Love, which helped push him firmly front and centre of the naija pop industry, not to mention turn him into a favourite booking at big Nigerian weddings.

It was his first single De Koko that established his catchphrase, which has now taken on a life and world of its own. So what is the koko? “The koko is whatever you’re doing in that moment to derive pleasure or fun. Right now for me, the koko is being with ARISE magazine.” And a kokolette? “A well-endowed woman with intellectual property. Beauty alone isn’t enough. If you see someone, like you [He looks me up and down and forms a figure of eight with his hands] who can pass on the runway, but also multi task, you’re a kokolette.”

Koko Mansion was a quest to find the Nigeria’s ideal kokolette. The first series of the reality TV show aired in 2009 and D’banj is planning a second series this year. This time around it will search for Mo’hits’ First Lady. “We’ve never signed a woman because, well, no disrespect, but you have to handle a woman with care. Five men can be in the same house, the same tour bus, rubbing our shoulders together no problem. But once you sign a woman, it’s a whole new life. You’ve got to be careful. And then you need to hire hairstylists and all of that. But now we’re at the stage where we can sign a woman with Koko Mansion Two.”

The koko franchise does not end there. D’banj has Koko gari, Koko mobile, Koko water and the Koko lounge bar in Lagos. “There will be a lot of unveiling of my business side in 2012. I’m launching Koko mattresses. And I’m considering Koko condoms. I have no kids yet, which is a big achievement for me as a bachelor. So let’s do condoms so that we can all play safe. Yes we can.” Will they come in different sizes? “Yes but particularly my size. If you have a problem with that, you can use something else!”