“There’s always been interest in Afrobeats, it was just about the loudness of the interest,” says Mr Eazi, eyes concealed behind a pair of tinted sunglasses despite the dimness of the Playstation Theater’s numerous back rooms. He is preparing for the New York leg of the “Life is Eazi” tour and expects to play a sold out show that night, though you’d hardly know by his calm demeanor.
The clang of percussion and pulse-like beating of drums drifts down from the stage through an open door. Eazi’s team has started sound check, and the clamor of instruments underpins each of his statements like a song. Truthfully, his speaking voice isn’t so different than when he sings – there’s always a recognizable rhythm that carries his lyrics – something that falls between the satiny bedroom crooners of the ‘90s and the mumble rap preference of today’s youth. It’s a unique sonic marker, that, when coupled with Eazi’s tendency to write and record songs as he goes, gives his music an unstudied authenticity that has amassed him a legion of dedicated followers.
Last year, he signed a deal with Starboy Worldwide, the imprint label of Nigerian recording artist Wizkid, who like Eazi, was already a well-known name on the African continent. Of course the former’s meteoric rise to Stateside fame was sped along by the popularity of Drake’s “One Dance,” a song that quickly became the measurable precursor to American hip-hop’s flirtation with the sounds of the diaspora. In short, it’s no matter of small importance that Eazi is a rising Afrobeat artist during a most critical cross-over moment for the genre.
So who is Mr Eazi?
Oluwatosin Oluwole Ajibade or Mr Eazi was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and attended school in Lagos until university. His father was a pilot who traveled often, and Eazi remembers that he would always play records for the family during breakfast whenever he was at home. “My dad playing Bob Marley was my first interaction with music,” he says.
While the early exposure to reggae gave Eazi an appreciation of the sonic connections between Africa and the Caribbean, it did little to cement his desire to make music. “I always wanted to be a millionaire,” he shares in his unhurried way. If there was one thing he knew for certain, it was that music was a gamble that very rarely resulted in millions. “It really wasn’t until July 22 of last year I started to think music was a viable career choice from a financial perspective. When I was going to college I realized the only millionaires in my family besides my grandma were engineers. They were working for oil companies or they had their own oil servicing companies so that’s the reason I studied mechanical engineering. I wanted to work in one of those companies and become a millionaire. Just one year into Uni I figured out there were other ways to become a millionaire. That’s when I realized I didn’t need to be an engineer or a pilot like my dad.”
Going to university in Kumasi, a city in the neighboring country of Ghana, also exposed Eazi to a new community of peers and allowed him to let his entrepreneurial spirit soar unfettered. “I started about six business ventures before I got into music,” Eazi says laughing. “I did promoting, I sold phones, I had a cab service, then I started selling drinks, and then I did gold trading, and then I went back to phones.”
In fact, it was one of Eazi’s many business ventures that eventually led him to a recording studio. While a student, he started a party and promotion company called Swagger Entertainment with around thirteen friends whom Eazi describes as, “the coolest boys at my Uni.” The popularity of their parties soon spread around the college circuit and caught the attention of Ghanaian musicians who clamored to be booked for events.
“I started going to the studio because artists who wanted to play at my shows wanted to gain my favor so they’d invite me to the studio. I was already sick of going to the clubs every Friday because I was the one doing the parties so the studio became like a new place to relax; that’s how I ended up recording. I actually think if I go back to that studio in Kumasi I would find so many records that never came out. Every Friday we would just go and just record random vibes from hip-hop to dancehall. At the time I still felt like if I had the money to pay artists to come to my shows and parties then I didn’t respect being a musician as an economically viable position in Africa.”
In 2014, Eazi quit club promoting after a no-show from an artist ended the largest party he’d ever attempted to throw. He also disassociated himself from his old persona and began to hone in on the career path he least expected – music. Following a string of successful singles such as “Bankulize” and “Skin Tight,” both of which featured Ghanaian artists, and both of which enjoyed social media success, Eazi finally began to receive more critical recognition.
Yet despite finding favor online and in the local music scene, in 2016, he was snubbed from inclusion at the Ghana Music Awards due to his Nigerian citizenship. Ironically, it was precisely Eazi’s innate ability to pull from both cultures that made him an award candidate in the first place. Where some may fail to find great nuance between Afrobeat music from Ghana and Nigeria, Eazi not only identifies the differences, he thinks about how the contrasts can work together.
“My music is an expression of my lifestyle and my state of mind. I’ve become a product of Ghana and Nigeria and found a cultural junction between both. When I make songs there is an underlying Ghanaian signature, a high-life feel. I’ve cut the production down so it’s heavy on the drums that give you the groove. If you look at the drums especially, I have Ghanaian drum signatures. If you look at the chord progression it’s usually heavy on the Lagos and Nigerian sound. There’s a lot more chords and singing than you’d hear in Ghanaian music. That’s why even my singing is in between like talking and singing. It also helps that even though I don’t speak any other languages besides English fluently I understand enough to make records. I know enough Igbo, Yoruba, Twi, Ga and pidgin to make records in those languages which really helps my song composition,” says Eazi.
Such versatility will serve him well, especially as hip-hop artists in America continue to look outward for inspiration. When we ask Eazi his thoughts on the increased interest in Afrobeats, he reveals that he doesn’t think it’s actually anything new. “I could hear Nas sampling Fela. I could hear Jay Z using Afrobeats samples so there’s been recognition, but right now I feel the genre is considered more urban – you could classify it as urban music now. I’d say that’s why it’s the wave, that, and because you can’t take it away from dancers. Dancers are like the radio for the Afrobeats genre and they’re putting up videos that flood social media and you cannot help but notice it. They’re spreading the wave and it’s looking catchy. Just like back in the day in Africa with Soulja Boy. We were listening to ‘Crank Dat’ in Kumasi just because we liked the dance that was attached to it. I do feel that a lot more can be done in collaborations with African producers. I’m an artist who cares more about the producers because they are the core. I would hope to see that more in the future.”
With the global new direction of mainstream music in America, and the increasing visibility of narratives from across the black diaspora, Eazi’s hope will likely come to fruition much sooner than expected. As an artist, his hybridized output, which blurs genres and cultures, is helping to lay the groundwork for the sounds of West Africa to reach the world.
Special thanks to OXOSI in the creation of this feature.
For more of our interview features, take a look at our chat with the one and only Jamiroquai right here.