One of Africa’s biggest artists walks into the room wearing a shiny black suit, white shirt, bright red socks and, of course, dark-shades. His entourage scurries around to make sure he is comfortable. He steps forward, extends his hand and uses the opening line to all his songs, “I am D’banj”.
It’s an introduction that makes women, from Nigeria to Britain, swoon. But life hasn’t always been easy for the 33-year-old musician. He has come a long way from his days in Zaria, in northern Nigeria, where he found his passion for music in unfortunate circumstances.
“When I was 13, my brother died in a plane crash. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what was happening. Before we left for school, I went into his room and found the harmonica among his belongings and took it with me.”
D’banj spent most of his time playing along to Bob Marley and Céline Dion. The harmonica kept the memory of his brother alive.
At university, he began writing his own songs and it wasn’t long before he produced his first hit single The Koko. The song, a collaboration with producer Don Jazzy, gave them both a taste of success.
“We were like Batman and Robin, it was a great synergy. He knew my style, he knew how powerful my voice was, he knew how much energy I had and how I liked to perform. He studied me well.”
The two have since produced many hits which won D’banj an array of awards including: Best African Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2007, Artist of the Year at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2009 and Best International Act: Africa at the BET Awards in 2011.
The pair also created the record label, Mo’Hits Records, which launched the careers of Wande Coal, Dr SID, D’Prince and K-Switch. In 2012, Don Jazzy and D’banj split, sending shock waves through the music industry.
“We just grew apart. Change is the only constant thing and hopefully we changed for the better… Doing music with one producer for eight years, then coming out again, makes you feel brand new. You find skills you didn’t know you had and you find flaws about yourself that you thought you knew…”
It didn’t take long before D’banj moved onto a more lucrative deal under Kanye West’s record label, Good Music. Their partnership began as a case of mistaken identity.
“On my way out of Dubai I stopped at the first class lounge with my entourage. A few airhostesses ran up to me screaming ‘Mr Kanye West’. So I looked at myself, then I looked at them and said ‘I am D’banj. But if I look like Kanye West it means he must be around’”.
They tracked down the American star in the building. West liked D’banj’s fresh Afro-pop sound and they later met in Los Angeles, where D’banj was introduced to some of the industries big names such as Big Sean, Pusha T, Hit-Boy and LA Reid.
Contracts were signed, deals made and in the days that followed D’banj recorded Oliver Twist, the song brought him even greater international success.
“The fans overseas are different. They absorb the music differently and they really want to get to know you as a person, they want to know what you are about. Here, our people are more excited about the music.”
D’banj says getting to the top is the easy part; it’s staying there that’s difficult. Among his biggest competition is fellow Nigerian musicians P-Square.
“If we were in a dance battle they would beat me, I would have to get some help from Chris Brown. But I think overall you would definitely be entertained…”
The African hit maker looks forward to a successful year and the release of his documentary celebrating his 10 years in the music industry. D’banj seemed very confident that he would top the FORBES list of Africa’s 50 Richest, until he realized Aliko Dangote was number one.
“Dangote? Ahhh no, no, no that’s the father… this interview is over. She asks me if my turnover is higher than Dangote… very soon. Maybe in a couple of years,” he jokes while looking at his entourage seated at the back of the room.
I guess we’ll just wait and see.