The Nigerian vocalist and agri-preneur on everything from Obama to Mandela and being inspired by nature in South Africa.
On a cold July evening in Johannesburg, Nigeria’s leading vocalist, simply known as Waje, emerges on stage to thunderous applause from a packed room of 200 Africans. They have been selected from across the continent by former American President Barack Obama for the inaugural 2018 Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program.
Waje delivers a flawless note-for-note rendition of her trademark performance, which has won her accolades across Africa and secured her a place as one of the celebrity coaches on the The Voice Nigeria talent show unearthing undiscovered vocalists competing for the final prize.
Singing in near operatic fashion, her powerful vocals energize the room in South Africa, turning the night celebrating leadership into an impromptu concert.
For Waje, this performance was significant on two fronts.
As a member of the ONE Campaign, an international advocacy organization of more than nine million around the world taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, she has been a fierce activist in Nigeria, lending her voice to fight for better health. Through her work with the ONE Campaign, she is using advocacy and pop culture to drive that narrative and that is what brings her to Johannesburg tonight, to share the successes of the program.
The second reason for her trip, however, is a lot less selfless.
“My favorite destination at the moment is South Africa because I headlined the Africa Day Concert here and two years ago, I did something with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and I immediately fell in love with the country. I feel it has always taken something from me and I always feel like I am bringing something to the table, so that is why I love South Africa,” says Waje.
Amongst her favorite cities are Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“I love the weather in South Africa; it is not always too hot. I love that it is Africa but it can compete with anywhere in the world. I think the culture here is deep and rich and I like that no matter how advanced they are with technology, you can still tell a South African either by the way they dress or their accessories. There is still something very African about them.”
Outside her advocacy work, which is her main attraction to the region, it is the warm reception she receives here that has also led to the place becoming a home from home.
“I get more of an ovation outside Nigeria so I enjoy performing more outside Nigeria in places like South Africa because it also teaches me to treat myself a little bit more. But I get more when I am here and I think people here love Nigeria a lot so they embrace me, embrace my style and embrace my music so I actually enjoy it.”
This July trip is special to the soulful crooner because it comes at a time when, according to Waje, there is a movement of young leaders from all over the continent drawing from each other’s energy to build the future.
“There is just something magical about this place and its ability to galvanize the younger generation. I think Mandela was the catalyst of that movement and that spirit still lives on. Many times people say young people are the future but the truth is we are the now, we need to start now. We can see the president of France who is so young and the things he is looking to achieve means all young people should start looking forward and making that happen wherever they are,” she says.
It seems Obama also shares her love for South Africa. The first convening of his cohort is in Johannesburg over a five-day period where leaders learn a range of skills-building and leadership concepts to help them impact their communities.
For Waje, her platform drives her to achieve more.
“The glitz and glam is great and people loving your music is great but then what? You have to go into the hearts of people by actually doing stuff for them; that is where true success comes from,” she says.
Traveling has become somewhat of a therapeutic experience for her. As a creative, it helps her overcome writers’ block that affects most songwriters. In addition, her travels have also unlocked new entrepreneurial pursuits.
“Travel is good because when you travel, you pick bits and pieces of different cultures, which will help you. For a long time, outside of being a musician, I always thought about agriculture but I did not know how I was going to do it. One of the reasons I started my agriculture business was because I realized that nature was something I enjoyed and I did not realize that until I traveled to South Africa,” says Waje.
Her voice has taken her to places far and near where she has performed before kings and presidents. Many may call her lucky but she does not believe in coincidences. It is all part of life’s grand design according to Waje.
A design, which brings everybody together with a common purpose, and for her, that purpose is being a voice for the less fortunate. Luckily, her travels have helped amplify her message.