Mr Eazi on African Pride, 90s Nigerian Goalkeepers & Leaving a Legacy Beyond Music

Photography: Adama Jalloh / Styling: Jake Hunte / Grooming: Mata Marielle / Interview & Words: Joe Walker

Mr Eazi is freezing. The South London garden he’s being photographed in is much colder than its tropical look would suggest, but, ever the professional, he’s doing his very best not to show it. The classic Nigeria shirt he is wearing only offers a little insulation, though perhaps the childhood memories it helps bring back for Eazi, which make him laugh as he recalls to us, provide that extra bit of warmth needed to survive the rest of the shoot.

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Native city Lagos will always be home for Eazi, but his story is very much an international one. He studied as a teenager in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where his college party promotions led him to eventually making music himself and becoming Mr Eazi. Banku, his self-coined fusion of Ghanaian and Nigerian musical influences, has taken Eazi far beyond just those two nations closest to his heart, finding support not just in countries with large African diaspora, including here in the UK, but also places as far as Chile, who remarkably rank among the biggest supporters of Eazi’s music.

Global appeal and success is very much on the agenda for Mr Eazi, and he’s hoping to set many others on their way there too. Shortly after the GAFFER shoot, 30 musicians are announced as the second class of inductees into emPawa, the talent incubator programme that Eazi and a network of fellow African creatives are involved in to help exciting artists develop self-sustaining careers. It’s a project that Eazi could speak on for hours, but in the slightly less time we have with him he discusses his vision for emPawa, the reach of his own music as well as some of those warm footballing memories…

What do you remember of football when you were younger?

Growing up, I never used to look at football as a sport. I looked at football more as a part of culture. As a boy it was kind of by default that you knew how to play football. You go to somebody’s house as a kid, and if they want you guys to go play so maybe they can talk, they immediately give you a ball like you are supposed to automatically be programmed to love the game!

We used to have this myth – I don’t know where it came from – that Nigeria once beat Brazil like 9-0. I just believed it, all these myths about Nigeria being the best team in the world, beating everyone. [When they lost] I would feel that something was wrong somewhere!

How were you as a player?

At some points they wouldn’t pick me to play. They would only have spots left as a goalkeeper by the time I would get to the field, but I wanted to play so I would become the goalkeeper. My nickname was [90s Nigeria keeper] Peter Rufai!

Which were the biggest games for Nigeria?

I used to have a personal beef with Cameroon. I didn’t even bother to check where they were on the map, but they just always seemed to be our nemesis. When Ghana would have games versus Nigeria, it was serious to the point where sometimes there’d be no light, because there used to be a lot of power outages. My mum didn’t like us going out when I was a kid, but the only time we were allowed to go downstairs and do whatever is when Nigeria was playing, to go and watch. Anytime they beat us it was so painful, you kind of almost felt responsible! It was crazy.

What was it like as a Nigeria fan in Ghana?

It was only when I went to Ghana, remembering the days of Junior Agogo – may he Rest In Peace – that I realised oh, these guys can play! In my hostel in Ghana, there’d be 1000 people and just us five Nigerian boys, but we’d go to the common area and we’d somehow be the loudest! If we got whooped though, it wasn’t a funny sight. They would drag us for at least one month!

Having spent a few years in Ghana, would you consider it a second home?

Right now I have three homes: London, Accra and Lagos. Accra is where I had my growing up years, from 15 to 22 I was in Ghana. Nigeria is my birth country, and where my family is. London seems like a home also because it was here I decided to do music as a career, and it doesn’t seem like it’s work when I’m here.

Do you think having three homes helps with the appeal of your music?

From the earliest time I can remember, maybe because my dad always travelled, I wanted to travel. Musically, my idols were people like Dr Alban, a Nigerian guy who was a popstar across Europe, and that’s why from the beginning I said what I do is banku music, which is a fusion, because I wanted to make music that makes me travel. I could jump through genres and not be tied to ‘he’s an Afrobeats star’. I’m a musician, period. For me, travel is exciting and I want to do that through music. I went on tour with J Balvin and we ended up making music together. Now on his reggaeton album, there’s a 100% afrobeats song (Como Un Bebé) produced by an afrobeats producer, and I’m singing in my local language on it, switching from pidgin to Yoruba!

That’s how music can truly travel. It reminds me of how Sean Paul has worked before.

I’m happy you mentioned Sean Paul. When I argue with my team, sometimes not everyone accepts my idea. ‘Eazi why don’t you just focus on 100% Nigerian records, 100% Ghanian records?’. That’s not who I am. I’m global so I might as well do global things. When we’ll be in the heat of the argument, I’ll be like ‘aha! Look at Sean Paul’.

I was listening to Sean Paul in high school, and Sean Paul is still relevant today. Sean Paul has put out dancehall records but you cannot say he’s [just] a dancehall artist. Yes he is a dancehall artist, but he is an artist, a global artist. Sean Paul can do it all. He has an Afrobeats banger with Fuse ODG, he has music with Beyonce, and he still came as himself on all those records. He didn’t start singing like Beyonce, he was doing his own thing. That’s what is most important to me: travel. Just keep travelling, there are disadvantages to it as well but at the end of the day you have to know what you want and just go for it because that’s life, that’s what will make you happy.

emPawa sounds like it makes you happy too. What else does it bring?

I feel more pressure actually… it must be visible to everyone that this works. As we do it, it’s not gonna just be charity, it’s actually graduating from it to have a sustainable business model. Find the talent, train the talent, incubate the talent for a while – artist development and whatnot – then launch the talent. I’m trying to find that perfect business model: that does not stifle creativity, that gives both economic  freedom and creative freedom to the artist, but also a model that doesn’t self-destruct, because you can say ‘I want to make sure this is the best possible situation’ but at the same time there’s limited resources. That hit me last year when I spent a sh*tload of money on this project!

It’s interesting that you went with the idea of the programme rather than a more traditional artist-led record label venture.

I started playing around with the idea. I wanted to make my record label in a way where I would want to sign to my record label, so I started experimenting. There were so many things that I was seeing globally: companies that just offer label services, that distribute, but for a percentage will help with digital marketing and press. There’s nothing like this for African music, so if I were to create my own music business it would be more towards an aggregator business that not just helps you put it out there, but also helps you work it.

That’s really what artists need: somebody that helps you put up your songs, collect your money, and then the added services. That was the whole idea, and I was thinking ‘what if you could invest in an artist early, and have a stake in the artist but not so much that you stifle the economic and creative freedom? How do I create something that can work for artists and for me, to the point where an artist can post their deal on Twitter and not feel stupid?’ That’s what I started experimenting with, I have to do this in a way that it’s not just a normal business.

It’s the ideal system, and it’s important for Africa because I feel the world is just looking towards Africa now and there are no structures, so somebody like me has to build it. Firstly, because it’s giving back to my community but also, ultimately, because that’s gonna pop and whoever builds this structure and creates an environment that artists run to, they’ll be the most valuable person in the whole game.

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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