The singer was taking a good-time sound to the world – but after his song Fem became the anthem of the EndSars protesters, he joined them on the streets
The buoyant, trumpeting chords of Fem, the opening track on Davido’s fourth album, A Better Time, suggest an artist who is vivacious, free of self-doubt, revelling in the limelight. David Adedeji Adeleke, 28, is part of a generation of Afrobeats artists who have blown the African dance-pop genre on to the global stage over the last decade; his songs have become the feelgood soundtrack of Nigeria’s nightlife, and made him one of his continent’s biggest pop stars.
Yet “Fem”, meaning “shut up” in pidgin, has taken on a different meaning. Last month, Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu pleaded with EndSars protesters, who had taken a stand against police brutality. The largest protest movement in Nigeria for decades had erupted, incensed at the abuses by the infamous and since disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars). As the protesters outside the government secretariat in Lagos grew impatient, a DJ at the demonstration suddenly played Fem, already a hit across the country. Scores began belting out his lyrics, drowning out the governor’s futile pleas. In a culture where reverence for authority figures can be brutally enforced, protesters recast the song into a defiant statement.
“It was crazy watching it,” Davido reflects from his home in Banana Island, a luxury property enclave in Lagos. “I never expected it would turn out as it did, but the song has an energy that spoke to people.” Prizes and plaques line the shelves and walls of his home. His hit songs tend to focus on love, lust and party life; he is the son of one of Nigeria’s richest men, the energy, farming and manufacturing magnate Adedeji Adeleke. Yet in recent years, a fraught period in Nigerian life – with a worsening economy plunging millions into poverty and unrest alongside increasing government repression – has impelled even the more apolitical voices such as Davido to speak out, forcing a breezy, larger-than-life figure into an unfamiliar space.
Like many in Nigeria, he supported the EndSars protest movement and marched with protesters to meet police chiefs. Many lauded his involvement but some protesters were critical, wary of police attempts to make deals with unappointed protest representatives. Other artists, such as Burna Boy, attracted criticism for being slow to speak out in support of the protests. In a charged and complicated climate, artists have needed to work out how best to express themselves.
“For any artist, as you grow, you find your voice,” he says. “People know me for being that guy – the life of the scene – but we’re in mad times. You can’t be happy with how things are going.” When he watched the news footage of Nigerian soldiers shooting at hundreds of protesters in the Lekki area of Lagos, “I was just at home crying,” he says.
He acknowledges his privilege, ensconced in Banana Island, and travelling with his own security detail. “It’s not something we experience – it’s not the rich they’re doing this to. The masses, they’re the ones bearing it. It has to stop. Why should police be abusing people when they should be protecting them? It doesn’t make sense. You hear the atrocities these guys commit, it’s crazy. They should get justice, but look at what is happening.”
He reflects on police brutality incidents in the US where he was born – “It’s a global thing … I’m just tired.” But he wants to continue to speak out for change, too. Further fuelling him is elevating Africa’s music scene around the world. “What really drives me now is leaving a legacy. You see artists like Fela who challenged the system, his sons are still making music, his album covers sell for thousands of dollars. People still look to him now.”
Like Fela Kuti before them, Davido and his peers are taking their country’s music way beyond its borders, with Nigeria’s Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi also signed to major international labels. They and others have created a golden age for Afrobeats, a broad term that threads various African pop styles with R&B, dancehall and more, and differs from Fela Kuti’s polyrhythmic Afrobeat. Collaborations alongside British and American superstars, less common a decade ago, are now normal: Davido’s new album features songs with Nicki Minaj, Nas, Lil Baby and Chris Brown. High-profile projects such as Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift album, meanwhile – made with musicians from across Africa – are released at a time when African Americans are increasingly exploring their African origins prior to slavery, and capitalising on the cultural appeal of African collaborations.
Despite being born in the US where he was schooled between stays in Lagos, this recent cultural capital for African music and fashion in the west is both satisfying and bemusing to Davido. “When we were kids, Africans were made fun of. When I was going to Nigeria for holidays people would joke, like: Africa, how are you getting there, by boat? But now they’re the ones coming here. Everyone wants what we bring to the table.”
The interest has not translated to major chart success for him in the US or UK yet, though A Better Life debuted in the US Billboard 200 for the first time, and he sold out London’s O2 Arena in January 2019. A quest for validation in the west has pitfalls, he says. “When I first signed to Sony in 2016 that was kind of my aim, to get validation from the western world,” he says. “I wanted plaques, and to go No 1 all over.” Yet creative control was a battle, when breaking America often meant compromise. “Sometimes this pressure to make music that will be popular elsewhere makes you do things differently, but really you have to make the world come to you. My biggest single in the US is Fall, which I did by myself, not with all the features with US artists. It’s local, it’s Nigeria. You realise that’s what people in different parts of the world appreciate: being yourself.”
Since his first album in 2011, Omo Baba Olowo (“child of a rich father” in Yoruba), he has spent much of his time in the US and touring around the world, but the pandemic has brought his schedule to a standstill, largely grounding him in Lagos. “I did a wedding in Ghana – just for a friend, just missing not being able to perform,” he says. “For you to just stop performing, in the life of a musician, the life of an entertainer – it’s just crazy. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Brand endorsements and investing in African tech companies has helped plug the financial loss, while being in Nigeria has rooted him: “I have different sounds on this album, don’t get me wrong, but also it felt like musically I was bringing it back home.” He, like thousands who have marched in the streets, are now figuring out what they want that home to look like. “The protests are inspiring, really,” he says. “You see how people are affected, coming out, just feeling angry, hurt by everything, refusing to just take it. It should be a thing of hope for the country.”
• A Better Time is out now on Sony Music.