Music Updates

With ‘Essence,’ Wizkid Wants to Chart a Global Course for African Artists

At first, the artist nicknamed the Little Prince — a moniker that would evolve into Wizkid — struggled to be taken seriously. “Every room I went to, people didn’t even want to hear me talk because they felt I was too young,” recalls Wiz, now 31.

“He was the first sort of kid star that carried a youth fan base with him,” says Balogun, who is Nigerian American. “He felt like a forebearer of a new era.”

As Balogun explains, when he and Wiz were growing up, Nigeria’s established stars, like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé, “were grown men in their 40s and 50s.” Prior to his death at age 58, Kuti created the blueprint for Afrobeat, which gained a global following because of his percussion-heavy fusion of funk, jazz, fuji and highlife with unabashedly political lyrics. Its 21st-century polyrhythmic offshoot, Afrobeats, is rooted in popular West African music but incorporates influences from outside the continent (U.K. grime, Jamaican dancehall, U.S. hip-hop) along with heartfelt lyrical content that resembles R&B’s.

Wizkid’s rise was concurrent with that of Afrobeats, though he took it in a more hip-hop-infused direction. He had sharply honed freestyling skills and rapped about taking out girls, wearing designer clothes and hustling out of the hood. His 2014 track “Ojuelegba” — named for an area of Surulere — told the story of his grind and his loved ones’ prayers throughout his slow-burn career, and offered a glimmer of hope to the young Nigerians who worried they would never make it out of their own environments. It ruled airwaves across Africa, landing at No. 1 on Capital Xtra’s Afrobeats chart in February 2015.

“It tells an incredible story that a lot of people in Africa can relate to,” says Pollock of the song, which Wiz calls the “African national anthem.” “Wizkid gives people in Africa hope. There are kids that have grown up with nothing, but then they see, ‘Oh, Wiz had a very similar journey, and look at him now.’ Songs like ‘Ojuelegba,’ where people can lyrically relate to it because they’re physically living it, gives people hope in their heart, like, ‘F–k, this can actually happen for me.’ ”

It broke out beyond Lagos when Wiz’s comrade from across the pond, U.K. grime artist Skepta, played it for Drake, who was so “in the moment” when he heard it, he said at the time, that he decided to hop on the record. In July 2015, the official “Ojuelegba” remix premiered on Drake’s OVO Sound Radio, where the rapper continued to feature Wiz’s songs as well as their future collaborations and still-unreleased loosies. After the success of “One Dance,” Wiz was ready to take on the world: He joined Chris Brown on tour in Europe, headlined the One Africa Music Fest at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and by 2017 had signed a multialbum deal with RCA and Sony Music International.

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