Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and its imprint on the music of the continent is equally large. The Kuti family — Fela and his sons Femi and Seun — are, of course, exhibit A. Now there's another name to add to the list of Nigerian musicians taking the global stage–D'Banj.
D'Banj started lighting up the Nigerian music world in 2005 with his debut album "No Long Thing." The music mixes in some West African elements–a little high-life here, a little afrobeat there, some lyrics in Nigerian Pidgin English. But, mostly, it strives for a broader, international, pop-R&B-hip-hop style.
His song "Oliver Twist" is probably D'Banj's biggest hit to date. The pop star is sure to give proper attribution for the song's title.
"Oliver Twist, as we know, is–I won't take credit for that–it's Charles Dickens," D'Banj explained in an interview before his sold-out show in February at Irving Plaza in New York.
The lyrics find a pop-star moral in the Dickens novel, which follows an orphan's trials in the London underworld.
"I have one girlfriend, but I still want more," D'Banj said. "I have one car–I have a Bentley–but I wouldn't mind to have a Ferrari. And when I get a Ferrari I wouldn't mind to have a Bugatti. So Oliver Twist is always asking for more, which is what the story originally says. That means you shouldn't be afraid to ask for what you want. So I thought we'd do something great about that–that we do it until you get the best."
D'Banj does seem to be getting what he wants. "Oliver Twist" has been all over Nigerian airwaves since it came out last summer. It's also become a mainstay of a major UK club scene called "Afrobeats" that pulls together various pop music from all around the African continent.
His biggest break, though, came at the end of 2010, when he was heading home after a show in Dubai.
"At the airport, I pulled up with all my crew: my management and bodyguards and everyone. And one of the hostesses–a beautiful looking kokolette lady–she run up to me with a plaque and it had 'Kanye West' on it. And she said 'Mr. Kanye West, Mr. Kanye West!' I say 'Oh I'm not Kanye West, I'm D'Banj. Maybe I look like Kanye West but sorry.'"
D'Banj and his crew realized that Kanye and his crew were nearby, and D'Banj's manager hustled off to try and arrange a meeting.
"I just saw him coming back and he says 'Yo, Kanye says five minutes.' And I said 'Five minutes? I only need two.' And I got there, and five minutes became 45, I almost missed my flight. And he listened to all my records–most of them, the ones I had on my iPod."
This chance encounter led Kanye to sign up to produce new music by D'Banj–the first results of that are due out soon. Kanye also makes a cameo in a new video for "Oliver Twist."
The news of D'Banj signing with Kanye was huge in Nigeria.
Nnamdi Moweta is the host of Radio Afrodicia, an African music show in southern California. He's from Nigeria, and he says that the African sounds that D'Banj still has in his music make him different from a lot of other stuff you hear on pop radio there.
"Everybody wants to sound like Dr. Dre or want to sound like Ice Cube," Moweta says. "But with D'banj he's still got his roots in there, with the Yoruba sound, with the Yoruba language in his music—that sets him apart."
D'Banj talks about his collaboration with Kanye West being like a bridge that will carry other African pop stars into the mainstream American music world. Nnamdi Moweta agrees. "Africa is loaded with talent, D'Banj is just one. Look at South Africa, look at Ghana, look at Congo. This first step will open doors for more to come."
But, as he goes global, D'Banj's countrymen still want some attention too. The star has been criticized recently for not being more politically outspoken on Nigerian issues. And, as he moves into Kanye's orbit, his hometown press is filled with reports about a falling out between him and his Nigerian producer and several other longtime collaborators.
With great hits comes great responsibility.