When it comes to major names in contemporary Afrobeats culture, Yemi Alade is one you can’t overlook. Also known as ‘Mama Africa’ because of her love of travelling the continent, Yemi Alade’s hit song ‘Johnny’ made her the first African female Afropop artist to smash 56 million views on YouTube. Since her 2014 debut album, ‘King of Queens’ Alade has travelled internationally captivating audiences with her high energy ‘Afropop’ blend. Nominated for ‘Best International Act Africa’ in 2015’s BET Awards, and twice nominated for ‘Best International Act’ at the 2014 and 2015 MOBO Awards; Yemi has never been short of recognition or support in the diaspora.
We meet in London’s Mayfair, to talk about her journey so far; name-checked by BBC’s DJ Edu as one of the modern stars of African music that continue to push boundaries he informed me that Yemi, as a musician, is a woman who has remained consistent and honest about her goals and level headed about the route to success. “He gave me my first interview at the BBC,” she recalls when I ask about their friendship, “the toughest thing about life in the limelight is that you never get to see yourself. Other people get to see you, and then if your clothes are not good to them then they can tell you what they see. That’s why DJ Edu has like the front row details on how it’s been for me as an artist; but when it comes to my sound and who I am, the most difficult thing at the point I am now in my career is keeping the style consistent and not changing because of the times, or because of pressure or trying to blend in by all means and lose yourself in the process.”
As a songwriter, composer, actress and entertainer Yemi has the ability to shift, change and experiment with her output in order to find fresh inspiration but maintaining her integrity is always key: “it’s the most difficult thing because you have the opportunity to change your sound. I can actually change my sound, from African to maybe trying to go mainstream by all means and I start doing proper British House – I’ve been tempted with that many times, that’s not the way to go because I’d get lost in the deep blue sea. But I thank God for a team that keeps advising me, and I thank God for my love of music. I try everything that comes my way, I don’t turn anything down – that way I don’t get to say ‘Oh I wish I had’.”
Oral history is key man, it’s top key. I wish oral history was something we didn’t stop at some point because there’s a lot about Africans that has gotten lost in time.
Yemi Alade is a major international star and unequivocally African, her debut album sold over 100,000 units and was followed by 2016’s ‘Mama Africa’ which charted in Germany, Malaysia and France, as well as being a major hit across Africa. Mama Africa vanquished the idea that an African musician would somehow be less embraced outside the continent. Part of the magic of Yemi Alade is of course her sense of comedy, her storytelling ability has captivated fans across the world. When I spoke with DJ Edu, he said it was the traditions enshrined in Afrobeat music that taught many aunties and uncles and mums and dads their life lessons: “you almost cannot mess up with the stories about African culture and passing it on… to some people [Afrobeat] is how they pass down their stories, this is their culture.”
I ask Yemi for her perspective on the importance of traditional oral histories that have now faded and whether it’s the passing of culture through music she has in mind when songwriting: “oral history is key man, it’s top key. I wish oral history was something we didn’t stop at some point because there’s a lot about Africans that has gotten lost in time that we can’t get back but when it comes to the music I think if you look into my music you’ll see that I’m quite the storyteller. I pick a topic and brush it up as nicely as I can to pass the message across. So storytelling is very, very important because that way people can follow you literally – you can tell the story of a scenario through the music and every other person can have that same image in their head so it’s super important for me.”
In the UK during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the African immigrants and students in London were inspired by the wave of independencies (Ghana 1957, Nigeria 1960, Sierra Leone 1961) in their homeland. They craved music that reflected their new identity, “as music took on a central role in the psyche of each newly independent nation, it became a major part of African life in London,” Lloyd Bradley notes in his 2013 book, Sounds Like London: 100 Years Of Black Music In The Capital. “Nationalistic spirit was running high among young people. Their new self-governed homelands represented every opportunity, African opportunity.” Some 56 years on, it seems that same sense of nationalistic pride has come alive among the UK’s Black African youth. There’s a gratitude that comes with maturity, many British Africans have family homes on the continent which are increasingly looked upon as a haven from the drudgery of Brexit Britain and its relentless talk of immigrants.
Africa is worthy of all the light it is getting right now. Modern Africa is Africa now, not Africa yesterday, not Africa many years ago.
I ask Yemi how she feels about all the eyes that are coming to fall on Africa once again, with publications like Vogue arriving in Kenya to shoot covers, Beyonce’s embrace of Afrobeat sounds on social media and African print swimwear being sold on sites like ASOS, “yes, yes, yes, Africa is basking in so much light right now and it’s definitely a good time to be alive. It’s a good thing because this light definitely hit Africa because we stayed African, we didn’t change and I think that’s why the light came to hit us and we suddenly look unique because we still have the same characteristics as we should.”
“When it comes to the problems that we face, they’re still there. But I think our uniqueness is a selling point for Africa. If I could reach out to one African at a time, I’d always tell them the earlier we started treating and trying to get solutions for our problems ourselves, instead of pointing out to the government, or pointing out to our neighbour – then all our problems would be solved. Africa is worthy of all the light it is getting right now. Modern Africa is Africa now, not Africa yesterday, not Africa many years ago.”
Yemi Alade embodies so much of what is exciting about modern Africa, a female entertainer that is as fearless as she is vibrant she remains passionate about every area of her career and open to new teachings. Music, like many other industries is often a world that is male dominated, once again Yemi manages to buck the trend by being herself. I ask what her parents imagined she would become, “everybody knows education is very important, well my mum wanted me to be a doctor, that was for sure. I was going to be a doctor – I wanted to be an astronaut just to throw everybody off!” Yemi laughs at the memory, while she wasn’t to become a doctor she did instead study Geography at the University of Lagos, a decision that would turn out to be the perfect set-up for an international musician, “when you’ve studied so much Geography, there are no practicals. It only makes sense when you become an artist that travels around the world, then you see the practical side of Geography. So yeah, I studied Geography, and here I am.”
Before we end I want to hear from Yemi what it’s like to travel the world and reintroduce yourself again and again to audiences across Europe and North America, “you might say I’m well known at home and some places around the world, but trust me, it’s always a pleasure to convert a new person – always. In fact, I’m so used to people [saying] ‘Oh, I know you, I know you,’ so when I meet that one person who’s like ‘oh really, you’re an artist? What kind of music do you make?’ I have this big smile on my face. I’m confident that you’re going to be a convert, I’m very confident that the music will get you; and I’m happy to know I came into contact with that person firsthand. One-on-one. It gives me joy to reintroduce myself anywhere, any day. Because I also know, that some people don’t know Michael Jackson. And I also know that the guys who danced in Beyonce’s [Who Run The World] didn’t know who Beyonce was. So why am I even tripping? I can’t trip, I can only love.”