Founder of Indigo Distortion and author of ‘Collaborative and Experimental: The Evolution of Afrobeats and Its Current Landscape’ Zainab Kuku, believes any Afrobeats musician that is currently highly-rated is deservedly so: ‘The Nigerian music industry before streaming was really hard, there was no clear structure for distributing music and a lot of our highly rated artists started out in that era. There is nothing overrated about that.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I read a mix of different books. My personal collection mainly consisted of Jacqueline Wilson books and fantasy stories, such as the House of Night series, The Twilight trilogy books and The Morganville Vampires series. For school I had to read classics like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. My English and Literature classes also exposed me to Shakespeare’s work very early on. I read The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing in secondary school and studied King Lear in A-levels. At home, my mum had a bookshelf and I would often scan through it and pick the books that interested me the most. Some of these books included The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Secret lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
My life would probably be a fiction or non-fiction book, which explores uncertainty. In this book the protagonist goes through life experiences which force her to deal with uncertainty in a more pragmatic way. She has to learn to navigate uncertain or unexpected circumstances, how to sit in these circumstances without losing her mind and how to look forward and embrace the unknown.
My life would probably be a fiction or non-fiction book, which explores uncertainty.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I don’t often disagree with the premise or subject matter of a text, especially if its fiction or poetry. If I disagree with a text its most likely because of the writing style, structure or tone of the writer. On this basis, the last thing I read and disagreed with was Ariel by Sylvia Plath. Plath’s decision to use a racial slur in the poem was unsettling, as it automatically isolated me from her work as a Black reader.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read The Spectacular Life of Octavia E. Butler, by Alex Jung. It’s an interesting article which gives a detailed insight into Octavia Bulter’s life, career and writing process. In her will, Octavia Butler specified that all her journals, random notes, diary entries and more should go to the Hunington Library, therefore making it possible for Alex Jung to write such a compelling and personal account of her legacy. My natural instinct was to question why Octavia Butler would do such a thing. I couldn’t imagine just handing my personal diary, thoughts, emotions, everything including rejection letters to a public library for people to dissect and analyse after my death.
Reading the article changed my mind and made me question my natural instincts and thought process around sharing and documenting personal moments. The article taught me that there’s value in letting people or readers see and understand you as a human being, not solely as a writer.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
Definitely the way it’s written. The importance of any subject can only be reflected through skillful writing. There’s sometimes a misconception that you might not be taken seriously as a writer if you don’t write about electoral politics, economics or business – ‘serious’ things. In my opinion, everything is serious if it is written seriously enough. Art, music, love are all serious topics which require thought, detail and precision in the way their written about and linked to socio-political issues. The way we chose to write about these topics is what matters the most.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I don’t have a strict writing process so I do a mixture of both. When I’m unsure of a piece or I haven’t thought about it the whole way through, I like to draft first then edit. That way, I can see what my stream of consciousness is like and build on that. However, if I know exactly what I want to say, I’m a bit more cautious and I often take breaks in between writing to edit as I go along. My writing process really depends on the piece I’m working on.
The greatest contemporary Nigerian song is probably Gongo Aso by 9ice.
What was your process for writing ‘Collaborative and Experimental: The Evolution of Afrobeats and Its Current Landscape’?
As a starting point, I made very high-level; rough notes about different topics I wanted to address in the article. My initial approach was to turn these notes into a structured plan but I struggled with this. The deadline for submission was coming up when I decided to discard the plan and just write. I ended up taking a ‘draft first, then edit’ approach. During the editing process, I made additional notes of weak points in my essay or topics within the essay that I needed to expand on. I then read other articles and pieces about Afrobeats, culture, society and music which helped me develop my own ideas.
What’s the greatest Nigerian song of all time?
Greatest Nigerian song of all time is a big title. What if the greatest Nigerian song of all time hasn’t even been made yet? What if the greatest song is some obscure song from the 1920s that I have no clue about? I’m going to answer a slightly different question and say the greatest contemporary Nigerian song is probably Gongo Aso by 9ice. That song is an undisputed jam. Every single person who grew up in Nigeria knows and loves that song. It’s just timeless.
I’m really excited about Asake and Ayra Starr. I think they are both really brilliant and understand who they are as artists. They also don’t pigeon hole themselves when it comes to self-expression, whether it is through their music or fashion.
Who are the most overrated and underrated Afrobeats musicians?
I think everyone who is rated highly right now deserves it and they have worked hard for that praise. The Nigerian music industry before streaming was really hard, there was no clear structure for distributing music and a lot of our highly rated artists started out in that era. There is nothing overrated about that. I’m also a massive fan of the newer artists who are highly rated, such as Asake, Ayra Starr, Rema, Victony, Teni and Zinoleesky so I don’t think they are overrated either.
I’m struggling to find an underrated artist who solely makes Afrobeats music so I’m going to list a few underrated artists that infuse Afrobeats into their music. Currently I think Soft, Midas the Jagaban, Kaestyle, T.I Blaze, Ria Sean, Nissi, Blaqbonez, Crayon and Lyta are underrated.
Who are the Afrobeats musicians you are most excited about and why?
I’m really excited about Asake and Ayra Starr. I think they are both brilliant and understand who they are as artists. They also don’t pigeon hole themselves when it comes to self-expression, whether it’s through their music or fashion. I always look forward to what they are both going to do next.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about your writing?
Shortly after was published, ‘Collaborative and Experimental: The Evolution of Afrobeats and Its Current Landscape,’ two people told me I write like a journalist. This was the most interesting and shocking feedback to me because I never considered myself to be a journalist and I didn’t think my writing was journalistic in anyway.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been advised not to delete any projects, ideas or drafts. This is the most meaningful writing advice I’ve ever received and I wish I got it earlier. I used to have a blog which no longer exists because I decided to delete everything. When I was younger, I also wrote a manuscript and I have no idea where it is or where I saved it. I’m so angry at myself for deleting and discarding those projects. It would have been nice to read them again and compare my old work to my current pieces. We often learn so much from our younger selves and they can help us build on our current stories, ideas and thoughts.
I mostly read fiction. I don’t have a favourite topic, but I’m currently very focused on reading fictional texts by Black writers. It’s important to me that Black characters and perspectives are centred in anything I chose to read in my spare time.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Akwaeke Emezi because their work is incredible. I read You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty earlier this year and was completely blown away. The story and its conception is so different, bold and uncompromising in the way it presents love, familial responsibility, grief and trauma. It is really difficult to write flawed character—who do objectively hurtful things—in a way that elicits compassion from the reader. Despite how challenging this is, Akwaeke does it exceptionally well through You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty and Freshwater. Their seamless ability to humanise flawed and complex characters is what I find most exciting about their work.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I mostly read fiction. I don’t have a favourite topic, but I’m currently very focused on reading fictional texts by Black writers. It’s important to me that Black characters and perspectives are centred in anything I chose to read in my spare time. Examples of fictional books I recently read are Everyday Is For The Thief by Teju Cole, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Honey and Spice by Bolu Babalola is on my list and I plan to read this soon.
I read non-fiction to a lesser degree and when I do, its typically about music, pop culture, society and feminism because these topics inform my personal writing and I’m interested in them. Last month I read Black Looks: Race and Representation by bell hooks and ended up citing her work in an article.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a dystopic fiction short story. Alongside my non-fiction about music and pop culture, I also want to write fictional stories which blur the line between absurdity, fantasy and reality.
Writing informs me of the things I care about and it keeps me connected to the things in life that move me, such as music, literature, art and different aspects of Black culture.
Question from Leiyo Singo: What motivates you to write (and how much are you satisfied with your writing)?
I write to gain a better understanding of who I am at my core. Writing informs me of the things I care about and it keeps me connected to the things in life that move me, such as music, literature, art and different aspects of Black culture. When I write, I’m honouring my inner child and I think that’s my biggest motivating factor for doing it. I’m satisfied with my writing but only to a certain degree. I’m grateful for my innate ability to write but I could use more practice and development, particularly because I recently started writing again after a long break.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
At what moment did you start taking yourself seriously as a writer?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]