YBNL Records latest signee, Asake, has proven to be a sure bet and Afrobeats fastest rising superstar. In less than two years, he has released two outstanding albums, sold out London’s O2 Arena and earned a Grammy Award nomination. Yet he shows no signs of slowing down.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.
A 20,000-man-strong live audience at the O2 Arena London watched a 28-year-old musician descend from a YBNL-branded helicopter relic on 20 August 2023. This spectacular entrance was 90 minutes late, but it has taken the man on the helicopter a lifetime to get here.
He struggles to lower himself to the stage. He cuts a lonely figure up in that ceiling, a rare moment of life imitating art. There is a set list of songs from his vibrant discography to be performed but, first, this urgent lesson in patience.
In addition to a captive live audience, over 50,000 viewers were glued to a YouTube channel—cheerleaders of Afrobeats, that youngish, West African dance music genre enjoying a global moment while simultaneously auditioning its fastest-rising star till date, our man dangling from the helicopter, Mr Ahmed Ololade, better known by a rather unusual stage name, Asake.
His mother, Asake, whose name he borrowed for the stage, was also in the O2 Arena, witnessing her son’s greatness. Months ago, Asake was another struggling artist in the sprawling working-class Lagos suburb of Ikorodu. A Theatre Arts graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University with a knack for dancing, Asake came to singing later, by his own account, an economic decision that has now paid off.
‘Trabaye’, the opening track of his four-track Ololade Asake EP released in January 2022, begins with a babyish voice, ‘Mo fe trabaye / Ye, mo fe trabaye,’ a bassline grumbling behind the chorus. Trabaye means to ‘misbehave as a result of intoxication caused by taking hard drugs’, according to the Urban Dictionary. ‘Traboski’, a hit song by Bnxn (formerly known as, Buju), introduces a past participle tense to Trabaye, arguably a vibrant transitive verb, not just another regular street slang. By the time Trabaye appears on Burna Boy’s lively tune, ‘It’s Plenty’, its negative connotation has been washed off—it has become an innocuous description of making mirth.
Asake’s first verse on ‘Trabaye’ namechecks Kalakuta, Fela’s commune. Asake gestures towards its original etymology. According to Carlos Moore’s This Bitch called Life, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti named his communal compound Kalakuta Republic in 1974. Benson Idonije’s memoir Dis Fela Sef noted that:
…Fela picked this name from the police cell in which he was detained at the CID (Central Intelligence Division).
Kalakuta is derived from the Swahili word for rascal, and Asake pays homage to this life when he pensively sings, ‘Kalakuta no be place for schoolboy/I get niggaz wey don go there before.’ At the end of the song, Olamide, founder of YBNL Records credited for that grumbling bassline, welcomes Asake into the fold but also teases him for being the ‘ladies’ man.
THE BEGINNING OF ASAKE
There is a short video clip of Asake on the internet. He is sitting in the passenger seat of a car listening to a version of his song ‘Omo Ope’. Halfway into the tune, rapper, Olamide’s unmistakable baritone segues in and confident bars of rap are delivered. Asake storms out of the car and begins a victory lap through that Lagos neighbourhood. This was the moment he realised that his life had changed. His dreams had come true; what remained was the inevitable legwork for which Asake had been training.
Fresh out of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in the mid-2010s, where he affiliated with other aspiring undergraduate musicians like Blaqbonez, FireBoy DML, Cheque, and Chinko Ekun—all stars (albeit at different stations) on the Afrobeats firmament, Asake began to release music in 2017. Asake’s journey to stardom was not as immediate as he may have anticipated. His steep career trajectory met its fair share of failure and indifference. He leaned into his acting chops, made video skits with Samuel Perry (Broda Shaggi) and appeared in Nollywood film cameos that have become viral since he became a superstar. If dancing came naturally to him as a form of expression, he trained as an actor in the Pit Theatre on campus. Music, the eventual consideration, was a cipher, Morse code, he had to break into.
Asake belongs to the Street Hop subgenre of Afrobeats. This movement found its footing in the late 2000s when Afrobeats gravitated towards a more indigenous flair and delivery, first in Pidgin English and then Yoruba. The earliest and most successful progenitors of this movement in Yoruba are Lord of Ajasa, 9ice and Da Grin. Released in 2010, Da Grin’s sophomore album, Chief Executive Omo-Ita, was the game-changing classic where witty and poignant hardcore rap delivered in Yoruba attained mainstream appeal. Sadly, on 22 April, 2010, Da Grin passed away from injuries sustained in a car crash throwing Nigerian youth into mourning in a manner reminiscent of Mohbad’s recent tragic passing. Expectedly, a glut of tribute songs emerged, but one by a younger rapper stood out. That rapper was Olamide, an apprentice of ID Cabasa’s Coded Tunez academy. His tribute to Da Grin, featuring a plaintive interpolation of the Scottish tune, Auld Lang Syne, showed promise, skill and soul.
Olamide was tipped as Da Grin’s heir apparent among a cohort of impressive rappers like Seriki, Reminisce, CDQ and Phyno. This roster of musicians fronted their local languages to good effect, executing a coup that first dethroned American English and Pidgin English, the lingua franca of the nascent Afrobeats and, indeed, of Fela’s Afrobeat.
Their accomplishment was so sweeping that the vibrant careers of skilled emcees like MI Abaga, A-Q and Mode Nine were relegated to the uncomfortable niche of a cult following. ‘Local Rappers’, a 2015 tune poking fun at their American-sounding peers by Reminisce featuring Olamide and Phyno, subverted their erstwhile derogatory description—local rappers—in celebration of their grip on the zeitgeist, an irreversible one in retrospect.
Once Afrobeats eased into local languages, a treasure trove of traditional influences and legacy became more accessible. Genres like Fuji, Juju, Apala, and Highlife were adapted to explore the reality of the urban poor using street argot that celebrated vibrant local languages and the occasional joy of spotlighting their grim experiences.
Music’s most important social function in Nigerian society is dance. Afrobeats, even in its earliest iteration as Hip-Hop echolalia, skewed towards dance. An escapist ethos quickly emerged as the Afrobeats idioms became more African. If Hip-Hop was obsessed with materialism and street credibility, Street Hop was obsessed with cannabis, liquor and sex, as best depicted by the late Da Grin in his 2009 song, ‘Make Doe’, ‘Igbo, Shayo, Asewo / This is how we living…’
THE ROAD TO THE TOP
On the Niphkeys-produced ‘Baba God’ Asake sings, ‘Some people dey they wan make I sober / Me, I no fit sober / ’Cause I gat Jehovah gan ni…’ Sobriety and faith, two contradictory phenomena, are braided into an unlikely couplet suggesting that this escapist ethos fronted by Afrobeats is conflicted.
Wisdom Mudasiru, in his 2023 explainer piece, lucidly characterized Afro-Adura as ‘aspirational lyrics, preferably in Yoruba, sometimes layered on melancholic beats that could very well be referred to as “chants”.’ In December 2022, Afro-Adura was suggested as a subgenre within Street Hop. In retrospect, the Afro-Adura fad has fizzled out unsurprisingly. Afro-Adura does not front a recognizable change in musical style in the first instance. Street Hop, since its inception, has always gestured towards prayer and paranoia. That attitude of prayer and paranoia is bequeathed by the Yoruba worldview, alongside a quest for wisdom, which Asake obsesses about in his songs.
‘Sungba’ quickly stood out as the song for a possible mainstream breakthrough on the Ololade EP. Burna Boy graced the remix with a masterful verse and further extended his grace not only with a music video appearance but also by performing his guest verse on his set at his Madison Square Concert in New York in April 2022 with his infectious Afro-moonwalk dance to boot.
Then came the longest run/reign of singles from a Nigerian musician. Asake went from humorously begging Skiibii, whose song ‘Trenches’ topped Afrobeats charts in the first quarter of 2022 to relinquish the top of the charts to monopolizing the number one spot for himself. Every month from April 2022 till the release of his debut LP album in September, Asake auditioned a new song, typically with a crisp music video and a short promotional video on social media as a teaser.
Asake’s collaboration with music producer, Magicsticks, and video director, TG Omori, combined aural and visual delights that captivated everyone. Asake went from attention-seeker to the lodestar of attention, from the underdog to man of the year. If Magicsticks provided the sonic template that leaned into South African House-music-derived Amapiano, TG Omori’s vibrant visual palette depicted Asake’s eclectic, if not eccentric, fashion style, which got even bolder.
Asake’s gestures and choreography on camera are memorable. He favours tight-fitting blouses, baggy trousers in particularly outlandish colours and hefty shoes. But more importantly, his music is unique. With his subversion of choral call and response, influenced by Apala and Fuji, Asake’s superpower is melody. He delivers rap emphasizing melody so the distracted listener cannot distinguish a verse from the hook from the pre-chorus—it is all melded into a choral vibe.
On songs such as labelmate, Fireboy DML’s ‘Bandanna’ (produced by P.Priime) and DJ Spinall’s ‘Palazzo’ (produced by usual suspect, Magicsticks), Asake stole the show as a featured act and actor in the music videos, providing a distinct visual performance of prancing and flashing his grills. Those grills would feature on his debut LP album’s cover, a mug shot, subverted with a child-like smile warm with mischief.
Fourteen seconds over the half-hour mark, Mr Money with the Vibe is a 12-track album featuring two guests, Russ, and Burna Boy. Expectedly, Magicsticks produced the entire album, a YBNL record characteristic. The album achieved several feats in streaming history; it peaked at 66 on the US Billboard and 22 on the UK Album Charts. It was the first African album with songs in the top 10 Apple Music Nigeria slots for a week. This record was broken when Wizkid’s incandescent single ‘Bad to Me’ supporting his More Love Less Ego album was released. Mr Money won Album of the Year, and Asake won the Next Rated Artist of the Year, two of the most coveted awards at the Headies 2023.
Asake fulfilled his promise to London girls on his song ‘Trabaye’ in December 2022. But his three-day concert at the Brixton O2 Academy took an ugly turn on its final day, 15 December. Two songs in, a crowd breached the door, and the concert was cancelled. The ensuing pandemonium led to a tragic stampede. Two people—Rebecca Ikumelo, a 33-year-old mother of two and security guard, Gaby Hutchinson—died from crush injuries, and an unnamed 21-year-old third victim fought successfully for their life with intensive care support. This tragedy soured the incredible run and hard work of Asake and his team and was a blow to Afrobeats.
LONELY AT THE TOP
Blending visual depiction of Yoga meditation practices with Mauritanian Sega genre tempered with Keggites-music cadence, in 2023, Asake broke the customary January vacation with the release of ‘Yoga’, a pensive tune asking to be left alone. He appeared on Jimmy Falon’s The Tonight Show performing a medley of ‘Yoga’ and ‘Organise’ backed up by UK sidemen duo, The Compozers, with a delightful sax solo by Connell Thompson. Asake looked pensive at the beginning of his set. His eyes were dim and sad, but he sang with such soul, moved in tandem with the music, in what is probably his most striking performance.
His single ‘2:30’, released in late April 2023, was produced by Blaise Beats. An understudy of Magicsticks-produced ‘Palazzo’, it is a refreshing tune highlighting either a second DJ’s set or that contemplative moment when revellers decide a party’s fate. The lush music video shot in Los Angeles was directed by Edgar Esteves, ending the streak of collaboration with TG Omori.
‘Amapiano’, the third single supporting his second studio LP album, Work of Art, is a praise song to the Soweto-born genre. Asake stakes his claim to its ownership and the tune features Olamide’s lush rap verse. Asake’s mastery of the genre was endorsed by Kelefa Sanneh in his New Yorker profile of Amapiano, where Asake is named ‘…the Nigerian voice of a South African style.’ In the final scenes of the Jyde Ajala-directed video, a Lilliputian Asake swaggers cheekily on piano keys, a figurative and humorous subversion of that interesting name, Amapiano.
If his debut LP album earned Asake’s music the Fujipiano coinage among a cohort of critics, his sophomore LP continued in the log drum tradition. Magicsticks returned as producer on 11 tracks with support majorly from Blaise Beats on three, this album hardly altered the winning formula. Released smack in June of 2023, Work of Art’s cover art is a tribute to Jean-Paul Basquiat. Asake sports his mischievous smile, holding a brush and standing in front of artwork by Ayanfe Olarinde.
Midway into Work of Art, Asake coasts triumphantly on his ‘Basquiat’ record, a whiplash of synth and strings. He declares himself ‘walking poetry’ and a ‘work of art’ before code-switching to prayer, ‘Na gaskia, owó àti àlàáfíà l’áwa ńwá.’ Apala maestro Ayinla Omowura was known for his transgressive ability to fleet through topics within a verse—but Asake, who, like him, also borrowed his mother’s name for the stage, owns this skill.
Prayer, paranoia, and proposition (particularly for affection) meld into a melodious vortex in his lyrics. On ‘Remember’, Asake packs a tongue full of adverbs—immediately, subsequently, and frequently—requesting his love interest to accompany him to his condo. He rhymes condo with Kondo, the Yoruba word for baton but also a phallic metaphor popularized by the late Dagrin. Then, he updates this with the sexual imagery of punishment relying on Freudian Nigerian school-age metaphors.
If Asake is world-weary in his music, it hardly translates into his performing ethics. Although the show opened with an elaborate tribute to the dead in the form of an audio-visual presentation hoisted on the poetry of singer, Aina More, a phalanx of critics believe his return to London barely six months after the 2022 tragedy was premature and ill-advised. Outside the 02 Arena at Asake in London concert, concerns about safety and crowd control were palpable. Police officers on the ground were sharing fliers, looking to gather information about the tragic Brixton O2 stampede.
Inside the O2 Arena, Asake dangles from the helicopter, patiently waiting to be lowered on the stage. That ongoing lesson in patience, in retrospect, also holds one about safety. But once he lands, he taxis through a rapid-fire set of his glorious hits. It is astounding that in less than two years, Asake has accomplished so much in Afrobeats. Yet, there are no signs of slowing down.
It would have been delightful to hear from the proverbial horse’s mouth, and it was not for the lack of trying. A request for an interview was sent to his team. Their response: ‘…He [Asake] is trying to focus on recording till the end of the year.’
The devil may work hard, but Asake works harder⎈
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