The Meaning of Aṣa Understanding the Ascension of a Singular Artist

Aṣa released her eponymous debut album in 2007 and has been a favourite of many Nigerians ever since, with fans across generations. Her most enduring feature has been the singularity, not only of her music, but also of the ways in which she has always held herself apart, even when the spotlight was at its brightest.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, The Age of Afrobeats. Buy the issue here.

The first time that I saw Aṣa perform was at the Eko Hotel in Lagos on 1 May 2016, two years after the release of her album, Bed of Stone. I know this for a fact because I still have the group photo that I took with my friends after the show. On my Instagram feed, several finger scrolls down from my recent photos is a short video from that concert of the whole crowd cheering when she launched into ‘Bibanke’ a lot earlier on in the show than we were expecting. The lighting had turned from a pale green to a deep purple. The whole crowd leapt to its feet. ‘Iwo, iwo ni kan, so so/ Iwo, iwo ni kan, so so!’ We all sang, happily playing our parts as back-up singers as she ad-libbed over our voices. Nothing captures the nature of Aṣa’s popularity as the fact that a song like ‘Bibanke’, for which there was never a video and was never released as a single, is a firm fan favourite.  

That concert, two albums into her career and nine long years since her self-titled Aṣa album was released, showed so much about how much she had grown since I first became aware of her. One evening in what must have been around 2005, likely after dinner and doing my homework, I was watching a TV show on MiTV and saw a young woman who I would come to learn was Aṣa. She was a slightly awkward presence, skinny with thick-rimmed glasses, clutching her guitar with a slight frown of concentration on her face. I had seen so many artists come and go on those shows, all young and eager for success and attention. I do not remember any of them that made as much of an impression as Aṣa did. Her voice was emotive yet controlled, husky without being masculine. She sang soulful songs ‘Eye Adaba’ and ‘So Beautiful’ in Yoruba that sounded like they could be performed by instrumentalists in church bands on their days off, without the talking drum and fuji that I at the time associated only with music my mother would listen to. The music felt evergreen but modern. The Aṣa album was released in 2007 and became an almost instant classic, right up there in importance as Nigerian popular music classics like—also known as Tuface)—2Baba’s Grass to Grace, Trybesmen’s L.A.G Style and Wizkid’s Superstar 


Aṣa is one of very few artists whose appeal has endured from the early 2000s until now. So much has changed over the course of the nearly two decades since her self-titled album, but so much of who she was when she began has also endured. Her music has always defied easy categorization, and she flirts with pop and folk, soulful Yoruba gospel and, more recently, Afrobeats sounds. Whatever genre she employs in her songs, her music has explored various themes, from socio-political consciousness to love and loss; from exploring the depths of our emotional lives to storytelling. Perhaps the one difference between Aṣa’s music and typical Afrobeats fare is that she resists Afrobeats’ hip-hop-derived predilection for self-referencing. Her music is never obviously self-referencing in the sense that it always feels like she could be talking about anyone or telling a character’s story. Rather than stopping at reflecting herself, she uses her music to draw her net wide and paint portraits of that which is common to all of us.  

Aṣa’s growth and evolution has happened at a time that Afrobeats has been on the rise, and in a way that has been both aware and aloof in the face of Afrobeats’ growth. The genre has grown exponentially since the early 2000s. Indeed, the use of Afrobeats to describe popular music coming out of Nigeria was not even a settled matter at that time. When her self-titled album got released in 2007, it was less than a decade after Plantashun Boiz and Remedies first performed ‘Omode Meta’ on Keke and D1’s AIT Jamz, and Trybesmen had just begun to show us just how massive Nigerian hip-hop could be. Aṣa’s evergreen hit songs like ‘Jailer’ and ‘Fire on the Mountain’ were on constant rotation at the same time that P-Square ruled Nigerian charts with hits like ‘Do Me’ and ‘Roll It’. D’Banj and Don Jazzy were a dynamic duo, and MoHits Records was on the rise. The year of her follow-up Beautiful Imperfections in 2010, was when Timaya released ‘Plantain Boy’, and Flavour’s major hit single ‘Nwa Baby’ was playing on dancefloors across Nigeria. Songs like the light-hearted pop jaunt, ‘Why Can’t We’ and ‘Be My Man’ and the playful ‘Broda Ole’ endured in the Nigerian music landscape at a time when M.I. had just released what would be one of his best-known songs ‘One Naira’ with Waje, and Ice Prince’s ‘Oleku’ shook the music scene. Afrobeats continued to be a definitive, upbeat presence in the years to come, its popularity having soared across Africa and in the diaspora. It contrasted sharply with the sobriety and melancholy piano-driven ballads about love and pain in her 2017 album, Lucid, which chronicles the highs and lows of love. At no time did she do any high-profile collaborations, even though whispers abound the entire time of possible collaborations with 9ice or 2Baba. In neither her style nor the substance of her work did Aṣa align with what seemed to work for mainstream artists. As Aṣa herself said in a 2022 interview when reflecting on how different her journey has been from that of other Nigerian mainstream artists: 

I wasn’t thinking about who was doing what, nor was I ever bothered about filling a gap. I was really just thinking of making music that would touch people, help heal and move people. I wanted to be part of something. So it wasn’t intimidating. I was super focused on wanting to be part of something, wanting to contribute. 

With these first four albums, Aṣa retained a longevity that few artists that came to prominence around the same time as her eponymous album have since enjoyed. While international collaborations and deals were scarce in the early days of Afrobeats, that is not the case today. Nigerian artists today are signing international deals and growing global audiences at such a dizzying rate that a rapid rise to international stardom can almost be taken for granted. To grow their local audience, Afrobeats artists usually collaborate with each other. In their push for global audiences, it is common practice for Afrobeats artists today to collaborate with globally popular music stars, like Fireboy did with Ed Sheeran for ‘Peru’, Wizkid did with Justin Beiber for ‘Essence’, and Rema for the remix of ‘Calm Down’ with Selena Gomez. Aṣa has long eschewed these formulas, choosing instead to burrow deeper into her own sound and nurture her ever-ready audience. In these first few albums, she did not have any major collaborations with any Nigerian acts. She has been signed onto independent French record labels, not major global ones, since her first album and has performed live with a band at music venues globally. This approach and its fidelity to that which feels true to the kind of music she wants to make hints that success looks very different for her than it does for many other artists. It has also allowed her to breathe rarefied air, with both feet planted solidly into Nigerian music royalty while holding herself apart from the larger crowd.  


As the Afrobeats mainstream sound has evolved over time, so has what it has meant to be an alternative artist. Aṣa’s first album emerged in 2007, which was merely three years before Boj, Fresh L and Teezee came together to form DRB Lasgidi, the group that would usher in a wave of alternative—or alté as we know them—acts. These acts formed a genre-bending movement that borrowed aspects of trap, R‘n’B, and Afrobeats pop sounds to make something entirely different that resonated with audiences in the diaspora and locally.  

The sound alté artists championed in the early 2010s would augur the slowed-down tempo we have in Afrobeats today. We knew that the Afrobeats’ sound had shifted when Mr. Eazi made mainstream hits out of mid-tempo songs like ‘Skin Tight’ and ‘Leg Over’ in 2015. Tekno and Runtown would do the same in 2016 and 2018 respectively with songs like ‘Mad Over You’ and ‘Pana’. Wizkid cemented this sonic lane in 2020 with his modern classic Made in Lagos, with songs like ‘Blessed’ that seemed to drop the ‘s’ in ‘Afrobeats’ and with party-ready songs like ‘Ginger’ and ‘Mighty Wine’ that were both laid-back and percussive. Alté artists were able to form communities and fandoms that identified with their sound and identities in a way that transcended the music itself. The music, it seems, is far from the only thing that makes an artist alté; it is the artist themselves. Artists signal their authenticity from the way that they engage with the music industry, as much as they do from their song choices and their sound. As we see in the rise of artists like Odumodublvck, and in Show Dem Camp’s use of their Palm Wine Music records and annual festivals, audiences know authenticity when they see it, flock to it, and find each other. 

What has been remarkable about Aṣa is that she has always made music that has been low- to mid-tempo, as well as often politically conscious, while garnering a loyal following without any explicit attempt to form a community around her music. Artists that are megastars often achieve that status with a steady churn of solo hits and collaborations, always seeking to add to their fanbases and streaming numbers. Aṣa does not do this, either, making her path to stardom very difficult to emulate for the average Nigerian artist. She does not do many interviews and is happy to have whole years pass by between albums. In fact, Aṣa’s most enduring feature has been the singularity, not only of her music, but also of the ways in which she has always held herself apart, even when the spotlight was at its brightest. There have been other artists like Bharry Jay and The Cavemen who have made soulful songs that prioritize evocative lyricism or pay homage to traditional music traditions. There have been other female acts over the years, but the most popular among them have emerged the same way many male artists emerge: under the auspices of major labels, projecting a curated image and producing a steady churn of songs and collaborations. 

One of the ways in which Aṣa has held herself apart is in her engagement with fashion. Unlike a lot of other popular Nigerian female artists, Aṣa did not come to public consciousness playing with fashion and her personal style. Until the second half of her career, she has seemed largely unconcerned with fashion and has not used her style in any overt way to signal who she is or convey something about her identity in ways we typically see with female artists. This has been part of what has cemented her politically conscious and soulful mien. This would change with her music videos and live performances for her Bed of Stone album. In the music video for ‘Satan Be Gone’, Aṣa is in a church dimly lit at night time with candles, and she dances like a glamorous apparition in a luxurious, lacy, glittery black cape and a wide-brimmed hat. The video for ‘Eyo’, by contrast, is bright and sunny, set in a nondescript street presumably in Lagos. She wears three outfits in this video, each flowy and regal, making her stand out against the backdrop of the mundanity of everyday life on a local street. These videos show an artist who has now accepted the use of fashion as part of her storytelling. As part of the promotion for this album in 2014, Aṣa was photographed by renowned photographer, TY Bello, for a cover of South African Elle magazine wearing custom designs from renowned Nigerian designer, Lisa Folawiyo. Until her 2022 album, V, all of these forays into fashion could be termed modest in the sense that they were not revealing or sexy.  


All that has preceded it is what made V such a milestone for Aṣa. Her fans knew they would meet a new side to the artist when she released a photo of herself on 24 February 2021 in the studio with P.Priime, a young Afrobeats producer. This album would be the first time she is working with an Afrobeats producer. In the run-up to the album’s release, Aṣa also posted videos of herself at work with Wurld and The Cavemen on her Instagram Stories. Later, the list of collaborators emerged with the track list. The album was made during the 2020 pandemic, and a lot of the promotional content was shot in her Lagos home. These promotional images for V showed another shift in style. A 29 December 2020, post on Instagram was a short clip of her wearing a black dress with a high slit, smoking Cubans in front of her piano. On her Instagram stories, we see her dancing and laughing with Nigerian artists at her home. Images from her shows promoting this album showed her wearing sparkling bralettes and loose pants, a sexier image than we have ever previously seen from her.  

Aṣa has always experimented with sound, but the difference this time is that Aṣa released an album that dovetailed with the trajectory of Nigerian music. Aṣa is not an alté artist, but it is true to say that alté sounds and the way that they shifted the soundscape of Afrobeats’ mainstream helped to make V possible. Gone were the soulful Yoruba songs like ‘Eye Adaba’ and ‘Ore’, the storytelling of songs like ‘Awe’ and ‘Murder in the USA’, and politically conscious songs like ‘Situation’ and ‘Jailer’. Instead, the album’s playful, and sometimes wistful songs take on love—both falling in it and losing it—and being true to oneself. Aṣa has said that this album required that she let go of her usual perfectionism.  

V is about the melodies, the texture and where the music takes you,’ she said in a 2022 interview about the album. ‘I didn’t spend too much time fussing over the lyrics… I had to allow myself to be vulnerable and write without over-editing or stressing unreasonably. It felt good not to create tension for a change.’ 

The album may have been more laidback, but it was still an Aṣa album, so it does not sacrifice musicality and thoughtfulness. Like I wrote in an album review when V came out, the heft of her previous records makes the levity of this latest one seem well-earned. In an interview, Aṣa has said that we had the pandemic to thank for her new shift. ‘With the world going through a pandemic, there was no need to write another dark song,’ she went on to say in her Al-Jazeera interview. ‘I wanted some relief. A lot of the songs on V are about trying to get out of down moments.’ 


Aṣa has always stood as an outlier in Nigeria’s music space, and while she is universally admired by her peers in the industry and emerging artists, nobody has really attempted to follow her path in any meaningful way. Aṣa’s singularity in her approach to making a career as a Nigerian artist is also what makes any gendered analysis of her dead on arrival.  

Aṣa’s career is different from any of Nigeria’s other most popular artists today, and examining the emergence of new artists from Nigeria who bend Afrobeat rules makes this even clearer. Today, thanks to the rise of social media, the emergence of streaming, and the success of alté artists, artists are now better poised to further challenge dominant mainstream sounds. For example, Rema went viral on social media by freestyling songs in his car, which helped him catch the eye of D’Prince, who would become his manager and contributed to his rapid ascension in Nigerian popular music. Seyi Vibez first grew the audience for his Fuji-inspired sound in his hometown of Ikorodu in Lagos, before his breakthrough with ‘God Sent’ piqued the attention of street-pop listeners beyond Ikorodu and his single ‘Chance (Na Ham)’ landed him fully into mainstream Afrobeats attention. There has been a recent crop of new female Nigerian artists like Teni, Fave, and Bloody Civilian that have emerged in recent years, many of whom also employed clever use of social media to build an audience for their genre-bending music. Tems is the best recent example of a female artist who has used the current moment to carve out a space for herself in Nigeria and abroad, and she did that producing a lot of her own music. While she emerged as part of the larger alté movement in the 2010s, Tems and Aṣa do have some familiarities. Like Aṣa, Tems’ music is often mid-tempo and laid-back. Tems also often does not make music easily identifiable as Afrobeats, and she did not emerge using fashion in any meaningful way to introduce herself to her Nigerian audience; rather, she evolved into it as her profile rose in 2022 following the release of ‘Essence’, her globally successful collaboration with Wizkid.  

While it is true that streaming has made it more difficult for artists to make money from their art, it has also made it easier for artists to find an audience for their work, however experimental. In a music industry where so much relies on distribution and connection to radio DJs, having major backing was arguably more important than the music itself being anybody’s definition of ‘good’. Today, artists being able to market themselves on social media and prove that their fresh approach to Afrobeats has a waiting audience is vital. That Aṣa was able to carve out the career that she has, starting from a time before the internet played a huge role in the music industry, is even more remarkable. She has long been a figure of admiration whose career trajectory has been unique, but we were never as likely to have another artist like Aṣa as we are now

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