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Enjoy Your Life Lady Donli and the Birth of a Pan-African Rockstar

The first time I paid serious attention to Lady Donli was in early 2017, during a family party hosted at my grandfather’s house in Surulere, Lagos. One of her older brothers, Ibrahim, had gone to secondary school with my cousin and, as fate would have it, he was invited to the family gathering. Years after secondary school and an American degree in business, Ibrahim had adopted the suave manners of a quintessential finance bro. But a few bottles of Orijin beer into the afternoon, he loosened up, declaring himself an oracle of pop culture. His prophecy? By the end of the year, the world would start taking Migos and Lady Donli more seriously. A few months later, Migos released their acclaimed sophomore major project, Culture, and Lady Donli attained SoundCloud fame in Nigeria with her sophomore EP, Letters to Her.

Across the world, SoundCloud was quickly becoming the digital Apollo Theatre for a generation of rockstars and in Nigeria, it was no different. However, Donli stood out from the male-dominated pack—who were innovating new sounds over the same old testosterone-fuelled themes of adolescent rebellion, sex and drugs—by making more introspective (and often emotional) music. And although Letters to Her did not go viral, it created a niche of hardcore fans, dubbed the Ladybugs who, like Ibrahim, would champion her music.

At first glance, Lady Donli casts a demure figure, as far as self-proclaimed rockstars go. ‘So before I start my shows, right, I do this pledge,’ she says, staring out the window and into the rain in the opening scene of her music video, Cash.  It is the first single off her debut album, Enjoy Your Life (2019) and the pledge, which everyone is encouraged to recite, states: ‘I promise to have a good time’. But as soon as the guitar riffs start hitting, she transforms from a seemingly shy singer to a party rocker, who proclaims her addiction to money. That year, Cash would go on to be a ‘summer’ phenomenon, and her debut album would mark the birth of a truly Pan-African rockstar.

Zainab Donli was born in Cleveland, Ohio and spent her earliest years in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, and Kaduna, her father’s state of origin. She was also born into music. Her earliest musical influence was from the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), where a unique style of synchronized praise-chanting had taken root. Soon after, her elder brothers started to pursue careers in the industry, under the banner of a short-lived KD World Records. When she was old enough, she would watch acts like Terry Tha Rapman, a pioneer of Nigerian hip-pop in the early 2000s, create their magic. Unsurprisingly, Zainab soon started writing raps of her own.

After secondary school, Zainab moved to the United Kingdom to study Law at the University of Surrey. There, her musical taste diversified–from dense hip hop lyricism to more soulful melodies. The music she was writing followed suit, crystallizing, in 2016, into a six-track mixtape, Wallflower. After Wallflower’s release, Zainab returned to Abuja and informed her father about turning her back on the legal profession and pursuing a career in the music industry full time. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria’s creative capital, where she would sleep in studios—or wherever she could find a spare couch—before creating her Enjoyment-themed brand.

Following the footsteps of previous generations of rockstars, from King Sunny Ade to D’Banj, a lot of Lady Donli’s peers (such as Odunsi The Engine and Santi) were building stardom on the foundation of exclusivity and prima-donna tendencies. However, Donli was building hers on vulnerability and providing access to her personal space. She engaged with followers on Twitter daily over everything from her love-hate relationship with Arsenal FC to responding to pleas for new music from her fans and vitriol from trolls egging her to quit. As she bonded over music with emo teens and twenty-something-year-olds, she tasked two young Nigerian entrepreneurs, Muyi Nehikhare and Mayowa Balogun, with monetizing her fan engagement and growing brand.

‘Mayowa and I met when we were babies in Port Harcourt. We were close friends until he moved to Kaduna in ‘97’, Muyi tells me during an interview last November, about the origins of BEAM Entertainment, the company that currently manages Lady Donli. ‘I never saw him until we became roommates in Daytona Beach, Florida. One day, his dad walks into our apartment and sees pictures of my family all around. Jokingly, he teases Mayowa “look at your mate, he has his family pictures all around; where is ours?” After screening the pictures for some seconds, he points to my dad and says, “I know this man!” He asks for my dad’s number and they end up having a conversation for hours. Later, he called me to tell me that Mayowa and I were friends since I was two years old’.

Donli’s management duo would be your favourite hustler’s favourite hustler. Starting off as bloggers, they quickly began leveraging their industry contacts and evolved into talent managers. ‘While we were roommates, we already had a pop culture blog together. Mayowa went on to become an editor at NotJustOk.com, which was the go-to site for Nigerian music in the early 2010s. We also worked together on a comedy streaming site that created new content daily, then went on to start BEAM Entertainment,’ Muyi tells me. ‘When Lady Donli was about graduating from university in early 2017, she reached out to Mayowa and sent him her “Ice Cream” single. By then, we had already heard of her, and knew “Ice Cream” was going to be a certified hit. She came to Nigeria in the summer of 2017 and her creativity led the way. Working with an artist that is so definite about the creative output has challenged us to be on the top of our game at every given moment. Lady Donli? Na she dey reign!’

Yet after the release of ‘Ice Cream’, bookings for shows were slow; so, Donli and her team decided to host theirs. Leveraging her social media engagement and the buzz of her other 2018 loosie, ‘Poison’, Donli began to hold living room concerts, where fans who would gather a target number of listeners in their living rooms and invite her to perform for them. These performances would be streamed live on Instagram. From my flat in Madrid, I would watch her perform at a fan’s apartment in Lekki, while engaging in real-time conversations in the comments section with fellow listeners from London to Toronto, sharing the experience together. Of course, it was not the same feeling as screaming the lyrics of your favourite songs–shoulder to shoulder–with other stans in a crowded auditorium but, in its own unique way, Donli’s Instagram shows felt communal and intimate.

Intimacy aside, Donli’s Instagram shows made her brand lucrative. Now that she was in demand, these shows evolved into an actual tour across the United States and Canada. It would be in Canada that Donli would have an epiphany for Enjoy Your Life. ‘I had a show in Ottawa, and I was rehearsing at a bookstore, which was also a reggae spot,’ Donli said, as she explained the inspiration behind her album to me. ‘I met a much older guy who was a Rasta. I have locs as well, so the conversation began around that—about how as black people, we have to be proud of our roots and where we’re coming from. It was a really eye-opening conversation. It made me come to terms with a lot about my identity. I mean, I have an American passport and before that, I could go around in certain spaces and use that American identity for its benefits, but after that, I began to own the African-ness absolutely. So, wherever I would go, I would introduce myself as a Nigerian and an African and I would be all of what that represents. I embrace all of it. Leaving the store that day, I bought two books by Marcus Garvey. I don’t remember their titles because I passed them on after reading them. But one particular quote that remains with me says: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots”. The message also tied in with the conversation I had with the Rasta in the store, so I delved into a lot of African history’.

Whenever we speak of African history, it almost always revolves around the politics and economics of the past. For Nigeria, the 60s was the decade of independence, bloody coups and the Nigerian Civil War; the 80s was the decade of the oil boom and you know the rest. But outside the politics and economics masterminded by very few, just like today, most Nigerians lived simple lives that revolved around family, school, work, leisure and of course, music. But not many Nigerians know about this golden age of disco-styled music in the 60s and 70s, before the Afrocentrism of Fela Kuti, Victor Olaiya and King Sunny Ade became mainstream. Of that golden era and its music, the critic Uchenna Ikonne said: ‘we glimpse a vision of Nigerian youth that is cosmopolitan, optimistic, sexy, hip, prosperous, romantic, glamorous, witty, ambitious’. The music producer Miles Cleret also described the scene saying: ‘There were people out there making money and spending money. It was very symbolic of that time—dressing up, going out, looking good’.

Before her momentous meeting with the Rasta in Ottawa, Donli was planning on making a very different album altogether. But after the conversation about identity, she decided to make an album that would recognize and showcase her roots. To do so, she revisited a catalogue of music that accompanied that era: Ebo Taylor, Brenda Fasie, Oumou Sangare and a lot of other great artists from across Africa. With Enjoy Your Life, Donli managed to recreate certain sounds from that era, but—especially with the three simultaneous plays: ‘Suffer Suffer’, ‘Cash’ and ‘Good Time’—she moved beyond that and recreated the mood as well.

Despite deliberately recreating an era of revolution, Donli insists her work is still as personal as it was from the very beginning. ‘Yeah, I see myself as a Pan-African rockstar because all of these boundaries and geographical lines between us were imposed on us, so I really don’t recognize them. And even though it has all these influences, it’s still very personal; it’s my coming of age story. If you pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll see it tells a very personal story. But guys aren’t listening, you guys just want to dance’.

More accurately, Enjoy Your Life is a coming of age story distilled into potent shots of Instagram-worthy one-liners. On ‘Suffer Suffer’, she revisits the conversation she had with her father when she first told him she was leaving Abuja for Lagos to pursue a full-time career in the music industry. He says: ‘Lady, please don’t do this. There are wolves out in the jungle’. She responds: ‘I didn’t come here to suffer; I came to enjoy’. On ‘Answers’, Donli echoes the voices of friends and strangers who have doubted her potential at different stages in her career, after which she responds, in her typically aloof manner: ‘Everybody gets blocked when they chat shit; blocking is a habit’.

Her earlier EPs–Wallflower and Letters to Her—had her vocals swimming in the tides of soothing, wavy productions. However, in Enjoy Your Life the evolution of her music is on clear display. The production is more spirited—a hybrid of disco and jazz—and her vocals ride the waves as opposed to swimming with the tide. This is an evolution Donli credits to the spontaneity of collaboration.

On ‘Take Me Home’, Donli originally wanted another artist on the track but didn’t receive any feedback for weeks after sending it to them. In the rush of considering contingencies, she forwarded it to an old friend, Benji Flow. Soon after, he sent it back with a recorded verse and it sounded so great her team instantly agreed that it would make the album. In other cases—like ‘With the Kindness’ featuring Tomi Thomas, her most frequent collaborator—she had a fixed idea of what she wanted the song to sound like and he complimented the song-writing process organically. For ‘Zaman Lafiya’, she looked to recreate the unique brand of Christian praise-singing that she experienced growing up in northern Nigeria. After a few failed studio iterations, she decided to record a live performance of an actual women’s fellowship. And for most of the production, as with ‘Cash, she works with The Cavemen, who have also become full-time accomplices for her live sets.

The Lady Donli Live in Concert experience is very similar to karaoke with your friends; it’s conversational and intimate, yet playful and frenetic. Despite one person holding the mic, everyone—the performer and audience—is really in it together. Lady Donli’s sense of style is as true to the living-room-karaoke occasion: often twirling around barefoot in baggy clothes, bejewelled in cowries and beads—a stark deviation from the stereotypical diamonds and high fashion of her afrobeat contemporaries. ‘My aesthetic is me—from my videos to real life,’ she says. ‘I’m really just being me and dressing how I feel. Growing up, I always preferred shopping in the men’s section. And now, my style is still very personal and now that I’m very conscious about my roots, I try to represent that. You know as Nigerians, we learn to embrace things that are foreign as our symbols of success; if you make a lot of money, the first thing to do is to buy Gucci. But I want to show that embracing Africa can also be a symbol of success, whether it’s the leather pants I make when I go to the North or my skirt from my Zimbabwean friend. And when people admire it and ask me about it, I tell them proudly that it’s African’.

Donli seems very tired of having to repeatedly defend her style, especially to much older critics, who have often slated the new generation of alternative artists, the alté generation’s outlandish aesthetics. These critics insinuate that if the artists bothered to write good music, they wouldn’t have to dress funny for attention. Donli responds: ‘when people try to criticize it and say it’s a distraction from the music, they don’t really know what they are saying because if you look back at the Nigerian music icons from different eras—King Sunny Ade, Charlie Boy, Oliver De Coque, Baba Fryo—they all dressed to stand out; they all dressed in leather and heels. Will you say they were all trying to distract from the music? I think it’s because the generation of musicians from the last two decades kind of found mainstream success by just releasing music without really focusing on other parts of their artistry as a whole, we have come to assume that this type of dressing is unusual or is alternative. But really, who is anyone to think they can tell me how to express myself as a person? Who is anyone to think they can tell me how to express myself as an artist?’

Of all Donli’s strengths—her musical dexterity, social media savvy, sense of style and spontaneous collaborations—the audacity she displays is easily her superpower. She went from studying Law and leading the African Society at the University of Surrey to relocating to Lagos, where she slept on friends’ couches at night while pushing her music hustle during the day. She has cut her teeth in a male-dominated industry yet refuses to gender her expectations; she is not trying to be the first or best female to do anything. She wants to be the first and best, period.

In October 2019, she performed at Felabration, the annual music festival in memory of the Afrobeat icon, Fela Kuti. And even though it took the crowd a while to warm up, she remained undaunted and unabashedly party-ready. As requested, I took the Lady Donli pledge. With my right hand in the air, I promised to have a good time. Looking forward to the stage through her set while reflecting with hindsight, her brother, Ibrahim’s prophecy seemed less enigmatic. If everyone was as privy to her audacity and artistry as he was, no one would need a prophet to tell them the birth of the pan-African rockstar was only a matter of time

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