How Flavour Reinvented Highlife The Evolution of Highlife’s Most Enduring Artist

In his Igbocentric songs, Flavour reflects the variant sides of Highlife. He’s been at every party and knows every expression. He represents the nascent era of modern Afropop and knows the language of the present one. He sings for your grandfather and your unborn kid. And still, he shows no signs of stopping.

There’s something about music that sticks. It grabs the listener, refuses to let go. That is the quality one finds in Flavour N’abania’s music, so simplistic in purpose that its sonic dexterity has been glossed over. And yet, Flavour’s consistent craftsmanship demands we recast the merits of his acclaim, so that, once more, we can properly appraise a musician who’s been one of Africa’s greatest in the past three decades. Doing this returns us to 2005, which was when the artist, born Chinedu Okoli, released ‘N’abania’, an instant classic, which set him solidly on the path of musical immortality.  

Allied with the saying ‘Uwa mgbede ka mma’—nightlife is good—the song revelled in the vibrancy of social gatherings. The chorus literally goes, ‘Ife niile ga-eme,’ which means everything will happen; and carrying the heat of that ethos was the production, urgent and sprightly, with sharp echoes of Highlife while nodding to the pop direction of its time. In the 2000s, Nigerian music was quite hedonist (it still is) and given Highlife’s historical alliance with depicting risqué profiles, Flavour’s entry into the scene was timely—he offered variance from the mainstream sound while touching on those well-liked themes. A distribution deal with Obaino Records saw the N’abania album become a smash in the South East but its influence also reverberated across Nigeria, peculiarly due to the wide settlement of Igbo people elsewhere.  

On his 2010 Uplifted sophomore, the artist had matured; in place of flamboyance was sustained rigour: you heard it in ‘Ashawo’, a reworking of ‘Nwa Baby’, with more imagery and technical structuring coming into the former. It would become one of the most penetrating hit songs of the 2010s, coinciding, at the time, with Flavour’s also-developing imagery. Beginning the album with ‘Oyi (I Dey Catch Cold)’ proved to be a masterstroke. Its vulnerability, humour, and the song’s sensuous blend of Igbo and English is quite memorable and brings to mind Chinua Achebe’s perspective that pairing the two languages can be artistically powerful, but challenging technically since each has its own history and cultural touchstones. A technique Flavour would use over the years was also crystallized here; that of translating himself into English although the nuances of Igbo undoubtedly form the linguistic base of his songwriting—thus the simple chorus ‘Oyi na-tm o’ is followed with ‘Baby, I dey catch cold,’ the framing of that admission perfected on the remix which featured Tiwa Savage. Everywhere else, the album glittered with standouts.  

Flavour’s gaze was cast sideways, on humanity’s effervescent quality. Graphic depictions of the nightlife came on ‘Pant No N’iro’ and ‘Ukwu’, delivered in the stellar, innuendo-spiced oratory. His verse in ‘Ukwu’ details what he’s going to do to his intended, while Stormrex’s verse and vocals renders vivacious the telling, all when paired with the chorused chant of ‘Ife d n’ukwu’—which means There is something in the waist—and the adlibs creates a packed, sensual atmosphere. Singing also for the mornings of existence, a fine juxtaposition to his tales about nighttime, a fuller perspective of his neo-Highlife sound was realized on Flavour’s third album Blessed (2012), widely considered to be his masterpiece.  


Hearing Flavour speak in interviews, whether it’s his tell-all with TV personality, Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, or a breezy chat with New York Power radio station, his love for the craft shines through. His journey through music has been remarkable, from playing drums in Enugu-based churches to joining Soundcity Communications to study music, where he picked up the keyboard and guitar in addition to drums, all before he was twenty. Closer to the industry, he met veteran acts such as Dekumzy and Izu Charles who taught him aspects of production and ever since Flavour has continued to carve new pockets of experiences within the expansive textures of traditional music.  

Highlife’s place as the sonic progenitor of Afrobeats has been well considered, but through Flavour, we can better trace its genealogy. Starting from the 1920s, the genre was established in Ghana (then the Gold Coast), where British military bands played brass music, heavy on the horns Highlife would be known for. Observing the brilliance of this music, which nevertheless excluded the indigenous people, Ghanaian musicians merged the big band influence with palmwine music, a fusion style which had crystallized around the same time, adapting traditional folk over guitars from Portugal and movements of Trinidadian calypso.  

Ghana’s grasp on Highlife is further accentuated through the pioneering efforts of Kwame Asare, who was taught the techniques of palmwine music by a Kru seaman. After that, the likes of E.T Mensah (who played with the foreign set-up band, The Tempos), E.K Nyame and Nana Ampadu would achieve success in the country, but it was Mensah whose touring brought the genre to Nigerian musicians, mostly those based in Lagos, which by the 1960s was already the cultural centre of the country. Every Highlife artist—and Flavour particularly—has since paid homage to Ghana as the spiritual source of the sound. 

Perhaps he made too much of that homage. On ‘Kwarikwa’ he sings, word for word, the chorus of ‘Kotosa’ from the Ghanaian duo, Wutah. That particular case caused some initial ruckus but not much was made afterwards, especially since it was released in 2011 and the music industry was much less structured in those times. An out-of-court settlement can’t be ruled out as well, which is the expected outcome of his sampling of Cardinal Rex Lawson’s ‘Sawale’ on the smash hit ‘Ashawo’. Flavour’s brand of Highlife most resembles that of Lawson, due to the musician’s sharp focus and versatility with subjects and languages, embracing a pan-Africanist perspective even while parsing it through an ostensible southern Nigeria prism.  

With Highlife being a genre that draws generously from traditional culture, the subject of ownership is undoubtedly one of its evergreen conversations. Who gets to claim an expression that’s been passed down through generations and in what form is appreciation necessary? In his music, Flavour is encompassing, drawing on long decades of art-making that makes the genre so appealing across West Africa.  

Blessed was the singer’s addition to Highlife’s folder of classics. Variant, it offered a total spectrum of experiences, taking the listener from Flavour’s home base in Igboland to several other parts of Nigeria; even Africa, through its association with genres like Rumba (‘Shake’) and Reggae (‘Black Is Beautiful’). Thus, Flavour emerged from the Highlife banner and represented his sound as neo-Highlife, repurposing Highlife’s age-old qualities for a contemporary audience. Thematically, it was tightly structured, creating imagery Nigerian pop had scarcely seen before then.  

Sometimes the imagery took the form of a crowd, of bodies pressed and heat consuming—you’ll hear this on ‘Baby Oku (Dance)’, the continental-approved hit song whose video was shot by Clarence Peters in South Africa, a prime destination for Nigerian artists at the time. Its plush scenes and purposeful activity made the record a darling of the MTV Base and Channel-O era of entertainment TV. ‘Ikwokrikwo’ and ‘Ifem N’eli’ were also cut from the same fabric, and although neither of them got the single treatment, both became cult favourites: to date, any given gathering of millennials will reverberate with deep pleasure when the rolling drums that introduce the former comes on. Likewise, listeners will scream ‘My spec!’ during the latter’s chorus.  

Sometimes the imagery took the form of a story, with a beginning, middle and end, but here the end doesn’t really end, since, in Flavour’s world, life continues ever-turning, creating new characters from old skins. To this effect is ‘To Be A Man’ a masterpiece, variantly satisfying through three verses which shine with candour. The first verse accounts for the responsibilities of young men, particularly bachelors. Flavour reels out the associative concerns: to make money, find a wife, watch over his parents, help his siblings and his in-laws, cater for his own kids, and with the last line, ends with an ultimately joyful admonition: ‘ pta wa z n, Chukwu Olisa biko kekwa m nwoke oo,’ when I come again to life, God please make me a man. In the second verse he visits the home of a friend who he’s told has relocated to Ghana and later when he meets said friend, upon hearing his tear-inducing account of life, laments: ‘Ife niile, nwoke nwoke,’ Everything that has to be done, falls to the man. The final verse adapts an Igbocentric perspective, especially famed for an itinerary business philosophy. He reels the names of famous businessmen and socialites, then the names of respective countries where you’ll find Igbo people hustling, each mention punctuated by the revealing adlib, ‘na- chia’—they’re looking for it. It, in this case, being the good life.  


Visually, some changes also arrived with Flavour’s Blessed.  Before Blessed, the image of Flavour hinged on his dreadlocks and tattoos, the rhythm of his built body when he moved. There was little feeling attached to the physiology. That is, until the video for ‘Ada Ada’ came out and Flavour’s popularity skyrocketed. ‘Ada Ada’ was a quintessential wedding song, except it blended balladry into Highlife, starting with the wistful query, ‘Have you seen my beautiful baby?’ The Clarence Peters video opens with the frenzied preparation of a wedding venue, yet the titular damsel worries about the arrival of her in-laws. ‘Ha ga ba,’ they will come, her friends assure her, establishing tension that beautifully peters out when the wedding gets into flow, with recognizable faces from Nollywood polishing the dramatic quality. In Igbo culture, weddings are one of the most heralded social events, and with that eternal song, Flavour stamped his cultural importance.  

He became a heartthrob. Like King Sunny Ade to P-Square before him, he fashionably carved open a path to appeal to the female audiences who, as we have seen across genres and generations, form the most dedicated members of a fanbase. Till today, Flavour continues to put out music that reveres the institution of marriage, from the Chidimma-assisted duet, ‘Ololufe’, to another sterling ballad, ‘Golibe’, and the latest being ‘Her Excellency (Nwunye Odogwu)’, a standout from his latest album, African Royalty (2023).  

After earning the adulation of his peers, Flavour moved to their parents. He did this with gospel music, with two out of his next three albums dominantly conveying Christian messages. As with other parts of Nigeria, the religion gained solid footing in Igboland from the late 19th century and Catholicism was especially resonant in the region due to the artistic merits of its practices. From the evening masses to sombre hymns, Igbo people would become champions of the religion and within the cultural understanding of forthcoming generations, those influences were prevalent. Praise becomes a way of life. ‘Keneya’, the opening record of 2014’s Thankful, sounds straight from a thanksgiving procession at any given church in Enugu. ‘Munachi’ reinforces those divine connections, spinning a narrative about rumour mongers into an assertion of walking together with God.  

Released in 2018, Divine was a collaborative album with Semah Weifur, the young Liberian musician whom he adopted the year before that. Their first song ‘Most High’ was a continental hit, one of those rare gospel songs—like Sinach’s ‘I Know Who I Am’ and ‘Way Maker’—which enjoyed crossover appeal. This was in line with Flavour’s perspective in an interview with BBC Igbo, where the journalist had asked if he didn’t consider a song like ‘Ashawo’ too vulgar, considering he had young fans. He responded that as a performer he should be able to deliver on all fronts. He’s able to raise soulful praise to God with the vivacity he thrills a dancefloor with and it is this consistent utilization of roundness in his perspective and presentation that has kept Flavour here, 18 years after that initial bow.  


Flavour’s longevity comes from his unsentimentality. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. Among his weaknesses being his seeming inability to deliver well-curated albums, something critics have noted in the past. He enjoys several hit songs through several eras, but he hasn’t satisfied that artistry-informed itch for a modern classic, his only album reaching that level being Blessed. But the strengths of Flavour are much greater in magnitude, and when one considers how well he’s positioned himself, it’s one of the most iconic arcs in afropop history.  

Flavour’s leaning into the cultural and political beliefs of Igbo people has been especially poignant. His chosen nickname Ijele takes from the enormous and colorful Igbo masquerade, and he’s often depicted such masquerades in his videos and performances. When people see Flavour, they see the Igbo culture, and that symbiotic relationship creates an enviable portrait that shines beyond the limiting scope of Afrobeats imagery, where superstars are only recently learning to be experimental in their fashion, with much influence from the non-conforming Alté artists.  

Flavour has also embraced collaboration as a means of reinventing himself. Since his dazzling feature on M.I Abaga’s ‘Number One,’ there’s been no shortage of pop-rap prospects arriving at Flavour’s door, seeking the classic hook. Phyno and Zoro are frequent collaborators popularizing the ogene sound. ‘Gbo Gan Gbom’ and ‘Ogene’ are two iconic records spawned from that period, circa 2016. The artist’s association with top executive producer, Larry Gaaga, has seen him work on corporate projects such as the soundtrack of Living in Bondage 2. Flavour also forms important relationships with other entertainers and successful businessmen, bridging the space between the creative and business sides of music. And by virtue of his sustained tours to diasporan cities with (mostly) Igbo presence, he’s become a cultural ambassador on the level of actor, Pete Edochie, and writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wielding respect and impact across and beyond Africa.  

On Flavour of Africa (2020), a song titled ‘Umuigbo’ expresses pride in the Igbo culture, with Flavour and his feature, Biggie Igba, considering the concerns facing their immediate society, the disunity between states, the dearth of Igbo language amongst young children, and in the song’s most important lyric, he gives strength to Nnamdi Kanu, the currently imprisoned leader of the Independent People of Biafra. Considering the perception the group has garnered since its formation in 2012, it’s a politically-informed decision we haven’t seen many musicians engage in.  

Still, the concerns for Flavour are more than political. How does he burnish the figure of his legend in the digital age, ruled by youngsters who didn’t witness the force of his entry and who haven’t noted the brilliance of his evolution? I spoke to someone who works alongside him but requested anonymity. ‘Flavour’s legacy has been solidified,’ they said,  

The only setback of the digital age is the obsession with numbers and that doesn’t move him; he’s as busy as he was in 2014 as he is now in 2023 (we spoke last year). Nothing has changed apart from an increase in demand and performance fees. He’s had a hit every year for the last decade with very solid albums and caters for his fanbase. He’s not in a position to win new fans at this point but servicing his core base is what he’s focusing on.  

The aforementioned servicing comes from his subtle touches to his sound, but also partly from Flavour’s branding, intentionally thought-out by the artist himself; this usually evolves when there’s a new project on the horizon. His different hairstyles and dress codes over the years bears testament to this and although very similar, they’re different. To change without losing his core style or appearance—this is the vision. Our source also said:  

For the signing of young artists not everyone is capable of doing that successfully and yes, he has tried. Some people are called to do it. All he can do is support those he can. He gave Phyno his first major feature ‘Multiply (Remix)’ which opened the doors for other things. He did the same for Zoro in ‘Ogene’. Did a joint project with Umu Obiligbo which changed everything for them. Worked on another project with Semah and signed away all the proceeds to the young boy from Liberia. That said, he helps where he can. Signing up another human being to a contract is a completely different ball game.


‘Glorious’ best describes African Royalty, Flavour’s eighth album. It ranks high in his catalogue, arguably only second to Blessed. The albums in between have sometimes come close to being good, but most of them miss the mark, unsure of which direction to take. In African Royalty, there’s no uncertainty; across twelve well-composed songs, Flavour reminds listeners why he’s a master of his craft, shining alongside deliberate features which propel the album’s sound and narrative.  

‘Woman King’, the album opener, thrives off its cinematic grandeur. Heart-stopping, it blends drama with sound, Flavour moving through adorable titles—àkwá ugo, nwa na mma, ego oyibo—for the beloved. The image of a majestic woman walking through a crowd of admirers is evoked, but Flavour doesn’t look at the crowd—his eyes are on her. Indeed, serenading is one of the hallmarks of Flavour’s artistry; on ‘Nwunye Odogwu,’ he frames admiration through marital union, bringing to life the famous opinion that the wealth of a typical Igbo man doesn’t reflect on his appearance but rather on that of his wife. The Efya-assisted ‘Fall In Love’ is a late-album soothe that thrills with its R&B-tinged sound, especially since much of African Royalty thrives on the vivacity of personal achievement and communal relationships.  

Personal achievement and communal relationships, as established in Igbo cultural products, are among the hallmarks of the society. Competition isn’t shied away from, rather it is embraced, a spur towards one’s own greatness. Masculine fervour permeates this album, from ‘Big Baller’ to ‘Game Changer (Dike)’, there’s an obvious nod towards the pursuit of happiness through fiscal comfort. Hypnotic percussion works to this effect, rousing the warrior within listeners. Longtime collaborator Masterkraft produces most of the album. The duo of ‘Fearless’ and ‘Lion’s Den’ are important blocks of this braggadocious edge of the project; on the former, the question is asked: ‘I bute ike, i bute ike, e ji eme odogwu?’ Do you have the power required of an important man? The latter is a personal favourite; amidst chants, the message is put forward: ‘Onye akpala nwa ag aka n’dd, ma d nd, ma nwr anw’. No one dares to touch a lion’s tail, regardless of whether it’s alive or dead.  

The album’s classic quality was felt this past December, during the customary return-to-home travels partaken by many Easterners. Considering the anti-Igbo sentiments and attacks which trailed the general elections earlier in the year, it was a necessary depiction of the region’s appeal. In the many videos which went viral, of people vlogging their return, the songs from African Royalty soundtracked the journey. The pride one hears in Flavour’s music is the pride that is most felt by those who share in the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967, which almost eradicated the Igbo people. And it is felt by anyone who’s made something of their pain, which is the story and history of the world when you really think about it. In that way, Flavour belongs to history. He grabs its hands, refuses to let go

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