We meet the hitmaker in Lagos to discuss his upbringing and the rise of his pop hit ‘Jealous’
On a January afternoon in Gbagada, Lagos, a trader and her young daughter are singing along word-for-word to Fireboy DML’s “What if I Say”. It’s a love anthem with an R&B feel, but it still finds roots in the music coming out of Lagos’ bubbling scene, which has borne witness to Rema’s genre-bridging rise and the exciting interpretations of love that bleeds through Joeboy’s music. Unbeknownst to the traders, just a few feet away, Fireboy DML himself is sitting in the backseat of a white Highlander, explaining the origins of his ‘Afro-life’ sound. “I felt like my music deserves to have an identity,” he says. “Of course, I’m an Afrobeats/Afropop artist that focuses on the Afro-R&B side, but ‘Afro-life’ is my way of mentally stating that my music is different. You won’t find another artist that makes music the way I do.”
Fireboy’s Afro-life, heavy on metaphors about love and self-confidence, harkens back to his upbringing in Abeokuta, a sleepy town in south west Nigeria. Growing up, he would alternate between writing poetry and listening to music from western and Nigerian musicians alike: Celine Dion, Elton John, Yinka Ayefele, and Tope Alabi. But he credits just three musicians, Passenger, Wande Coal, and Jon Bellion, for influencing the core of his artistry. “My music revolves around that trio,” he says. “Every influence on my music is by those three people.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English three years ago, he moved to Lagos to pursue music full-time. There, he realised the perils of being an up-and-comer, often having to pay to perform at gigs, that lead to a rethink of his strategy. For ten months from between 2017 and 2018, he would lock himself away in a friend’s apartment and record as much as possible, sharing his music with fans once in a while. “Occasionally, I’d drop songs for my fans – one song per week for a month,” he says. “And I’d disappear the next month to keep recording.” Late in 2018, he signed to YBNL, the imprint of popular Nigerian rapper Olamide, and contributed some tracks to a label compilation. One of the songs contributed, “Jealous,” soon took over the airwaves and became a hit throughout Nigeria around April last year, and is still blowing up in Europe right now. “I knew I recorded a mad song, but I didn’t know it’d be a smash hit,” he says.
The momentum from “Jealous” and a handful of releases ensured that his debut album, Laughter, Tears and Goosebumps, released in November 2019, was an immense success. Fireboy DML sings melodiously, but with guided precision, about love, family, and friends across the 13-track album. Teaming up with producers Pheelz and Cracker Mallo, the bulk of the project was recorded in five days, but the limit of time doesn’t impede the scope of the project as club-themed “Scatter” and the pensive “Wait and See” prove. More than anything, the singer wants his listeners to immerse themself in the emotions behind each single every time they press play.
Tell me about your upbringing.
Fireboy DML: I grew up in Abeokuta, Ogun State. I schooled there – primary school, secondary school – before I left for Osun State, Obafemi Awolowo University, to study English. I grew up in a family of five: my mum, dad, myself, and two younger brothers. As the first child, I grew up with a sense of responsibility. I didn’t grow up in a family of musicians, I grew up to learn the arts by myself. I started by writing poems, scribbling words down. I’ve always loved music, but I realised I could sing from age 12. I just saw it as an ability. I didn’t consider it something I could do as work. Growing up, I was mostly alone in my room, just brooding and ruminating over my thoughts. That was how I embraced art all by myself – writing poems, writing songs, before I realised that I could take music as a profession when I was around 16/17 at university.
What musicians actively influenced your music, growing up and now?
Fireboy DML: Growing up, I listened to a lot of Celine Dion. Elton John helped me discover myself, there’s this song by him “Sacrifice”, that I consider the greatest song ever made. My dad was always playing Celine Dion and my mum always played Yinka Ayefele and Tope Alabi. Those influences made me realise how beautiful music is. But it transcended into people that really started influencing my sound, and they are just three people: Passenger, Wande Coal, and Jon Bellion.
When did you move to Lagos to pursue music?
Fireboy DML: I moved to Lagos as soon as I was done with university in 2017. I was supposed to move back home, but I just dropped everything. I didn’t know anybody in Lagos – just a couple of friends that I’d just met – so it was a big decision to decide to come to Lagos to pursue music. I squatted in my friends’ places and was making music. Along the line, I realised that I was fooling myself going to shows, even having my friends pay for me to perform at concerts. It was weird. I sat down and thought to myself that I needed a rebrand. I stopped begging for help, found another friend who I was squatting with and had musical equipment at his place. I stayed in his house for ten months and was recording back-to-back. I wrote (songs) for people, some for N30k, others for N50k. Songs that I regret selling, but it is part of the process.
When “Jealous” dropped in 2018, were you expecting it to have the impact it did?
Fireboy DML: I was signed to YBNL, but I was relatively unknown in the (Nigerian) music industry, and a different sound like mine takes some time to sink in, so I didn’t stress. But I didn’t know it was going to get big. In fact, “Jealous” is still blowing up in Europe and other parts of the world.
There are a lot of people that call your music R&B or pop, but you’ve always insisted that it was ‘Afro-life’. What is Afro-life to you?
Fireboy DML: I wouldn’t say it’s a genre, but it’s a movement, a state of mind. I feel like my music is different and it doesn’t deserve to be called just R&B, Afrobeats, or Afropop. My music focuses a lot on lyricism, and Afro music has not been popular for focusing on lyricism the way my music does.
“I wouldn’t say (‘Afro-life’ is) a genre, but it’s a movement, a state of mind” – Fireboy DML
Tell us about your debut album, Laughter, Tears and Goosebumps. What does it mean to you?
Fireboy DML: I’m really obsessed with standing out. I feel that’s the only way a difference can be made. It’s not a random name I just chose. I want people to feel, because I feel like my music is something you listen to and feel the exact emotions. There are times when you’d listen and smile or laugh; there are times when you want to cry, emotions driving you to tears; some instruments like the violins at the end of “Need You” might give you goosebumps. You will feel one of those emotions, or all of them at once, if you listen.
What was the recording process like for the album?
Fireboy DML: It took me five days to record the album, apart from some songs I had pre-recorded during the YBNL compilation album period. Myself, Pheelz, and Cracker Mallo just locked ourselves up in a big hotel apartment and worked back-to-back, day-and-night; I was shuttling between Pheelz and Cracker song-after-song, verse-after-verse. It was very hectic, a humbling experience – but it was worth it.
What was the most challenging track to write on your album?
Fireboy DML: That would be “Energy”. It took me a long time to come up with the right melodies. At some points I had to use chants. Sometimes, when I get lost, instead of stressing myself, I just use beautiful chants to fill up the space. They make my songs sound beautiful and it takes the listener on a journey when they listen. That’s why I used chants on “Energy” – I was lost and I almost had writer’s block. It took me a long time.
You are deliberate about your image in terms of what you wear. How important is fashion to you?
Fireboy DML: As a musician, as an artist, and as a brand, fashion is very crucial to me. It’s not even about being a celebrity or wanting to be seen in a certain way, it is about wanting people to know me via how I dress. I just want people to see me and be like, “This guy is different.” Like I always say, I love being the different guy, I’m obsessed with it! There’s a whole lot of difference it can make, because most times people can love you for the way you dress or the way you look. Sometimes, that’s all an artist needs.