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Prettyboy D-O
Photography TSE

Prettyboy D-O is redefining punk for the African youth

Known for calling out police brutality and music industry gatekeepers, the Nigerian pop star sits at the forefront of fashion, music, and visuals – here, he reveals why his latest album is a declaration of peace

Prettyboy D-O and I are having a stare-off. It’s a cool Tuesday afternoon in Lagos, and it’s the first time the Nigerian pop star has been able to catch a breath in weeks. He’s been globe-trotting since June, hopping on back-to-back flights to host listening parties for his forthcoming album, Love Is War, in some of the world’s biggest cities – London, LA, New York, Paris. Yesterday, he was in Stockholm to record with some Swedish producers, and now he’s back in London, where he’s having this ocular showdown with me via a Google Meet call.

“Hmm,” D-O mutters as he slightly cocks his head, locking eyes with me through my laptop screen. Finally, he caves, and his pursed lips soon part into an impish grin. “And why would I be called a rebel, if I may ask?” he smirks – a question that comes off as sarcastic, considering his entire persona is an unbridled defiance of the status quo.

Since announcing himself as one of the Nigerian alté scene’s brightest new stars in 2017, D-O’s unorthodox fashion choices and gritty lyrical themes have earned him notoriety as an artist deliberately going against the grain. But the artist born Donald Ofik begs to differ. “I had to establish myself and create an identity that was memorable,” he explains. “I’ve just always been true to myself; I’ve always known I was different. And people may call it rebellious, but that’s just me being me. I am a rebel if that means being confident in myself.” 

Rebel or not, D-O remains one of the most intriguing figures in Nigerian music, thanks to his vibrant personality and eccentric disposition. Last year, during an Instagram Live chat with alté musician Odunsi (The Engine), D-O mischievously captured the nation’s attention with a typically intense diatribe against Nigerian music biz gatekeepers and naysayers, calling for a metaphorical wildfire to burn the industry to the ground.

When I ask him if he rolls out of bed every day to chant such prophetic self-affirmations in the mirror, he assures me it’s not in his morning routine – but an amusing anecdote from his manager in a recent interview suggests otherwise. He’s quite the character: wildly expressive and brimming with blistering emotion as he goes on impassioned ramblings about his journey and craft. “Back in school, people always looked at me like I was the worst of the worst,” says D-O. “So I carried that shit in my head, and I carried it into music because I felt like that was the only thing I was so good at.”

“Back in school, people always looked at me like I was the worst of the worst. So I carried that shit in my head, and I carried it into my music” – Prettyboy D-O

It’s this raw and unfiltered passion that sets D-O apart as an artist and fuels his unique sound. Operating across genre binaries, his music is an exciting, often chaotic blend of Afrobeats, hip hop, alté, R&B, dancehall, and street-hop (an evolving dance sound from Lagos). It’s distinct and daring, pushing the contours of African pop to blurry edges with a startling array of moods and themes. “I love the music I make,” says D-O. “If you want rage, I’ve got the rage for you. If you want love, I’ve got the love for you. If you want the one that’s political, I’ve got that one for you. If you want God, I’ve got that one for you (too). You know what I’m saying? It’s a mix.” 

Born in New Jersey, D-O spent his early years moving between Lagos, Abuja, and Delta state in Nigeria. He explains that growing up watching music videos by artists like Diddy, Aaliyah, and Sisqó influenced his decision to pursue his craft full-time. “I was obsessed with the swag and how cool I would feel when I was watching (them),” says D-O, who began chasing his music career in 2012, while at university in New York in 2012. Things didn’t go as planned, though. In 2015, he moved back to Nigeria and signed a record deal that fell through, pushing him into a state of depression. Eventually, after nearly five years of false starts, in 2017 he signed a two-year deal with a label ready to invest in his talents. The following year, they flew him to California, where he experienced a creative awakening and made the track that got him his first real break – “Peter Piper”, a sensual Afro-Caribbean number.

First laying ties with the alté community, a free-thinking group of young mavericks in Nigeria who prioritise expression over tradition in their creative approach, D-O has since emerged as an exciting new face in Afropop. Alté puts ingenuity, individuality, and a sense of notoriety at its core – qualities at odds with Nigeria’s conservative ideals and very much in line with Prettyboy D-O’s ethos. The subculture’s passion for innovation fostered an environment that allowed his experimental relationship with music, fashion, and film to thrive. “I love film,” he explains. “I’m heavily involved (in all my videos); eventually I want to go into directing.” There’s an undeniable level of care and intention put into his visual storytelling, building cinematic worlds which have sometimes attracted scrutiny from an illiberal audience (he received backlash on social media for his “Pull Up” video, due to its graphic and “cult-like” scenes).

“I think I’m really a fashion person; I can tell who a person is from the way they dress,” D-O tells me halfway into our conversation. He’s wearing a Prussian blue Nike tracksuit and a bright gold chain around his neck – a decidedly off-duty look for a rapper you’re far more likely to catch in a multicoloured leather ensemble or a graffiti-inspired sheer blouse. “When it comes to dressing, I always want to switch up, especially if it’s when I’m about to drop something – I don’t know if people notice that.” D-O often talks in interviews about how he thinks in colour, something that explains his ever-changing technicolor hair, which he says he uses to reflect his moods: candy red for when he’s raging, electric blue for his calmer states. 

Such fashion statements lean on the nonconformist teachings of three figures that D-O admits have influenced his creative identity – basketball legend Dennis Rodman, Nigerian hip-hop pioneer Tony Tetuila, and American R&B singer Sisqó. Armed with borrowed style adoptions from these living legends, D-O is morphing into a punk icon in his own right and translating that to the modern African youth. More than just anti-establishment and eccentricity preachings, punk culture is centred on ideologies that promote individual freedom and D-O is reimagining that for the current youth, enlightening young minds to unapologetically express themselves however they want. 

From fashion to music, the methods to D-O’s madness reflect a childlike mentality of having the most fun you can, because why the hell not? “I know that in my heart, as a child, life was easier then, and the problems we had were stupid problems,” he says with a laugh. “So now, when I wake up, I listen to old-school music I used to listen to as a child, to feel what I used to feel then.” It’s a carefree energy he tries to capture in the studio, studding his songs with freewheeling ad-libs that evoke the likes of Playboi Carti and Young Thug. On “Same Energy”, he dots the track with exasperated gasps and syrupy drawls that flex his nimble vocal range, and on “Dey Go Hear Wehh” he chirps unintelligible chants that any attempt to repeat will leave your tongue in a twist. It’s breezy, fun, and an integral part of what makes his music so endearing. 

But beyond the devil-may-care ethos, it’s his unfiltered commentary on the tense reality of Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate that D-O’s music is renowned for. “In Lagos, if it rains, the streets outside my house get flooded – your money can’t change that,” he explains. “So now, if my car can drive in that water, (when I’m passing by), I see all my friends – the street kids that live outside my house – walking in that water, carrying their slippers. So I can’t make music and not sing about all these people I’m seeing. All these problems are in my blood. Sometimes I wish I could (overlook) what’s going on and sing about the ‘Folakes’ (women) every day of my life, but for now, I can’t escape it; I have to sing about the struggle.” 

Despite being born into a level of privilege (being the child of affluent parents), the Nigeria-based D-O has always assumed a duty to ensure his music mirrors the dark underbelly of the country’s problems – police brutality being the most common. “When I’m outside Nigeria, I’m cool. In Nigeria, I have a cook and a driver; I have access to all these things. I have my whip – a badass whip – but I still feel like I’m in a fucking jungle!” he says, explaining how police brutality there affects everyone, no matter their class. Last year’s End SARS protests brought about a moment of political reckoning as thousands took to the streets to challenge years of police brutality and injustice. D-O ensured he was on the right side of history as he lent his voice to the movement, while releasing music that echoed people’s disaffection.

Perhaps this is why D-O has managed to gain a cult following which cuts across different generations and social classes. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he replies when I put the idea to him. “A lot of people fuck with me just based on my perspective on life and my energy. But I’ll say I think it’s the relatability (that attracts people to my music).”

As the conversation draws to a close, we touch on the inspiration behind his new album, Love Is War. D-O’s projects typically take shape around a particular theme: 2018’s Everything Pretty was a bricolage of songs deeply rooted in self-belief, while 2020’s Wildfire fought a one-man battle against industry politics – directed mainly at gatekeepers within the Nigerian music business who have wronged him. Love Is War is a declaration of peace, as the rapper tells me he’s prioritising his sanity over everything else right now. “I’m just telling the story of a n***a in Nigeria,” D-O says. “We’ve had some success in everything we’re doing, and we’re trying to be level-headed.”

Prettyboy D-O’s story is one of unshakeable conviction and faith in one’s abilities; without these traits, it’s impossible to imagine him being where he is today. And as he continues to defy odds and live life on his own terms, it’s clear he will keep inspiring generations to come. “I feel like I’ve reached my end goal,” he shrugs when I ask him how this makes sense for him in the end, “’cos people already know who the fuck I am.”

Prettyboy D-O's Love Is War album is out on October 15