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NATIVE: the Lagos label behind Black Panther’s pioneering soundtrack

African sounds from alté to amapiano are running the game in 2022 – and NATIVE is the collective and publishing powerhouse at the heart of the action

Taken from the winter 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

We have a saying in Nigeria: Naija no dey carry last. For those born in the motherland and the diaspora, to our parents’ generation and beyond, that phrase is ingrained in our brains, symbolic of the stubborn, salient pride in our identity. It carries many meanings; we don’t falter in any aspect of life, we refuse to settle for less, our ingenuity is undeniable. The saying never diminishes. Instead, it adapts, waiting for new blood to craft its own definition. 

NATIVE carries that zeal into music and culture, bringing new concepts, vigour and enterprise to the African continent. In its six years as a magazine – and now a festival and record label – the Lagos and London-based creative hub has placed a magnifying glass on its surroundings, zooming in on the hubris of modern Africa’s creative scene and highlighting sounds – Afrobeats, alté, amapiano – that are now being exported to the western world at breathtaking pace. Think of any new-age African icon to achieve international success in the last half-decade – Burna Boy, Wizkid, Tems – and NATIVE has had a hand in their rise. Whether by booking them for their annual festival, NATIVELAND, or having them grace the cover of the magazine, keeping their fingers on the pulse is second nature to co-founders Seni ‘Chubbz’ Saraki, Shola ‘Sholz’ Fagbemi and Teni ‘TeeZee’ Zaccheaus.

They platform artists from across the African continent, from Afropop’s young prince Rema to amapiano wiz Kabza De Small and Ghanaian drill pioneer Yaw Tog. They welcome diasporic Africans back home every year in December to party, dance and consume this new culture. They represent politicised Nigerians incensed by the #EndSars atrocities of 2020, when the Nigerian army opened fire on and killed a number of demonstrators protesting against the actions of the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), channelling their energies into musical and cultural advancement. “We see ourselves as an extension of what’s going on in Africa right now,” says Chubbz, sitting in Dazed’s London office with his co-founders, intention in his voice. “There is so much creative energy from artists and emerging genres that are only getting bigger, and we wanted to put them in their proper context of culture. It’s almost like a responsibility.”

The story of NATIVE is layered. Indicative of how music’s unrestricted travel from the western world to Africa over the decades has allowed it to be moulded by its environments, like bare hands shaping a ball of clay, and permanently reconfigured. Long-time friends Chubbz, Sholz and TeeZee grew up in Lagos in the early 2000s, with genres like rap and R&B transmitting from their TVs, juxtaposed with local music from Nigeria’s past and present. 

“My pops actually ran a nightclub back in the day,” TeeZee explains. “He was always getting mixes of the biggest Afrobeat, pop and rock records. He went to [Fela Kuti’s club] The Shrine a lot, so there was a lot of Fela playing in the house.” “TV was really important,” Chubbz chimes. “Coming home from school and checking out MTV – we also had a [station] called ‘Channel O’ – and listening to Britney Spears, Fall Out Boy, *NSYNC.” “That’s how we first heard international music,” Sholz continues. “That was really instrumental to how we’re able to take in music we’re not used to.”

Commander Ebenezer Obey were my parents’ references, removed from more immediate influences like hip hop and grime. By the mid-2010s, however, African music had diversified, blending dancehall, highlife, hip hop and R&B for something wholly different. An era when Fuse ODG, D’banj, P-Square and Wande Coal were prominent, connecting with fans worldwide via a vast internet ecosystem, making their music available at just a click. Back home, Sholz, Chubbz and TeeZee were coming up as artists and DJs. TeeZee has been making music for over a decade and is generally viewed as a pioneer of alté music, while Sholz has been an accomplished DJ. They quickly found themselves part of this stirring cultural backdrop, before completely reworking it.

“We started to see Afrobeats getting bigger, to where we were doing Boiler Rooms and shows with Virgil Abloh whenever he played in Nigeria,” Chubbz remembers. “But there was still no context around the music itself.” Sholz continues: “Stuff like Boiler Room was great because it took artists out of the traditional framework of doing events in Nigeria, which is getting a hall, selling tables and younger artists not getting any shine. With NATIVE, we wanted to continue that trajectory for our community and the culture we came up in.”

Now, in a landscape still recovering from gargantuan hits like Burna’s “Last Last”, Wizkid and Tems’ “Essence” and Fireboy DML’s “Peru” – and where global titans like Ed Sheeran, Future and J Balvin have all collaborated with African artists – popular music is dipped in the sounds of Africa. Diasporic Africans like me have no problem discovering new heroes; they’re here in spades. NATIVE tracks this course, revealing how the music reaches and is influenced by new terrains, how its imprint on modern culture is felt beyond borders. Expanding its portfolio to include a record label, NATIVE Records, the boys’ vision was crystallised on the label’s first full-length release, NATIVEWORLD, a compilation of original songs released in 2022, showcasing stars from home and abroad and sounds as eclectic as Afrobeats, R&B, dance and trap. Homegrown talent including Cruel Santino, Ayra Starr, Odunsi (The Engine) and Lady Donli shared a stage with diasporic exports Knucks, Odeal, Gabzy and NSG, in a forward-thinking interpretation of music from the continent.

Listening to NATIVEWORLD feels like a kaleidoscopic stumble into different rooms of a club. “Cold Freestyle”, produced by Sholz with vocals from Bloody Civilian, has an effortless bounce straight from a UK garage rave in London’s heartland; “RaRa”, featuring SL and Deto Black, is a raucous dose of trap; while hypnotising Afrobeats grooves such as “Tortoise”, “Wedding Ring” and “University” sound just like home. “[NATIVEWORLD] is an entry-point into this new generation,” Chubbz says on its musical fluidity. “We wanted Africans and non-Africans to understand what’s happening while making it feel new and fresh. We weren’t trying to give people what they might expect from African music. There was a common intentionality: getting people to dance.”

“We feel comfortable putting out music like that because that’s what we knew growing up,” Sholz continues. “We held a lot of camps in London and Lagos where the music was created, and that only helps the community we’re speaking to because we’re all working together, building trust and representing them correctly.”

In September, NATIVE Records entered into an exclusive joint-venture agreement with Def Jam, the first such partnership between the seminal hip-hop label and an African company. The venture, brokered by Sholz, Chubbz and TeeZee with Def Jam CEO Tunji Balogun, will focus on unearthing and moulding African talent from around the continent. Formerly at RCA Records where he signed Childish Gambino, H.E.R, Bryson Tiller, GoldLink and Wizkid, Balogun’s name carries weight. A chance meeting with the NATIVE founders this year revealed a common goal between both parties. “Everyone is looking at African music right now and we weren’t short of offers,” Chubbz says. “But we sat down with Def Jam and it made a lot of sense to work with Tunji because we think in the same way in terms of how we develop artists. To give them artistic freedom. It’s not a case of just releasing banger after banger: we have a vision of what we want the label to be and needed to work with a partner that understands that vision. [Def Jam] was the perfect place.”

​​Building the label’s ranks has begun in earnest, with NATIVE signing promising Nigerian artist Odumodublvck in mid-2022. These power moves have been supplemented by an incredible commission: helping craft the soundtrack for one of the year’s most anticipated films, Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, released in November. NATIVE Records’ Ines Adeogun-Phillips served as an A&R on the project, while Chubbz was credited as a co-producer. “We were finishing up NATIVEWORLD and Def Jam asked us to send a pack of music for some soundtracks they were working on,” says Chubbz, breaking down the seismic undertaking. “Fast-forward to May, Tunji calls me and says [producer] Ludwig Göransson is coming to Lagos to record music and can I run it as a music consultant. I’d never worked on live music or scores before but NATIVE was the foundation of my knowledge of handling different artists and producers.

“Ludwig was super-receptive to being informed about our culture and having its context explained to him. We had a session with DNB Gogo and Young Stunna and for about two hours, they were literally lecturing him about amapiano. They had heard Nigerian amapiano on the radio and were explaining all the ways it wasn’t really amapiano, like the BPM was off, there weren’t any South African artists featured... It was a good icebreaker! [Ludwig] was very gracious to bring in Nigerian producers and African musicians. He understood what it meant in the wider context.”

Recorded in Lagos and London, the Wakanda Forever soundtrack is packed with music’s A-List, irrespective of genre and location: Burna, Tems, Fireboy, Rema, Stormzy, Jorja Smith and PinkPantheress are just a few to contribute. Its first dose, “Lift Me Up”, was released in October and features Rihanna in her long-vaunted and internet-crashing comeback to music, after a six-year absence. A sombre, reflective and hopeful ballad grounded by RiRi’s angelic vocals, “Lift Me Up” is co-written by Göransson, Wakanda Forever director Ryan Coogler and Tems and is partly a tribute to the memory of Chadwick Boseman, the original Black Panther who passed away in 2020.

Chubbz recalls the sentiment and intention behind the song’s making: “I had known maybe two weeks before it dropped that Rihanna was on the song but I didn’t hear her on it until the movie premiere! It was top secret, kept under wraps. That was the first song we went into a session for. Ludwig and Ryan had landed in Lagos, we got some food, went back to the hotel, Tems got there and started writing. We were in awe, man; Tems is incredible and can pull emotions out of her heart in ways you just have to admire. It was very much intended as a tribute to Chadwick – Ryan was mourning the death of his homie. It kind of reflected the whole process for the soundtrack; not necessarily telling artists what the movie is about, but giving them some aspects to think about and guide their creativity.”

“We want these artists to transcend, so that 20 or 30 years from now, their songs are felt across generations and communities. It’s an interesting time and we just want to do our part” – Sholz Fagbemi

Chubbz remembers the rest of the sessions fondly. “There was a real mix of different artists and producers and I think that’s what made it special,” he says. “The session with Stormzy was really cool; he came into Abbey Road at, like, 10am with his little cousins, wearing a tracksuit and he recorded his verse. Jorja did some cool vocals on the score. PinkPantheress surprised us all with what she did. By the end of her session she said, ‘I feel like I’ve just recorded with the Afrobeats Avengers!’” Much like when the first Black Panther movie gathered Black people across the globe around an empowering artefact of Black pride – helped greatly by its soundtrack – the music of Wakanda Forever has placed a similar high-grade sheen on the continent’s music landscape.

 The future promises more progress for NATIVE, as they continue to plant global roots for the brand, carrying African music not last, but first, in all they do. For my generation and those to follow. “I think each pillar will start to stand on its own but still be interlinked,” Chubbz says. “With the festival, we want to start touring it in different cities. With the magazine we want to cover different regions; maybe do a Francophone edition! And with the record label, I know Sholz and TeeZee are very passionate about artists in London and South America. We’re here to help artists do whatever they want; we don’t have to pick one way and run with that. We can push everyone.”

“We want these artists to transcend,” Sholz says. “So that 20 or 30 years from now, their songs are felt across generations and communities. It’s an interesting time and we just want to do our part.”

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