Davido on the Power of Afrobeats Music and Nigeria's #EndSARS Movement

If you haven’t already heard of Davido, you will soon enough. The 27-year-old Atlanta-born, Lagos-raised star is Nigeria’s king of Afrobeats music. The business school dropout with a wealthy businessman father (his 2012 debut, Omo Baba Olowo, translates to “rich man’s son”) has been famous across Africa for years; here in the States, Davido is just getting started, with major American radio play for his single “Fall,” originally released in Nigeria in 2017.

Davido’s upcoming project, cheekily titled A Better Time, is the highly anticipated follow-up to his 2019 LP A Good Time, which has been streamed more than a billion times. His last studio release featured artists like Summer Walker, Popcaan, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie; set to drop November 13th, A Better Time is similarly star-studded, with appearances from American rap mainstays such as Nicki Minaj, Lil Baby, and Young Thug. When nightclubs finally reopen, Davido’s music will surely be waiting for us on the other side.

Davido was on tour in the United States when the pandemic cut his trip short. The detour ended up being beneficial for him: He’s been back home in Lagos, with plenty of time to perfect the record, spend time with his friends and family, and think about how to make change in Nigeria for the better.

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That last need became even more urgent in October, when a years-old protest movement called #EndSARS began to gain traction around the world. SARS is Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has terrorized the country’s citizens for years. The force has been accused of abusing its power through theft, torture, harassment, and the murder of innocent civilians throughout the years. Now, the whole world is watching as protesters take to the streets, and influential figures like Davido strive to bring awareness to the struggle to end violence and corruption in their country.

Young Nigerians have embraced his single “FEM” as a leading protest anthem, almost by chance (the term translates to “shut up!”). Davido himself went to the capital city of Abuja to meet with government officials and explain the urgency of the five point agenda the movement is based on: the release of all protesters, justice for victims of police brutality, an independent body to evaluate reports of brutality, a psychological evaluation of SARS officers before re-employment, and an increased salary for officers to discourage theft.

Over Zoom from Nigeria, Davido spoke about the #EndSARS movement; his drunk DM convos with Nicki Minaj; how he’s been spending quarantine; and what Afrobeats music means to him. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What has the pandemic this year been like for you, personally, so far?

It’s been crazy. Life has changed so much. The pandemic hit [in the spring]. I was on tour in the States at the time. And I remember my management calling me, telling me, “Yo, you basically can’t do shows no more.”  I had done L.A., Vegas, Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton. It was like 26 sold-out shows. I think I did like five or six out of them. I couldn’t even get to New York, man. I was waiting for New York so bad. It’s the first crazy pandemic of my generation. I don’t think we’ve had anything that paused the world this way before. So it’s kind of crazy for everybody, but we’re learning to live with it.

Have you been able to record in quarantine?

Yeah, I’ve been recording, man. I’ve recorded so much music. The only thing I could do was get in the studio. That’s one of the positive things that the pandemic brought to my career. It made me focus more, definitely, being in the studio, having nowhere to go. The only place I could be was at home. So I just made sure I was just recording and recording. I probably recorded like two albums already, apart from A Better Time.

It increased my work rate, but my most favorite thing about being a musician and making music is being on the road, being able to perform, being able to go on tour. But we’re learning to live with it. The other day I did a livestream-type show. It was a link you had to click and watch. It was pretty cool, but it’s not really the same. Social media helps cross that bridge, but at the same time, it’s just not the same.

What are you most excited for with A Better Time? How does it differ from your previous album?

I didn’t plan the album. I just dropped A Good Time, almost exactly a year ago. My plan was to tour with the A Good Time album. Do America and go to Europe, and then I was meant to go to Asia, Australia, and do mad festivals. That being said, we had to cancel the whole tour, obviously, because of the pandemic. So I was like, “You know what, I’m not about to just sit at home and not do nothing.” So I got back in the studio, and funny enough, I was making better music than I had previously dropped, and we just kept going. Before I knew it I had 20 songs in the studio, all done and recorded and finished. Then I was like, “Should I just put it out?”

I was thinking of putting out like a little quarantine playlist. But then, I was like, “Nah, I think I want to release another body of work.” My sophomore album was called A Good Time, so, obviously, A Better Time, it’s a better album. You know what I’m saying? I took my time. Better visuals, better production, everything as a whole package. I’ve never really had time to refocus, sit down, and record a project, because I’m always on tour. I’m always all over the place. For the first time I had the opportunity to sit down and focus with my producers and take our time on each and every song.

What was your songwriting process like this time?

For my last album, the actual work was literally over the internet to talk to my producers. The difference was this time I was on the ground. I was in Lagos. So the process was way more hands-on, rather than with A Good Time, [where] I was in America the whole time, sending beats over emails, writing songs over emails, with my producers in Nigeria.

With this one, it worked out well. Just the vibe of recording this album in Nigeria, you know what I’m saying? I felt like I needed the vibe around me. I needed back that old-school Davido. I was around my friends and family. I think being in Nigeria helped a lot.

Was there anyone you were really excited to work with on this project?

I like working with my friends. If I’m not your friend, I don’t even think we should be making music together. But on this album, I always love working Chris [Brown], man. Nicki Minaj was amazing, working with her. Lil Baby, it was amazing working with him. Nas as well. Bella Shmurda, Tiwa Savage. A lot of new-school producers on this record as well. A lot of producers that people haven’t heard of, but they will hear of eventually.

It was crazy. I had never met [Nicki] before, never ever.  I was in the club. When I came out, we in the car, driving home, and I tell my boy, “Yo, Nicki’ll kill this song.” I was drunk. I was like, “Yo, I’m going to DM her.” So I just DM’d her at random. I was like, “Yo, Nicki, I got a hit for us.” And then I woke up in the morning forgetting I sent the text, and I woke up and I saw [her response.] I sent her the song, and then two days later she sent it back. Just like that. No middleman, no label, no money, no nothing. It was just natural.

How would you describe Afropop and Afrobeats music to Americans who aren’t necessarily acquainted with it?

Music is universal. Music is music. You know what I’m saying? I feel like there’s no real way to describe it, per se. But what I know is the feeling is different with Afrobeats and African music. Tell me any club you go to. I don’t care where it’s at. They play hip-hop, blah, blah, blah. They play hip-hop for two hours. They play R&B for one hour. But when Afrobeats comes on, you feel it.

I don’t know what it is, but you feel it. I don’t care where you are in the world. When that comes on, you feel it. It’s just different. They don’t even know what we’re saying [in the music]. Like, I’m performing in francophone countries where they don’t speak English at all, and they’re singing my song word for word. That doesn’t happen with other genres. The feeling is just natural and everything. In African music, we don’t really talk about negative stuff, when you think about it. We dance, we have fun. I feel like it’s more of a feeling that Afrobeats gives you.

Tell us about your single “FEM” and how that became a protest song for the #EndSARS movement.

Yo, crazy. I didn’t even make that song thinking all that was going to happen. I dropped the record like a month before the protests started, and it just fell in tune to what people were feeling at the time. It just kept on going, and going, and going, and going. And then funny enough, it kind of became the protest song. I remember walking into a government building and [the officals were] like, “Ah, Davido, I heard you had gone to make your song for us.” Like, no, no, no, no. I was like, “Nah, I dropped that record before.”

It’s crazy how everything fell into place. I can’t say I’m happy that us Nigerians have been pushed to the wall to be protesting, but also I can say that I’m pleased to have my song be a tool and a voice for them to just spill out their anger and just release stress. It was a good feeling.

I know you had a meeting with the Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu. What can you tell us about how that went?

Nobody was really invited there or anything like that. I was just like, “You’re messing up for my people.” And also, [I came to] talk about my own concerns too about the #EndSARS movement, and to explain the five points [agenda] to them.

Look, people are upset. This has been going on for years, years, years, years! This should have happened years back. Why wait to have frustration? So it was just being able to connect with the two sides. I can connect with the citizens of Nigeria, where Nigerians are tired of not being treated right in their country.

And I can also be in a room with people in the government — somebody that can take from me and go, “Look, this is what is happening on the streets. You guys don’t know what is going on.” 

It was just in my power to go to Abuja. Protest with them peacefully. It was a peaceful protest in Abuja. The protesters [were] telling me how they have tried to go towards the police headquarters, which is where I’m going to go to the next day. And they were chased back. There was shooting in the air. They have some other protestors that were pro-SARS. Pro-SARS are people that support SARS. I don’t want SARS. 

Is there a big pro-SARS movement?

It’s not big at all. Very, very small. I don’t even think that it is up to 0.5 percent if you ask me, very, very small. Nobody wants SARS in Nigeria right now. Anybody that’s doing any pro-SARS, he’s either in SARS or has been paid to do such. These protests were all peaceful. They got hijacked. None of those people you saw destroying stuff or stealing from people’s homes or doing all that extra stuff, none of them were protesters.

It’s really more than #EndSARS, because one thing has led to another. There’s just so many lies out now, and everybody’s just confused. Right now, me and some of my other colleagues that are kind of influential in the country have all come together. Everything has to be fixed. That’s how I feel. I can’t imagine my kids growing up in this same type of government.

How do you think the government can make a step forward here with the #EndSARS movement? 

This movement is way more than #EndSARS. Of course, #EndSARS is the origin, but it’s end SARS, end bad government, end police brutality as a whole. Just end corruption. In a way, I feel like this is the point that we need to start from: electoral reform. The reason why all these things happen is because the wrong people are in office, so we need to fix the voting system.

We need to fix the voting system and we need to introduce electronic voting to stop the stealing of ballot boxes. These are things that the country can afford. Every day it’s something else. And right now, everybody feels like they’re ready to say, “You know what, we’re going to do what we want to do.” With all the killings that have happened and people who have lost their lives for both sides, it doesn’t make sense if everything we’ve done comes out to be for nothing, because these people will not die in vain. 

How do you think Americans and people across the globe can help with this movement?

Some of my friends in America showed love and reached out to me that were constantly posting online to push the #EndSARS movements. I feel like it really also encouraged us back home. Shout out to them. But I don’t know. Right now, international observers aren’t even doing anything, you know what I mean? It’s our country. It’s something we’re going to fight for and we’re going to fix ourselves. So we can enjoy ourselves. Do you know what I’m saying? No more countries to come and help us and say, “We want to take this natural resource, take this.” Nah, that’s not going to work.

Nigeria has great potential to be one of the top five best countries economically in the world. We have the resources. Look at America: [Such a high percentage] of doctors last year were Nigerians. The best doctors in America are Nigerians, I’m telling you. 

Do you think that the kind of change Nigeria needs is coming in the near future?

We need it today. We need it done now. We need to work on it within ourselves. We all need to come together and really make this thing. Because what they’re trying to do now is blame it on the so-called “hoodlums” that were purchased. We should be worried that they are trying to change the narrative. This has been going on since 1960. It’s even crazy how they were reacting to this. No remorse, no anything. If you want to know how we feel? We feel crazy. 

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