Davido on his song ‘FEM’ becoming an #ENDSARS anthem: “It’s amazing to see”

The Afrobeats star, who has helped to soundtrack a revolution, roped in the likes of Nicki Minaj and Nas for his new album 'A Better Time'. Just don't ask about Chris Brown, finds Kevin EG Perry

The first thing Davido says down the line when NME gets through to him in the Nigerian capital Abuja is: “It’s a crazy time for everyone.”

He’s not wrong. It’s mid-October and Nigeria’s #ENDSARS protests are reaching a fever pitch. Just days after we speak, the army will open fire on peaceful protestors in Lagos, killing at least 12 people. Davido has travelled to Abuja to join the protests against the police’s violent Special Anti-Robbery Squad and to add his voice to the campaign wherever he thinks it can be useful. Case in point: he’s just managed to use his influence to arrange a meeting with the country’s Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, but he’s quick to point out that he’s not trying to cast himself as the movement’s leader.

“I just see it like I have the opportunity to be able to get to him,” says the 27 year-old Afrobeats star. “I went there to convey the message of the people. I’m not here to act as a leader, I’m just like everyone else that wants a change.”

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Rather than leading protests, Davido is much happier soundtracking them. His single ‘FEM’, released in September, has taken on a new meaning because its title roughly translates from Yoruba as: ‘Shut up!’ That’s made it perfect for playing loud on marches and singing in the faces of politicians like Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, whose speech was disrupted by vocal protestors. “I didn’t plan it!” says Davido with a laugh. “I dropped the song a month and-a-bit ago, and it’s been crazy to see how it’s grown to be used as a tool. It’s amazing to see.”

The success of ‘FEM’ has only served to raise expectations for Davido’s new album, and they were already stratospheric to begin with. Given the pressure to follow the global success of his second album, 2019’s ‘A Good Time’, which has racked up a billion streams and counting worldwide, it’s hard not to admire the sheer bravado of naming the follow-up ‘A Better Time’. Davido isn’t in the business of dampening hype.

“Everybody knows that for ‘FEM’ to be the first track I released, just imagine the other type of songs I have on there!” he says, his sense of pride echoing down the jumpy phone line. “The title [of the record] already should let you know it’s better music.”

Despite the similar names and the fact that less than a year separates their releases, Davido dismisses the idea that ‘A Better Time’ is simply a retread of the sound of his last album. “It’s not “‘A Good Time’ Part II”,” he says, pointing out that 2020’s crazy times have actually allowed him to spend more time than he’d usually do experimenting with new sounds. “With the lockdown and me just being at home it gave me time to really work on the music rather than having to juggle it with being on the road. There was nothing to do. There were no shows. I was at home with my producers, just creating and creating all day.”

Given that he’s been one of the biggest names in Nigerian music for the better part of a decade, it’s odd to think that ‘A Good Time’ was only Davido’s second album. His first, released back in 2012, was titled ‘Omo Baba Olowo’, which translates from Yoruba as ‘Son Of A Rich Man’. That was the young Davido’s way of letting people know he already knew what they were all saying about him. His father is Adedeji Adeleke, one of Nigeria’s wealthiest men, whose net worth is thought to be somewhere around $700 million.

This fact has shaped the way Davido is viewed in Nigeria for so long that he’s developed something of a silver chip on his shoulder. “If anything it challenged me, because a lot of people didn’t really want to mess with my music,” he argues. “They were like: ‘Nah, his dad has money – blah, blah, blah.’ There was already a stereotype for me. I had to fight to prove: ‘Yo, I’m really born for this.’ Whether my dad had money or not, I’d be here. It’s something that I still go through today. Amidst all my accomplishments, it’s still something I’m fighting through. It’s something that’s going to be happening to me my whole life. I know that.”

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Davido was born David Adedeji Adeleke in Atlanta, Georgia, on 21 November 1992. He went to school in Lagos at the British International School before moving back to the USA to study business administration at university in Alabama. When he announced his attention to drop out to pursue a music career, his father took the sort of predictably dim view that fathers often take.

It was then that Davido decided to come to London for a couple of months, where he wound up recording his debut single ‘Back When’ in March 2011 at a studio near the Old Kent Road in the south-east of the city. “I was recording just to record,” remembers Davido now. “I wasn’t recording [thinking]: ‘Oh, I want to be an artist.’ I did it just to do it, and it ended up being… kinda good.”

London has stayed close to Davido’s heart ever since. In January last year, when he played an enormous show at the O2 – introduced by Idris Elba, no less – he performed ‘Back When’ early on, giving the song its own homecoming moment. “London was one of the first cities outside Africa to embrace Afrobeats,” he says. “It’s become a household genre there. If an African artist [like me] sells out the O2, then you should already know it’s a household genre. London is very special to me.”

London, United Kingdom. January 27, 2019. Davido performs live on stage at The O2 Arena. Credit: Michael Tubi / Alamy Live News
London, United Kingdom. January 27, 2019. Davido performs live on stage at The O2 Arena. Credit: Michael Tubi / Alamy Live News

Naturally he’s frustrated not to be out playing similar shows now that ‘A Better Time’ is finally here, but he’s being pretty philosophical about it. “It’s disappointing,” he says. “But the world is changing, so we have to abide by the rules for now.”

Abiding by the rules meant some of the new record had to be put together in suitably socially-distanced format. For the track ‘I Got A Friend’, Davido recorded his parts along with a feature by up-and-coming Nigerian singer Mayorkun in Lagos, then added a performance by the South African rapper Sho Madjozi, who was unable to join them in the studio. “We were just all at home [in different places],” he says. “The power of technology these days means we can all work in different countries at the same time.”

The same goes for Nicki Minaj, whose appearance both singing and rapping alongside Davido on the luscious ‘Holy Ground’ is probably the album’s high-water mark. The story behind the feature goes that one night after partying in Abuja, Davido found himself listening to the half-finished song in his car and in a fit of drunken courage decided to take that moment to slide into Nicki Minaj’s DMs – having never previously spoken to her. “I was just like: ‘Yo, I’m doing it!’ and then I her hit up to be on the song,” he remembers with a laugh. His gamble paid off. “I sent it to her and she sent it back to me [with her vocals done] in two days.”

“London was one of the first cities outside Africa to embrace Afrobeats”

Virtual collaboration is all well and good, but it can never quite compare to the visceral experience of being in the room with someone. You know, like when you realise you’re stood next to a rap legend at the urinal. Davido reveals it was just such a brief encounter that led to hip-hop legend Nas snarling his way through a fearsome guest spot on the Hit-Boy-produced ‘Birthday Cake’. For Davido, who grew up religiously listening to his older brother’s copies of Nas’ seminal ‘Illmatic’ and 2001’s ‘Stillmatic’, it couldn’t have been more serendipitous.

“I met Nas in the bathroom. Facts,” he announces, leaving that statement hanging until I prompt him for a little more detail. “It was in LA,” he elaborates. “I met him in the bathroom and I just chopped it up. He was in Studio A, I was in Studio B. We just clicked in the bathroom. Then I went back into the studio, I was making the song, he came in and I was like: ‘Yo, can I get a verse?’ He said yeah and I was like: ‘Ohhh shit!’”

Our interview comes to an abrupt end when I ask Davido about another of the album’s American guest stars, Chris Brown. My question was about a double standard: in October this year, the Nigerian rapper Lil Frosh was accused and later arrested for allegedly physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend, the model Gift Camille. At the time Lil Frosh was signed to Davido’s label, Davido Music Worldwide (DMW), but he was swiftly dropped when the allegations broke. In a statement announcing the termination of his contract on behalf of DMW, Davido announced that: “Domestic violence is not a trivial matter and we will never support or condone such behaviour,” before concluding: “We do not condone domestic violence and stand with all victims of domestic violence.”

That’s an admirable sentiment, and one I’d like to think Davido believes, but it’s hard to square with the fact that his album features a guest spot from convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown. When I ask what the difference is between Lil Frosh and Chris Brown, the line goes dead.

A cynic might answer that question by saying the difference is that Chris Brown is an established commercial draw who last year appeared on a ‘Blow My Mind’, Davido single that went double Platinum. To that, I’d say: Davido doesn’t need him. If his new album proves anything, it’s that he’s in rude health as a pop hitmaker. ‘A Better Time’ sounds like a ray of pure sunlight, the perfect antidote to this crazy time for everyone.

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