What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
The subject of today’s Man Like is Johnny Drille, a singer and songwriter. He talks to us about moving to Lagos to pursue a career in music, how fame has affected his everyday life, and how his family helps keep him grounded.
What was growing up like for you?
It was uptight and conservative. I had to stay in the house most of the time. But the few times I went out with my family was so much fun. I still have memories of a visit to the amusement park. My favourite memory from childhood is sitting outside with my sister and staring at the moon every night or singing with her.
I see you dedicated a song to her on your new album. What’s your relationship with her like?
We’re quite close. We talk almost every day. I wrote a song inspired by her because she’s a symbol of what women go through in a society like ours. She’s had very tough experiences.
Women are burdened with the responsibility of family care and have to put their lives on hold while men don’t have to. It’s even worse in other parts of the country where girls are forced to marry at a young age, and they lose their youth. The song is meant to encourage women in those situations and let them know that there’s hope.
Your early music used to feature Christian themes. How much does your faith factor into your music?
My faith is still at the core of my music. My music did start out featuring a lot of Christian themes, but the songs on my latest album, Before We Fall Asleep, have expanded to other themes such as the state of the country and youth issues like police harassment. The songs are more daring, like something my alter ego, J.D, would do. With more projects, my music is going to evolve even more but at the core of it all, it boils down to love and God.
Your music’s appeal has gone from having a niche fanbase to mainstream appeal. How did that happen?
I started making music while I was in Benin. Pushing ahead was hard because Lagos has a big chunk of the music industry space. It mostly happened because people on the radio started playing my music, even before I thought about moving to Lagos.
What was the driving motivation behind making Before We Fall Asleep?
For this project, I wanted to be daring and experimental. I wanted to do things I’d never done before. The most difficult part of it was owning the sound, making it mine and not a copy of something. It’s a fusion of a lot of sounds and probably one of the most daring albums to come out of this country.
What was it like, singing alongside the legendary Styl Plus on Odo?
It was really good. They’re some of the most amazing musicians of an era who redefined Nigerian music with their distinct sound. They’re such an inspiration, and two generations of Nigerian singers coming together on a song was such a wonderful experience.
You’ve gone from underground to the mainstream. How has life changed for you since you blew?
The hardest part of it has been staying sane. I try to stay level-headed even though there are many things outside my control. I’m grateful for the new things and the new levels my music is reaching, but sometimes I miss going to the supermarket without needing to wear a hoodie, face mask and sunglasses. I’m grateful for the love my fans have for me but sometimes, I just want to take a walk down my street without being recognised. I’ve had to let go of a lot of my personal life and “everyday guy-ness” doing the things I would have loved to do.
I try not to let fame get to me by staying rooted in my family. I visit Benin as often as I can to spend time with my family so I can always remember who I am and where I’m from. Family is one of my core values; it keeps me grounded. Recently I’ve only been able to go home twice a year and that makes me sad.
Every time I see my parents, it feels like I’ve missed a period of time in their lives. Time seems to be in fast-forward as they’re getting older quickly. I wish I could spend more time with them. I now make a conscious effort to visit home as often as I can.
What’s your relationship with your parents like?
We’re closer now than ever. I speak to them almost every day. My mom is one of the most hardworking women I know.
My dad, like every other dad, used to be very strict. He did a lot of things I hated but it all made sense over time when I realised he did it out of love. He’s softened a lot in the last 12 years and is more supportive of his kids and whatever we want to do.
That’s sweet. How did it feel when you had to move to Lagos?
One of the saddest and most daring moments of my life was when I left Benin for Lagos to pursue music in 2017. It was an important moment because I was leaving behind everything that I knew — friends, home, parents, siblings — to move to a new town with very few friends. The first couple of months were very hard. I was sad all the time. I wrote a few unreleased songs about that time.
I’m going to ask a question I’m sure you get every other day.
LOL. Go for it.
What’s Johnny Drille’s romantic life like?
LMAO. I’m in a committed, romantic and beautiful relationship. To my music.
You had me in the first half.
If anything changes on that front, I’ll be the first to let you know.
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