Who Will Be Nigerian Music’s Breakout Star of 2019?

July 14, 2019

It was midway through 2017 when a colleague at the time first observed, rather loudly, that no artist had really broken out that year. The factors by which artists are adjudged to have had their breakout vary from the sheer number of hits to impact.

2015 gave us Woju and Kizz Daniel. 2016 will be remembered as the year Afropop decided to catch its breath and go midtempo. It happened thanks to highlife melodies of Tekno and Mr Eazi.

Breakout artist Nigeria 2019

In both cases, entries for the year’s best rookie had essentially closed during the short calm before the storm of the holiday season or summer, according to the international event calendar. This was primarily because summer is the best time for new music to convert fresh ears and travel with them.

So far, 2019 has been generous. The year started off when a 2018 release off a compilation album began to creep to the top of charts everywhere. Soon after, a young Surulere singer began to build a reputation as a hook master reminiscent of a younger Wande Coal. Then a certain four-track EP dropped and launched a teenager from the ancient city of Benin into the B-list.

As summer 2019 approaches, more curators have become willing to hand 2019 to certain newbies on a platter. The question though is this; among the many upstarts who have diversified the Nigerian sound and spread its reaches in the last 6 months, who has done enough to hold the rest of the year down?

I asked a couple of colleagues in music management, journalism, curation, A&R and one superfan. What they think may or may not surprise you.

Ehis Ohunyun, former music writer at Nigerian music blog, Filter Free and editor at Pulse Nigeria thinks there are a few contenders. “I easily think of Joeboy and Fireboy but it’s really hard to look beyond Rema for now. I see him in some ways as Lil Nas X.” he says.

Unlike the others, he is the only one that truly has a power label behind his art. Mr Eazi’s still undecided about what to do with Empawa so Joeboy is getting decent streaming numbers but I don’t think he is connecting with the mainstream in terms of conversations.

Fireboy is dope, but talent is never enough and Olamide is unbothered really. Rema is that kid that a combination of social media plus the alte disruption of the last few months and our warming attitudes towards new music is gradually vaulting into becoming the kid superstar you can’t hate on. I may have missed out some names but off the top of my head, Rema is 2019’s breakout star so far.

When he puts it like this, you can’t argue with Ehis. Joeboy’s Baby is arguably the song of the moment and thanks to the digital machine at Empawa, the song is a streaming darling with almost 10 million streams across all platforms. Yet, there is a sense that Empawa has no concrete long term plans for beneficiaries of its fund.

Fears that artists like Joeboy may be left to fend for their own on their next releases are warranted, although we have reason Joeboy will be fine regardless. Fireboy’s talent is housed in a platform that has a sorry reputation for mismanaging artists. Rema, however, is in the most perfect situation of all three, and it shows. “Dumebi” is one of the songs of the year, international media swears by him and the fans are in agreement.

Simi Badiru, a pop culture connoisseur and co-host of the F&S podcast, agrees.

It’s between Blaqbonez, Rema or Fireboy.” she says.”But I think Rema because he has had the biggest roll-out and support behind him. Ultimately, na money and label kill everything. If the other two were in labels that took them more seriously or carried their matter on their head more, then things could be different. Rema is my pick, largely because of the backing he has

His push has been too strong and nobody is topping that right now, that is, unless someone else comes along. Right now, Rema has cut across all age levels and regions. There’s no generation of listeners that’s not familiar with Rema. Even my mum bumps his stuff

What stands out the most about Simi’s submission is that Rema has cut across all generations. While his style is primarily for the young, his music, from songs like Dumebi to Spiderman, has something for every listener. The same could be said of Fireboy’s “Jealous”; but when you have two EPs with enough music for everyone, the odds tend to swing in your favour.

Emmanuel Ilori, or Mani to you mortals, is a filmmaker, superfan and commentator on all things Nigerian music. From where he stands, Rema is the only objective pick.

For an artist who broke out in late March, he’s doing numbers that are very huge in this clime.” he says.

He’s dropped 2 projects in 4 months! Both are doing the numbers, and are even going mainstream. Also, there are credible sources reporting that international music business execs want the boy’s signature badly. His sound respects no borders.

Tomisin Akins, my personal favourite custodian of the Alte sub-culture, a former staffer at UMG Nigeria and the brains behind pop culture platform, Lucid Lemons, puts the fourth stamp on the kid from Benin.

“In the first half of the year, Rema has shown his versatility, his chart-topping ability, and that he can establish a real fan base that reflects a considerable percentage of Nigeria’s youth population. Rema ranks 1st, then Santi. They represent their own sound, style, lifestyle and marketing. It’s refreshing; finally, artists who actually realize to be successful, you need more than the sound. You need packaging and a fan base willing to elevate you and they’ve got it.

What more need I say? Actually, someone else says it for me. Rema may have the team and the hits. But like we learned in the infamous Sean Tizzle v. Burna Boy conversation in 2013, fan love may eventually trump early mega hits and commercial success. Let Nauteeq Bello, a music commentator who’s contributed to FilterFree, tell it.

Rema has a willing management and he knows how to do the music thing. There’s an x factor he has that a lot of his contemporaries don’t have.” But Nauteeq doesn’t hand it all to Rema, “I think Fireboy and Joeboy too can mount a strong challenge. But seeing as Fireboy’s people are more focused on pushing him organically, it may slow down his charge.

Fireboy also seems to have the “pull” effect. Fans actively seek out his music and they want to know “who’s that guy?

There’s data to back it up. “About four weeks ago, many people showed interest in Fireboy: on Google, he was one of the most searched for guys in entertainment. Number one sef.Nauteeq says. “So, all this love he’s receiving might eventually come to work really good for him. He’s a good bet.

It’s hard not to give him. But with the way people want Fireboy offers a stronger potential than the push Rema is getting.

It’s not quite often that so many people are united in their approval of a rookie and his methods, especially in a fickle and unstructured Nigerian music space. Remarriages, on the other hand, is ticking all the boxes as Debola Abimbolu, music writer at millennial culture platform, Native Mag says.

2019 is such an interesting year because we’re seeing so many different artists pushing for mainstream acclaim with their different unique styles and sounds. But I’d have to give it to Rema cause he’s so edgy and yet so accessible.”

He dropped two tapes this year that have both found and hit their target audience.” Debola says, “One for the streets and one for the kids. If that’s not breakout artist strategy then I don’t know what one has to do to break out.

Here’s what everyone seems to think. Rema is in front by a country mile. The Mavin machinery, fueled by investor dollars, is behind him. A year of intense artist development has helped him hone his edge in a way that peers like Joeboy and Fireboy will have to learn through experience. Joeboy has the potential to become a serial hitmaker; he has a great sense of rhythm. Fireboy has such organic fan love that it’s impossible to count him out too.

There are a few others that come to mind; Blaqbonez showed up on most radars last year but he’s only begun to really register this year with the re-up to his debut studio album, “Bad Boy Blaq”. Oxlade has had a great run too – his “Shugar” and Causing Trouble” w/ DJ Tunez are strong dance hits. But in his case, it would appear he’s taking a more organic approach to his push – making strategic collaborations, doing live performances and building a cult following. So far, it’s working for him but the climax can’t come soon enough. Remy boy takes the nod.

The odds are firmly stacked in Rema’s favour. But with Fireboy’s alluring personality and Joeboy’s ear and numbers, the race feels fairly open for a few last-minute surprises.

Segun Akande

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