Communicating through shaky a Zoom connection, we begin by exchanging names and pleasantries that fall far from genuine. Given the gravity of recent socio-political events, there is an air of helplessness from either side of the screen. After Manny answers “yeah, I’m good”, in the most halfhearted of tones, I feel the urge to ask a question as a fellow Nigerian rather than an interviewer:
I'm asking like for real, how are you?
How am I? I'm tired. I am heartbroken, I am confused. We've always known the world was very interesting- I don't want to say bad- and that there are wicked people. But like, yo, people are wicked. You watch it in movies, and you hear about it but it's in our faces right now. But I always try and hold on to the fact that darkness can never be light. so that's what I'm holding on to.
I understand that approach a lot. You're in DC right?
Well right now I'm in LA, but I stay in DC.
From BLM movement to SARS protests, how engaged do you feel? How close to home does this feel for you?
It’s so close to home. With BLM I'm always engaged and involved with activism stuff, I don't know if I claim that title and I don't care if I’m that title to people. But I'm always involved like I've been to numerous protests because I’m a DACA recipient. Then also just being black, I was at a lot of the BLM protests in Maryland, DC. And even with #ENDSARS I was at two protests in LA. I missed the candle lighting ceremony that just happened the other day but I've got friends in DC and NY who have organized and led protests, so I’m super involved and try to support all of it from here however I can. And I'm bringing awareness in my circle too but I'm probably like- [chuckles] I don't know how to say this- I'm probably the bushest, I'm the most connected to home in my circle.
It's crazy because the SARS epidemic and police brutality in general isn't a new thing.
It's not. So I didn't even know SARS was the name, I didn’t know it existed. I just thought policemen were bad in Nigeria. But I started doing more research and found out more about it and Nigeria is just terrible man, and this stuff runs really deep. Like from SARS to colonization, all the way to slavery, and the mentality they kinda like encouraged within the black community that eventually spread all over, to even black Americans here. But if we don't deal with this in Nigeria, which will have a domino effect all over Africa, black people might not have peace ever, which is sad but black people don't understand how important it is to deal with things from the root, which starts in Africa. I feel like black Americans are so disconnected and there's this division like "oh you guys need to deal with that yourself," and it's like no, "we need to deal with that together"
You mentioned how you researched and had to educate yourself. With the platform you've got as an artist, do you feel an added layer of responsibility to educate those around you? From your friends all the way down to your fans.
Oh yeah, for sure. But it's something that I embrace. I don’t think it’s heavy. It's part of my purpose and mission to speak up for people that can't speak up, or are scared to speak up, and to educate on the little that I know, because I don't know everything. I just share any small factual information that I have, I want to make sure that people around me are tapped in. I don't even care how annoying it gets, at this point they already expect me to speak up about things like police brutality. I took it all the way to my church because I'm a youth leader on a small scale because of music. But I really noticed that we weren’t even praying and I'm like that's rubbish. If we are children of God and we're not even praying to help this, and we're Nigerian in a Nigerian church, what are we doing? We're worried about Donald Trump when our own country is on fire. And I think most people just don't know what to do. Our first call to action as Christians I believe is to pray first, the next is action. Like after we pray what are we actually doing? But if we are not praying to the maker of heaven and earth to guide us and keep the people in Nigeria safe, we've failed. Everyone has a job to do is what I'm saying. If you're a Christian pray, if you're a Muslim, pray, and then strategise. I feel like there is a lot of strategy being put in place now in Nigeria and we are kind of just waiting to see and maybe we also need a strategy from the diaspora to support and amplify everything happening.
I agree, it’s nice to see how many people around the world really care about where they come from. Because I've seen protests here, I've seen protests in the US. I've seen them around the world. But being so involved takes a toll on the individual. So, what have you done for yourself to make sure you’re good in all of this?
I really have a lot of conversations with friends and like-minded people. And I've been pushing myself to go to the studio and honestly those two things have really been helpful. I either let my feelings out or just create and get my mind off of everything. By the time I hit the house I'm just tired and I can just rest. That's how I'm able not to consume too much, because my schedule is pretty booked so I won't even have the time to do that. I'd have a session, a phone call, an interview like this. I also had therapy the other day so that was great.
Hey, I'm a big advocate for therapy so I understand.
Yeah me too, everybody needs it.
You can’t be a fan of your music and not be aware of the political messages. Even with Alright Rendition released in 2016. Did you feel when you were making it then that it would still be relevant now?
I knew it would live this long because we are still bumping Fela's music and now we realise even more how much of a legend he is. Even now when we see tweets about Burna Boy and people are doing all these dances to his music but he has always been spitting facts and those songs are gonna live forever. Even with me doing that Alright Rendition, shoutout to Kendrick, putting that positive energy out, saying the political system is just trash but we are gonna be alright. That's the message I try to preach but records like that are gonna live forever. The hot stuff is cool, it's good for the moment, we dance and it's dope but the songs that we are gonna talk about when we are 50 are songs like alright, Burna's Anybody, Fela's songs, Nina Simone's records you know.
In addition to the political message, you definitely make it known that you are Nigerian through your music. All the features in Mirage have Nigerian ties to them, was that deliberate?
I didn't notice until Wale finished his verse and I was like, "oh snap, this project has all Nigerians on it" and it's heavily influenced by RnB, Soul but Afrobeats as well. Like Afro Fusion is heavy on Mirage and when that clicked for me I was like, "yeah we definitely have a solid body of work in our hands,'' and I'm just excited that it's out now honestly.
Yeah definitely. We also can’t ignore your involvement with DACA and your grammy winning project. Was that a pivotal moment for your career?
Honestly I didn't even associate that project with the grammy's because it was DACA. I was just gonna do it because those are people that share the same story and somewhat of the same struggle with me, so I'm just gonna have fun with them and get it done. So when I got the text that it was being nominated and it won, it was crazy. And I guess a testament to just doing the work and all those other things will come. I find myself trying to chase those other things sometimes and I figure that the music is too good and whatever I touch will speak for itself. It will always stand out. Mirage is gonna live forever. Mirage is gonna hit and touch people that it's supposed to touch. And as long as it does that, God is good, Imma keep it pushing.
So when I listen to Soulfro and Mirage, I'd definitely say that it's clear that I'm listening to different parts of your story. What was the major change? Whether it's just a sound change, or life experiences, what made you move from Soulfro to Mirage.
I think Soulfro was just very all over the place in a good way, really just touching on genres- any genre that I wanted to touch. Soulfro was more about broad, good music. The topic wasn't specific. For Mirage I really just focused on the RnB, soul, afro fusion. Soulfro covered hip hop, trap, RnB, a little bit of Folk and some Jazz but this one was more specific. And with the topic I wanted to just talk about what it’s like to be dealing with emotions and feelings, especially romantic feelings as we live in a very digital age. Honestly, people have listened and they have called it a healing project and it's really for people that are not necessarily fully healed but are still in the process of healing from something. And you can also relate this to healing from a platonic relationship that didn't go well, you know. So it's from that healing journey that you start your peace and acknowledge that this relationship isn't the best. and then you go through the rollercoaster of emotions of like, well it's not the best but I like the feeling sometimes. It’'s bad, I'm floating, I don't care, I'm wasting time, I'm doing all these things and then you get to the point where it's like ok yeah this is really bad, and I know the most important thing is to love myself and that's when we get to a million. So that's really what Mirage was, to help people go through that healing in whatever relationship they are in. And a lot of us are in that space right now, and especially with everything happening in Nigeria, we are going to need to heal a little bit from all the killings that we saw because I started seeing people get shot and I didn't flinch. Like I was hurt, but I think i've gotten so numb. before I'd be furious but now im just calm, just with tears, just numb.
It's so scary man. Like even if I'm talking about it, I'm like what the hell is happening. But yeah God is good, man. We need to heal, and I pray people can identify Mirage as that project.
It sounds like you are just reflecting what a lot of people need. It's nice to see.
Yeah, man. We all go through different things and I needed to put this out. We started it two years ago, December 2018.
Oh wow, so this was not a spur of a moment kind of project. it's something that you were working towards putting out.
I had it in the back of my mind to create a project that talks about feelings in this digital age. So yeah I just asked my aunt if I could set up equipment in her basement, she said yeah, I put in my stuff and started living there basically [chuckles] and I'd go upstairs to eat rice and come back downstairs.
So that's the real fuel for the music? [laughs]
For sure [laughs]. As a creative, I have to eat or I can't create. I'm not one of those artists that's like no food, no sleep. I can push myself to a certain place but once I get into a space where there is hunger and sleepiness I'm just useless. Don't even try to get me in your studio past 11, because I might not be productive. But yeah I started about two years ago where I would complete a song and let it breathe and not even touch it. Because I started it and then did META. A bunch of the songs were already songs and then we put that out and then I went back to Mirage a little bit and then I stopped, and then quarantine came I was like ok I'm gonna finish it. I think I finished everything in May andI'm so glad that happened because right after that, that's when George Floyd got killed and I was so mad so I didn’t even create for ages. Maybe until August.
I can't even blame you because when things like that happen it can definitely be difficult to be productive.
Yeah for sure. Thank you bruh, it was great to just talk.
I didn't know how much I needed to just talk about this as well.
Same bro, I promise, like I feel better.