We talk to the rising duo about breaking into the Nigerian mainstream with hit tracks like "Symbiosis," "Barawo," and "Loyalty," and their upcoming project, Bad Boy Etiquette 101.
It’s easy to forget the dark realities that still plague most African countries when looking through the lens of their rising global stars. The fame of artists like Wizkid, Kizz Daniel, and Olamide, is also said to cloud the economic, social, religious, and civil problems that affect everyday citizens and their harsh realities.
Artists emerging from these harsh realities bring a different essence to how they create, crafting their stories with vivid detail, eager to share with the world what they’ve been through and why they should be heard. Their talent is being fueled by a rage to escape what they’ve seen. Coming from a nation that produced one of the most radical speakers of his time, Fela Kuti, it's not hard to understand why music as a form of protest easily runs in the blood of the country’s music veins.
This is why when an artist breaks out from this system, much is to be celebrated especially when you come from heavily exploited regions like Port Harcourt. Indigenes of Nigeria’s infamous home of crude oil often rue the mineral’s presence because of its impact on their land and people. Thick black smoke billows into the sky on a daily basis, polluting the entire ecosystem, and making the Port Harcourt dream to rise above these fumes.
Like phoenixes rising from the ashes, the duo of Piego and Knowledge, known as Ajebo Hustlers, represent hope for a generation of creators from this region. Making music that seeks to probe your awareness of their realities, accompanied with the right rhythms to beckon listeners to move their bodies. They found their sound and stuck to it, following the footsteps of other Port Harcourt stars like Timaya and Burna Boy, who have similar approaches, and have ascended to the famed halls of Nigerian music stardom.
We spoke to Ajebo Hustlers about their come-up, how growing up in Port Harcourt shaped their lives and music, breaking into mainstream Nigeria with hit tracks like "Symbiosis," "Barawo," "Loyalty," and their upcoming project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Image courtesy of Ajebo Hustlers.
How was it growing up for both of you growing up and what shaped you early on to go towards music?
Knowledge: I grew up in Port Harcourt with my grandparents, I grew up listening to different genres of music like reggae music, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues (R&B). Growing up in Port Harcourt has always kept us in that hustle mindset because people from where we are from have it harder to blow up in mainstream Nigerian music. So, that has always just put us on, put me on that we have to work twice as hard as any other person coming into the Nigerian music industry, unlike the people from the West.
Piego: I grew up in Diobu Port Harcourt, it was pretty calm. That's where I started my music. It was pretty much a great experience because we had the opportunity to see a lot of things happening in the city and it just build your mental state. It makes you a very resilient person, a strong person, and it's just transitioning from Port Harcourt into the Lagos scene, you know. It just makes you work really hard and makes you understand that you have to be ahead of your peers, that you have to be ahead of everybody to really get just like what everyone here is getting.
In terms of music, how would you guys say Port Harcourt shaped you early on and even now. Because obviously there is a category of Nigerian artists that come from Port Harcourt and you can kind of see a pattern in it?
Knowledge: Yeah, yeah, Timaya definitely, Duncan Mighty, Burna, there’s a whole lot of artists from the South that we listen to that really kinda like just shaped and influenced the music we do right now.
So how did you guys both meet and kind of decide to take this seriously, together?
Knowledge: We met when we just finished Secondary school, and high school, and when we were just trying to make money to hustle to afford studio time; we met at a catering company where we both came to hustle and Piego invited me to his studio. From there we just played different records back and forth and we started making music together.
What year was this?
Piego: I think, this is about 2011, 2010.
What type of sound were you guys making then, obviously you both have different Influences. How were you able to merge that into one sound? How did the name Ajebo hustlers kind of also come about?
Piego: When I initially met Knowledge, he was rapping. He was into rap, like hardcore rap thing. For me, I was basically trying to discover myself so, I can't really really say what I was doing exactly. So at some point, I was rapping, stopped, and started singing. For me, it was around the time I was just trying to understand what I could do best because I could rap well and I could sing well. I was just really trying to find something that works for me.
Knowledge: And then, we were just like you know going back and forth with features, he would feature me sometimes, and I would feature him sometimes. But we realized that anytime we had a song out we had like a certain level of reception and we just thought it was something we could build on and leverage on to break into the mainstream. The name Ajebo Hustlers is more about our music, our music reaching out to everyone. Reaching out to the streets, and also reaching out to those top boys. Take out the songs we have, songs like “Symbiosis,” “Solace,” and then you would listen to the song and still get that street balance and that normal street appeal, and yet we are passing a message and having a direction for the song. So, that’s just how we came up with the name Ajebo Hustlers, just something that has a balance between the street and the suburbs.
There's something you said about the lyricism in your music, that as much as they are jams, there is a lot of thoughtfulness put into the music.
Knowledge: Music has always been like a form of information and an educational process for us. So, whenever we are making a song, we are always trying to inform the public or we are trying to sensitize the public, or we are trying to educate them in our own way. So, it's always important for us to be cautious of our lyrics, to be really focused on our lyricism cause we are always trying to pass a message.
When you guys finally got a hit record, things started picking up and then the attention starts coming. How was that for you?
Piego: I mean, a whole lot changed, a whole lot changed. We did “Barawo,” that's basically the first big break we experienced. Like, the first song that we did that had huge recognition and a whole lot changed. We sort of understood the things we did in that record that worked and we capitalized on it. The project Kpos Lifestyle Vol. 1, was pretty much a success, it was a stressful process because we did most of the records at different points in our lives, it wasn't like we were locked in the studio at a particular point in time like right now, we just want to record an album.Right now, for our new project that is coming out, Bad Boy Etiquette101, it's a different version of Ajebo Hustlers. It's more like an upgraded version of Ajebo Hustlers because it's more like our approach to story writing, and everything is just different right now. There's a whole lot coming through.
Would you like to talk more about the project?
Knowledge: The project is Bad Boy Etiquette 101, it's an EP, and it's supposed to be out very soon and it's just basically, Ajebo Hustlers on a different vibe. We are still trying to educate the people, conveying a bad boy. It's just a different side of Ajebo Hustlers that people have not experienced. An upgraded version. A top-tier version.
Challenges rising up and crossing over from the south to the mainstream?
Piego: I think, the challenges we've faced mostly were financial challenges because music is a very capital-intensive business. And you actually need to have a lot of funds to make music, I mean it's been a whole lot easier with the internet. You could do a whole lot, make a video and go viral stuff like that. But I think maybe 3-4 years ago it wasn't easy. To release records you have to maybe promote the little you can maybe from your Instagram, do whatever you can to push the music. So basically it was just financial challenges.
And you know there will be times when you wake up and you just don't think this dream is achievable because you want to do a lot of things, you want to be this global star but you’re not there yet, so it's just basically believing in yourself and what you can see. Sometimes you just don't think it's possible but you always have to remind yourself that you can do this. You look out for people who've done it and you'll be like if these people can do it, I can do it. I mean all is just being consistent and hard work.
The internet works now as a strong marketing tool.
Piego: Yeah it works, it works. Because like there's no middle man anymore, it's just you and the fans. Although you might need money to push the record to a certain level I think for an upcoming artist, the level of visibility you would need to attract people that would help that record get to the level, I mean, all it takes is just one Instagram post or just a post on your TikTok page. And when people listen to the song and connect with it, people keep on sharing it. You might have to financially back it up to push the record to where you want it to get but, you would have the leverage to connect to a lot of people and people that could do that for you.
What has been your most memorable experience so far individually? What else do you guys have in store?
Piego: For me, it was the night OBO called that we should do the remix of “Barawo,” I mean I can't even explain how that felt. It felt surreal because this is someone we've been watching on TV, someone we've been looking up to for a long time. And having the opportunity to get on a song with him, was something that felt so amazing.
Knowledge: For me, I think it was when Wizkid posted our stuff on Snapchat. I mean having someone like Wizkid to gravitate towards your sound, and you not having anybody that knows Wizkid, I mean that's connected with Wizkid. Reaching out the next day that we should come and chill with him, I think that was my best moment. In terms of what is next, we are releasing some merch. We’ll start our world tour as well, it's just a lot that will be happening before the year ends.