Interview: CKay Wants to Be Africa's 'Boyfriend'
We talk to the rising Nigerian artist about his new Boyfriend EP, his career and the influences that shaped his futuristic sound.
CKay's father would invite him to sing hymnals whenever he played the piano in the house. As a boy he was already learning musical theory and knew the distinct tones of classical musicians like Franz Schubert and Beethoven. In his own music, those unconventional influences are bare. "I don't care if I have to hum an entire chorus," he told me through the phone. "I just hum the damn thing."
Some days before our call, I met CKay at a high-rise building in Lagos. There was a video shoot going on, with the director asking the musician to retake certain walks, and where others would've registered frustration, CKay's boyish smile never left his face. "I'll do it," he'd say, before being put through the paces again. "I just want everything to come out perfect."
This patience underlies his approach to art. Since learning to produce in Kaduna (where he lived with his middle-class Ibo parents and siblings) and then moving to Lagos, CKay has been moving his music away from the smoke and mirrors of the Nigerian music industry. His break as an artist came in 2017 with the dance-ready "Container" but before then he had produced for new-school artists like Dice Ailes and from behind the boards, was establishing his sound: mid-tempo, airy, and a perfect accompaniment for romance-leaning songwriting.
His pre-Boyfriend singles "Felony" and "Kiss Me Like You Miss Me" are fine displays of his unique sound and playful writing; this is what CKay brings to Afrobeats. Last year, on November 27, his signing was announced by Warner Music Group (through its South African subsidiary) following a phenomenal run that saw his 2019 record "Love Nwantiti" become a global hit. CKay also got on Davido's A Better Time, shining bright among international stars and his more mainstream counterparts like Mayorkun and Bella Shmurda. Now, entering a project the most visible he's ever been, CKay wants to tell love stories.
OkayAfrica spoke to CKay about the Boyfriend EP, his stunning sound and its influences, and the progression from a Kaduna-based producer to Africa's Boyfriend.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Courtesy of the artist.
You come from a musical background. What was that like?
My dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse. My dad used to also be the choir master of an Anglican church in Kaduna called St. Christopher's and he was always good at playing the piano, always practicing. Sometimes he'd play and ask me to sit down by his side and sing while he played; before I was ten I'd learnt the piano and other musical theory. Also, growing up, I listened to the pop music of the time—Backstreet Boys, Westlife, Usher, Sisqo.
I really just connected to music from a young age. I remember at home we used to do morning devotions and I would lead the session. Later I founded Cre8tive Music with two friends and we were kind of successful in Kaduna, doing shows and all that. I'd learnt to produce from another friend and when I moved to Lagos to pursue a career in music, I funded that through production. I produced in about three studios just to make ends meet. I couldn't be doing shows when nobody knew me.
Since you released the hit song "Container" in 2017 your sound has remarkably changed. How deliberate was this?
"Container" was not even 'a sound.' I've always been making love songs from time, that was the music that got me signed in the first place. But I don't know, I think "Container" was an attempt to experiment. 'Cos I like to try stuff out in the studio depending on my mood and I made that song; I was not even trying to make a song I was just having fun and that was the song the label (Chocolate City Entertainment) felt was a hit song. I wasn't really singing, I was just vibing but it dropped and was such a huge record. I mean, it's so crazy cos the song didn't have the craziest marketing, just love on the streets.
After "Container" I focused on unveiling my sound to people, my actual music and not just a witty hook. I mean the actual interpretation of my energy to people and the first time I did that was on the Who The F**k is CKay EP which wasn't even a planned project. It was a very spontaneous thing, the whole podcast situation happened, and a trend kind of followed. So we felt the best response would be to just drop music.
The short film "Alien" is dystopian, and incorporates three songs from your sophomore project CKay The First. What was its intention?
Everything about the film was poetic, as much as it was literal and had traces of my childhood love for sci-fi. It was actually based on a true story. The fashion was very African. We were just trying to be unapologetically CKay with the film. I drew from the culture around me and the energy within myself. Shout out to the director Makhere Thekiso and the whole team who brought that vision to life.
CKay - Felony (Official Music Video) youtu.be
More audiences are recognizing your talent by the day. On a mental level what has this done for you, and what are the next steps?
I'm in a very different space because more than ever I'm just free. I'm creatively free; I'm making music from my heart. I'm not trying to do formulaic hits. I'm just making good music the way I like it. If I make the song and it bangs to me and I enjoy it, then you will enjoy it. I'm excited for the strides I've made so far: "Love Nwantiti," global record; the Boyfriend EP out as well—crazy records on that. It's literally an extension of my soul. Big ups to the Warner Music team as well. I'm excited for everything that's coming—I just need Covid to end ASAP.
When we all could travel freely, what was your favorite African city to visit?
I've actually not traveled to many African countries. Covid ruined all my travel plans last year. But I'd say apart from Lagos right now the city I really love is Accra. Accra is really chill, you know. There's electricity for example. You go to Accra and there are no generators so it has that quietness like, quote, developed countries, but at the same time the environment is still authentically African. Love the culture, the food and everything. I love Ghanaian artists and always look forward to making music with them.
What's your collaborative process and how did the features on Boyfriend come together?
I collaborate with people based on how much I fuck with them. If I respect your talent and I feel like you fit the song, I'll collaborate with you. It's not even about clout. It's not a strategy thing, it's just me creating these sounds and I'm thinking "Oh, I'd like to have a lady on this song" because it would better tell the story of the record. Then I think of people in that bracket and make a decision based on who I already fuck with.
Bianca Costa, for example, she doesn't even make her music in English but on "Skoin Skoin" I felt with the energy of the sound she was the one who'd kill that song. She's from Brazil, and the song kind of reminded me of old school Brazilian music and I sent her the record and almost immediately she sent her part back. I made the record with Amaarae during the lockdown; we linked up through the DMs and we made "FANTASY" which was on her project and we made "Show My Side" which is on Boyfriend. With Oxlade–Ox has been my guy for a while and we've been talking of doing a song and "Mezebu" was just the fit. Then I've been a fan of KiDi's music from the song he had with Davido and Mayorkun. That was the first time I heard KiDi and I love the way he carried the song; he's really talented and doing his thing. It was really organic energy.
Courtesy of the artist.
Your feature on Davido's "La La" was a unique vibe on the album. How did y'all make that record?
"La La" has always been a crazy record; even before release we all knew it would be huge. It wasn't planned; I didn't know how I ended being on A Better Time. I even thought that the deadline had passed (laughs). I was in BOJ's house to record, we're making a song and I ran into Asa Asika (Davido's manager) and we just hit it off. Funny enough we've met a couple times before but that day just seemed to be different. The vibe was different and we're talking. A few days later I was with BlaiseBeats (the producer) and we're vibing (I was recording the Boyfriend EP at the time) and we kind of cooked up the "La La" vibe and we're like "yo, this is crazy." I was playing it for my team and we felt Davido would sound perfect on the song; it's a mix of highlife and house and he's known for killing that so I just sent it to Asa. Within five or ten minutes he was like "yo, this song is crazy, Davido likes it." He invited me over to the house and we recorded the song and finished it. I would say that was predestined; it was a very spontaneous thing and I believe sometimes such situations bring about the best music.
You once told me, CKay, that the Boyfriend EP could be subtitled The Chronicles of My Love Life. Why?
I just wanted to tell stories with this project. I feel that I've had a very tumultuous love life over the past few years. I always tell my friends the stories and they always say stuff like "man, you could actually make a movie from these stories." I felt like if that's the most prominent experience of my life in this period then I should create art specifically about my love stories. That was what I wanted to achieve with the Boyfriend EP. I was trying to capture the different emotional spaces I was in, different points in time in my journey through love. You know when you're in love they're all kinds of energies you feel and I happen to know how to convert energy to music. It's a really amazing body of work and very personal to me.
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