D'banj and Tekno's scheduled UK dates were cancelled abruptly, we take a look at why and the larger issues with afrobeats promoters.
A press conference was held at the House of Parliament and hosted by Lord John Bird, an Irish man who founded The Big Issue magazine and was made a cross bench member of Britain’s House of Parliament.
That he took it upon himself to become chief cheerleader of the conference inside such a venue was a strong indication of how durable D'banj’s music career has become despite the frankly dull and even disappointing music he's made post Mo' Hits, but I won't bang on that.
Prefixing the press conference was an awards ceremony called BEEFTA whose stated aim is to honour “the best showbiz and entertainment personalities in the black and ethnic communities in the UK, USA, Africa, Caribbean, Canada and globally.” D'banj is ripe for such a recognition, but on this day he was in no rush to accept it.
The awards was pegged for 5:30PM and the individual interviews with D'Banj from 7PM onwards. At first, no one appeared to know where D'banj was, but later on, and at intervals, the news would trickle in that he was now stuck in the evening rush hour traffic of central London.
D'banj hadn't cancelled after all and that was a relief. But during the three-hour wait for his arrival, the entire room had to endure Lord Bird’s tales of his life in petty crimes and destitution before going on to found The Big Issue and had done admirable work in service to the homeless in the UK. These tales also include off cuts from the conveyor belt of his consciousness.
Lord Bird is an Irish man and so isn't a stranger to English oppression which, he was right to remind us all, was well rehearsed in Ireland before it was performed in what is now Nigeria and other African countries, I'm guessing. He's also a member of the House of Lords which for a British man must be a crowning achievement—despite “jokingly” confessing to being an anti-imperialist.
These qualities gives him a supreme level of entitlement (I have suffered, so I know suffering) and confidence to speak as he wishes. And that's why he had no problem saying that before this ceremony for an afrobeats artist, and it's room filled with black journalists who operate in the genre, he'd brought in beggars to the House of Parliament which he says, and I agreed, should be a reflection of its peoples. I didn't detect any level of irritation from the largely polite bunch. Lord Bird knew to carry on talking and that we'd carry on listening.
Once, after he'd taken a break from his soliloquy and there were no other ruses to paper over the wait for D'banj, Lord Bird asked me and the journalist next to me if it wasn't true that there was a time in Africa when people believed that to have one's photo taken is to have one’s soul taken.Harmless joke perhaps, but added to the other veiled insults or unguarded remarks, they all aggregate to a whole from which you could deduce disrespect for the journalists, or a lack of propriety on his part. It's an odd feeling taking insults from someone who has borne the brunt of many himself surely, having being a beggar and petty criminal early on in life.
By now, I'm livid as hell with worse to come if D'banj doesn't actually show up. He eventually did and upon entering the room, what was once a mannered gathering quickly became a frenzy, murmurs turned into a clash of words and cameras flashed (the No Photograph rule had since been completely ignored).
D'banj of course apologized for being late and joked that he'd either forgotten or hadn't been told that traffic in London was not dissimilar to the one in Lagos. Everyone laughed. He raised a fist and called out “oshe,” his favourite leitmotif and many answered back, like faithfuls and he the pastor.
He appeared restless, or rather too indebted to sit and talk, before making a short unmemorable speech. My frustration had lessened considerably by now. Corralled by no one in particular, Lord Bird and D'banj came to the middle of the room where D'banj was to be presented with his BEEFTTA award, followed by photographers who formed a human ring around both men.
For his acceptance speech, D'banj recalled a time when he received a phone call from one, Bono, who said D'banj was a leading voice for Africa’s youth (all of Africa that is) before mandating him to get these, however many youths, into using the vast unused arable lands on the continent for agriculture. “To whom much is given, much is expected” was D'banj’s ready quote which he used at least twice.By now, Lord Bird’s chest-beating, back-patting, time-filling and free-speaking had congealed into something approaching, if not respect, then simply stillness in the presence of a true star. I too was drawn in by D'banj’s presence. Brimmed with confidence and dressed in all black t-shirt, suit jacket and trousers with gold-studded shoes and glasses, there was no mistaking who the star was.
My individual interview with him was meant to be held in a place called College Green which turned out to be no more than a white, open canopy on a manicured lawn (parliamentary lawn no less).
D'banj, understandably, didn't want to take questions out in the cold and drizzling rain. But he spared a few minutes for the pap, whose lights flooded and cameras flashed with unflinching zeal, before vanishing into his waiting car.
The walk to the tube station with other journalists would have been equally deflating if I didn't have a party to go to. Talawa Theatre Company, the first black led theatre in Britain, who staged my first play, Have Mercy in Liverpool Street, was turning 30. I was already set on attending, but after such a shambles, the hope was that celebratory drinks would heavily discount the disappointment that the evening had been.
A couple of apologetic e-mails came through from the publicity team, all seemingly heartfelt and with unsatisfactory reasons why the conference was a failure.
D'banj and Kanye West live in London back in 2011.
But matters had also worsened. First it was that D'banj was no longer going to perform at his concert because the promoters hadn't secured a work visa for him three days before he was to perform, and that Tekno was still in Nigeria, and yet to be given a visa (whether for travel or work wasn't specified).
In another e-mail it was said that the concert had been moved to exactly a week after the original date. In another it was said that only Tekno would now be headlining as the organisers were yet to resolve whatever disagreements they had with D'banj. In another mail, it was said that the management at O2 had refused to let Tekno perform as D'banj was the original headliner.
It was all a monumental cock-up and I was relieved it was all finally over, but the reasons why gnawed at me over successive days. I wanted I know why and how a press conference and awards ceremony at House of Parliament, and a headlining gig at O2 was squandered. If such incompetence is happening to an artist of D'banj’s stature, its reflection on the genre as a whole couldn't be positive.
One of the organisers agreed to speak to me, but only on grounds of anonymity. Let's call him Wigand. He tells me the company responsibly for the concert is Afrobeat Artistry but will not name any members of its staff.
I asked what exactly went wrong and Wigand said, “a couple of days before D'banj’s visa meeting at the British High Commission in Lagos, he was still in the US for a gig and potentially missed his[visa] interview. This wasn't the promoters fault, but the concert had been promoted for three months during which the visa permit should have been taken care of.”Wigand goes on to say that there wasn't meant to be a press conference, but the promoters made an agreement with the CEO and founder of the BEFFTA Awards, Pauline Long, to have D'banj come the Houses of Parliament and receive his icon award.
As for the award itself he says, “personally I don't rate the awards. I don't think it's a well run” and that the founder, Long, was the one who arranged for the conference to be held at College Green. He adds, “little did we know that we would go out on the lawn, in the cold - and that was the College Green.”
I tell Wigand that Long wasn't wrong about it being green to which he said “that's the only thing she got right.” It was parliamentary green in fact—the best kind.
Tekno, the other headliner, he says was annoyed that the management at O2 had decided against a him being the only headliner after D'banj pulled out when he and the promoters could not agree on a new date, even when by the next week they finally secured his work visa.
Wigand doesn't think Afrobeat Artistry can get Tekno to come back, and neither can they get a refund from D'banj.
I ask how much he was paid and he said he didn't know. I pressed for an estimate, just to get an idea of how much money had been lost. Wigand’s estimation is that D'banj was paid approximately £20 000 for all three London, Manchester and Birmingham dates. Added to that, to book a night at Indigo2 costs £12 000. That's excluding Tekno’s fee and the cost of renting the Manchester and Birmingham venues, and other expenditures, all of which are potentially lost because of poor planning (juvenile errors, really).Perhaps the wallets at Afrobeat Artistry are deep, and all this is water off a duck’s back. Perhaps someone just lost his or her life savings. But the problems plaguing the organisation of live concerts—and the on stage performances—persists.
Wigand sees it all getting worse, “if these Afrobeat promoters don't get their act rights, there'll be white promoters,' ‘white companies’ who come in and take these afrobeats acts on, and promote their concerts for them in the U.K.”
But it's not all gloom. Cokobar and SMADE are two afrobeats promoters who have done good business bringing, in the former’s case, Burna Boy and, in the latter, Olamide and YBNL in October of this year.
I attended both concerts, and they were well publicised with adequate security provided. But in both cases, the headlining acts didn't take into full account what appeared to be a mandatory end of performance time at 11PM. Olamide fared worse as his headlining set was cut short (after which he pretended to be surprised by it all). By that same time, Burna Boy had satisfied his crowd with his spellbinding performance (he really comes into his own onstage).
I interviewed Ropo Akin, the owner of Cokobar, while interviewing Burna Boy for a feature, and he seemed like a man who's on top of his business. He spoke confidently of having paid all his acts in full and expecting to sell out Eventim Apollo. He kindly invited me to follow him, Burna and his entourage to this next promo stop, but not before checking to see if what I was rolling was weed or tobacco (mine was tobacco, others wasn't).
Wigand reminds me of Akin in that both men are steady ships in a tidal wave of incompetence and naivety. Wigand portends that Davido’s December 5th concert might spell worse trouble for afrobeats promoters because it's being handled by a “white company” called Robomagic. And if the promotion is efficiently handled, “the next time it would be Wizkid, it will be Tekno.”
The first Afropunk concerts in London was held last September at Alexander Palace. Their choice of venue, acts (Grace Jones, Laura Mvula among others), and promotion was not to be faulted. I was so impressed by the promotion that I still haven't deleted their app (complete with reminders of performance times, weather and traffic information), in full knowledge that I'll return next year. I ask Wigand if afrobeats will reach the level of professionalism that Afropunk have set.
Wigand’s concerns are more fundamental, “if you cannot promote a concert, don't try and do it. Get someone else to do it.” He concludes that, “afrobeats and afro-pop bring a lot to the table. We [the promoters] can get it right, but to do that we’ll have to get rid of the dead weight.” Say no more.