The Artist Is Present: DJ Spinall Wants to Push Afrobeats to the World, Without Forgetting the Culture

We talk to Nigeria's multiple award-winning DJ Spinall about his standout album, Ten, and pushing afrobeats forward.

DIASPORA—In our new series, The Artist is Present, we revel in and get to know the minds behind Africa’s creative world in fashion, art, music prose and more. We dive below the surface with African artists to talk about their process and purpose.

In this installment, we link up with multiple award-winning DJ Spinall, one of the main forces pushing afrobeats forward from behind the decks .

Earlier this year, Spinall released the excellent album Ten, which has birthed many dance floor hits and which features top-tier collaborations with Mr Eazi, Ice Prince, Sarkodie, Patoranking and more. He's also recently dropped the massive "Olowo," alongside Davido and Wande Coal.

We caught up with DJ Spinall during his visit to New York below.

How did you first get into music?

I think how it all really started from high school and a passion for music. It's always been imbued in the way that my parents used to listen to a lot of music, my dad and my mom both. They have thousands of vinyl records. In the morning my dad would wake up, and open the drawers, and start playing some Fela Kuti, Sunny Ade.

As I became a teenager, I started turning my passion into actual music. I didn't know what to do with it at first until I hired a DJ in high school to play for the students. I was just watching him like, "Okay, maybe this is my calling right here."

So, after learning how to DJ, I decided I was gonna constantly upgrade myself, brand myself out and steady pay my dues. I worked at a couple of radio stations, but when people really started paying attention to my sound and to what I do was at a weekly event in Lagos called Industry Nite in Lagos. I was a DJ at Industry Nite for about five years.

Then I started learning how to produce. At first I wasn't producing, I would walk up to a producer and give him my ideas on what I wanted things to sound like, and what I wanted him to do, you know? I discovered that they were not getting it. You cannot keep explaining, you want to just do it yourself, so I started producing and it's been amazing. I started making music, I have two albums to my name, and I'm working on my third album as we speak.

DJ Spinall. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What does the future hold DJ Spinall?

I really, really want to take the music around the world, not just in Africa. I want to take the music to Asia; I want to take the music to places that we have Africans at. We have Africans almost in every part of the world.

Also, beyond selling my music to Africa, or introducing Africans to the music, I want to introduce the world itself to the music. I'm looking forward to EDM sessions, and sessions in other genres.

Basically, I want to push African music but not leave behind the culture. Because I feel like the culture is what lead to the music.

The culture is so important.

Yeah, and a lot of people want to move forward with the music alone, and leave the culture behind. You can't do that. You have to carry it because the music, the lyrics and everything we talk about comes from who we are.

Who we are is an essential part of our everyday life. Building relations, going to parties, dressing up, talking about African women, politics, the food—why I wear a cap—these things all lead into the music.

I want to push that; I don't want to drop anything behind while pushing the music. I want to bring all that forward and, you know, introduce the world to different things. I mean, the world has opened up to Asian foods, and everybody eats Chinese food. why not Nigerian food? Why not jollof?

You want the world to get to know Africa.

I don't want the world to just listen to our music, but get to know our people. Get to know the good along with the bad. I think, over time, people have only seen the wrong stories about Africa. I'd be really glad if I'm able to contribute my little quota into selling the right image, that exact true perspective of Africa to the world at large.

Your album Ten has a lot of star collaborations—Mr Eazi, Davido, Ice Prince, and more—how did those come about?

I think that's where the old question of why I'm making music comes into play. I'm a DJ, I can tell what the people would like based on the experiences I've had behind the decks. So when I make beat, I have different folks in mind that I know: this is your sound.

Sometimes I break the rules. Sometimes I don't give you the conventional beat. For instance, Mr Eazi didn't like the beat I gave him for "Ohema" at first.

When I sent him the beat, he was like, "Yo, Spinall man, can you play me something else?" But the second time we got together in the studio, some time afterward, I played the beat for him again and he was like, "Is this the beat?," I'm like, "Yeah, it's the same beat!" He jumped on it, and in less than a minute the song was ready. He just went in and just killed one time. So I think that there really no rules to making your music.

Well, when you want to be creative in life, you can sit down based off rules. Because rules will butter up your creativity, but if you really want to stand out you have to break the rules—put an artist on a different sound that they're not used to, and that was what we did with "Ohema." It wasn't like that typical slow song, slow vibe, you know?

What about "Olowo" with Davido and Wande Coal?

Davido is probably one of the most confident artists I've ever worked with in Africa. It's probably Davido and Wande Coal, actually. Me and Wande Coal have a very close history, I used to be his DJ back in the days at some point, and we respect each other's music.

I play Wande a beat, he can come with almost ten different melodies for it in minutes. It's so easy for Wande. For "Olowo," the original story behind it was that I wasn't supposed to be a part of it. It was supposed to be a collaboration between Davido and Wande Coal, but because of a few logistics it was going to waste. So, I decided to come on board. I called the both of them like, "Look, we've gotta make this right," and that's how we did it.

We shot an amazing video for it too.

Who else did you work with on Ten?

So because I'm a DJ, I feel like I don't care who you are, whether you're a star or not, if I like your stuff, I will play it. It doesn't matter if you're coming from the Drake side of the world, or you're coming from whatever side of the world you belong to. Good music is good music.

That's how I made some of the songs on the album as well. Most of the Ten album, I wanted it to be about music, not the names. The names in there are like super big names, but at the same time they really brought their A game to the table when it comes to the music. They didn't act like a divas, it was easy to work with them, and I feel like that's what music should be about.

It shouldn't be about who you are, where you belong. No. I contact people based off if I feel like, "This person can do this." There's a lady called Niniola on the album and a guy called Byno, who was also on my first album.

These are people whose career's are just growing back home. People always ask me, "Why did you feature these guys on the album? You could have gone after the easy money," you know. And I keep saying that I support talent. I support real talent. If I have my way, I will have them on my third album again, because they're talented and they're good.

So I work with artists like that and also with people like Wizkid. Me and Wizkid have been in the studio a couple of times, in and out. We've got a couple of songs coming, not just "Opoju." Wizkid is always very particular with the sound. He loves to take his time and hopefully, at the right time, if he's content about the song, he will let it out.

Where does the name Spinall come from?

I'm someone who really, really loves music, and I listen to everything. I'm a big fan of hip-hop and I really love R&B. I love afrobeats, I love afropop. Do you get it? I love fuji music, I love reggae, I love dancehall. So basically, I'm that DJ that spins all. That's how we came about the name DJ Spinall.

Do you have a 'secret weapon' song that you drop during sets to get the party going?

It's not about the songs, it's more how you play it. That's my secret weapon. It's not really about the song. Some DJs are so good at choosing other songs, I work best off moods.

It's not necessarily about trying to get them to dance, you know? Because when they dance, they might not be listening. But when they are listening, they're learning the music. So my set at Mixmag, for example, was about teaching people our music and African music.

So you have a new album coming before the year runs out. Does it have a title yet?

No. My titles comes last.

DJ Spinall's latest album, Ten, is available now.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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