The Return Of Duncan Mighty—Nigeria's Most Unlikely Superstar
Photo illustration: OkayAfrica. Image: John Kennedy

The Return Of Duncan Mighty—Nigeria's Most Unlikely Superstar

After losing his mainstream relevance, Duncan Mighty is back. We meet the hyper-dimensional genius to talk about his unlikely comeback and the controversies that dog him.

"This place is full—I don't believe it," Duncan Mighty says into the mic. He's standing on stage at the prestigious Hard Rock Cafe in Lagos, decked in a floral-patterned golden shirt watching hundreds of people stare back at him with smiling faces. His surprise is genuine—this is a man impressed by his turnout numbers. The crowd, jubilant for the occasion, is responding to his every word with raucous shouts of "Yeah yeah," or "Wene Mighty"—his nickname.

As Mighty breaks into an acoustic version of "Fake Love," his smash collaboration with afrobeats superstar, Wizkid, all hell breaks loose. A lady, who until now has been lost in the glare of her phone screen, jumps on a chair and begins to wind her waist to the rhythm.

Her boyfriend catches me staring, but instead of aggression he stretches his bejeweled right hand for a handshake, with a smile lighting up his face. "I love Duncan Mighty," he says, as his other arm reflexively moves to steady his girlfriend who is about to fall. "This moment is so special to her," he explains. "We love Duncan Mighty."

"Only fake girls be loving when you have…" the hall shakes as a thousand voices sing in unison, led by Mighty.

Mighty Meets Starboy

2018 has been kind to Mighty, lifting his career from the recesses of underground appreciation to, once again, making him a relevant driving the nation's pop music conversation. In March, the singer called me up, and insisted on meeting for an interview. At that time, his excitement was contagious. "Fake Love," the turnaround single had been recorded, but it wasn't released. A single with Tekno was in the works, Tiwa Savage had not reached out, but Davido had established a connection with the intent to do some work. He had a sense of what was to come.

"You see this?" he motioned, showing me his iPhone screen, which displayed the incoming call of an A-list musician who needed help with a collaboration. "They are plenty like that. Everything's coming together for me."

But with relevance comes controversy. The success of "Fake Love" has pitted a younger generation of Wizkid fans—who credit Wizkid as the rejuvenating force for Mighty's career—against an older crowd who believe that Wizkid is lucky to have benefited from Mighty's gifts. In August, a journalist asked Mighty on the set of Tiwa Savage's "Lova Lova" video whether Wizkid was responsible for his re-emergence. He responded by cursing her out.

"I told her that she was an instrument in the hands of her employers to destroy destinies," he tells me. "and when they are done with her, her life would never be the same, and she will never be successful."

He tries to explain why a seemingly innocent question could make him so angry. "When I was traveling and performing in many countries, where were these artists?" he asks. "I had dropped hit albums, before Wizkid dropped his debut single."

But this animus is not directed at Wizkid himself. When Mighty talks about his time with the popstar, his face lights up. He says that while he shared his musical gifts with Wizkid, the superstar taught him the finer points of branding and accessibility— traits which he hopes to add to his second coming.

The Rise and Fall of Duncan Mighty

I first heard Duncan Mighty's music in secondary school. During a late night of study while listening to the radio, a strange song came on—Mighty's breakthrough 2007 single, "Dance for me." It was not like anything I had ever heard and inspired me to dance. I grabbed the radio and ran through the dormitory, calling my friends come join in my joy. The music had two stellar qualities that I couldn't understand at the time, but I loved it. With age and wisdom I now understand the keys to his breakthrough to be a unique vocal texture and a genius-level understanding of music.

When Duncan Mighty released his debut album ten years ago, he altered the course of the Port Harcourt music scene forever. The music was melodious, genre-bending, and hyper-dimensional. Everyone could connect with it. Songs like "Dance for me," "Ako Na Uche" " Ijeoma," and "Unu ge gbum madu" showed how versatility can be reigned in for a cohesive LP.

Influenced heavily by Flamenco music from his time in Europe, where he bagged a degree in sound engineering, Mighty merged those bits and multiple pieces of exotic sound culture to devastating effect. He was praised as the new wave and his name swept across the country, creating one of Nigeria's most viral artists. Kids sang his music like a school anthem. People were hooked.

Importantly he refused to move to Lagos, leaving his home city only for paid engagements and performances. That made him a legend. Growing up in Port Harcourt, as I did, Duncan Mighty was always a looming figure in the entertainment spaces. Young artists look towards his achievement as inspiration for their effort. When encouraged to leave the city and travel to Lagos, they would hold up his tale as a glowing example of what you can achieve from home. Duncan Mighty didn't leave, so why should they?

In 2010, when he dropped a bold anthem declaring him as a "Port Harcourt First Son," the city concurred, acknowledging his importance and massive influence in the music industry and political space. He was the golden boy, the shiny mascot, and truly, the first son of the city.

With the fame came money, and Mighty invested heavily in a construction firm, Mighty Crete, which turned into a cash cow. Add that to his lengthy history of political endorsements, his efforts at brokering peace within Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, and his performance fees, and you have an artist who is financially secure. "I don't do celebrity investments," he tells me in an interview, referring to the stereotypical money moves by musicians who sink funding into fashion labels, clothing lines, luxury bars and lounges, and skincare products.

His next two albums—Ahamefuna (Legacy) (2010) and Footprints (2012)—received improved critical but dwindling reception. Duncan Mighty had created a legacy in the city, but music had changed, and the public had moved on. His 2016 album effort, The Certificate, received next to no press, with much of the music lacking in marketing and promotion. Duncan Mighty's music had cemented his place as a veteran performer and recorder. Some of his songs such as "Obianuju" had become classics, and received sparse airplay on radio. But he had become a man of the past. The new age had no space for him at the top.

The Return

"I no come Lagos come find fame, I came to give them that sound, that thing that is lacking, that Ikwerre sound that nobody in Lagos has," Mighty tells me. We are in a tastefully serviced hotel room in Lekki, Lagos State. He tells me not to reveal the hotel's name because "It is a low-key place place," where he can play his music, record new material, and do some smoking, without anyone reporting to management.

In the center of the room is a mobile studio setup for the purpose of recording with the many musicians who flock to him for a sprinkling of the Duncan Mighty magic. When I arrive he is packing it up in a hurry, because he has a flight to catch. On the TV stand is his passport photograph, and some wrapping papers for grass. The room itself has the welcome smell of a blunt. A small bag of rice leans against a cabinet alongside a few dirty pots and pans.

We never quite do an interview. We talk the way you do with friends. What stays with me is his earnestness. He tells me about a collaboration with an unnamed musician, a white woman, which excites him. He believes they have the money to promote it. There's also a song with Lil Kesh on the way, which according to him is "Highlife music that is different."

How did he get here?

Duncan Mighty's return can be traced back to 2017 when Davido released his smash hits, "If" and "Fall." Critics pointed to Mighty's role in their success, prompting an invitation by Tekno to record a couple tracks. While they remain unreleased, this was when he got the call from Wizkid resulting in "Fake Love" which became an instant hit. The record, with its mid-tempo bounce a mix of Ikwerre Language and English, and a ubiquitous theme, explains the importance of true love. We all want to feel that special romance, in this age of transactional relationships and the collective mindset that wealth and physical comfort is a prerequisite to sustained loving.

The song rose to become arguably the biggest Nigerian song of 2018, assisted with a video from famed filmmaker Clarence Peters. Fans loved the spectacle of Wizkid mouthing off lyrics in Ikwerre. Mighty says he had to teach Wizzy the pronunciations of the dialect, and crafted large parts of the record.

The Nigerian music industry is known for its herd mentality, with stiff competition pushing musicians into the endless pursuit of a creative Holy Grail. Duncan Mighty, with his work on "Fake Love," showed the industry that he had a unique take on afrobeats, and the flood gates opened. Since then he has recorded songs with Reekado Banks, B-Red, Peruzzi, Bracket, Flavour, Lil Kesh, Burna Boy, and numerous others. His single with Tiwa Savage, "Lova Lova," was another instant hit, further consolidating his place as a resurgent force. He loves that single dearly, he says, as he drags me into harmonizing with him, as he sang through Tiwa's parts. "See sweet lyrics," he exclaims with a smile.

Nigerian musician, Odunsi the Engine, who has produced an unreleased collaboration with Duncan Mighty and Burna Boy describes Mighty as a once-in-a-lifetime talent.

"When he came into the studio" says Odunsi, "he was already energised with melodies. He walked in, and before he said 'hi,' he was already giving out melodies, and that was very strange for me to see. His voice is so special and strong, and he filled the whole room up. I was feeling goosebumps, and realised that this is what it means to be with a great artist."

Fresh VDM, the Nigerian producer who made the song Duncan Mighty and Davido song "Aza," grew up listening to Mighty and regards him as one of the best voices in Nigerian music. "I knew this song was going to be a huge record because the vibe was different," he tells me via email. "We had to record twice before I could get the right beat and I used Duncan's part to get the progression of the entire song after he recorded."

Avoiding Negative Press

Duncan Mighty has tried hard to stay out of the way of industry controversy. When Yemi Alade's team reached out to him offering to collaborate, he declined over of fears that he might be sucked into her perceived rivalry with Tiwa Savage. Savage and Alade, are regarded as competition for each other, and their music is subject to polarizing comparisons by fans. And like with the diehard Wizkid fans, Mighty wants to avoid controversial press. "I didn't come back this time to Lagos to look for fame. I don't want all of that rubbish. Any negative press, I want to avoid it," he says.

But many things can spark controversy. In August, a viral clip of Duncan Mighty prostrating before Davido, after the recording of a new single titled "Aza," and its video shoot in Port Harcourt, caused an uproar. Nigerian society places huge premium on respect, and there are strict unspoken codes of conduct, which mandate that it flows from bottom to the top. That is, younger people have to respect their elders in words and actions. Duncan Mighty, a legend at 34, broke that rule by genuflecting for a 25 year old man. He wears a special brand of humility; the type that is excessive in its display, and effusive in mannerisms. It's also a version of that is hard to understand by people, and would generally be regarded as a lack of self-respect, rather than a display of virtue. But he refuses to be disturbed by the 'noise'.

"My joy is that Davido, the African superstar, spoke Ikwerre, my language, and also traveled to Port Harcourt in his private jet for a video shoot," he says. The video for "Aza" shows a triumphant Davido received at the Omagwa Airport in Rivers State, by a mob of locals, led by Duncan Mighty. The singer was welcomed into a rural community, where a chieftaincy title was conferred on him. Duncan made Davido a new royalty.

But perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding Duncan Mighty is the one being talked about the least. In August, the Nigerian website Onobello ran an article with a photo showing Mighty's wifeVivien Nwakanma Mighty with a black eye swollen to the point of closure and suggesting it was a case of domestic violence. Duncan Mighty hasn't expressly denied it, but in a lengthy Instagram post, deflected attention to his successful business, and his resurgent career. He failed to address it directly. There was no "I didn't beat my wife."

This was shocking and confusing for me. I recall that at the end of our meeting, the singer had pulled up photos of his first son, beaming with pride as he displayed a video of them at dinner, and another where his kid sang along to "Fake love." That day, he had informed me that returning to Port Harcourt would get him bored because his wife and kids had travelled the day before for a summer vacation in Dubai. The previous day, he had called me to cancel a meeting, explaining that he was at the airport, "sorting out his family travel."

That image of Duncan Mighty, beaming to videos of his cute son, and paying for expensive vacations, and expressing a longing for their company, is at odds with the allegations of domestic assault. None my reach-outs to him via DMs, phone calls, and SMS received a response. Just silence. Radio silence.