Meet Kah-Lo, the Grammy-Nominated Nigerian Singer You Haven't Heard of
Two Nigerians are nominated for the Grammys: one of them is Wizkid, the other is Kah-Lo for "Rinse and Repeat" with veteran British DJ Riton.
Two Nigerians are nominated for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony slated for February 12, 2017.
One of them is Wizkid for co-writing and co-producing Drake’s "One Dance" in the Album of the Year category, the other is Kah-Lo for "Rinse and Repeat" with Riton, the veteran British DJ, for Best Dance Performance.
Kah-Lo’s nomination comes as a surprise to many of the artist’s fellow citizens.
In Nigeria, afrobeats is in front-street while other pop-genres lurk in back alleys and lungu only making an appearance as infusions, rather than stand-alone genres. Kah-Lo’s nomination is exciting for being a big bruising house track, a little known genre in Nigeria, at a time when afrobeats all but dominates.
Until the list was announced, the only other Kah-Lo I knew was of course the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. When I found out that Kah-Lo, the Grammy nominee’s first name is “Faridah,” all became clear.
I searched online and found just two songs by her, “Rinse and Repeat” and “Betta Riddim”, both produced by Riton. There was little in the way of biography and no dependable gossip (not even fluff). Of the few photos online, there's one of her and Davido which should tell me something, but I glean little that is revealing. It would seem she came out of the ether.
Kah-Lo comes from an affluent background. This shouldn’t matter much because the focus should be on her music. But after speaking to her over phone for an hour, it dawns on me that her background is inextricably linked to the music she's making.
Appropriately, when I spoke to Kah-Lo she is in Lagos—where she grew up and still spends a considerable amount of time—and it's closing in on Christmas when anticipation of end of the year festivities is peaking, capturing the spirit of "Rinse and Repeat" in full.
On Life Since the Grammy Nomination
What you were doing when you heard the news?
I was in my room, about to go back to bed. People kept tweeting me congratulations and I didn't know why.
What did you think the congratulations were for?
Spotify had just put up a playlist and they made us the first track on the playlist. I thought it's like they were telling me congratulations for that and I was like, "Huh?" Then someone cc'd me the actual tweet and then I screamed. My mom thought robbers had come to the house.
Did you know that your record company, Interscope, put "Rinse and" Repeat forward?
So what did you do right after hearing the news?
You can't go back to bed after that. Yeah, it was crazy because before that I was really tired and I got tweeted some CNN video announcing the nominees, and usually I watch the ceremony but I was so tired.
I said I would just watch it when I wake up, or I'll just read the lists when I wake up. My mom was the only one who was there at the time, so I told her, but at that time I guess she didn't really understand what that meant because I was just screaming and she was just like, "What the hell." She then was like, "Call your dad," and I couldn't even call him because my hands were shaking so much. It was unreal, you know?
Yeah, I can imagine.
After that my phone just started blowing up. I had to put it on airplane mode at one point.
Did you also know that Wizkid was nominated for his work on "One Dance"?
No, I didn't know until the next day, I guess the Nigerian press picked it up.
Do you go outside? Do you go to places?
I do. I go out. I'm in the clubs every Friday. I really like Lagos' nightlife and everything. I think it's a very lively city.
I don't know the town very well, I grew up in Kaduna, but I feel, like London, it's a town that would really come alive at night time, if you're into it.
It really, really does. Yeah, exactly, if you like that type of stuff. Some people come and they're like, "Eh." You know, smoking isn't banned in the clubs. You leave and your entire outfit smells like smoke and your breath smells like smoke.
Surely you’re now getting many offers from afrobeats artists?
Yeah, a lot, I can't keep track. It's kind of crazy.
Are you saying yes or no to these offers?
I'm still figuring out what I'm doing. But what I will say is January we're dropping a new single and that should be very exciting for the global house music scene and for Africa and specifically for Nigeria. It should be really, really different, and I'm really excited slash nervous to see it.
This might be the opportunity to bring dance to Nigeria.
Yeah, that's a lot pressure.
Davido did a decent job with “How Long?” with Tinashe.
I like that song. I really like it. I work out to it all the time.
I don't like how much it has done on YouTube as I expected it to do a lot more. Dance hasn't taken root in Nigeria.
You'd be surprised by how many producers want to get in there, but the thing is that no one wants to lose money, you know? You can't really blame them.
On Rapping But Not Being A “Rapper”
“By the way I'm not a rapper,” said Kah-Lo, quick to correct a misconception before it becomes one. It doesn't strike me as put-on humility meant to lower any bar that I or anyone else might set for her. Rather, it's a simple admission of what to her is her lesser talent, as she is equally forthright about her forte. She corrects her correction by adding, “I'm primarily not a rapper”.
That changes everything.
Yeah. I’m really not a rapper. When I started making music I didn't think I could sing very well, so I started as a rapper. Ikechukwu, I was big fan of and I was like, “Oh my God, I really want to make music with you,” and he convinced me to sing. And it turns out I could actually sing pretty well. So I started to sing.
On Twitter you call yourself the “Monotone Rap Princess”.
Yeah, I had to take it down.
It's the first time I've seen anyone own up to being monotone because rappers pride themselves on versatility.
I really think if I'm telling a story, and I'm just talking, and I'm just being me, that's what it sounds like. It sounds like just talking—monotone.
Were you a fan of Weird MC? Was she an influence?
I just like her, I wouldn't say she was a direct influence.
What about Sasha?
Sasha is nice. There was a time I was bringing music to her. She was really helpful. I looked up to her and I have her First Lady album.
Blaise to be fair, I'm not really familiar with her stuff. If anything I'm more familiar with Kel as a female rapper. She was a Nigerian rapper, and she had really good songs, she had this mad flow. I can't name any of her songs off the top of my head, but she was really, really good.
On "Rinse and Repeat"
Dance, to the untrained ear, sounds like one beat kept in an eternal loop. Kah-Lo’s rapping on "Rinse and Repeat" she has said is “monotonous,” and yes it is, but rather than being a fault line, it is actually in keeping with the repetitiveness of the beat.
So, before one gets to the precise meaning of the title phrase "Rinse and Repeat" which she reveals, repeating it again and again on a cyclic beat (again, to the untrained ear) takes on a meta-state that is as much auditory as it is literal.
At a tangent, Kah-Lo and Riton’s collaboration is strongly reminiscent of Azealia Banks’ and the Belgian brothers Basto and Lazy Jay breakout single “212.”
This was in 2001 when Nicki Minaj had started her ascent and there was little stomach for another acid-tongue female MC in hip-hop’s higher echelon.
At a similar tangent, Kah-Lo’s rise is coming at a time when afrobeats is becoming a globally recognised genre, as if she'd opted and relied on counter-programming as a strategy.
What's does "Rinse and Repeat" mean? And is there a story behind it?
Yeah, it's basically Christmas in Lagos, because when we recorded that, I had just come back from Lagos for Christmas.
You know how Christmas in Lagos is, you wake up, you go to your party or your wedding, then you come back really late, and then you wake up and you do the same thing. You rinse and you repeat. Over and over. It's starting right now (December when the interview was conducted). There's lots of traffic even, because everybody's going somewhere.
Well I’m in London and it’ll be dead.
Well in Lagos, there's something happening every single day. If you wanted to be out, you can even be at three events every day.
So, you rinse the party and then you repeat to do it all over again. You rinse it you, you enjoy it and do it over again.
Yeah, like you rinse. You get fresh, you shower, you put your makeup on, whatever. Then you repeat the cycle. That's why I say "Time to make the club go up. Time to make the club shut down." Like it's finish, shut it down.
In London, where I picked this up, to “Rinse” a song or film is to watch it again and again.
I didn’t think of that.
So you're primarily a singer?
I prefer to sing, right? But then it wasn't until, I want to say two years ago, that I became more confident in my "rap" skills, so that's when I started really putting it out.
When I heard you, the first track instantly reminded me of "212" by Azealia Banks.
I'm not that familiar with Azealia Banks. "212" is the only song I know.
The comparison is strong. Maybe it's a good thing that you didn't even know her music very well.
Yeah, because a lot of the time people compare me to, I've never listened to before. I kind of like to keep it that way, because I kind of adapt my ears easily, and I don't want to end up pulling from somewhere, getting sued and stuff.
How did "Rinse and Repeat" do in Nigeria before it was nominated?
Only on two radio stations. One in Lagos and one in Benin,.
Now, every station plays it because they know I'm Nigerian. Everybody's like, 'Represent for Nigeria. Represent for this. Bring the Grammy home. I'm rooting for you.' It's a lot of pressure.
On Working With Riton
Kah-Lo graduated from Hofstra University in 2013. She'd been recording, but hadn't released any songs as they were “not ready,” as advised by her musician friends.
She ignored them and began posting song after song in SoundCloud, after which she contacted Riton who dug one track enough to want to remix it.
But then both artists realised they had a strong synergy, and decided to work on new material instead.
What song was Riton going to remix?
It was a song called "Hurdle." It’s not up anymore.
Why did you scrap it? How did you start working on "Rinse and Repeat"?
I guess because the musical chemistry was just way better than we thought it would be. I mean, we already knew that we kind of vibed, because I heard his stuff and I thought it was amazing, and he heard my stuff and he thought it was amazing. So I guess we just ended up creating new and better stuff, so we just completely forgot about it.
Did he make the beat first, or did you bring the idea?
The beat. He played it for me. I was still fresh from Christmas in Lagos, so that was what was in my head, and I knew dance, it had to be fun. I was just thinking, 'Okay, I've never made house music before. I don't know if I will know how to do this.'
I was like, 'Okay, what happens with house music? It just goes on, like a loop.' Yeah, exactly. It's like a loop, a vocal loop, and I was like, 'How do you write one thing that's so good and repeats all the time and people don't get tired of it?'
Are you going to carry on working with Riton, or is it going to be Kah-Lo the album coming soon?
I don't know about an album, that's a bit of a stretch right now. We have a bunch of songs. Some of them are mine, some of them by me and him.
Your songs, are they produced by Riton?
Riton has been doing house forever. That's his genre. So I want to say that the stuff that's not typically house is the solo stuff.
Can I ask what your next single is going to be?
I don't know, because it might change, it might not be the first single in two months. The one that is there in mind right now which everybody on the team likes has a lot of monotone rap and then it switches up to this very nice chorus-y thing, and it's very different.
It sounds like you and Riton are business partners as well.
Yeah, business partners or creative partners. We just click. I didn't even expect us to click like that, because there's also such an age gap and we’re coming from two different backgrounds and two different worlds. He's British, I'm Nigerian.
And he's dance, and you are meant to be afrobeats, but you're not.
Yeah, exactly. The music I grew up on is completely different from the music he grew up on. There's this really cool acid house and afrobeats mix he made on BBC Radio one.
It's really cool, because he basically took all the major afrobeats and afropop songs and mixed them in with traditional acid house, and made a mix. I was just mind blown. How do you combine these two worlds? A sixteen minute mix and it's so cool.
Henry has his own label called Riton Time, and the singles I do release will be on Riton Time, the first few singles.
So you wrote the chorus and he picked the title. Is there a particular way the two of you work?
He's a really great producer and I like to consider myself a pretty good lyricist, so when I write, I write what I'm writing, and I just lay it down. Sometimes I would be like, "Okay, I've written this, and we've made two verses and two choruses." By the time he gives it back it's chopped down, screwed down and it's a completely different song that I originally imagined.
Was “Betta Riddim” recorded after "Rinse and Repeat"? Was Rinse and Repeat a big hit before you recorded Betta Riddim?
Yeah, because I spent, say a month in England in September. It was in between August and September, and we just worked on a bunch of stuff.
And when exactly did you record "Rinse and Repeat," can I ask?
This was February or March 2015, but he didn't put this up until last year. We didn't start getting the radio play until November.
In hindsight he waited until the right time.
Yeah, I guess so, yeah.
Have you performed it in Nigeria?
That's the thing, people don't even know who I am. I go around all the time. It wasn't until this news just broke that people are like, "What, you are here?"
Tell me about the first time you performed "Rinse and Repeat."
It was scary. Before that, I only performed in school and also in coffee shops and bars in Brooklyn and Queens.
But now video gets a lot of airplay in England, and we performed it in France. We did a show in France at this music radio festival and it was in front of 6,000 people.
How does that compare to the house scene in Nigeria?
There's a show run by a company called Spektrum who brought Black Coffee and there is actually a bunch of people trying to make house music, it's a scene here.
Please tell me more.
There's this thing they do I think every month. It's called Element House. I've been three times. It's really nice, because we just play house music the entire night.
The promoter knew "Rinse and Repeat" before he even met me, and he was very excited to meet me, I know that. It's usually a more mature crowd.
You'll have to put that guy in your next video. Give him a two second shot, for the co-sign.
Yeah, I don't mind that.
House or Dance is not big in Nigeria. Have you always been a fan, or did it start with working with Riton?
Well, you see I've always appreciated all types of music, because I just grew up like that, but working with Henry he introduced me, obviously, to whole new different world of dance that I didn't even imagine existed.
He's been doing it for so long, so it's the type of thing where he taught me a lot of things and he played me a lot records, and I'm like, 'Wow, this is amazing.'
What made you want to reach out to a dance DJ and not a Don Jazzy?
Well, I mean, I've been trying, but I was never really drawn to afrobeats like that. I enjoy it, I like to dance to it, but I don't know if I have the ability to make it. Afrobeats, I feel, comes from a very raw place, it would be kind of hypocritical of me if I started making it.
On Grammy Night
As it happens, Kah-Lo is an avid watcher of the Grammy ceremonies, a habit that has inculcated into a tradition. “I try to watch it every year”says Kah-Lo, as one would a once entrenched routine, “I didn't expect I'd win one so soon” she said then quickly added, “Not win one, be nominated for one.”
At what point your career did you think you'd be in a position to win a Grammy?
I thought it would take at least five years.
And already boom, it's there now.
Two years ago my sister won tickets to the Grammy's from the nomination ceremony.
How was it?
The seats were so terrible. When we first came everyone around us had binoculars but we didn't get why. When it started we realized you really can't see. It was so high up.
It was so bad, we had to Google what celebrities were wearing before we could point them out in the crowd, like, 'Oh yeah that's Amber Rose in the yellow dress. Okay yeah, that's Taylor Swift, I see her. They said she was wearing purple.' Yeah, that's two years ago. So it's so crazy that two years after I'd be nominee.
I told my sister, 'We're going to come back one day.' And I thought one day would be five years later. It's just crazy that just two years after.
Are you now going to ask a seat upfront on Grammy night?
Oh, I don't really care where I sit, to be honest. It will all be great to be there.
But do you have any expectations for the Grammy day, apart from winning of course?
Well, not yet, I guess. Because it hasn't really fully sunk in yet. I don't even know what I'm going to wear.
Who's going to be your date on the night?
It's between my sister and my dad.
Sabo Kpade is an Associate Writer with Spread The Word. His short story Chibok was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. His first play, Have Mercy on Liverpool Street was longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. He lives in London.