Lady Donli Is Quietly Breaking the Rules of Nigeria's Music Industry
Image courtesy of the artist.

Lady Donli Is Quietly Breaking the Rules of Nigeria's Music Industry

We speak to the self-described 'Pan-African Rockstar' about her new single 'Wonda Wonda,' her hopes for the Nigerian music scene, artistic growth and why alté is more than a genre.

Lady Donliis "alté" personified. While the name is sometimes used as a blanket term for more experimental Nigerian artists who exist outside of the mainstream, Donli's expression of alté isn't just about the music she produces (which defies simple genre classifications, anyway). Rather, the idea of embracing the "alternative" exists in just about every facet of her lifestyle—from her personal style to her social views, to her creative output and self-possessed attitude. While the previous generation of Nigerian artists might have been more comfortable following convention, the 23-year-old artist, who's also one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020, represents a youth-led approach to doing things differently: "I'm part of a new generation of women that are just like, "Yeah, we're going to talk up a shit-storm," says Donli.

But of course, the music is part of it too. The title of her 2019 debut album, Enjoy Your Life also subtly hints at a desire to subvert. The artist, who was raised in Abuja and lives between Lagos and London, wanted to challenge the (very Lagosian) tendency to never slow down, by reminding herself to be present. "I was so worried about the next day that I wouldn't enjoy my day—even if it was a perfectly good day," says Donli. "I made Enjoy Your Life to remind myself, and others, that today's the day. We have to just take it and do whatever we can with it."

Donli's latest song 'Wonda Wonda' featuring Ghanaian singer Darkovibes is another that highlights her ability to pack varying musical inspirations into a single, harmonious offering. It's her first single of the year, which she says came together "playfully" after a stressful week. When asked about the possibility of a new album dropping soon, she once again alludes to "enjoying life" by taking things one day at a time. "I'm trying not to pressure myself but I am working," she says. In fact, she answers most questions with this kind of simple transparency.

Donli visited the OkayAfrica offices back in March (just days before we had to stop going outside), as she was due to perform in Brooklyn the following week. A calm presence in conspicuous threads—an oversized brown fur, black raver pants, orange frames—she discussed her growth as an artist, moving beyond "the struggle" phase, challenging cultural norms, being a "Pan-Africanist Rockstar" and planning for the future on her own terms. Read our conversation below.

Lady Donli - Wonda Wonda Ft DarkoVibes (Visualizer)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The last time you spoke with OkayAfrica was in 2018, and it was about "the struggle of making it as an artist" in Nigeria. What has changed since then? Do you still feel like you're in another stage of your career?

No, I'm in that stage a little bit, but not so much. Right now, I actually get gigs, I'm able to tour, I have dropped an album that is doing relatively well for me. I'm able to look at the growth. I think of the times where I was couch hopping, and now I'm in a space where I know that that's not going to happen again for me right now. That definitely has changed, and also just putting out a body of work that does well–it changes your perspective about yourself. It's a confidence booster for me, I feel better about myself, and so I'm able to do better and to treat other people better as well. I struggle, obviously, because just being a Nigerian, if you're an African artist there's a lot of [challenges].

Does being a woman add to that too?

For sure. I feel like I have to do things twice as hard, or twice as effectively, to get as much as my male counterparts. And it's just always this thing where there's a lot of room, but when it's two female artists out, there's always a constant need to compare. Even if one is making rock and someone is making Afrobeat, everyone is comparing them because they're the only two. I definitely think, a lot of times, I have to work harder at it, to do a lot more to even just be noticed—not even to succeed in general, just be noticed as something.

But for me, I think it helps me because it just makes me want to be more effective. If it makes me want to work hard, then great. Obviously, it shouldn't be like that, because if I'm working as hard as you, we should have a seat at the same table, but I think it's [actually] a bit encouraging for me. Every day I'm just like, "Hey, you know what? I want it to be better, let's just go."

How are you enjoying the fruits of your success? Has there been anything you've splurged on or a big lifestyle change? How do you treat yourself?

I don't, not yet. I'm getting a new phone this week, after a long time, so that's one thing. But aside from that, what I do more often is I make sure I get my nails done all the time, as much as I can—that's one thing I make sure I do. Oh and one thing, now I stay in Airbnbs more than people's houses. I think that's one of the things I invest in more, just having my own space.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Where do you draw your inspirations from, in terms of style?

I just dress how I feel, how I dress has always been me. In secondary school, we used to wear ties, so I'd make sure I knotted my tie to be like this short [demonstrates]. Everyone would just be like, "Why is your tie that short?" I was just like "I'm just bored. I'm bored with this uniform, I just want something [different]." That's kind of how I am with style, I just always want to feel like it's a reflection of how I'm feeling. I have my 'bummy' days, when I just wear my jalabiya (that Hausa people wear), but when I want to be edgy, I'm like, "Yeah, let's go all out."

Mostly I just love prints as well. I used to love what Fela used to wear at his shows as well as Angelique Kidjo and other eccentric African-Americans, they definitely inspired me. Rock stars as well, like Freddie Mercury—people like that. For me, they're unapologetically themselves in their music and in style, that's kind of like what I'm trying to do.

You're known as a leader of Nigeria's alté scene. But I think sometimes, what is considered alté is broad, and anyone making music outside of the typical afropop gets thrown in there. What would you define alté as?

From my understanding, alté is subculture. It's not so much the music or the sound, it's what it's becoming. It's just a subculture of kids making music that is different to the mainstream. Kids dressing in a certain way, kids creative directing their own videos–that's what alté is and I like that. Genre-wise, I'm making anything from highlife to soul, to this sort of "afro combination of something." I think in Nigeria, the way we define music now, is that if you're not making Afropop, then it's alternative music. Which is lazy, but that's what we're getting, so we're just keeping it. But, alté, as what people know it to be, it's different from alternative music. Alté is a subculture.

Listening to your music, your voice has a lot of jazz inflections. Are there any specific jazz vocalists who've influenced your sound?

You know, it's funny, I would say Nina Simone, but it was also a battle [for her] with jazz, because she wanted to be a great jazz pianist, and everyone was like, "You're not jazzy." So, Nina Simone's pretty up there, for me. But I think the people that really influenced me, my voice and how I just deliver my music [are] Erykah Badu, Tracy Chapman, Macy Gray, Indie Arie—all these people made me know that I can sing. It doesn't have to be conventional to me. I don't have to sing like Mariah Carey or Beyoncé, but there's something there.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Just to revisit your explosive "Corner" music video, why did you choose to tackle social issues facing women in Nigeria? Especially the sex for grades scandal?

I'm a woman in Nigeria, and the sex for grades [scandal] might not be my story, because I didn't go to school in Nigeria, but I have a lot of friends who were affected, and it hits close to home. "Corner" is such a fun song. People listen to it and I'm sure everyone was expecting us to do a really fun video, and that's cool. Instead [I wanted to] put out something that could have some form of an impact and make people want to reflect on our institutions, because no one else is doing it. I have always been passionate about women's issues because they affect me, and I just feel like I want my art to speak a bit more.

It seems that some Nigerian woman artists, for whatever reason, aren't always as outspoken about these types of issues.

I'm beginning to understand, because I feel like at a point, I was just a bit angry. I was like, "Why is no one else talking about this?" But it's hard, it's a hard conversation to have, especially when you come from an industry that is so male dominated. To come from an industry where, all your life, people have been telling you, "You're a woman, you can't do this, you can't do this." So much so that you even start to believe it. I'm happy there's a generational gap, where I've been exposed more to seeing things outside the country. I'm part of a new generation of women that are just like, "Yeah, we're going to talk a shit storm." And I think that just inspires me as well, to just want to be more.

I've seen you describe yourself as a Pan-Africanist rock star. What does that mean to you?

I'm very passionate about different things, but I'm beginning to feel a bit more pride in my heritage, of being African. I'm trying my best to understand what it means to be African. In Nigeria [some of us] don't know lots about our past. I can talk to an average Nigerian and ask them about the Civil War, or ask them about Africa, and they have no clue. I've started reading lots of Marcus Garvey, and his quote "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots," really hit me because I was like, "There's so much I don't know." I don't know these things, and a lot of people don't know these things as well. If we don't know, then we are not interested in trying to change anything. We just accept things as "This is how it's always been," but that's not true.

Being a Pan-African is about trying to make people understand where they come from so that they can appreciate where they can get to, and strive accordingly. Coming from Nigeria, it hurts me every day, seeing what Nigeria is, because in my head, I'm like, "Yo, there's so much here." From the culture, to the music that inspires me, the people and the vibrancy of the culture. I want to provoke that thought process in people so that they can own that for themselves.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you speak to the music industry in Abuja and Lagos? Lagos is the center, but how do we make it so that artists emerging from other areas are also represented?

Coming from Abuja, there's a bigger sense of community [now]. People are coming together, and people are performing here and there. That's happening, but the international eye right now is focused on Lagos, and that's just because of the history as well. There's Fela's shrine, and tourists want to come down, they want to see The Shrine, they want to see Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti—and I think it's just about understanding that these two cities are different, we don't need to be the same in any way. But the Abuja scene can start to build its own industry, but that industry is still going to be interconnected with Lagos.

Which is okay because the problem is much bigger than Abuja and Lagos. The problem is infrastructure in general—of the entire country. There's just not enough. I guess that, in itself, is a form of elitism. There's not enough to go around in general. If you go down to Jos or Port Harcourt or Owerri, there's music going on and there are people that are home-grown stars in their homes. But the world's eye is on Lagos, and it's just because of infrastructure. People that come in from America of the UK, they're not trying to look [beyond], all they know is Lagos.

But I think what we can do is work to build the scenes in our places, but also streamlining back to Lagos and just understand that, okay, that's kind of the capital of music for us.

What impact do you want to leave, in terms of Nigerian music?

The mission is to empower and impact lives. That's broad, but I'm happy that I see girls that are younger than me, messaging me like, "Donli, I'm sorry, but I see you making music this way, it inspires me to want to do this and still feel like I can be a feminist and do this." If I can help in that way, and obviously continue being a Pan-African rock star.

How has this time of being in self-isolation affected you creatively? Has it helped or hurt your process?

It's mostly helped me. I have more time now to work on my craft. I'm writing songs with more detail and I'm practicing performing. I'm just allowing myself to live in the moment and using everyday as an opportunity to pick up something new. For me, this is the best time to pick up better habits so I'm trying to utilise it as much as possible.