Nigerian singer and producer CKay talks to OkayAfrica about the rise of his international chart-topping single "Love Nwantiti," his genre-defying sound and the reasons behind this era of afrobeats dominance.
What a year CKay is having. "Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)," a track recorded two years ago, is — without a doubt — one of the biggest songs in the world right now. It's hard keeping up with its phenomenal and unprecedented chart success, but we'll try: it's the number one song on YouTube's Global Chart, getting an all-time Nigerian record of 73.7million views in a week. It's also the most Shazamed song in the world, number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. and number 3 on the UK singles chart, ahead of Drake and Billie Ellish. Plus, a continental record of 25 million monthly followers on Spotify confirms this: the 26-year-old artist born Chukwuka Ekweani is having an incredible moment.
It's fairly easy to get caught up in the numbers, but CKay maintains a grace of humility. "I just express myself," CKay mentions to OkayAfrica. "It's not like I'm calculating anything. I'm literally just vibing, telling my story and giving my energy to the world."
When we last spoke to CKay earlier this year, the Lagos-based musician had just released Boyfriend, a lush project detailing the eccentric moods of a youthful relationship. It was also his first project as a signee of Warner Music South Africa. On a recent Friday afternoon, CKay and I connect again on Zoom. He dons a fly basketball jersey, its blue and orange stripes complemented by his pink dreadlocks. His calm demeanor inspires an easy way of speaking as he ponders his song's success.
Photo: Walter Banks
The rise of "Love Nwantiti" was unassuming: in early September, a friend sent him a clip of the record being used on TikTok, predicting it would trend on the platform. CKay wasn't as optimistic as the song had already trended sometime last year, specially its first official remix which featured fellow Nigerian singer Joeboy and Ghanaian musician Kuami Eugene.
But, a few days after watching the clip from his friend's feed, "Love Nwantiti" had organically gone viral on the platform, its breezy sound catching the ears of many. However, this popular sound wasn't CKay's version. A remix by DJ Yo and Axel slowed down the Tempoe-produced song, essentially taking it from club banger to a sexy strip club-esque record. All the while, the original creator wasn't quite acknowledged.
"It was crazy," says CKay about the initial lack of credit. "There's so many stories around this actually. A lot of Moroccans loved the song so much they started saying on TikTok that it was by some Moroccan artist. Then there was a pirate who somehow hacked the file and uploaded the song before the label approved; it did millions of views and all that. The way he uploaded it, it was El Grande Toto featuring me. So I think that's where the misconception came from. There's also the bootleg remix of the acoustic by DJ Yo which we discovered when it got on the Shazam Top 50. We had to reach out to him and reclaim the song basically."
CKay also shared a 34-second acoustic version on TikTok showing, indeed, that he was the song's creator. "Love Nwantiti" means "Small Love" in Igbo, a major language in Nigeria of which CKay is a native speaker. Perhaps growing up in country's northern state of Kaduna enhanced CKay's views of how language can transcend geographical barriers. As a professional musician, he's famously approved international remixes for many of his songs. "One person cannot speak all the languages in the world so for a song like 'Love Nwantiti' it just made sense to have remixes," he says. "To be fair, artists were reaching out to us and people are still reaching out for remixes. It's just a situation of music bringing the world together and I happen to be the vessel for this to happen."
BIG LOVE to everyone vibing to my music from all over the world 🌍💜✨!
In high school, CKay was a prodigious student of science. Though his father was a choirmaster and taught him to play classical music, Chukwuka Ekweani's academic brilliance made a music career undesirable for his middle class parents. He fled Kaduna for Lagos, later signing for Chocolate City and producing for the label's acts while waiting his turn. After a couple of unsatisfactory pop-centric attempts, he released CKay The First in 2019, a true showcase of his immersive sonic universe. "Emo-afrobeats" is what he calls it.
"It's very emotional," he says, explaining his sound. "I know the emotions I put into my music. So when it's out and I see the effects of those emotions on people it's crazy to me 'cos I literally see my emotions recreated. Yeah, it's afrobeats but very heavy on the emotions."
This sensual aspect of CKay's artistry is still being acknowledged. On TikTok where "Love Nwantiti" has soundtracked over 3 million videos, people use the song to feel cute or show their playful moves. A dance routine by popular TikToker Tracy Joseph has made it easier for the thousands joining the challenge each day.
CKay couldn't have imagined the song's supersonic stardom. It was recorded "on a very regular day" in the living room of CKay's Victoria Island apartment. He was freestyling on his piano and, for improvisation, came up with the famous "ah ah ah'" harmony in place of a conventional chorus. After subsequent listens, he knew the song was complete.
Reply to @cooldjdk As requested. THANK YOU GUYS SO MUCH FOR BLOWING THIS DANCE UP!!!🙏🏽🙏🏽❤️ Dc:me #fyp
CKay boldly stands at the intersection between internet popularity and real-time impact. His is a journey that's never been scripted. How does one take over the world from his studio in Lagos? Post-global acclaim, a number of international engagements have surfaced but the artist is "not enjoying it yet." He's rather locked in, working on his debut album.
From Wizkid to Tems and Burna Boy, afrobeats is growing exponentially. Streaming platforms and international record labels are just some of the investors making their way into West African hubs like Lagos and Accra, poaching young talents like CKay. Being on the Warner Music roster sure has its advantages for CKay. "It's a much more robust team, with more resources than where I was coming from," he mentions.
As the year winds towards December, a very busy period for entertainers, expect CKay to perform some shows "here and there." One last question then: as an insider, what does CKay find most exciting about the afrobeats scene right now? "There's a lot of diversity, a lot of people coming through with their identity and their unique sound," he answers. "Not everyone is following the norm, so that's pretty great. I'd say the most exciting thing about being a musician in general, not just in this space, is the fact that I get to express myself and people get to connect with my feelings and ideas — and it creates a bond."