Interview: Ric Hassani Wants to Remind You Nigerian Music Is More Than Afrobeats

Ric Hassani.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Interview: Ric Hassani Wants to Remind You Nigerian Music Is More Than Afrobeats

The singer recounts his pursuit for relatability through his latest album, The Prince I Became, which features appearances from Nicky Jam, Sauti Sol, Kuami Eugene , and more.

"Pop-soul is my strong suit. It's one sound I can kill even in my sleep." Ric Hassani marks this as his reason for betting on the sound after ditching rap under the moniker Rico Slim—despite being aware of Nigerians' indisposition to music with unpronounced 'Afro-' elements. Buoyed by his titillating vocals, introspective lyricism and Ankara-corporate statement of fashion, the Port Harcourt-born singer & songwriter defies the clichéd constructs expected of Nigerian male artists.

Born Ikechukwu Eric Ahiauzu, to a family of academics with both parents being professors, Hassani's unwavering passion for music triggered his independent journey following a bout of skepticism from potential investors and labels, including Sony, who thought he wasn't 'popular' or 'Afro-poppy' enough. In 2015, Hassani struck gold with "Gentleman," followed by his debut album, African Gentleman which houses records like "Believe" alongside Olamide & Falz and "Only You," the singer's gateway to global acclaim. According to Hassani, "the success of 'Only You' was validating because I went through a terrible phase to record that album." The song has since been delivered in Portuguese, Spanish, French by artists from those regions. Subsequently, Hassani has kept pace on charts and at concerts across Malawi, Mauritius, Honduras, Louisiana, St Lucia, and more.

The Prince I Became is the singer's follow up to his 2017 debut with assists from Latin star Nicky Jam, Kenya's Sauti Sol, Ghana's Kuami Eugene , and others. The album records Hassani's flux from a hopeless romantic portrayed in African Gentleman to a wistful flame in "Thunder Fire You," the album's lead single that has since been met with a ban from Nigeria's National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

Hassani is creating the original soundtrack for David Oyewolo 's directorial debut, The Water Man , a feature film produced by Oprah Winfrey slated for release in May 2021. Speaking to OkayAfrica, Hassani sheds light on crossing boundaries as an independent artist from Nigeria, "Thunder Fire You" and why the Nigerian media should extend more focus towards artists of non-Afropop sound.

Ric Hassani - Thunder Fire You

Who were your influences while defining your sound?

It kind of came from dabbling around different sounds just trying to see what works, which got me closer to hearing what I'm comfortable with and what people are responding to. At some point, I did listen to some Usher, Sam Smith, Craig David, Luther Vandross .

What kept you going despite the underwhelming reception of non-Afropop records in Nigeria at the time?

It was a matter of putting my best foot forward. I just make the kind of music I'm confident to be best at. I can make other sounds be it reggae, street, Afro,rap, etc. but pop-soul is really my strong suit. It's one that I can kill anytime - even in my sleep.

What was your experience with labels and potential investors like earlier in your career?

Labels didn't want to sign me because there I was, with a thin voice, no tattoos or bling, all suited up and defying their understanding of masculinity. At the time, the typical masculine thing to do is to be sexy, toned/ripped and sing uptempo music. Those experiences were the main reason I went the independent route. Contrary to what people think, my being independent was strictly by design not by choice to prove a point or to project some DIY narrative. In trying to get heard, I squatted between houses and studios in Lagos for eight years and as I wasn't getting younger, I had to do something differently. I'd have loved to be signed to a solid label at the time because it took so much work and mistakes. Thankfully, it turned out better as I'm now in a lot more control of my input and returns. Labels began to approach me when things took off.

What did the success of "Only You" mean to you?

The success of "Only You" was validating because I went through a terrible phase to record that album. At the time of recording, I was intensely broke, sad, depressed, angry, name it! After Gentleman , Chocolate City tried to sign me but the process took months due to the usual back and forth adjustments. It remained one more adjustment that I wasn't comfortable with but it took long and as I was at a very low point, I resolved to sign it anyway. Then, I was nearly out of cash and had an ultimatum where I squatted. I called the intermediary incessantly—about 60 times—but no response. I moved back to Port Harcourt the next day, where I recorded the album at a friend's studio in two weeks. Afterwards, the intermediary reverted but I was over it. So, seeing something as massive as "Only You" come out of that process lifted so much emotional weight off my shoulders.

Image courtesy of the artist.

How does it feel crossing so many boundaries with your music as an independent artist?

It's been fulfilling in the sense that there are many artists who make music but are probably not heard or regarded enough by their colleagues. For artists like Sauti Sol, Nicky Jam to want to make music with me, having come across many talents. It's fulfilling to say the least, achieving all these with no major backing.

Going from "Gentleman" to "Thunder Fire You" is an interesting transition. Don't you think?

I think I was appropriate and adequate enough. If anything, I don't think it was enough for what I went through. This finished version is PG compared to the hell that I had to deal with. This version of "Thunder Fire You" is reminiscent of a movie that is based on true events but modified for dramatization and entertainment whereby some very harsh things are removed.

Interesting. Did you abound by a certain philosophy while recording the album?

I was just in a state of mind that was very deep and I had to make music that reflected that. I made this album during lockdown last year so I was very much inside my head—like everyone else—as I couldn't go out. I was thinking a lot, which wouldn't have been the case if I could go to the club, bar or drive for inspiration. The album came out really deep and heavy, I honestly didn't want that. I wanted to tell stories; unlike African Gentleman where I just wanted to make love songs that sounded nice, no matter how unreal. I wanted people to know and relate with me a bit more.

Does it matter to you that non-pop artists suffer relative disparity in comparison to attention given to their pop counterparts by the Nigerian media?

It does because there are people who either want to make my style of music or be like me but because my story isn't told enough, they're discouraged from wanting to or embarking on my journey. I've been doing well for a minute. In 2015, I headlined Lake of Stars Festival in Malawi alongside Uhuru to thousands of people. I've done about 12 shows with over 10,000 non-anglophone attendees; my songs are constantly on the Top 10 charts in Mauritius, Fiji, Providence Island, Columbia, Honduras, St Lucia etc. All these great things happen but when I return to Nigeria, I don't see an encouraging energy. They barely get the kind of amplification that Pop artists do when they achieve relatively less. Many would think artists like us are not successful because our stories are not being told enough.

Indeed. The Nigerian music industry is a lot more than just Afro-Pop.

Exactly. Stories about artists like myself, Johnny Drille ought to be told more, so that people can aspire to be like a Rema and also like Johnny or Ric. Before I got here, there wasn't enough story of anyone to encourage or make me feel like it's okay to sing like this. With me being here now, I know it's a ray of hope to others to actually tread this path.