Since emerging on the scene over two years ago, Crayon has carved a unique path with his catchy songs.
During the 2010s, the young musician Charles Chibuezechukwu made several failed attempts to get into a Nigerian university. On the day of his fifth attempt, while waiting for the exam's commencement, he thought of what he really wanted out of life. To the surprise of the thousands present, he stood up and left the centre, having chosen music. "Nobody knew I didn't write the exam," Charles, who's now known to afro pop lovers as Crayon, tells OkayAfrica over a Zoom call from a Lagos studio. "I had to lie to my parents that I wrote it and didn't pass. But before then, I had already met Don Jazzy and Baby Fresh [my label superiors], so I knew I was headed somewhere."
His assessment is spot on. Over the past two years Crayon's high-powered records have earned him a unique space within Nigeria's pop market. On his 2019 debut EP, the cheekily-titled Cray Cray, the musician shines over cohesive, bright production where he revels in finding pockets of joy in seemingly everyday material. His breakout record "So Fine" is built around the adorable promises of a lover to his woman. It's a fairly trite theme, but the 21-year-old musician's endearing voice strikes the beat in perfect form, and when the hook "call my number, I go respond, oh eh" rolls in, the mastery of space and time is at a level usually attributed to the icons of Afropop: Wizkid, P-Square, Wande Coal.
"My dad used to sell CDs back in the day, in Victoria Island [in Lagos]," reveals Crayon. "I had access to a lot of music: afrobeat, hip-hop, Westlife, 2Face Idibia, Wizkid, and many others." Crayon also learnt stage craft from his father's side hustle as an MC, who was always "so bold and confident," even in the midst of so much activity. His mother, then a fruit seller, loved Igbo gospel songs; few mornings passed when loud, worship songs weren't blasting from their home. All of these, Crayon says, "are a mix of different sounds and different cultures that shaped my artistry."
Photo: Jolaoso Adebayo.
Crayon was born in Orile, but his parents moved to Ojo Road when he was seven. His new hood sat deep in Lagos' mainland, the poorer section of the city where many of its geniuses were bred. Crayon didn't have it easy; one period, crammed in their small one-room apartment lived seven people, family relatives inclusive.
Nigeria's historical culture hub Festac was nearby and Crayon would make the short trek to get into studios, where he would sometimes record music. The conditions were no more glamorous than studios in Ojo, but it offered community. He met the producer Ozedikus (Rema's "Dumebi") and musician Nos, the trio working passionately to foster a creative relationship in discussion with the city's bests. Then performing under the moniker July, one of Crayon's first records "Orobo Love" got rare payment-free airplay from City FM, one of the many urban radio stations in Lagos. With his friends geeked and Ojo Road hot with his name, Crayon had street credibility, a crucial element towards his mainstream crossover.
The process began four years ago, when Crayon received a DM from Mavin Records affiliate and producer Baby Fresh, who invited him to the Mavin Records office in Lekki, an upscale part of Lagos. He and Ozedikus jumped on a motorcycle and changed their lives forever. "[Baby Fresh] took me to Don Jazzy and was like 'Baba, this is Crayon, talented boy. What do you think?' Jazzy said, 'I like him, let's see what we can do with his brand.'"
Two years later he was officially signed onto Fresh's Blowtime Entertainment, in collaboration with its parent company, Jazzy's Mavin Records. During the waiting period he went through Mavin's famed academy system, getting game and watching stars like Tiwa Savage and Reekado Banks do their thing. Industry folks came into the Mavin building and would advice young Crayon. In the case of 'big bro' Reekado, he often gifted Crayon his partly used fashion items.
Photo: Jolaoso Adebayo.
Today Crayon is wearing a cool black jacket, with a mud-colored square on which the word 'bums' is written, and there's no doubt who bought it. His sophomore EP Twelve A.M has been out for less than three weeks, but it's already inspired material within mainstream culture, especially the caption-worthy lyric "I dey love for my heart but for my face e no dey show." Even though the network is sketchy, Crayon's warmth radiates in voice and picture. With the biggest grin he reveals his mother doesn't have to work anymore because "I got her."
But celebrity hasn't divorced Crayon from the teachings of the streets. "I'm street smart, 100 percent. I'm very observant. Growing up in Ojo, you learn not to speak too much, you just do what you do," he says. "It taught me about family too, 'cos I was always around friends, I was always around people a lot of the time. It taught me to stay grounded, know where I come from. We didn't really have much so I have to stay working 'cos obviously I don't want to go back to that life."
"The Twelve A.M EP stands for a new era," Crayon says about his new project. "You know 12A.M is like saying 'day dun break' [it is dawn]. It's also for my fans, who've been up with me through this journey, working tirelessly to see me win–streaming my songs, reaching out and showing me love."
Crayon had it difficult last year. Like most entertainers he had to adapt to unconventional strategies and his head space wasn't always the safest. "It was my fans," he says. "They were my backbone over that period of time 'cos it was crazy. I was losing my mind; you couldn't go out, you couldn't do sh*t. It felt like we were in a movie." He continues: "My fans were tweeting at me, sending DMs, just giving me that boost, like 'we dey for you.' I had to come back stronger and bring the right sound with me. So, big shout out to Cray Army."
For Twelve A.M Crayon had to select four songs from a stash of possibly hundreds, gliding over beats from Baby Fresh and Andre Vibes, who crafted amapiano and pop leaning records to fit Crayon's growing range. Producer London's "In Sync" is an R&B bop with vocal control few would expect from Crayon. "I was just expressing myself," he says of its creation process. "I wrote the second verse of the song three times. I didn't really like the first and I wasn't feeling [the second draft] either. I got hooked somewhere then I walked out of the studio and I saw Ayra [Starr, his label mate] sitting on a couch and I asked her 'can you help me with this?' and she [added some backing vocals] and it was magical."
In Rema and Bella Shmurda are features from two of Nigeria's most exciting genre-defying artists, and their hype is well earned on "Too Correct" and "Jackpot." Rema, Crayon says, has been a close friend since 2018, and they always wanted a song together. Earlier this year there was time and in an unforgettable session in the Mavins' headquarters, another banger was made.
"We've been talking since 2019 but didn't really link up after that," he explains the Bella Shmurda collaboration. "Fast forward to [that year's] Christmas Day me and Rema went to Zlatan Ibile's house to chill. We're about to start leaving and Poco Lee said, 'you and Bella have to give them one for the streets' and I was like, 'yeah, sure,' because we already had something going on. Then this year Bella phoned me, 'yo, I'm in the studio right now, where you dey?' I linked up in the studio with him, played him the 'Jackpot' beat –it was just crazy."
As a beloved musician in one of Africa's top record labels, I ask Crayon the most valuable piece of music business advice he ever received. "For me, it's to never get complacent," he replies after a somber pause. "Don't get too comfortable, no matter how successful you are. You can relax; you can chill, hang out, turn up, get girls, get your cars, do everything but never get too comfortable. That's one thing I hold strongly in my heart. No matter where the music takes me, I still want more."