“Look at me, you don’t see crazy jewellery,” says Mr Eazi as he rolls up his sleeves to reveal two relatively modest-looking bracelets. “These are gifts. Yes, these are not cheap gifts, this is expensive, but look at this, it’s just a simple wrist band. And that tells me where my passion is.”
The Afrobeats star is in the midst of explaining how, instead of wasting his money on things like jewellery, he’s continuing to invest in building Empawa Africa, an incubator programme he launched in 2018. Empawa Africa provides artists with funding and label services that help equip them with the valuable tools necessary to build successful, independent music careers.
And he’s right. His peers at the highest level — the likes of Davido, Olamide, Burna Boy and Wizkid — are seldom seen without shiny, diamond-encrusted jewellery on. In stark contrast, Mr Eazi comes across as economical and sparing. That’s his brand.
It’s just after 6pm and I’m seated next to the 30-year-old Nigerian at a corner table in the leisurely Flames restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel at The Westcliff. In between our chat over dinner, he takes several calls with business partners, investors and artists. It’s clear that he’s not just the face of Empawa, he’s really pulling the strings. On our last encounter, with Empawa still in its infancy, he spoke clearly on what he hoped to achieve. “The end goal for that is to build a new incubator for African music within Africa and the African diaspora.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done. Joeboy, one the first artists he partnered with three years ago, is now one of the biggest artists to emerge on the continent over the past few years.
Mr Eazi’s first brush with success came in 2015 when his single Skin Tight made waves across West Africa and trickled down to the rest of the continent. A year later, he tentatively released Leg Over after it leaked online and went viral.
With growing global interest in Afrobeats at the time, in large part due to Drake’s One Dance, the record-breaking Wizkid-assisted single that dabbled in the genre, Leg Over would go on to thrust Mr Eazi onto the international stage and secure him as the latest global Afrobeats star. He capitalised on that hype by swiftly releasing his mixtape Life Is Eazi, Vol 1 — Accra to Lagos, a project that explored his Ghanaian and Nigerian roots (he was born in Nigeria but spent many of his formative years in Ghana) through a unique sound that blended banku music (which he pioneered) with Afrobeats, dancehall and elements of R&B.
During this period he was selected for Apple Music’s global Up Next campaign, which saw him placed on billboards in global entertainment hubs such as New York, London and Los Angeles, and appear live on James Corden’s Late, Late Show.
Building on what was unprecedented international coverage for an Africa star at the time, in 2018 Mr Eazi firmly established himself as the continent’s top streaming artist with the record-breaking mixtape, Life is Eazi, Vol 2 — Lagos to London. On it, he both extended on the popular sound of Leg Over with an even more successful photocopy titled Pour Me Water and showcased his versatility.
He’s since largely retreated into an executive role with the odd release every now and then.
Now, with his business in full flow, Mr Eazi is looking to finally prioritise his own music too.
“It’s like I’m in the process again because I haven’t done this in a while — this whole press thing. I mean I’ve put out songs with J Balvin, Nicki Minaj, Major Lazer but it wasn’t as serious because it wasn’t leading up to a project or anything. So this feeling is different, it’s taking me back to when I was about to put out my last mixtape and having to put out the singles and the campaign and when I was pushing (the singles) Property or Pour Me Water or London Town.”
That was four years ago, and he hasn’t dropped a full body of work since.
It’s been about a month since Mr Eazi released his latest single, Legalize. This single isn’t just one of the numerous he’s released over the past few years, it’s the first single leading towards his upcoming debut album. After two hugely successful EPs, he says this feels like the right time to take a step into a full on album.
“You know sometimes you just get to the point where you feel like now is the time. You just know, you just feel it. There’s no way to explain it. Everyday I lean towards it. Last week when I was in Paris I was shooting the fourth video from the album so that was when it hit me like, ‘Wow you’ve shot four videos.’ It’s gone from ideation, from Kel P saying, ‘Eazi, let’s make an album’ last year February, to recording all those songs. And I’m still recording.”
Mr Eazi is now in the process of playing around with names for the album. It’s a deeply personal album, he says. When I probe whether by personal he means he’ll be sharing more on his recent engagement to award-winning Nigerian actress Temi Otedola, he responds: “When I say personal, I don’t even just mean like love. I just mean personal in the sense of what I’m talking about. My first single, Legalize, I’m talking about getting engaged to my fiancée, so that’s personal. In the next one I’m talking about realising where I am in life and giving thanks. So it’s linked to this first one because in that one I also make reference to my fiancée. In other songs I’m talking about people that have hurt me. Like 90% of all the songs are real, when I say, ‘I don’t wanna do no carra baby you make me legalize,’ it’s real. I’m talking to my fiancée.”
Over the last couple of years, Mr Eazi’s popularity and reach has expanded far beyond the continent and the diaspora thanks to some calculated features. His most fruitful musical relationship has been with Colombian singer J Balvin, who is one of the best-selling Latin artists in the world.
In 2019 he was featured on Bad Bunny, another huge Latin star, and Balvin’s Afrobeats-leaning hit Como Un Bebe. Today the single is one of the best-selling Afrobeats songs in recent history with well more than 300-million streams worldwide. This success launched Mr Eazi into the Latin market, and he hasn’t looked back since.
He recalls how he was introduced to Balvin through Michael Brown, who produced Legalize. The two connected instantly and, before long, he joined Balvin on tour. “Then we made that record and we put it on him and Bad Bunny’s album,” he explains. “That was the only feature on the album, and that was the first high-level introduction of Reggaeton to Afrobeats ever. This was it, that was the moment that kind of opened the door.”
As follow-ups to his two projects, Accra to Lagos and Lagos to London, Mr Eazi previously teased that his next voyage would see him going from London to Kingston. His two releases before Legalize were the yardi/dancehall songs Falling For You with Blaq Jerzee and Harmonize, and before that, Walangolo with DJ Neptune and Konshens.
“That’s island music,” he says. “Those are songs that would’ve been on maybe London to Kingston, but I didn’t, that’s why you see them dropping like that. Maybe at one point another one will drop with a dancehall DJ, but I didn’t go that route with this album. But the journey now is a mental journey, it’s no more from one place to another. So the sonic direction of this album, I don’t even know how to explain it. There’s a reggae influence — the last song on the is reggae-influenced but it features the Soweto Gospel Choir. Then there’s Legalize which is like afro R&B. Then there’s other songs in between. All the songs that I’m making now are real to me. Everything is the pictures I want to paint.”