Mr Eazi performs on stage. The musician has produced a travelling art show in conjunction with
his album, which was released a few weeks ago. Photo: Jordan Naylor/Getty Images
Finding a pop, R&B or hip-hop album without any collaborations these days is as difficult as finding a Joburg road without potholes. And the more unexpected the collaboration, the better.
One of the year’s most eagerly awaited albums, Afrobeats megastar Mr Eazi’s first full album The Evil Genius, is no exception.
Afrobeats, which originated in Nigeria and Ghana, “has become one of the most eclectic — and exportable —sounds in contemporary music, mixing with everything from rap and dancehall to R&B and house”, as Apple Music puts it. It even has its own Billboard charts.
Being at the forefront of Afrobeats’s global conquest, the Nigerian musician, singer and songwriter Mr Eazi (real name Oluwatosin Ajibade), has the pull to attract some of the finest collaborators, such as the legendary Angélique Kidjo, Tekno, Joeboy and Efya, who represent many parts of African music and culture.
He also features the Soweto Gospel Choir on the album.
It is early days but the album looks set to become an Afrobeats magnet for further millions of fans around the world.
So far, so many of the right boxes ticked. But the adventurous Mr Eazi’s collaborations go wider than just music — he works with visual artists too.
It is fair to say that his global success is likely to rub off on these artists from across Africa, due to the exposure working with him will bring them.
Collaborations between music artists and visual artists are not new but it is rare to see them done in a way that is both visually and musically appealing.
In the mid-1960s, there was painter, filmmaker and publisher Andy Warhol, who not only made album art for The Velvet Underground, but was also the group’s manager.
And, in 1981, neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat did graffiti for Blondie’s Rapture music video, when the new wave band dabbled in rap.
Then there was American pop artist Keith Haring, who painted the set for the 1986 video of Grace Jones’s I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You). It is described by Platform as not one of her most familiar tracks “but the music video she made to accompany the song is about as distinct as they get”.
More recently, in 2007, there was the hook-up between Kanye West and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, when he created the anime-inspired cover art for the rapper’s Graduation album.
Complex magazine wrote: “Yeezy must have liked what he saw because he also hired the artist to direct the video for Good Morning, the opening track from the same album.”
Mr Eazi has tastefully followed in those arty footsteps with The Evil Genius. He is taking it a step further in going pan-African by collaborating with 13 artists representing eight different countries.
They include Patricorel, Dominique Zinkpè, Chinaza Nkemka, Tesprit Tete and the South African artist Sinalo Ngcaba.
In a conversation with Dale Berning Sawa of The Guardian, Mr Eazi recounted “a transformative experience” during a visit to Cotonou in Benin, where he stumbled upon a painting by Patricorel. The emotional connection he felt with the artwork served as the inspiration for The Evil Genius.
“I don’t know anything about modern art; I’m not cultured in art history. I didn’t know what style this was or where the artist was from.
“It was just this raw feeling and emotion that I cannot describe. I just knew that I had never seen love so beautifully described,” he told The Guardian.
Thereafter, if he saw an artist’s work, and could relate it to something on the album, and if tracking them down and speaking with them yielded a good level of connection, he’d commission them to make a piece for one of the album’s 13 tracks.
This fusion allows listeners to enjoy Afrobeats not only audibly but also visually, enhancing the emotional and cultural depth of the music.
In addition, it’s becoming a travelling art show in conjunction with his album, which was released at the end of last month, with the first show held in London.
It was through Instagram that Mr Eazi discovered Ngcaba’s artistry.
He recognised that much of the African art that garners attention tends to be serious. What appealed to him about Ngcaba’s contribution was the sense of creative freedom and the invitation it extended to the audience to partake in a joyful artistic experience.
Their collaboration resulted in the artwork that accompanies the song Chop Life No Friend.
The Soweto Gospel Choir worked with Mr Eazi on the track Exit.
Roy Harman of Respect Music, which represents the choir, says: “He reached out to us and told us that he really enjoys the music the choir makes and that he would like us to work with him.”
Harman says Mr Eazi sent a track to which they added their parts and both parties were happy with the final product.
If you listen to Exit, it is difficult to hear that they were not in the same studio when recording because of how beautiful the melodies and sounds merge together.
“We performed the song together for the first time at the Trace awards in Kigali, Rwanda, and the chemistry was amazing,” Harman says.
He adds that the Soweto Gospel Choir is always interested in collaborating with like-minded artists and to contribute towards making great music for Africa.