Contributing Afropop producer Wills Glasspiegel saw Nigerian superstar D'banj's U.S. debut at Irving Plaza in NYC this past weekend. Here's his report:
"D'banj isn't Afropop." That's what a young journalist from Sierra Leone told me in the photo-pit at Irving Plaza as we waited for MTV Africa's Artist of the Year to take the stage. D'banj is from Nigeria and reportedly sold 7 million copies of his last record. He signed recently to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label -- West even gifted D'banj a gold chain on stage in London. D'banj has his own reality TV show in Nigeria, and a host of other ventures including a line of mobile phones preloaded with his music. "Uncle Snoop," D'banj's nickname for Snoop Dogg, flew out to Lagos last year for a video collaboration.
If you're West African or have lived in West African metropolises like Lagos and Accra, you probably know D'banj's R&B and hip-hop-infected pop. But if you're not African -- even if you're a fan of Afropop, world music or hip-hop -- D'banj may not be on your radar. Apart from myself and Jon Caramanica taking notes on his blackberry, Irving Plaza was mostly packed with Anglophone Africans. It didn't quite seem like D'banj was "crossing-over." This was an upwardly-mobile/upscale African market in Union Square, and it was a hell of a party.
"I'm an entertainer. I came to entertain," D'banj sings in one of his stock-phrase English hooks that makes the front-row girls scream. This music, which for me is too commercial to be palatable in any type of intimate listening environment, came to life at Irving Plaza. D'banj's band (drums, bass, guitar, dancers, keys and backup rappers) was tight and the songs were simple -- they left room for improv. D'banj called out to his Nigerians audience, his Ghanaian audience, and his Liberian audience -- those who filled the room, paid for the expensive tickets and dressed impeccably for the occasion.
D'banj's music is grounded in a cosmopolitan African-pop aesthetic. The DJ's opening performance set that context: Drake and Lil Wayne played beside Magic System; the crowd knew every word to songs by Demarco, Serani, Khago Na and Bracket. It's a new African global-pop canon. This mix winds through languages, dialects, riddims, reality TV and fancy clubs throughout the continent and the Diaspora. This is the community that makes D'banj a global pop star even if he'll never make the cover of Rolling Stone or put out an album on Putumayo.
Later in the set, the crowd marveled when D'banj broke out his harmonica, his signature (and only) instrument. It's a gimmick, but it's a charming gimmick. It's entertaining. It's heartfelt. It's something to blog about.
As his Wikipedia entry notes, D'banj often professes his love for another Nigeria legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Wikipedia says Fela was D'banj's mentor, which isn't true). D'banj imitates the Chief Priest-- he often poses triumphantly on stage with raised arms just like Fela. But D'banj is not the new Fela. He has no counter-culture in him. Perhaps because of ties to big money in Nigeria, D'banj is notoriously
hesitant to address the current upheavals in Nigerian society related to oil and the Christian / Muslim divide. Fela's art was grounded in revolutionary politics and social commentary. D'banj is an entertainer and a businessman. He's good at what he does.