Okay! So it’s no longer news that charmer D’banj is seeking to penetrate the west and take his music to a global audience. The entertainer, who has had it tough these past weeks following his romance with Goodluck Jonathan, had a more pleasant reason to be in the news on April 2, when he sat down with BET’s April Woodward to talk about his life and career.
We reproduced the moving interview here… Enjoy!
What brings you here?
For me, pretty much as you know, I’m an entertainer from Africa, from Nigeria and I’m just here to take over this town, Yes! To come and eat out of the Big Apple.
I see, you have eaten everywhere else; in Europe and in Africa, so of course naturally you would want to come here and take a bite out of the apple. First of all I’ll have to ask you because I don’t know the history; I know your first name is Dapo…
(D’banj cuts in) oh, you said that so well, you’re African… (Laughs)
…and your last name is Oyebanjo. I understand that’s how you got your name but how did you get ‘Kokomaster’ out of that?
In 2004, I came out with my first single and it was titled ‘The Koko ‘. ‘Koko’ is a word that I came up with. That time for me, it was something I wanted to let people understand so I said to them that the ‘Koko’ is whatever you do to derive pleasure. So obviously, I’m the kokomaster, so ‘koko’ is the bone of contention.
So it’s an adjective, like if I say ‘You are koko’?
You can say ‘what’s the koko’ or ‘I’m feeling kokocious’.
Talk to me about the harmonica; you are self-taught, it’s something you said you were born to play. Why do you feel like the harmonica is so close to you and you were created to play it.
For me, firstly the harmonica is a very spiritual instrument. If you look back at the olden days long time ago, you see before there was the big keyboard or piano during the slave trade, most of the instrument that the people, our forefathers used to play in the farm was the harmonica. I think for me, it is something I picked up after I lost my brother, he used to play it and then he had a plane crash in 1991. I saw the harmonica from what was recovered back and I looked at it, it was an instrument that was handy, simple to carry around. Take it back to high school, take it back to university and from then I started playing it, I played every song that I heard and since then I’ve been playing it and I play it very well now.
You know, one person who is American who has influence from the church is R. Kelly. And that was one of the first albums you picked up. Was it ’12 Play’ you picked up?
How did he influence you and tell me what you thought about that?
I don’t think it’s me alone that is R. Kelly influenced. I think he influenced the whole Africa, the world. Back home they call me a sex symbol but the first person I ever heard that from was R. Kelly and I think that was the ‘Bump and Grind’ album; ‘you remind me of my jeep’ (slowly gesticulates). That was epic, he is a legend, a godfather. For me that was one of the first albums that I saw and I got it and kept it and played it every time. And from there I started watching TV, watching his videos, watching his concerts, he is such a great entertainer and performer so yes he did a lot.
Any other American artiste that influenced you?
Oh yes, you know they call me ‘African Michael Jackson‘? (Laughs). So you know Michael Jackson, may his soul rest in perfect peace, is for me the king of Pop. What more do you want? Michael influenced everybody, telling us that we could use music to stop wars, you can use music to put smiles on people’s faces and make people happy. So, Michael Jackson, Wyclef Jean, a lot of people I met like that, even Jay Z, and Kanye West. Kanye West is someone now that is influencing the youths in Africa, we are looking up to him a lot because of the kind of things he is doing, what he represents is just the future.
The harmonica makes me think of Stevie Wonder, he is such a musician on every piece of musical instrument but the harmonica especially. He started playing the harmonica when he was a little boy.
Yes, one of the first solo that I learnt as an instrumentalist was the one he did with Babyface. A Stevie Wonder and Babyface record, I can’t remember the title of the song. He played the really small harmonica and I was like ‘ah, this man is playing this thing o!’, because before, you would always think that the harmonica was played by the country musicians but then with him playing it and having it under the song, if you listen to my songs, I have it strategically placed there just like Stevie. Stevie baba!
Tell me about when you first left home. You were very young, you decided to go to London and some people didn’t really want you to go, mum and dad. Talk to me about that and your decision and how tough it was.
For me, I think when you are walking towards your destiny, whatever you meet, you have to adapt and understand. My mum and dad just like every other parent wanted me to be an engineer which is understandable but I wanted to do music so gradually when I had the chance to travel, my parents didn’t know. I had gotten my Visa and passport and then I travelled abroad to London, trying to be Usher or Craig David. I just thought going to London or getting out of Nigeria was the right thing to do.
What do they think of you know?
Now? (Gesticulates)This right here is called swag! (Laughs). Right now, my mum manages me.
Are you serious?
We’ve been very close, we’ve always been close and I let her know what I’m going through and how I’m going through it so when God brought the breakthrough, she was just perfect and she was there and she has been managing me ever since and I have no regrets. Mummy to bad!
When you look at your music, lyrics, words and everything, they are about your life and they are very humorous. Why do you take that approach?
Well firstly, I’m an entertainer, I don’t really think I’m a great singer. I’m not a rapper, I’m not a singer, I will just entertain you. Music is life and I found out that with studying people from Michael Jackson to R. Kelly to people that have been around that you can really pass a strong message with your music. Having the kind of following I have back home, I just thought the best thing to do is let everybody know this is who I am and even if it is the partying songs that I do, when you are going through the same situation, it will help you know how to party. So, it is very important.
Talk to me about your relationship with Don Jazzy
You would probably hear Don Jazzy‘s name on every one of my records because he has produced everyone of them. Every one of the major songs that I’ve done. He’s also the C.E.O of Mo’Hits Records and I’m the vice president and his partner. So for me he’s my brother from another mother and we’ve been partners ever since. We started like about six, seven years ago and that has worked very well for us.
You have started this whole genre, a whole phrase ‘Afropean’. What does that mean and where did you get it from?
When I was in London Don Jazzy and I were at a former group and label that we run back then called Backbone Music, which also had JJC. Most of the festivals then we went to were European festivals and I know that in Europe they know Afrobeat from Fela who is a very big legend that came out of Nigeria. Our music sounded different to them so we decided to call our music something different like Afro, Europen – ‘Afropean’. But right now things have changed, people now categorize my music as ‘Afropop’ because it sounds like pop music but it has our flavour, it has our lingua in it.
I like ‘Afropean’ too though…
Afropean too is good though, that’s Afro-European music but (gesticulates) America is where we are now… (Laughs).
Earlier you were saying something about Fela, talk about the influence he had on you…
Fortunately for me or should I say unfortunately, I never met him and I never went to any of his concerts. From the time I started my music, everybody started comparing me to him. When I was on stage they said I moved like Fela, when I sound they say I sound like Fela so I went back to study Fela and I found out that he was bigger than what I thought he was. Fela to Africans is like Bob Marley to Jamaicans. He is that popular, he is well respected in Europe, France, everywhere even in America and earlier this year in New York, I auditioned for the lead role at Fela! on Broadway and I might be moving here (New York). I was at the Tony Awards and Fela! had 13 nominations and won three of them so I think it’s a big look for Africa.
So you don’t want to give any breaking news right now?
Not yet. All you need to know is that I’m here in America to come and eat the Big Apple. (Laughs)
Lets’s talk about your album ‘The Entertainer’, seven million copies sold. How do you think your new album ‘Mr. Endowed’ is going to do?
You got your information right! We have over 150 Million people in Nigeria, 850 million people in Africa, so seven million is just there. But from this new album, we are talking about 10 percent. We are trying to do what has never been done before, that’s part of the reasons why I am here in America. I’m working in studios that I haven’t done before. I remember walking into a studio in New York; the plaques I saw on the wall were platinum from Jay Z to Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston. I walked out, I was like ‘You’ve got to be prepared to be in a place like this’. Gradually as you move, you get to the next level and for me the next level is going global and I believe that ‘Mr. Endowed’ will do it.
Who do you want to work with?
First of all, I’ve played with everyone, the only person I’ve not played with when in Nigeria or Africa is Michael Jackson. I’ve played with R. Kelly, Jay Z, Beyonce, 50 Cent, Ciara.
But who do you want to get in the studio with?
I want to get in the studio with a lot of people actually. I like Kanye West, you know I like Kanye, I like Snoop Dogg, I like 50 Cent, Jay Z, I like Nicki Minaj because she’s giving me some African kind of vibe, Nicki is heavy, I also like Rihanna.
Your brand is humongous; you have Koko Mansion, Koko Foundation, Koko Mobile. Where do you go from here?
I’m about to start, like I said I’m here to eat the Big Apple because what I have done in the last five, six years in Africa is what most people that are very successful, that have brands are doing here. You see Jay Z with Sean Carter brand, you see 50 Cent with the G Unit brand. So after studying all of them I decided immediately in 2005/2006 when everybody started calling me the ‘Kokomaster’. I know that it’s a word I came up with so I decided to do products that would benefit the public. When I came here I saw the Boost phone, I saw the music phone and then decided to do something for my people. And it’s doing very well back home, about to come out very big. It’s my mobile phone and you can use any network on it plus it’s got all my music and videos on it. The Koko foundation is about eradication of poverty in Africa, I’m doing this for Africa because everything I made and all the wealth I made is from Africa. Koko foundation is a way I’m giving back to the poor and to the less privileged. We are empowering ourselves because it’s time!
Another part of your brand is the reality show ‘Koko Mansion’. What made you decide to do that?
Really I would say, America dictates everything. I was in the States last year and I saw ‘Flavour of Love’ and so many other reality shows, and back home a lot of people want to know who I’m with and what I’m doing. You know as ‘African Prince’, they want to know if I’m eating or if I’m …eating. So for me, we decided to do something because no one knows who I’m with. Everyone knows I’ve been into my work so much, and that I do not have a better half. So, we decided to look for the ideal women, the ‘Kokolette’ – the ‘complete woman’.
So you have one, she has got a ring, money, was companion for a year. Where is she?
(laughs) I think she got threatened by my fans. My Kokolettes out there are too many. But what we did with that was we tried to empower the winner because when you are a winner of a competition whether you like it or not, you become a popular face. She works as a TV presenter right now, that has always been her dream. She wanted to be like you (April), she’s also doing very well. She was chosen by the public and we are about starting off with season 2. I remain the Kokomaster.
When you thought about leaving your home in Nigeria and your parents were not really feeling it and you were on your way, did you ever think that you would be as successful and as huge as you are now?
Oh, I dreamt it. I bet I thought about it before moving. It’s crossed my mind but obviously not this fast, not this quick, I just didn’t know why I had the drive but I had the drive to just do it and I’m a very positive person so I think that has also helped. And believing in yourself, believing in God. Those are the three things that have got me going and even when I meet obstacles, that’s what they are. Beyond that, put your eye on the goal.
Was there ever a doubt? Were you ever afraid?
Oh yes, I was afraid. A lot of times I’ve been afraid. After every album, I’ve been afraid, before I drop any album I’m afraid. I don’t know if other people are afraid but I am because it’s a different world, you keep moving, you’re on a journey, you’re doing something every time. Yes, you must be afraid but believe in yourself, I think inner mostly you would know. Do not deceive yourself, don’t copy anybody.
The ladies need to know; What’s going on in your love life?
My love life is very personal. Let me tell you something, you see me; I’m a very very big person. I have a big heart, the love is for everybody but I’m still searching. As I’m entering the Big Apple, I think I’m going to look for one. My people in Africa want me to make the right decision.
You have won over 20 awards worldwide, that’s amazing. Which one do you still want to get?
Firstly, you should give me BET, and then a Grammy would not be bad.