Mayorkun is the archetypal Nigerian superstar. Often in planes because of gigs and other engagements, he rescheduled this interview a few times, finally to organize it from his Lagos mansion. As he speaks to us, he gets dressed up, probably for a show or a party. He searches through thick chains and other jewelry, and walks us unintentionally into his dressing. The walls are filled with dozens of designer shoes and high-brand sneakers. Mayorkun, born Adewale Mayowa Emmanuel, is all smiles and jokes, clearly not shy about showing us his numerous acquisitions. It all came “naturally” to him, he reveals. His fame, his relationship with money and the remarkable handle of his celebrity. “I started singing in church and there was this choirmaster who really gave us a hard time. He taught us how to sing, basic skills and fundamental music,” he says. But in the ultra-competitive Nigerian industry, this cannot be enough. Many know how to sing, but only a few become the kind of icon, serial hitmaker, social elite and entertainer Mayorkun is. “The job of being an artist, I think most of us learn it on the job,” he shrugs. “And having someone like Davido gave me a plus, because I was going with him to shows, I was seeing how he was doing and other stuff”.
Indeed, Mayorkun’s meteoric rise will probably be linked with Davido forever. Music was never his first plan, although it was particularly present in his upbringing. “Music has been a household thing”, he recalls. “I’ve recorded some church songs, I did back vocals and gospel songs, but it wasn’t anything major. The first time I really recorded a proper song, a major song, was when I met David. That was in 2016.” His mother was a Nollywood actress, a field probably as entertaining, vibrant and central as music in Nigeria. “I think it probably influenced me in the way I move!”, he laughs. “My family is a family of artists! Everybody could do any entertainment stuff. We act, we sing, we dance, we do a lot of art.”
But where Mayorkun was raised, art is not common as a career, even if it is omnipresent. “I grew up on the Mainlands, Lagos”, he tells us with a proud grin. “There, to be honest, in terms of career, whatever works for you works for you, do you understand? Most people play football on an amateur level, or mechanics… Just the mediocre jobs, not really anything mad like I do”. As a young man, Mayowa quickly settled for a random banking job. But his life suddenly took an unexpected turn when in 2016, he posted a now famous video of him on Twitter, covering “The Money” by Davido. The video ended up reaching the Afrobeats boss, who immediately decided to sign Mayorkun to his DMW imprint. What would have happened if he hadn’t posted that video? “I even talked about it today!”, he laughs. “I’d probably be working in some office, I don’t know. What I know is that I wouldn’t be happy”.
However, being signed by Davido does not grant an immediate and obvious success. Mayorkun’s first song “Eleko” released in 2016 was an instant hit, climbing to a million views in ten days. But it also attracted a lot of doubts and criticism on his actual input in the song, and the too-striking number of views. “It was hurtful because I had just started and I wasn’t expecting anybody to give me this hostile welcoming”, he says. “It didn’t affect the song, because it was great anyways, but I didn’t appreciate it. Over time I grew out of it because I’ve had 20, 30 hits following that…” To develop as a solo artist and break free from the Davido brand (without offending him) can quickly become a difficult task. But the singer doesn’t seem worried about it at all. “I think the audience has grown out of it”, he laughs. “They have grown out of it. But David is still present, he was at my album’s release, I just spoke to him before on this call. He’s still there for me. David is like our older brother somehow. We can never leave him.”
“They have grown out of it” and Mayorkun is now a complete artist in his own right because intense work has been put out. Like this “tour of 150 schools” he tells me about, at a time where his goal was to catch the attention of a young audience. Like his debut album The Mayor Of Lagos, which cemented his spot in the industry with its many hits (“I think after ‘Mama’, I realized that my life had changed. I was going to Kenya, going to Ghana, leaving Naija. That’s when I knew that this thing had a future”). Or like the daily management of his more than five million followers on social media. But is that really work for a natural entertainer? “On Snapchat, Instagram, I act like I am everyday, so I don’t really mind”, he smiles. The most difficult work has probably been to stay relevant in the streets, after moving to a mansion and touring the continent. It is something Mayorkun attaches great importance to. “I have my grandma who still has a house where I lived so… The streets are always in me, I still have the streets in my house. It’s going to be a part of me forever, because that’s how I grew up. And I can’t take it out. There was a time I actually organized free shows over there. We all just vibed”.
The work has been done in the last years, and Mayorkun is now serene with the idea of releasing a second album. Back In Office comes after an eight-month break, a huge pause in Nigerian standards. “I had intended to take a break of maybe two months, but then I had these offers from Sony which took a lot of back and forth”, he tells us. “I felt like the album was ready after I came back from South Africa, where there was some paperwork to do. And I feel like I now have people that listen to me… for me. In my first years, I felt like I didn’t have a solid-enough fanbase yet to decide whatever I wanted. I think most people have to go through that for a while. And then, you can decide whatever you want to do.”
The album sees him get out of his comfort zone and experiment a bit with the standards of Afrobeats – and the standards of Mayorkun. One example is the first track “Soldier Boy”, on which he actually raps about his life and achievements. The song is far from the feel-good Afropop bops we are used to from the singer. He explains: “I’ve been making songs like this since I started making music. But I didn’t feel like putting them out, because I don’t want you to know me as a rapper and then go through that whole process of changing you guys’ minds and make you realize that I sing too. Tracks like ‘Soldier Boy’ are the tracks I don’t want you to dance to. I really just want you to listen to my pain and everything in that song. Then when you get into the album, it’s dance time.” In addition to rap, the album also obviously includes elements from the hottest sound in Nigeria right now: South African amapiano. We hear its distinctive elements on “Back In Office,” “Nakupenda” and “Jay Jay” (featuring DJ Maphorisa and Kabza Da Small). “Amapiano has been my favourite music of the whole year!”, he says enthusiastically. “I have like 50 amapiano songs. There was a time when I recorded amapiano back to back. I feel like Nigeria relates to amapiano because of the heavy drums. We like to dance! It’s our thing!”.
The creative process of the project has spanned over months, and each song has its particular anecdote. “For the song like the one with Maphorisa, I was in South Africa, having drinks with my friends. And I suddenly got a call from Maphorisa: ‘yo where are you ? I’m in my apartment, can you come now?’ I just said ‘man… let’s go’”, he laughs. “We went there tipsy from the place, we arrived there and made like two songs. We selected ‘Jay Jay’ from my album. Then songs like ‘No Strings Attached’ with Joeboy, I made that from scratch with the producer. From the drums to the keys, everything. Finally, for some songs, the beats were sent, like ‘Desire’ with Gyakie. I was already working on it before she came on it. So different songs with different producers!” I ask him what his favorite track of the album is. “It’s very tough, but I would say ‘Holy Fada’,” he says after reflecting. “If you listen to my first songs, I sound so different… I sound like a mature boy on this one. It just puts me in a different light.” Clearly, Mayorkun is ready for that new light. Back In Office is now available and the campaign starts again. The Mayor of Lagos is back!
Back In Office by Mayorkun, out on all platforms.