Bella Shmurda’s long road to fame is paved with experiences from real life. The young Nigerian superstar from the shanty town of Okokomaiko breaks down his path from his education at Lagos State University to the slew of hit singles working up to his debut album.
There are many ways to make a statement in the Nigerian music scene. While some artists move from total obscurity to overnight sensation, artists like Bella Shmurda garner celebrity and reverence brick by brick, i.e. one release at a time. Citing King Wasiu Ayinde, Oritsefemi, Olamide as influences, the singer started gravitating towards music while growing up at Okokomaiko, a popular shanty town in Lagos. Like Burna Boy, Sound Sultan or Olamide, Shmurda’s experiences in those periods would catalyze his penchant for shedding light on the murky realities of average Nigerians. The bonding power of shared suffering will see his credibility manifest amongst residents of these areas, which includes students of Lagos State University (LASU), where he also schooled. “It’s one of the hardest things I’d have to do,” he says of juggling music and schooling.
Shmurda’s steady rise took a different turn after the release and eventual virality of “Vision 2020” which encapsulates failed promises of the government and yearnings of the people to survive a system that stifles them. Olamide would later opt for a remix of the record, which according to the singer born Akinbiyi Abiola Ahmed, “is a cumulation of personal stories and happenings around me”.
In 2020, Shmurda, alongside his crony, Lincoln and Zlatan, upped the ante with “Cash App”, a boisterous number themed around Nigeria’s cyber-crime culture. It quickly became one of the hottest records in Nigeria and elevated Shmurda to a pedestal where he goes head to head with Tems and Omah Lay for the highly coveted Next Rated bestowal at Nigeria’s apex award event, The Headies. This also follows his appearance on albums of Afrobeats dignitaries like Olamide, Davido and most recently, Wizkid. In July, Bella Shmurda was announced as the only African artist among the annual Youtube Music Foundry program whose past alumni include Dua Lipa, Dave, Rema, Tems among others.
Recently, we caught up with the singer to discuss his formative years, the significance of his voice and recent project, High Tension 2.0.
How did your penchant for making music come about?
Music has always been my escape. I’ve been recording and doing major work all the way from Okokomaiko, Lagos. I had huge support from the people there, and also from my schoolmates in Lagos State University, including my lecturers.
Before the big break, you were bubbling under, especially within Lagos State University (LASU) environs. What was it like being hands-on with music and school simultaneously?
Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things I’d have to do. I’m grateful to my lecturers for understanding that I had to work to make ends meet and my classmates who helped me through tests and examinations. Many people like me made music as students but couldn’t balance it and for that, I’m thankful for grace to have aced that period.
With your mom being an Academic, it must’ve been difficult convincing her that you could juggle both.
Oh, definitely. I even had to leave home eventually as we couldn’t meet at a common point due to my insistence to do music. I moved in with my friend and had to start doing things myself. I had to pay school fees myself because my mom had resolved to not be a part of what I was doing. However, I’m happy she’s getting a hang of things and we’re good now.
Are there artists that influenced your sonic direction?
While growing up, I listened to a lot of Fuji and Contemporary African music from Pasuma, King Wasiu Ayinde to Oritsefemi, Olamide etc. I gravitated towards them because they’re somewhat conscious and I’m a representative of them. These music, to an extent, influenced my sound and vision.
Speaking of that, tell us about “Vision 2020” and what you aimed to evoke with it?
In “Vision 2020”, I was just trying to do conscious music. It was mostly a cumulation of personal stories and happenings around me. In that period, my longtime friend Poco Lee thought it was fantastic and suggested we do a viral video. Olamide saw it, called me and we did a remix while he sorted everything – including paying the producers, director etc.
“Cash App” became the record that catapulted you to mainstream consciousness. Did you have a hint it would do that?
No, I didn’t. I never believed in the song that’s why I released it four months after recording it. I thought it’s not exactly my style and was too noisy. Eventually, I reached out to Zlatan and my friend from the hood, Lincoln, to make some additions but I definitely didn’t expect the outcome. It didn’t cross my mind at any point.
Your collaboration with Olamide on “Triumphant” explores the subject of mental health. How do you ensure your mental wellness per time?
Importantly, I try to maintain a good relationship with other artists while keeping my energy. Also, I’m averse to stress, so on some days, I run away from the media.
Bella Shmurda is perceivably a spiritual person. How relevant is spirituality to your artistry or the kind of music you make?
I don’t go the extra mile to evoke spirituality in my music because it’s a part of me. I try to inspire and motivate people with my music. Like I said, I do conscious sound and that has been a part of me. Spirituality is a part of Bella Shmurda and all that the brand embodies. I’ll say it’s one of the things I’m doing that I know how to do best.
Also, your music almost always mirrors the reality of the average Nigerian.
Of course, mostly because where I come from is the dungeon; a place where people hardly survive. That experience made me – from childhood to the artist that I am now. My inspiration is a combination of the situation of the country and what I see other people experience etc.
Verily. Does this have anything to do with the meaning of “Dangbana”, as you’re fondly called?
Probably [Laughs]. Dangbana is a Yoruba term for someone that is strong-willed and stubborn towards whatever he wants to achieve. Dangbana also connotes being assertive, crazy and not easy to convince.
You do a lot of giving back through your record label “Dangbana Republic”. How important is it to your legacy?
It means a lot to me, especially being from the street where there’s nothing. I see myself as a representative of these places and take responsibility in changing things by actions rather than mere words. Changing the lives of these people is personal to me because I never had that opportunity while growing up, so it’s important that I do it for others.
What statement were you aiming to make with High Tension 1.0 EP?
It’s about Bella Shmurda coming through and penetrating, against all odds. Regardless of whatever happens, it is a statement that Bella is still coming through. I’m high tension and we know high tension is lighting that strikes and penetrates anywhere. Hence, I’m a light in the industry and anyone should know that.
How would you describe the segue into High Tension 2.0?
The difference is that this is a different, better and definitely more experienced Bella Shmurda.
What was the creative process of High Tension 2.0 like?
I was actually working on my album, before deciding to pull High Tension 2.0 off it. I worked on it for over six months. From recording to mixing, masterin;, I learnt, broke down, was disturbed but here we are, thankfully.
What’s the primary intention of going this route before your debut album?
I’ve been doing a lot of features lately but with this project, I want people to enjoy Bella Shmurda – without interruption. Also, I wanted to reach out to my people in all ramifications. Everyone has a song for them in the project; from lovers to people who need motivation, people in the street and everyone else. I want people to experience Bella Shmurda without any attachment.
Brilliant! Which of the records is most personal to you?
“Out There” is one of those songs I love so much because it’s a motivation for people in the street. There are some songs I like to enjoy on my own and “One There” is one of them. It inspires and motivates me.
Did any of the records give you a tougher time?
That would be “Soldier Go, Soldier Come”. It was somehow challenging trying to put myself in other people’s shoes and making a love song.
How would you define the Bella Shmurda brand in a nutshell?
Basically, the Bella Shmurda brand is a representative of the street, it’s the voice of the voiceless and it’s one ready for bigger things.
High Tension 2.0, still available on all platforms.