MBW’s latest interview in partnership with the Did Ya Know? podcast sees Adrian Sykes talk to one of the industry’s most prominent and respected lawyers, Nick Eziefula, about his career, his other career, paying it forward and what artists need to know…
Becoming a lawyer wasn’t Nick Eziefula’s Plan B, the graft was too hard and he’s been too successful for his ‘day job’ to be associated with anything other than an A.
But, for a while, it did vie with what he would probably admit is his first love, hip-hop, to emerge as the skill that would eventually achieve professional prominence.
As a teenager at Eton (yep, Eton), Eziefula, performing as Yungun, would attend open mic nights and win the odd rap battle.
Whilst studying law at UCL he was a featured artist on a handful of releases, before releasing his first album [The Essance, 2004] whilst working as a trainee at a major City law firm. Stick juggling down as a third skill.
When an offer came to support Jurassic 5 (yep, Jurassic 5) on tour, however, the commitment was so great that he had to choose. Rap fought the law – and the law won.
Initially, he was quietly crushed by what he saw as ‘giving up’ his career as an artist. But then he quickly realised he could do both. So he did. And still does. Now recording as Essa, his fourth album, The Resonance, is due out next year.
His career as a lawyer, meanwhile, is in overdrive. He is a partner at Simkins, the entertainment, media and commercial law firm, where he works across a variety of sectors, but chiefly music, where clients include artists, labels, managers, collecting societies, DSPs and more.
He distils his job description down to ‘helping people get deals done’ – but of course there’s a lot more to it than that. And much more to Eziefula than even his two jobs. He’s also a sought-after commentator on industry issues (he was a prominent voice on TV and in print discussing the recent Ed Sheeran case and has written op/eds for MBW) and an active mentor for rising Black executives.
Here, as he discusses his roots, his values and his work, he is thoughtful, hopeful and, as you’d expect from a rapping lawyer, extremely eloquent.
A basic but big question first: why the music business?
I always had a passion for music, listening to music and making music. I got heavily into rap music in particular as a teenager. As well as having that passion, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. So, whenever people asked me what job I was going to do when I grew up, that was the only one that made sense for me, which is fortunate because, as the son of a very strict Nigerian father, I had a limited set of choices.
Doctor? I don’t want any blood and guts. Architect? I can’t draw. Engineer? I don’t even know what an engineer is. And then there was lawyer, which to me was all about words, and that’s what I’m into. From there it made sense to converge those two things and to try and find a space where I can combine those interests and ambitions – music and the law.
Tell us a bit about young Nick and what your upbringing was like?
I grew up in a quiet, leafy part of North London, a very middle class area. I had a very privileged upbringing in many ways. I went to really good private schools, which my father worked hard to put me through.
I went to Eton and had a really sophisticated education, but also a range of quite unusual and difficult experiences.
I’m of mixed heritage – half English, half Igbo Nigerian – and there were very few people with that kind of background throughout my schooling. So I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider. Many people like me, of mixed heritage, often feel a sense of that.
In some respects, I’m still like that now; there’s a slight awkwardness, a slight outsider complex, but that’s often manifested itself in an effort to always try and make connections with people.
So, despite describing myself as a bit of an outsider, when I think about it, the circles that I move in, and there are many of them, I actually have good relationships with people from all different walks of life, which is one of the real blessings I’ve had in my life.
I’ve grown into that understanding, and that outlook. There were times in my life when I didn’t quite see it that way.
“It’s become natural for me to try and look at things from multiple angles.”
I’ve grown up always being conscious of difference – between myself and each of my parents, between myself and the rest of my social group, etc. And that awareness of difference makes you question things, look at things in a certain way. You think about how other people look at things as well. It’s become natural for me to try and look at things from multiple angles.
And that is a huge part of my job as a lawyer, to look at things from different perspectives, to understand the perspective of the other party that I might be negotiating the deal with, for example. That’s become just part of the way I see life.
How was the Eton experience for a mixed race kid?
Well, it was difficult. But one of my coping mechanisms was to try and excel. I’m a grafter, and I really worked hard to do well in my studies. I was very conscious of the lengths that my family had gone to in order to keep me in these schools, and of the scale of the opportunity I was being afforded, so I wasn’t going to blow it.
Same on a social level, I tried to embrace the challenge and find a way to connect with people, to bridge the divide; there’s common ground between all of us in some ways.
I tried to make friendships, be engaging, be approachable and be open-minded. As a result, I’ve got friends who are aristocrats, and I’ve got friends who are, you know, very different!
Alongside that, I know you had a love of hip-hop culture and rap music. What sort of artists are we talking about?
The first rap record that I heard, way before I was a teenager at Eton, was The Magic Number by De La Soul. I was like, wow, this is incredible. What is this? I didn’t understand half of what I was hearing, but I knew it was special.
And then when I was a teenager, one of the first rap albums I really got into was Doggystyle, by Snoop. And from there I went back to The Chronic and all of the G-funk stuff.
When I was about 14, I went to the Reading Festival and I saw Ice Cube, Gravediggaz, Gang Starr, and by now I’d become kind of obsessed with rap.
It was a way of reconnecting to part of my black identity, through the music. I think it always meant something more to me, even if I didn’t quite realise that at the time.
And that’s never really changed. I still have that passion to this day. Last night I went to see The Lox, which is why my voice is a bit hoarse today, because I was there, rapping along, behaving like a teenager.
How did you get into the business?
I did a degree in law at UCL. It was important for me to be in London, because by that time I’d gone from just listening to music to trying to make music under the name Yungun.
I would write raps and go to open mic nights. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to step up though, because, at that time, the underground hip-hop events in London were moody and edgy, rough and ready. I was this goofy, posh kid from boarding school, trying to find my way with people from a really different walk of life without being laughed out of the room.
“I was this goofy, posh kid trying to find my way with people from a different walk of life.”
Again, the solution for me was to try and be good. I got to the point where I felt, well, at least they’re not going to say that I can’t rap. They might not like what they think I represent, but they can’t tell me I’m not good.
And did there come a point where you had to choose between the two?
I’d got a trainee contract at one of the top media law firms in the City, but partway through I was offered a support slot on tour with Jurassic 5.
I told my agent I can only get a certain amount of days off work, so I could maybe do these dates but not those dates. She was like, ‘It doesn’t really work like that! We’re gonna give this to someone who just says yes’.
That was a real moment for me. I remember thinking, I’ve hit a fork in the road, where it kind of feels like one or the other, and I was a bit down about that.
But then I met a phenomenal singer and writer called Eska, who was a bit of a creative mentor. I was very crestfallen about having to drop the creative side, but her attitude was different. She told me, ‘What a blessing that you can pursue two things, what a rich life you’re going to have doing both these things’.
And I just started looking at it in a more positive way: OK, I may not be able to do that tour, but I’ll just keep doing what I do. And I’ve continued that to this day, always remained active. Not always as active as I’d like to be on the creative side, but I’ve got no complaints. I still make music, now as Essa, I’ve nearly finished my fourth album and we’re looking to get that out next year
You made that career decision, and that has led you to Simkins. Can you tell us about your role there?
The day-to-day is very varied. I work in music, but I also work in other sectors – advertising, the tech space and more.
I’m a commercial contract and IP lawyer and lots of different things cross my desk. I do a lot of work for talent, but also for labels, publishers, managers, collecting societies, digital platforms; it’s really, really broad.
Mostly I’m involved in deal-making and advice. I help people get deals done. And the subject matter of those deals is normally IP rights of one sort or another.
What advice would you give to young artists today?
One of the things I’d say is, don’t be scared of the other people in that room that you’re walking into. They might be seen as more experienced, more senior, but have the courage of your convictions.
In particular, when you’re grappling with deals, contracts and some of the technical aspects of the industry, you might not have the training and the background, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to be able to understand the basics of a deal. What is the bargain I’m striking here? What am I giving them? And what are they giving me in return? Fundamentally, how does that work? There will be layers of technicality and detail around that, but the basics and the core of it are things that everyone who is active in the industry needs to know. I’m always surprised by how little some people grasp the fundamentals. How can you be doing this and not really get what this is?!
There are a lot of artists who don’t really focus on the business side of things, but that is not the way to go. You want to be interested in and focused on the business side of what your career involves, as well as the creative.
Some of the most successful and prominent talent that I’ve worked with are also some of the most shrewd and commercial minds that I’ve worked with.
They’re inquisitive: What’s this about? Why is it happening this way? They’re never afraid to ask a question, and they don’t think they’re going to look stupid for asking. The intelligent people ask the questions, not the dumb people. It’s smart to ask questions. Read up, ask questions and don’t be fazed.
Tell me about the work you do with Power Up?
The music industry, like many industries, and society at large, has diversity problems; it’s just not really where it needs to be. A lot of power and opportunity sits within quite small circles, and quite homogenous circles, in terms of people’s background.
For anyone that doesn’t know, Power Up is an ambitious programme that is combating anti-Black racism within the music industry by boosting the careers of Black creatives and Black professionals.
The participants, 40 people a year, get funding, access to resources, training and mentorship – they’re connected to a network.
It’s a programme that is set up for at least a 10-year period. So there’ll be a whole load of us coming through who get this boost. The idea is that this will shift the dial and you will have far more people of colour in positions of influence in the industry.
It’s something that I applied for and was selected to be a year one participant. I then brought my firm in, Simkins, to be a supporter. So my year has passed, but I’m still involved in a different capacity, helping to support the rest of the community.
I remember when I first got into the music space as a lawyer, I was seconded to Warner Music, and Gez Orakwusi, a very talented Black lawyer there, very kindly said, I’m going to introduce you to a couple of other Black lawyers. They were Dej Mahoney, and, may he rest in peace, Richard Antwi.
The three of them took me out for dinner and it was a very meaningful thing for me to see Black role models in the space that I work in, and for them to welcome me in the way they did and pass on some of their wisdom and, you know, just keep an eye out for me. And that continues to this day.
I’ve always thought I should pay that forward and that’s something I do with people coming up through the business.
And while we’re talking mentors, I also want to give a shout-out to Cliff Fluet, who has been a really important presence in my career and has always been very supportive. He’s another senior Black lawyer in the entertainment space that I’ve always looked up to and admired.
Are you seeing more people of colour on the law side of the music industry?
More than I used to. At that dinner, when there were four of us, that was almost all of the Black lawyers in the game at the time. There are many more of us now. A few more of us now.
But in the corporate world, I’m often in rooms where there are few people of colour, and I think that is still an issue. It’s something people have become increasingly conscious of. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and how that galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement, I feel there was a real shift in there being just a basic understanding of the disparities, the issues, the problems and a sense that something has to be done.
Some people feel it’s a bit insincere, that companies are just going along with what expectations are. I take the view that I don’t really care if the path to progress is a bit bumpy and imperfect, as long as progress is made
Finally, going back to something your father always said to you: what’s next?
I actually don’t feel like I ever want to stop. There are so many things I want to do and new things I want to learn.
But I have learned also not to always look forward and up, but also sometimes to look back, appreciate how far I’ve come and appreciate what I have in life.
Because always pining after the next goal can sometimes be unfulfilling; you’re failing to stop and smell the roses. So I’ve been learning to do that a bit better.
And actually, during the pandemic, when the world kind of fell apart – and I feel very blessed to say this, because I’m conscious that other people had a very difficult time – I was fortunate to still be able to support my family, carry on my career and get through that period in a stable way.
I was lucky to be able to do that, but it wasn’t just luck, it was a lot of what I’d built. I’ve reflected on it since in the sense that when the world was really rocked, I was still able to stand up.
And that was, I guess, a mark that I’ve come far enough, in terms of all these achievements, to reach a point where things work, you know.
Part of that always striving, always pushing for things mentality was based on this sense that – and I was told this as a kid – you’re not like your rich white friends who have a safety net around them; you can’t afford to make mistakes, you can’t afford to get this wrong, because there isn’t that safety net for you.
I guess what I’ve come to realise is that I’ve become my own safety net to some extent. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had support and help from others in that journey, but I’ve reached a point where there’s a certain level of stability, which is a real moment for me.
It doesn’t mean I’m any less ambitious, but I am working to be more appreciative of what I have, and the blessings I have.
This interview is taken from a brilliant podcast series, Did Ya Know?, which tells the often unheard stories of key figures in the British music industry, focusing initially on pioneering executives of colour. The team behind the pod includes Stellar Songs co-founder Danny D and Decisive Management co-founder Adrian Sykes. Music Business Worldwide is proud to be partners and supporters of Did Ya Know? You can listen to it wherever you find your favourite podcasts.
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