‘We’re trying to create an ecosystem that allows African artists to have long term careers in music.’

September 22: NATIVE Records founders with Def Jam CEO Tunji Balogun after signing a global joint venture.

MBW’s World Leaders is a regular series in which we turn the spotlight toward some of the most influential industry figures overseeing key international markets. In this feature, we speak to the founders of Lagos, Nigeria and UK-based NATIVE Records. World Leaders is supported by PPL.

The three founders of NATIVE Records are on a mission to take the knowledge they’ve gleaned from living and working in the UK to help build up the music market back home in Nigeria.

According to the trio — Seni Saraki, Teni “Teezee” Zaccheaus and Shola “Sholz” Fagbemi — artists in the country aren’t truly capitalizing on the explosion of African music worldwide yet, due to a lack of infrastructure.

They are setting out to fix that, the first step of which is a newly-signed global joint venture partnership with Def Jam in the US.

The deal will see the legendary label support NATIVE to discover talent and release music. Saraki explains: “We still have a lot of our own creative control to be able to sign who we want. Some deals we’ll do just as NATIVE Records and some we’ll do jointly with Def Jam from the beginning.

“With other artists, we’ll develop them first and then take them over to Def Jam for a partnership. We have a lot of flexibility to do what’s best for the artists that we bring onto our label.”

Saraki, Zaccheaus and Fagbemi founded the parent company of their label, NATIVE Networks, in 2016.

They met back home in Lagos over 15 years ago and stayed connected after moving to the UK to go to school. All three were actively involved in music – throwing parties, DJing and producing — and through the events they were working on, grew a community.

“We all individually had interest in music early,” says Zaccheaus. “Seni and myself started off as musicians, Sholz was DJing and producing and from there, we all had individual communities who used to come to our shows and parties.

“It got to a stage where, because we are close and had such a long history, it was time to connect the communities and do it together.”

NATIVE grew into a multi-platform and multi-disciplinary media and content company dedicated to the discovery and development of young African artists and youth culture.

Alongside the newly launched label, it encompasses a magazine, digital platform and festival, NATIVELAND, which has booked artists such as J Hus, Dave, NSG, and others for their first live performances in Nigeria.

Discussing the motivation behind the brand, Zaccheaus explains: “For us, the core has been knowing we are Nigerian before anything else. Coming to Britain was a privilege and an opportunity that we were granted. Then, it was about pushing that what we knew back home would eventually become a global phenomenon.

“Coming to Britain was a privilege and an opportunity that we were granted. Then, it was about pushing that what we knew back home would eventually become a global phenomenon.”

Teni “Teezee” Zaccheaus

“With NATIVE, it was about how we connect the dots between the Africans in diaspora and the Nigerian artists who want to get that exposure, whether in Britain or the US.”

Fagbemi adds: “The whole idea has always been to generate an exchange between people who were over here and people back in Nigeria — you are meant to go to the UK, take some knowledge and bring it back home.”

The first signings to NATIVE Records are a young Afro-fusion artist, Smada, and a hotly-tipped rapper, ODUMODUBLVCK.

Here, we chat to the trio about their ambitions, challenges and misconceptions about the African music market and what they’d change about the music industry and why.

What does the Def Jam partnership mean for you and how did that come about?

Seni Saraki: We released an independent compilation album earlier this year and throughout that process, we were looking for partners who could help us continue to build this community and tell these African stories. It wasn’t necessarily about the name of the label, it was more about the people that we’d be working with. Tunji [Balogun], the CEO of Def Jam, understood our vision and what we’re trying to do. Being able to work with him was really the main inspiration behind the deal.

How challenging has it been to find a platform for African artists outside of their home market?

SS: There’s been a very natural but very fast rise in people wanting to hear different kinds of music and African music, specifically Nigerian music and South African music, has really stepped up. The UK is quicker to adopt new styles so music coming out of the continent always seems to resonate there first before it’s picked by America. We still remember that when you’d go out in the UK or in the States, maybe you’d hear one Nigerian or Amapiano song in a night, but now it’s almost half or three quarters of what you’ll hear in any clubs that play black music in general.

What impact have you seen that rise in popularity have on the music market back in Nigeria and Africa as a whole?

SS: First of all, fans are very proud that these artists have [reached] even further. In terms of the market as a whole, we’re trying to solve the problem of how the popularity and success that African artists see internationally can be fed back into the grassroots community in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya. If that doesn’t happen, the industry is not going to be sustainable.

“we’re trying to solve the problem of how the popularity and success that African artists see internationally can be fed back into the grassroots community. If that doesn’t happen, the industry is not going to be sustainable.”

Seni Saraki

That’s the most important thing; whether it’s sorting easy access to studios, fixing the royalty system, fixing the radio issues or making sure artists get paid in ways other than just performing live. Those are the things that, with this deal and with the JVs other labels are doing, as well as the majors going into the market themselves, we want to see solved as a result.

What’s the infrastructure like right now in Nigeria for the music industry?

SS: It’s still very much based around live performances — that is the backbone of the entire industry. That’s great but if you look at the last few years, Covid shows how brittle that infrastructure can be and the effect it has on people if an entire revenue stream is taken out. Not to mention the lack of large and small venues in the country. Artists are either doing a 8,000 or 9,000 capacity show or having a hard time finding venues to perform in.

In that same realm, there’s no massive arenas. So Nigeria still has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure. Every other country has its own issues. South Africa is very much dominated by radio, which dictates what songs pop. And we’re probably a few years behind what’s happened in the UK and in the States in terms of streaming coming along and completely changing the industry.

What is it that you’re planning on doing that’s going to help get some of that investment back into the Nigerian music industry and fix some of those problems you mentioned earlier?

SS: For us, it’s about looking at our closest community because if we stretch ourselves too far, it can be easy not to have that much impact. If we can have a studio that artists and labels can access freely and be able to create in peace without being disturbed by the police or anyone thinking there’s only a certain way of doing something, that is progress for us. If you do that, it’s easier to build from there.

We’ve signed this JV with Def Jam, which is going to enable us to discover new talent and provide more opportunities for us in Africa but moving on from that, are there live companies we can work with who can help us take the festival to different places, build an arena or build smaller venues where people can perform all the time? Like in the UK, where you have the Jazz Cafe or XOYO. There just aren’t enough of those and being able to perform regularly in venues while you’re developing your skills is a key step for any artist trying to build.

What are your ultimate ambitions for Native Records?

Shola Fagbemi: We’re trying to create an ecosystem that allows people to have long term careers in music. If you look at hip hop, rock and roll and artists like The Rolling Stones and Florence and the Machine, you see the way artists can develop and progress and continue their careers later in life. We’re just at the beginning of that in the African community.

“we want to create a pipeline that is sustainable and an ecosystem where new artists can develop and have extended and successful careers in music.”

Shola Fagbemi

We’ve had phases where particular trends have come and gone, but we want to create a pipeline that is sustainable and an ecosystem where new artists can develop and have extended and successful careers in music. That wasn’t necessarily the case 15 or 20 years ago.

What kind of artists are you looking to sign?

Teni Zaccheaus: Right now, we’re trying to sign development artists that we can take from point A to point B and have a direct effect on our community. We want to start off building with artists from within our reach, getting them from being completely new artists to breaking them, whether it be nationwide, statewide or continent wide, to getting recognition abroad.

Do you have an artist development strategy that’s going to help you cut through the wealth of competition that’s on the global stage?

SS: We’re in a really good position with what we’ve done Native, editorially and with the festival, to see what it takes for artists to come through. Because of the magazine, we see different marketing ideas; stuff that hasn’t worked and how to really connect with fans. So when it comes to artist development, we’re looking at all the different aspects that are important to an artist, being sustainable and not just having a hit and going away.

When we’re signing artists or looking for artists to sign, we’re looking at it from every aspect. The music is the most important thing but also the temperament of the artist and how we can help them manage their career better, how we can help them manage their mental health, through to live performances and their branding.

Again, because of the experience we’ve had at Native, working with loads of different brands like Nike, Bottega or Red Bull, it can help us be like, ‘Okay, cool, x artist that we’re signing, we think you could go down this route and open up more revenue streams for yourself bigger than just music.’ For us, artist development is really just helping these artists become better and more sustainable people by themselves and not necessarily relying on us for everything.

I don’t think there’s another record label that will dedicate themselves to looking out for the artists the way we will, and dedicate themselves to always being about the music. Especially in Nigeria, where it is a very pop dominated landscape, you have a lot of decisions being made for purely financial reasons.

“in Nigeria, you have a lot of decisions being made for purely financial reasons. we want to bring a bit of balance to that.”

Seni Saraki

As a record label, we want to bring a bit of balance to that. Of course, money is great and important but we also want to put out the best possible music and make sure that artists are happy. That’s what’s going to make us sleep well at night, not just if you’ve sold 100 million records but people aren’t happy.

Given your experience working in the UK and also now having a US partner, what are the biggest misconceptions that people in the Western music markets have about Africa or Nigeria?

TZ: One is that all the music coming out of Africa, and specifically Nigeria, is called Afrobeats, although it’s really Afro-pop. I think there’s this idea that all the music should sound a certain way but Nigeria is one of the biggest countries in the world and right now is the biggest black urban nation in the world, so it’s more diverse than people think. There’s more to it than Afrobeats or Afro-pop.

Final question: what would you change about the music industry and why?

SS: Something that’s doing my head in is people releasing sped-up songs. They are official releases, not just on TikTok, and I think it’s sad how the different social media platforms have completely changed the way music is consumed. If I could change one thing, it would be allowing artists to just be artists and not needing to change their music because of a social media platform.

Being an artist trying to break through seems like one of the hardest things in the world. You’re seeing fans be like, ‘Don’t make your song more than a minute because I’m not going to listen to it.’ That’s crazy. Music should be a place you can express yourself.

“this idea that if you’re from a certain place, you need to make a certain type of music, needs to change for everyone to be free.”

Seni Saraki

On a wider and more serious note, as Teezee mentioned earlier, I’d change this idea that if you’re from a certain place, you need to make a certain type of music. That needs to change for everyone to be free. And it’s something that’s only really levelled against certain countries, which doesn’t really make sense to me. No one expects a certain type of music from a black or white British artist. But if you’re a black African artist and you’re not making what’s essentially pop music, people look at you like you’re crazy.

SF: There’s also this notion that to do music, you have to be a hustler, especially with urban music. So work three or four jobs or do a ridiculous amount of hours. I do think there’s a need for the better development of artists and giving them a space where they can do that, whether that’s through writing camps or production camps, having higher quality studios or access to information.

There is an onus on artists to discover everything themselves and that leads to quite a few gaps in knowledge in terms of how the industry works and how you can leverage communities. Everyone tries to do things on their own. If you were a football player, you have an academy to go to and wouldn’t be expected to figure everything out on your own.

World Leaders is supported by PPL, a leading international neighbouring rights collector, with best-in-class operations that help performers and recording rightsholders around the world maximise their royalties. Founded in 1934, PPL collects money from across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. It has collected over £500 million internationally for its members since 2006.Music Business Worldwide

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