Elhi… Afrobeats’ Golden Pen
Behind tons of successful songs out there are silent, enigmatic and often clandestine songwriters, largely unsung heroes whose creative lyricism have helped create some of the greatest hits out of Africa.
Prior to recent convention, these brilliant writers have remained largely silent, because of the ridiculous stigma attached to artistes who employ their services. Until people really started to get wind of global mavericks like Ed Sheeran, who has written for other pop acts like Justin Bieber, or Jon Bellion whose lyrics have been voiced by Beyonce, it was part of those realities kept on a hush. Now, African artistes are getting more recognition for their craft as songwriters, as more concerted efforts are being made towards improving music business literacy.
For today’s Guardian Music edition, we delve into the world of El Hi (pronounced El-eye), born Olawale Elijah, a blooming pop artiste and acclaimed songwriters behind hits as recent as Davido’s Legends Can Never Die (co-written with Yung Willis off the Timeless album), and as evergreen as Mut4y’s Eu4ria, among others. We explore his journey as a singer-songwriter, navigating the complexities of building a career as a songwriter, as well as exploring his vast and enigmatic artistry as a pop maestro with lyrics that add depth to his storytelling, and much more.
So how exactly do you attribute your work?
I AM an artiste. I am an Afrobeats singer and songwriter from Nigeria. I render songwriting services. You know, as an independent artiste, I’m also a struggling artiste.
Why do you think so?
Songwriting is the only way I seem to be able to fund my own artistry, my craft, and to pay bills. Everyone dey talk say na passion, but at the end of the day, we are all doing it for the money. You know, like a source of income and earnings, and the way to live.
So yeah, I write songs for other artistes so that I can actually push my own craft too. And I create Afropop- Afrobeat music, kind of like there’s a pop in it. And I always have this RnB texture to my own sound, which I feel like is what makes me kind of different and my sound unique.
I also make music that can cut across, you know, that can get into other regions and not just for a certain or targeted audience. I feel like my music can relate with people. Like people can connect to it outside Africa, in other regions and all that stuff. Basically, I create music for my own experience – experiences like life in general and people’s stories. In fact, people’s stories have inspired some of my songs.
Interestingly, Legends Can Never Die is one of the most iconic songs on Davido’s new album, and you co-wrote it with Yung Willis. What’s the story behind that?
That’s the first time I was actually writing for Davido. And yeah, I would also say that’s the first time I’d have written for an A-list artiste. I’ve actually worked with Oxlade, and I have worked with Maleek Berry. There was a time when I was in camp with Legendary Beatz, Mut4y, and Ceeza Milli). Also, there was a time I co-wrote a song for Justin Timberlake. But then, you know, till date, we don’t know how that one went. But the one that has actually dropped is the Davido one. He is the first A-list that I have written for when the song has been released.
How did you essentially get to link up to write for Davido?
So, I think it was in 2021. I originally had a song that was called LCND- although the title wasn’t LCND. I had the song recorded then like maybe the ending of 2020, because I was at my low points; I was all time low. I just wanted to speak my mind and I created this song and it was just one of those songs. It wasn’t any song that I was planning to drop. I just had it in my archive.
So, fast forward to early 2021, I was at a recording camp with Legendary Beatz. We had Maleek Berry too; Oxlade comes around. We were making beautiful music and that particular day, we worked till 2:00am and we were about to go to bed and round off everything. And I just got a call from Willis. He said that Davido’s team reached out to him and he wanted us to work on two songs. And bro, me wey I don tire that 2:00am that I was about to sleep. Omo, all the hair for my body stand up; I couldn’t even sleep again. I was like, ‘yeah sure, I’ll pull up on you.’ He was like let’s link up tomorrow around 10:00 and I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I was just listening to all of my songs that I thought that I could pitch. So, I just created a folder of like five songs and we went there. I didn’t sleep throughout.
I went there around 10:00am; I was punctual. And yeah, he heard like two that he liked and he picked just one that we co-wrote. I told you that Willis also co-wrote on that. We changed a lot of things, came up with the chorus- Legends Can Never Die. We just made it fit in with Davido’s story.
When we recorded that song, I just knew it was a song they couldn’t refuse, because it was just too intentional. And I think there was a knowing to that and given that Davido is a legend, that’s who he is. This is someone that I’ve been listening to his song from secondary school – E ma da mi duro. Everything was just happening and it was overwhelming; it was just crazy.
After we recorded that song, that same night, after I got back to the camp, Willis buzzed me that Davido loves it that I should send the lyrics. And that was how that came about. We recorded the song like way back in 2021. I thought he was going to even drop it, because he tweeted it. The night that he recorded it, he tweeted about the song. And funny how it’s just till now that the song came out.
So, all of these songs, I have done a lot of songs. I know that some might come out immediately and some might not even come out at all. But you know, that doesn’t stop me from creating. Just imagine now, that song that I created that became LCND, it was just a song that I recorded; it wasn’t anything serious. It was just something that I wasn’t planning on dropping. It was just something that I just did. So, that simply means that I should just keep creating.
If someone wants to get into the songwriting space, what are the first steps one must take?
I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it’s about just knowing the right people at the end of the day. Fine, social media played a big role in where I am today in my career actually. I can’t even dispute that because Oxlade has been my friend since 2017, and when he dropped Causing Trouble, with DJ Tunes, I just put up my camera, I was just doing like ad lib to the song and DJ Tunes saw me and that was how we linked up. And then I got to link up with Mut4y and Legendary Beatz and that’s how we Eu4ria back in 2020. I don’t know if you’ve listened to the EP, but that was how it came about.
So, social media is definitely a way to get across to these people; they see everything, you know. And yeah, connecting with people basically. Connecting with people in the industry that know these artistes. Because one thing led to another, which still goes back to social media.
What else did you do? Did you introduce yourself to producers? Did you pitch yourself? Did you record songs and just send it to artists, or how do people know that you record songs? Or is it only when you are called upon that you write songs for others?
I think that depends on the kind of songs and who can go with it. Sometimes, I actually just go into their DMs to let them know that this is what I do- I’m an Afrobeat artiste, a singer and songwriter and that I can also render song writing services. And few people that I know which are producers, also, I can pitch it to them and be like, ‘yo bro, what do you think about this?’ Personally, some producers do hit me up, ‘oh, how far let’s do this.”
I think it was 2021 when Tempoe was working with Teni and because I had just dropped the Euphoria EP, he hit me up and was like he wants me to write something with Teni and stuff, which I did. So, sometimes, the producers also hit me up and that’s because I have done it to a point. Like I’ve been out there in people’s faces and they know that this is what Elhi does.
So, for someone that is just trying to get into song writing and stuff, you would have to definitely get their attention and be able to go into people’s DMs. Your page has to show that this is actually what you do, because if you just go into their DMs like that and say you are a singer or song writer, nobody will take you seriously. So, the page has to really show that this is what you do. And then you can try, because there is really no harm in trying and pitching and letting people know that oh, this is what you do. Because person wey dey in Lagos Eko Market, they will shout and advertise their market, you know. So, I feel like it’s not different for them.
Let’s look at your music discography so far, what’s the story behind when you started music?
For me, music started from home then to the street. My brothers have always been doing music, so I basically come from a home where there’s like the studio and everything. I never got the chance to record until 2010, when I recorded my first song. And it was just because prior to that time, I listen to a lot of Chris Brown and some soulful music and the hip hop of the time, because my brothers were like more on hip hop, soulful and RnB music. So, I would just be singing and unconsciously be ad-libbing and be saying a lot of stuff in pidgin, which is singing in pidgin.
So, my brother heard it one day and was like, ‘oh, one day, you will wear that boot and you will know what it feels like to write your own song.’ So, I felt challenged and was like, ‘what do you think, that I can’t write?’
My brother was playing a beat one faithful day and I was doing the dishes in the kitchen and I heard the beat and I was like, ‘bro, please send me this beat’ and he did. And I went into the room and wrote an awesome song. And you know, when I wrote the song finish, like maybe one hour later, after I finished and I went to meet him and I sang it with him and he was mind-blown. He said I should record it and we recorded it. But it was weird to hear my voice, because that was the first time I sang. It was kind of weird, but yeah, it gave me a sense that I could definitely do this. I can write a song and do music because he was blown away.
But that song that I did the first time, I definitely won’t play it for anybody, because now, it’s going to sound weird. But yeah, that is how that made me feel. It just really opens my eye. 2010 was actually when Wizkid blew up, you know and it was one of the reasons why I decided that I could do it. Because Wiz was in the generation, he was young and doing it big, so you know, he was a big inspiration. He actually ignited something in me, the desire to create music.
How do you balance both your career as a songwriter and a recording artiste?
Making music for myself is a passion and that one is something I would definitely do. I have been doing covers for the longest time just to penetrate and you know, for these people to see me. And which all those covers that I did from 2018 till 2020, when I actually now got that break through from doing Euphoria with Legendary Beatz, it’s because of persistence and getting to put myself out there. And to penetrate the industry, basically you have to create like a relationship with the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers being like the OAPs, the hosts, maybe like some radio artistes, you know.
One thing that people don’t really know is that relationship is the key to longevity in this music thing. Like you even need relationship with people to even penetrate the industry. And given that I am songwriter, based on the song writing processes, how I manage it is that when I write some songs, I just automatically feel that, ‘okay, it will fit well with this person.’ I write some that are really nice, but it just doesn’t fit with what I am trying to do with my own sound. It’s not like it’s less or a bad song, I just feel that it fits well with another person.
I mean, if I had dropped LCNF by myself, it wouldn’t have made impact or even sit well, but see what it is doing with Davido actually singing it. It makes more impacts; it fits well with his brand and story right now. I don’t know if you understand what I am trying to say, it’s not like song I put in my folder would be for this person. And sometimes, I actually create, having someone in mind. But most of the times, how my songwriting gigs come is, my producer or my producer’s friend hits me up like, ‘yo, how far, let’s do it.’ Or we make a lot of music and I’m like let’s pitch this to this person. Willis has also called me, like ‘yo, what’s up, Mr Eazi needs songs and stuff’ and I sent it, though I haven’t heard anything. So, basically, it’s more of my producer guys that are reaching out to me because they know that I can deliver.
So let’s look at your music. What’s next for Elhi?
I have something coming with Flip Tyce, before my EP. I am working on a project, an EP and it’s going to be dropping by June or July.
If you could pick three songs from your discography, that are personally favorite to you, that you feel are your top three best, what would they be and why?
The first song would be Olawale. I created that song while I was on a sick bed, I was down with typhoid and stuff. And I felt lost; I felt like, what is going on? I was in my feelings and was in my head a lot. And all I did for like a week while I was sick was just be in bed. The only time I stood up is to go bath, get back to bed and get my drips.
So, that evening, I was just feeling down and just wanted to sing something uplifting, which is why that song is really special to me. I don’t know if you’ve heard it- “Omo na my body dey bang so, every corner…” It’s just something that is uplifting. It really lifted me mentally. It was a therapeutic song for me personally and it resonates with people too. I dropped it in 2019 or 2018. That’s for Olawale.
The second one is Feeling You, that’s off the Eu4ria project with Mut4y. I say Feeling You because it’s the kind of song that I wasn’t even thinking of anybody else; I was just creating music and that song really opened my eye to just being true and just doing my thing. I embraced my singing because most of the producers I worked with back then tell me not to really sing, but I sang and it resonated with people and that’s my most streamed song till date. It has over 1.6 million streams on Spotify.
So, the third one is Change. This is a song that I dropped when I started posting on Instagram and just tagging artistes. It is a song that talks about striving and sapa. It really resonated with people. That song, Change, is one of the songs that you know, without having no proper distribution or anything, just my guys posting me on Whatapp status, disturbing IG with posts and everything, it genuinely did well. So, yeah, it just one of the songs that is intentional, it’s true and people can resonate work it.
What is the vision for Elhi?
Elhi will definitely be bigger, that’s for sure. You know what they say, man dey plan but na God dey do am. So, at the end of the day, everything is still God’s doing. We are definitely just going to be here, doing the bigger things, planning on collaborating with people. Also, maybe I would have met with Justin Bieber, you know. So, basically, we are going to be doing bigger things, going on shows and tours, Insha Allah.