Friday, 1st December 2023

Kcee… A Tale of The Oja 

By Chinonso Ihekire 
05 August 2023   |   4:06 am
The soulful flutes from the Oja lights up the ambience as soon as the song comes on. It’s the latest rave in town, catching the attention of music lovers across all age brackets. Kcee’s Ojapiano, a mesmerizing meld of South African Amapiano and the South Eastern Nigerian Oja flute. 

The soulful flutes from the Oja lights up the ambience as soon as the song comes on. It’s the latest rave in town, catching the attention of music lovers across all age brackets. Kcee’s Ojapiano, a mesmerizing meld of South African Amapiano and the South Eastern Nigerian Oja flute. 

“Each time you hear the Oja, the atmosphere must change. Everybody must pay attention,” his tone switches easily from solemn to sanguine. Within days of its release, the song became a favourite among fan bases from multicultural backgrounds. And, now, with multi-million song plays and social media dance challenges, this radical sonic fusion is the latest trick from the playbook of highlife adherents like Kcee in reviving highlife’s golden legacy among emerging generations of listeners.

“They are listening to Ojapiano in India. It’s not about Kcee right now; it’s about selling the African culture and the sound.” After two decades of seizing the spotlight with sweltering Afro-pop hits, Kcee finally hops in bed with his lingering-vision of fusing the soundtrack of his native Igbo culture for newer generations of diverse listeners. His exploits have also begun to spark a trail of stardom for other native highlife adherents like Ojazzy Igbonile, the 18-year-old flutist who co-composed the Ojapiano harmony.

Born Kingsley Okonkwo, Kcee continues to keep a myriad of hits under his belt, from his 2012 opus “Limpopo”, which marked a milestone return following his split from his decade-long duo KcPresh, to his stints with Harrysong and finally his pandemic-era Cultural Praise series with the Okwesili Eze Group which saw him torrent through the Gospel music community during the post-lockdown period.

The Ajegunle-bred musician is now following in the footsteps of iconic genre innovators, building a wide palette of fusions with the Oja, including Hip Hop, Dancehall, Pop, among other sonic strains. He claims his new mission is sprinkling hope across the Nigerian music community to give highlife music a chance again. And, this time, mark its permanent position across the euphony of Afrobeats hits sprinting to global stages.

With rising nationwide-momentum for his exploits, as well as several award nominations and a future full of possibilities, the father-of-three sits down with Guardian Music, nitpicking his creative approach to his Oja fusions; detailing his influences and creative processes behind his recent “Ojapiano” and “Ojaginger” hits; finding his focus after watching the Congolese maestro Fally Ipupa steal American hearts  with the Rumba; as well as his vision for the highlife genre and Nigeria’s eastern music community. 

Before the Ojapiano boom, did you predict that such would have happened?
Yes. Obviously because for everybody that is around me, for sometimes, they know I kind of prophesied and said most of the things that happened. It’s like me prophesying and calling them to reality. That was exactly what happened, which means for me it was just believing in myself and believing in where I am going to, which has been my strategy. So, whatever I want, I always have to work towards it. So, for me, it took a lot of work. It took a lot of commitment. It took a lot of don’t do this anymore, don’t do that anymore, focus on this and that, to get this result. So, I knew it was coming. To my wife, to my kids, to everybody, I always shout I must have one hit sing this year. If not, even if it’s one or three, I must have one. I kept on saying it since December last year, till it happened. So, early this year, I got to lock myself in the studio. Like I said, no going out, no partying, no hanging out. It had to be in the studio. And changed my video people. Got a new video director, got a new management, everything was strategic.

Everything was planned. Everything was being focused on. And we started the journey, we started recording and all that and it worked from that. The mix of the cultural sound and pop sound, the amapiano sound, has also been something over my head since 2018. I Had to strategize which also give birth to cultural praise. You know, it was me trying to look for that cultural sound, that African sound, that Igbo sound, to a global stage. So, for me everything have been strategic and I am not even stopping now because I am still looking forward to some level before I will be satisfied. So, for me, if you ask me that question anytime again, I will be like yeah, it was strategic, it was deliberate. But I will just say thank God for His grace and mercy to make it happen so fast.

Can you take us through the creative processes for Ojapiano and Ojaginger? 
So, before I released Ojapiano, we actually had like about four or five songs with the Oja recorded already that we’re not even released. In fact, it was releasing Ojapiano with one other one we were doing, and bla bla bla. But Ojaginger was recorded a few days after the release of Ojapiano. So, the idea was there. For Ojaginger, what I tried to do was to infuse a little bit of dance hall, you know, energy in it and the Oja. It’s still in the experiment corner when we did that but recording that wasn’t difficult.

The audio boy that was blowing the Oja for me, you know, when we got into the studio, we already had the melody. My producer Jason had to play the melody on the keyboard, on the piano and the guy had to follow it. You know, like replicating it. It was easy and that night when I heard the beat, I was just excited. I was just vibing on it, recording my voice and me and the boys in the studio, we were just jumping and getting excited. When I did it, I was like I love it. So, for me, I love it so much. I love the beat, I love the dancehall energy because I started the dancehall from Ajegunle first for the project. We had a dancehall project in Ajegunle. You know, I grew up in Ajegunle so I had a thing for that Ojaginger. I didn’t even want to wait, I had to just let it go because I told myself this year that I don’t want to listen to much advice or explanation or anything, I just want to release more music. And I’m still on that frequency, it’s just a lot of people holding me back- don’t release it here, I don’t think this. For me, if you leave me, It’d be every month one song, every month one song. I can bet you, I’m ready for that. But you know, sometimes, you need to listen to your team, you need to listen to what’s happening out there . So, the process of Ojaginger was just easy and divine. It just came and we did it without wasting time. That’s it.

I am interested in why you picked the Oja. There are a lot of instruments that could give you the cultural vibe for the east. So, how sentimental is that instrument to you? 
Okay, so, if you know my cultural praise, when I started thinking about how to make this culture sound with pop, the first time was when I heard this cultural praise. You know, that percussion, the ogene, all those sounds. I felt okay playing percussion with this, but when I went into it, I went into it with so much culture, like I went deep into it. Now, the Oja, each time I hear the Oja, you know, I’m from the east, anytime we are doing an event, they are always using that instrument. And each time that instrument comes up, that wooden instrument, the atmosphere must change, everybody pays attention. It feels like they are calling the gods or they are calling a great man or they are welcoming something special. That’s what that sound represents. And anytime you hear it, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, you must pay attention. So, I also felt we could go into this. So, there was a day we were having an event here in Lagos, me, my brother, we had our masquerade guys, the Oja guys, the guys that were chanting, they called came to the event. And when they finished, I was already recording in the studio, and I was like oh! So, me and my management team were like, this thing we are trying to work out, let’s take these guys to the studio, and I was like yeah. So, we took the guys to the studio. They didn’t even know where they were going, they didn’t even know where we were taking them to. And I was like, I told my producer, let’s have these guys know this Oja. I wanted to have it, and he was like oh okay, let’s go. And the guys themselves didn’t understand what was happening, they were just surprised. When the guys opened his mouths and started blowing the Oja on the beat Jason had already done, I felt like crying, you know. The goosebumps were crazy in the studio. Everybody in the studio went crazy like we knew something had happened. We knew at that point that something had happened. I don’t want to mention names, I had one artiste in the studio, he was like are you sure this is going to work? I’m like don’t worry, if it doesn’t work, we would throw it away but I think this is going to work.

The Oja started, and he too was dancing. We were all excited. Like I said, everything has been deliberate but not too sure. You know when you are trying to refine something, trying to build something, you go through the process. So, I knew the instrument was unique. I knew the instrument will stand out. But how is it going to sound on that amapiano, let’s try it and see. That was the direction. That was what I was feeling from the beginning, but immediately that thing started, I knew something had happened. That’s why if you check, I released a song with Skiibii- Dum Dum. And Dum Dum was barely two weeks old or less than two weeks, I released Ojapiano. I couldn’t even wait, I couldn’t even hold it. I was like no I can’t keep this song. I just had to release it on a Saturday. Normally, we don’t even release songs on Saturdays. So, for you to know that I was sure. And even when I was calling my digital guys that was putting my song on the streaming platforms. I remember that I called them and said that I wanted to surprise them. I told them, I said release this song for me. I called them on Thursday, release this song on Saturday. They were like let’s do it next week, I said no, release this song on Saturday. They were surprised and at the end of the day, they called me that same Sunday, because the song dropped Friday midnight. They called me on Sunday and were like no, the numbers were crazy. On TikTok we had over 120, 000 videos in less than 24 hours. They called me and were like oh, you actually told us you were going to surprise us and that was actually a very big surprise. So, when we heard it in the studio, everybody knew it was happening.  I already knew. I danced to the instrumental before I recorded my voice for like a whole day. I was not in a hurry to record the verse or anything. I was just excited. So, that’s it.

What next should we be expecting with the Oja fusions?
Okay, right now, I can see a lot of other artistes doing songs with Oja. I can see younger ones, some of them have sent to me too. Some have released theirs already. Trust me, I feel so joyed. I feel kind of fulfilled like creating something unique and new and a lot of people will love to jump on it. So for me, going forward, I want to see more people coming into it. I want to see more people jumping on that. It’s not about Kcee right now. It’s about selling the culture, selling the African culture and the sound.

So, I have phone calls coming everyday from Indian, like oh everybody is jumping on the song in Indian because of the flute. You know Indian people love the flute a lot and they are enjoying it. It gives me joy. Nobody has every called me that oh they enjoy my song in India before. So, going forward, I am now going to be more strategic. And looking at the back end of what the song has done, I am now strategic in how to do it more. You know, just like active at. Aftobeat has different angles of it. That’s the same way I am looking at this song. There are so many ways that it’s going to be the sole part of it, the R&B part of it, we’ve done it already. We are still experimenting. I am going to do the highlife part of it. I am already thinking about the highlife part of it. So, imagine the amapiano sound, the Oja, some highlife guitar and highlife baseline, singing Igbo on it. That’s going to be crazy, trust me. I have not done it yet, but I know it’s going to be crazy. Me and my producer are already fixing it. Now, there is going to be the rap version of it, you know which we’ve done already. I don’t want to say names, but there are already one or two rappers we are trying to work it. So, I just want to see a lot of people coming into the space. And for me, I am satisfied yet, I am not carried away yet. I am still going to make sure this has come to stay. And also, there might be collaborations, maybe a remix or something. My team and I are still on it. I don’t like to say about long terms or what’s going to happen in three years. I always like to do stuff as a goal but for me and my team, we are not sleeping on this at all. We are just looking for every means to make sure this come to stay and actually, a lot of other artistes can also benefit from the creativity we have from this.

You started your career by dominating the afro pop scene. At what point did you have this drive towards reviving cultural music? 
God bless you. So, like I said, I started with the Afrobeats pop energy, that’s what everybody knows me for. Not even the Igbo or the cultural energy. But in 2018, I remember I was somewhere with Fally Ipupa in America. When he was performing, we went to the AFRIMMA awards and I saw the sweetness from the Congolese music. Dude was singing in his own language, do you understand. The sweetness in it reminded me of where I am coming from, which is the Igbo music. The highlife music is also a very rich music and culture and I felt like this has not been tapped 100 per cent. I now said to myself in 2018, I have to go back to that root and start creating music that has to do with highlife and mix it with pop. Or I started doing just highlife music. In 2018, I did a project, an album called Eastern Conference, which I had to travel with my producer, Black Jersey, then, to the east. We stayed in Enugu for like a month, recording. Some people that had the highlife energy in the studio; we vibe with them. I did this project.

I even went to Onitsha head bridge, sitting at the head bridge with a chair in 2018. If you google those pictures you will see it there. I even used it for my album cover. I was pushing myself, representing the east. The project did its own bit. I gave birth to a new chapter and from that point, I started doing more highlife music and that was what gave birth to cultural praise. It has been a movement since 2018. I told myself, I need to take these cultural sounds to global stage. I was specific, I want to take it to a global stage. And this is still the journey, and it’s still going to get there. Not just me alone, I think I need to see it get to a bigger stage. I need to see it get to the Whites, everybody is going to be vibing to this sound, you know. Not just Kcee now but to the sound, to the cultural sound. That Igbo highlife music. I call Igbo highlife music maybe because it’s what is playing in my head. But I know it’s African music, it’s an African town. It’s so sweet; our baseline, our guitar line, our drums are sweet and unique. So, I think we don’t have a lot of people in that corner, you know, taking it to the global stage. I took that decision in 2018, to find myself on the global stage. And one thing people don’t know about Kcee, one very strong energy I have God gave me, is to be versatile. I am so versatile with any sound. If you want me to do R&B, I have done it in the past, and I will do it again. I can do fuji music, I can do dancehall reggae. I can do any kind of genre. If any writer writes any kind of song for me, I can deliver it. That is the strength I have. But I have not been making noise about it. I just told myself, because I knew I had it. I am like okay, I left the pop, let me go to the highlife. And I didn’t even do two or three years in the highlife scene, I already got my stamp, my foot stamp in it, you know. I also dominated the area so strongly. Over 70 per cent of the events in the east, I was always there, that has to do with the eastern, I was always there. I did it so easily and I would say thanks to God. But it’s because I have the versatile thing inbuilt. My father was a DJ. My father being a Disc Jockey selling records, he played so many genres of songs into our heads. Me and my brother. My brother E Money is also a DJ. So, I had all those genres, even gospel, everything.

When I did cultural praise, all those songs sold, I knew them when I was like 1,2,3,4,5 years old. Some of them were like Bible verses and quotes my father put in my head growing up as a boy. So, I had that flare to always transform and grow. And Kcee is not that guy that wants to stay with one thing. If you check my history, you can’t say Kcee is this kind of artiste. And it was intentional. I don’t want you to say okay, he is a Highlife musician or this. Some people say oh, how can people track you. For me, I don’t want you to call me just that, I want you to enjoy music, do whatever I feel like at the moment. Tomorrow, you might come to me and my project might be a dancehall project. So, that is the kind of artiste Kcee is.

After spending over two decades in the industry, does being Kcee come with new pressures? 
Okay. I remember it was last year Burna did Last Last. You know, watching Burna shutting down Ovo Arena, festival stadiums, got me so interested in achieving more in the music scene, because I felt like oh, we already done our bits. And right now, there is a lot of Dollars to collect in this Aftobeat right? A lot of artistes are collecting big big Dollars. I am like oh, it’s not like I am that old to collect my own share. And the only thing that comes to my mind was believe in yourself, when you believe it, you can achieve it. So, I remember this day I was hanging out with Burna, we always hang out when he is around, like buddies. And I was now asking him, how did you do this magic, how did you find yourself here. Like what was that thing behind it and he told me something. He was like, he said that baba you can do it, it’s just your belief. I was like yeah, that’s my kind of drive. No miracle, nothing. It’s just he believing, as he has always believed. Omo, that was a very big spark. For those that were around me at that moment, my wife, my brother, I kept on saying that like this is crazy. And this happened last year, and you see from that last year, I told myself that I was going to cut off from a lot of irrelevant people in my life and get into the studio. And that’s how I found myself here, in no time. So, the message is you can achieve anything, no matter the time and age. It’s just you to believe in it.

It’s your mindset. You fail first when you don’t believe in yourself, because whatever you want to achieve or sell to people, whether it’s your product, whether it’s your brand, you have to believe in it first. And not just believing, like stirringly believe in it. Then, you can package it and package yourself, whether it is product and sell to the people. That was how I saw myself. I am like, okay, you know what, I am going to come back, I am going to rebrand. I changed my wardrobe. The way I used to dress last year, I changed everything. I changed the management, it was like a 360 change, so you get it. So I started positioning myself to where I am going to. And this is the eighth month of the year, and I can proudly tell you whatever I have achieved this year, I am not slowing or giving up, or getting too excited, but what I have achieved proved to me that you can never fail when you believe in yourself. You can never go wrong when you believe in your product. And nobody can sell your product or yourself more than you. You own everything and you are the one that can sell. Like what my management is selling now. If I am not ready, if I am not prepared,  if I have not taken this decision, my management will not have what to sell. So, it has to start with you. So for me, I am proud of myself. My kids wake up every morning and tell me, you told us that you’re going to be tipping the chart. My kids are between 12 and 13 years of age; so they watch all the joys topping the chart, and they wish that they see me topping the chart. And do you know the truth? The day I released Ojapiano, three days it went on the charts. They were happy.

They were bringing their phones and showing me TikTok like daddy this one is doing this and that. In fact, I have fulfilled everything I wanted. They were so happy. Even till now, they keep telling me, do you know you are still sitting on number one of this chart, and see how joyful I am. And some people might have given up, like oh, I am an OG, these young boys would intimidate me, no that’s not me. I believed that I was going to get here and I am still going forward, I am not satisfied yet. So, it was just my kind of person and the kind of belief I had. So, my message to everyone is always believe in yourself. And not just believe in yourself, but put in the work, and the rest would be blessed by God. So, that’s it.

So, what’s next from here?
Yeah, for me the Ojaginger video will be dropping this week. The video is ready. And also, we are ready to drop more music and collaborations. Some are done already. We are just waiting for one or two, to decide what’s going there. So, for me, it will just be releasing more music and projecting my image and the sound and the culture generally. There is so much pressure to do a concert right now, but I am not in a hurry. I am just trying to build what I am building, because right now, everybody is calling my name, calling me come and perform here, come and do this. But I have a target. I can see the direction in my head. Some time last year, towards the end of last year, after my concerts in Eko Hotel, in December, on the 28th, I think. After that concert, when I shut down that Eko Hotel, that was one of the biggest concerts of all time last year. That was when I started seeing myself as a new superstar.

So I conceived a new direction that December, and I am still working on it. As Kcee, I have a lot to give but I don’t want to let everything out. But there will be more music. I am not slowing down in releasing songs. I am not hiking to slow down in collaborating songs. I used to slow down in collaborations, but this time, I am not slowing down. I am just going to be doing a whole lot that has to do with music. So, everybody should just keep their search light on me, focus on me and good music. Whether you love me or not, it’s not going to be a problem. I know they are frustrating you with Ojapiano now, if you don’t like Kcee, you will be dancing it in the party or club. So, keep the gates aside, let’s make good music, let’s create history. For me, I am just here to make people happy and that’s that. So, just keep your eyes on me, I am not going to disappoint you.