Maleek Berry: Nigerian Roots, Global Sound
From a “sweet boy” growing up in London to an international artist thrilling fans worldwide, Maleek Shoyebi, stage name Maleek Berry is at the frontlines of the movement to transform the Nigerian music industry one song at a time. As a producer, Maleek’s sound was already distinguishable, and it’s even more identifiable now that he has made the transition to a recording artist as well. We fell in love with not just his voice, but also his delightful take on Afro-pop and the relatable lyrics.
As Maleek Berry gets ready to headline his very first concert in Lagos, we have a chat with him about his music.
Considering you were born in the UK, grew up there, and really just shuffle between several states, would you consider yourself a Nigerian artist?
I’m just an artist with roots from Nigeria. I don’t like to be boxed; referred to as a “Nigerian” or “UK artiste”. I’m just an artist who was born and raised in London, but I’m a Nigerian.
It is evident your music appeals more to Nigerians. Did you start out intending for it to be this way? Or is it something that just kind of happened?
Yes and no. In 2010, I had the opportunity to connect with Davido and we had a conversation about our vision for the Nigerian music industry five to ten years from that time. I was making R&B and Hip-hop before; I wasn’t touching Afro-pop or anything like that. It was Davido who actually got me hype about delving into the genre. In all honesty, my beats were garbage in the beginning. Later on, I had a light bulb moment and realised my calling is to be the bridge that connects all these worlds, Afro-pop, grime, hip-hop, and everything else. Having grown up listening to all sorts of music, I pretty much had all of it in my system. This was how I started making music that appealed to Africans, Europeans, Americans, and really just everybody. There’s something for everyone in my music.
Your first extended play (EP), Last Daze of Summer is what we refer to as a sleeper. After its release, it took a while before people actually started giving it any attention. How did you feel knowing you had put out great music and people weren’t listening?
I knew it would be like that because that’s how all my songs are. What is great music, really? As a musician, you never know what’s going to pop. I just create and let my friends and family listen to everything before I release just to see how they react to it. Because I can make a beat in the studio and be gingered, but someone else will listen to the jam and think it’s dead. You just never know what’s going to take off, so I don’t like to think about the process, even though it’s hard. I focus on making music that’s true to me, writing about situations I’ve been through or situations people I know have been through. That’s why every Maleek Berry song is relatable on at least some level.
Also, when I made that EP, nobody was making that kind of music at the time. I just wanted to do me. When I started, a lot of people would tease me about my sound, and thought nobody would listen to my music in Nigeria. At the end of the day, as a creative in this life, all you can do is be true to yourself.
So, how did it feel when people finally realised your songs were actually jams?
Ah! I was happy! I was like ‘Yes!! I’ve proved my haters wrong!’ I was so happy because making music or working on a project is like giving birth to children. When your project is successful, it’s like seeing your children grow up and become successful. It’s so weird. Believe it or not, I’m very sensitive to my music – every creative is. I definitely felt accomplished, and it was motivation to finish this thing I’ve started.
You’re an artist and a producer, what inspired you to transition into singing and performing?
Around 2014 and 2015, I was with Wizkid. We were making moves and really influencing the culture and I felt I had something to bring to the table. With the R&B influence I had, I felt I had a different take on African music. When I first started, I met a lot of resistance. Many people were like “Ah, Maleek. You know how it is. Another producer trying to become an artist…”
Today, when I check my Twitter, people are like “Why did Maleek Berry start singing so late?” Omo, I was scared! I kept wondering what people would say and how they would react until I got the confidence and just did it. A lot of older people in the industry like Naeto C, Banky W and Wande Coal spoke to me and motivated me and that was really how I just got into it.
Would you say you have a bit of an unfair advantage?
Yes, sometimes. It’s really a catch-22 situation because sometimes people say all my songs sound the same. I see it when people tweet it, and I actually replied someone the other day and told her “It’s called having your own sound.” When Pharell and N.E.R.D came out in the early 2000s, they were making songs for Jay Z, Beyoncé and some other people. People could have said they all sounded the same, but the thing is that was their signature sound. That’s how I describe what I’m doing.
There are pros and cons and I can say I’m definitely benefiting from the pros. Being able to just produce my own music is great. I roll out of bed, I have a song idea, I write it, record, mix, master, and put it out myself.
You’re headlining your own concert at Hard Rock Café this week. How are you feeling about that?
I’m excited because it’s my first concert in Lagos and I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. I guess it’s just God’s timing. I’m really excited. We’ve got some crazy stuff planned for a live band and everything. I still need to prove to Lagos that I can do this thing live; I can put on my own show. I’m looking forward to it, and I know my Naija fans know how to turn up so no worries.
What can we expect from Maleek Berry in the future?
Just greatness. My mission is to take African culture, specifically Nigerian culture to the world and present it in a manner that can compete with the highest standards out there in every field – be it music, media, fashion, or whatever. I feel like our culture is eventually going to merge with general pop culture. If you look around, you can see it happening already, and an example is a few of the high-end labels selling Ankara in their stores like it’s something new. So, that’s my mission in entertainment; I want to continue putting out good music and good art and just represent my country to the best of my ability.
What artists are you hoping to collaborate with?
Presently, Ty Dolla $ign and I are talking about putting out some work. I would love to collaborate with Rihanna. I’ve done some writing camps and written some songs for her project, so if they take it, they take it. Bryson Tiller is my favourite artiste right now. He writes amazing music and knows how to tell stores. As a songwriter, I’m always listening to lyrics and finding deeper ways to tell stories. He does that.
Just like his music, this Afro-pop sensation is a joy to listen to as he talks about his passion. Not one to talk much about politics, Maleek is just as passionate about social change as he is about music. He hopes to start a foundation in the near future in order to play his own part in alleviating some of the social issues Nigeria currently faces.
It’s a huge leap to say Maleek Berry has played a considerable part in saving the Nigerian music industry. Whether he wants to be referred to as a Nigerian artist or not, or whether his songs sound alike or not, his contributions have made a difference. At a time when a majority of the music we were getting from artistes were devoid of relatable and enjoyable content, Maleek’s EP was a light tower in the middle of turbulent waters on a dark night, giving us hope and lighting the way. We are excited about his potential, and can’t wait to see what else he has to bring to the proverbial table.