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Joey Akan is Knee-Deep Documenting Nigeria’s Ripening Music Business

When you talk about Nigerian music from a general base the fact is as beautiful and innovative as the sounds are, they failed to properly document its growth. There’s also no proper structure to have any systematic forecast of what’s next to always push the scene forward to a level it can compete globally on their own terms without the help of developed, legacy music companies and festivals. Nigeria packs so much talent and continues to blossom crippled only by its third world state and layers of corruption in all facets of society, slowly crawling into development with the heavy push of the internet, Chinese loans, and the upraised work done by it’s incredibly hard and sophisticated young demographic that makes up more than half of the population.

Are things getting better for African music? A few years back the answer would have been ‘Maybe‘ but now, the answer for most is ‘Yes’. There’s a lot of groundwork to be done, work that should have been done years ago but let’s stay in the present with artists like Mr. Eazi, Kwesi Arthur, and Nasty C breaking music barriers every day, taking more coordinated forms of conducting their music journey, business and strategies to have maximum impact both on their continent and across the world in very exciting and innovative ways. New media companies like CultArtBlog, The Native, Harmattan Rain, Plug, OkayAfrica, are also making sure it’s all being documented. A few steps in the right direction, finally.

For a journalist/media man like myself, the most interesting thing to watch has been the growth of Journalism and Media in the New Age and how it’s interacted with every scene especially music, fashion, art, tech, and politics. The words are pouring in and it’s focused on us and our every move. There’s a few of us dedicated to this mission of making sure our history like previous eras isn’t lost in time or worse, written by foreign media but instead documented properly, honestly and articulately by writers and journalist native to the New Age of Nigeria and Africa. This feature is about one of them.

Born a 90s kid, award-winning Nigerian journalist Joey Akan listened to different genres like the pop group ‘Abba’, with a mix of homegrown talent, Sunny Okposu increasing his range and taste in music before he grew an interest in writing. He grew up reading a lot of books dividing his interests between music and writing, ‘I read books like, Sydney Sheldon, John Grisham, Jim Clavell, Frederick Forsyth, who was a journalist that covered the Biafra war. Reading all these books I was amazed by the art of writing and I wanted to use words to create mine’, he says. Joey’s mission like many top journalists is to preserve the history of Africa’s current spark, with his interest being mostly music.

Joey started writing through poetry which he used to help his friends in high school compose love letters for a fee, he really began journalism in university by writing for the school’s papers, he was director of information for his faculty so he handled all the media, he was also the director of socials at some point, curating parties which involved his other passion, music. His love for journalism grew, even more, when he understood it was about storytelling, telling people something, educating, inspiring and entertaining people, at that point, there was nothing else he wanted to do.

In my third year I saved all my feeding money and bought a computer, then started pitching online looking for writing jobs until I got a call in my final year from Pulse, they liked my work and wanted me to write for them. After the interview, I became a freelance writer for them. After finishing college in 2012 I moved to Lagos in 2013.

He wrote for all the scenes at Pulse in his early days and started focusing mostly on music in mid-2014 because he discovered the only thing Nigeria had about music journalism was not serious. Most of the time It was about the lifestyle of the celebrities, not the music. He knew there was work to be done in the music journalism scene so he took it on.

When the 27-year-old left Pulse, he pitched more stories to International media companies and got turned down a lot which was fine. He never took the rejection personal cause he knew if he wanted to be successful he had to be rejected to know he was doing something and pushed harder. Then a few accepted, he got the New Yorker story and wrote a few pieces for CNN Africa, a columnist for Guardian Nigeria, and OkayAfrica, interviewing Dreamville signee Bas for the latter. Once, he even got a Genius gig but they killed his story.

He feels good to do it because it all started from a place of trial and now it’s his means of livelihood, and career. Over time he researched the music industry and gained a better perspective, chasing the art of Nigerian sounds which led to him consulting/A&R for UMG Nigeria.

One could say Joey’s career just really kicked off and the best is yet to come. After a lot of back and forth, on a Thursday morning early November, I get to transcribing.

How does one become a good Journalist or music publisher, what does it take to be behind the scenes and given access to top artists across the continent?

Joey Akan: Being a good journalist is having an eye for the story and being very sincere about what you’re writing about. Knowing that it’s not about you, you’re just a vessel telling the story. The story’s connection is for the fans, musicians, people who follow the culture, the ambassadors of the culture.

So, the basic principle of my work is an artist releases a song, they create an emotional connection with his fans, fans gravitate to it cause the song makes them happy. Guess what happens, the emotional connection, they (fans) want to know more and the artist is not skilled in telling the story. They can try with social media but can’t really tell their story with as a much which is where a music publisher steps in.

We look at that gap and fill it. That’s at the heart of being a music journalist. The rest of it is dedication, being a journalist you have to study the art and pursue the culture so you’re getting all the info you need to write a good story.

Getting behind the scenes, over time people trusted me as the guy who said the truth, the guy who knows what he’s talking about. Once you achieved that as a journalist it’ll be easier to do a lot of good work cause people trust that you are true, not corrupt which is something I’ve worked hard to be.

You’re not taking money to publish a narrative. Once you’re not in that, speak clearly and honestly, things go well. It takes a lot more time as a person but things go well.

So access is literally musicians and their managers saying this guy knows what’s up, let’s pick his brain he has a lot of knowledge about the game because he’s doing a lot of research and sees things more clearly.

So to write a story about them, I need that access to be able to write the interview. Artists are also tired of having the same interview everywhere, so when they come to you they want to able to feel like they’re sharing. They don’t want a Wikipedia profile, they want to share their story and if you’re the one to do it then do it right.

That’s what it is to be a good music journalist and have the access cause, in the end, artists are very weary people. They are wary of everything, so talking to a journalist and giving behind the scene access that’s because they trust you.

I know a lot of things about the music industry, a lot more than I should know but you wouldn’t hear it anywhere cause those things were told to me in trust and once someone gives you something in trust especially the sensitive information you just have to hold it in because you can’t peel back all the curtains, the game is too weird and people have worked too hard to create a standard acceptable imagery for you. So when you understand how to play the game then it’s fine.

Half the time, apart from having access and people knowing you, it’s about serendipity. Like a story I wrote about Kcee, I stumbled on his video set and I stayed there and got the story out of it.

What’s been the most corrupt, alarming story you’ve uncovered in your years of being a journalist but never shared?

Joey Akan: if I share it now, why have I held on to it (laughs). Well, it’s a story I’m working on between Iyanya and Uni Franklin, what happened between them. Why did they break up, they were such a good couple. People still talk about Ubi and Iyanya, like the story about Don Jazzy and D’banj breaking up we know that the story about Runtown’s and Eric Manny, of course, I covered that a lot, the story about Kiss Daniel I also covered that. So people don’t know that end, it’s gory and a very sad story. Writing the story I’ve had to cry a couple of times, but I will publish it.

Yes, that’s the story, I’ve spent months working on it and it’ll be better when I’m done with it.

You’re known for your honest reviews and critique on the African music climate, how important is this honesty to music publishers like yourself and to the industry as a whole?

Joey Akan: Much of the problems we have in this game, much of what we face, it’s mostly from a place of people not being real with themselves and each other. As a journalist, you have to be able to understand that the only thing you have going for you is the truth. And if you don’t provide truth then what are you telling? Are you going to tell lies? To be honest with the people, in your dealings, how and when you talk to them be honest. Tell them the truth because, in the end, people need the truth, it is the reality on the ground. When you create something different, you’re doing a great disservice to everybody for those who want to learn, or those who literally want to get the right information. You’re not a journalist if you don’t say the truth, you become a mercenary.

So honesty is important if we have more honesty a lot of the things that have happened, a lot of the problems that we have would be avoided long long ago.

You can’t put a price on honesty.

How do you decide the stories & content you pursue, what makes an interesting African narrative worthy of your thoughts and words?

Joey Akan: For me, it’s about what is. For example, one of the reasons we have very poor music knowledge in the country is because our fathers and elder brothers didn’t document enough. Like I have to read about Fela from BBC.

When we had the Tribune here when we had Concord Newspapers when we had all these things I got news from them but people didn’t understand that it was a thing, talking about the music would be a thing but instead they focused on celebrity lifestyle and that ruined a lot of things.

So right now it’s about any story worthy of being told if you see or get a story and you want to tell it cause it’s the truth and it’s a good story that educates and improves the culture then that’s the story worth pursuing. It might be a gory story, but it’s important.

That’s how I find my narrative, I look at everything and say this is worthy of telling. Every story is worthy of being told and I do as much as I can. But if it’s the truth and it’ll help educate and move the culture then, of course, I want to tell it.

You also have to read a lot, you can’t write a good piece without knowing what a good piece is. The more you read, your words and narration get better and then you can create the best stories.

What processes like marketing, and creative strategies do we still lack in the African music landscape?

Joey Akan: First we don’t have enough data and that limits us. Working at UMG Africa, I’m being immersed in a major label system.

These people aren’t joking, the tools they have, a lot of things you think are just random bursts of creativity are contrived.

Nigerian artist needs to put a lot more people in their teams, they don’t have enough songwriters, enough people who create music for them like put lyrics and everything. They need more people creating the music, it’ll cost a lot more but it makes better music. Almost always, they’re exceptions but almost always.

The data we lack is a major problem because global labels have tools, apart from basic tools that show streaming numbers they analyze the people’s perception of an artist, is it negative or positive? How do we improve on it? That sort of data is what we lack.

When we invest in more tech and buy these licenses and use them, it’s only when you have the data that you can make more precise strategies. That’s how it works, we don’t have that here.

People do things based on trends here and get lucky a lot, so we need to do more. We’re trying cause a lot of people are suffering but we need to do more in our dealings.

In your words, what are the things an artist should focus on when trying to ‘Blow’?

Joey Akan: When you’re trying to blow on a very basic level, focus on your music, on the quality of it. I had a conversation with a guy who came to me asking how he’ll blow, I listened to his material and it was below average. I told him he couldn’t ‘blow’ with the wack musicality.

Can your music stand side by side with everyone you want to go past? if you put your music on a playlist with the artist you want to be bigger than would it cut? Would it be out of place? Yes, cause the quality is shit so in the end, it’s about your art, focus on your art and when you get it right every money you get to put it behind marketing that sound. Don’t worry about interviews, don’t worry about branding, nobody cares about your branding when you’re still nothing.

Put your money behind pushing your art. Make sure a bulk of your money goes into pushing the music and when it’s certified that it’s good content keep going. No matter how much you push something dead as an upcoming artist it’s just going to remain dead.

Afrobeat is Africa’s biggest music export currently, what’s unique about this genre to the western audience who’ve currently embraced the sound and what are your views on the ‘Alté’ scene challenging previously set narratives of what African music can be?

Joey Akan: Hmm, good question.

First, western audiences have not ’embraced the sound’ we have a lot of people in the diaspora. Nigerians most especially, who are connected to the culture and proud of our music. What they do is spread it, don’t stop talking about it and this has gotten more people. Yes, some of our artists have made in-roads but generally, it’s a work in progress.

What’s unique is the drumming man, ain’t nobody ever drumming like that. The drumming is good, the spirit and culture it has can be felt. On a basic level, afrobeats sounds good, it’s complex and characterized by drumming. It moves you to dance. It stimulates happiness.

For the Alté scene, I love it, it’s necessary for the culture’s evolution because not everybody fits a certain narrative, not everybody wants to create art a certain way. A lot of people have more diverse influences, and that needs to be expressed. There needs to be creativity from them. So it’s good they are doing this, and I want them to grow, be better and be more.

Moving forward with the likes of Odunsi, Tonero, Santi, Kwesi Arthur, Amaarae, Nasty C, Lady Donli, young individuals taking the next wave of Africa’s music, any predictions on what lies ahead?

Joey Akan: One thing I’ve noticed with the game is you can’t really predict the future. One thing I know is anytime you make a prediction, something will come along to disprove it. Like who knew Teni was going to blow, no one. So you can’t really predict but what I do know in terms of the culture is that it has gotten better.

In the end, I just expect things to get better, more competition. People will go out of their way to kill us with enjoyment and I’m here for it.

Championing African narratives is key to a journalist like yourself, with more indigenous platforms like More Branches, Culture Custodian, can we confidently look forward to a future that will have African journalist prefer to be published on these platforms rather than foreign media outlets and what steps need to be taken to get here?

Joey Akan: What you should understand about foreign platforms is they are legacy platforms, no matter what. Your father watched CNN, they’ve built this brand equity over time. It’s not something that happened today.

So its just to do more work, there’s a future where people will be prouder to say I got published on More Branches, Culture Custodian. These are young media businesses in the span of everything and they need to do a lot more.

To get there, we need more diversity in the stories, better quality and invest more in content because content attracts more people. The reason why you read Genius is that they provide something, the reason why you read Vulture, Complex, DJ Booth is they provide something different. By the time we get to that point where we have investors that is when it changes. You’ll be more happy as a journalist to be published on a platform that has good content than a platform where your content is the only thing shinning because the association is key.

In the end, it’s about content and that can only be achieved by finding ways to make the business profitable to invest in content. Hopefully, this changes and we get there. It all depends on what we do with the content. So better content = more people, more prestige and you build this over time.

How would you describe the music of 2018?

Joey Akan: The music of 2018 has been very surprising. The only thing that’s been standard here is the ‘Shaku Shaku’ because we saw it coming from last year, I was happy that happened for them.

A lot of good music this year, and I’m grateful I was in the industry this year because the amount of good music I’ve heard is tremendous.

Duncan Mighty came from nowhere, Tiwa Savage is making masculine music, that’s not politically correct but her music doesn’t fit the bill of traditional women music its different now and I love it. Wizkid has done a lot more work, Davido is still exploring Fresh. Runtown has diversified his sound, and it can only get better.

Your current song of the year?

Joey Akan: its torn between Soco by Wizkid, Fake Love by Wizkid & Duncan Mighty and Ye by Burna Boy. The only reason I chose Ye is because of the message.

Using BurnaBoy as an example, Nigerians have a bad habit of sleeping on their own till they blow up beyond our shores then they claim them. Any reasons why this phenomenon keeps happening?

Joey Akan: I don’t think people slept on Burna Boy, he had singles like ‘Like To Party’, ‘Run My Race.

I feel much of the time we’re the ones that export them, this is a narrative I’ve heard come up a couple of times and I think it’s wrong. We embrace our artists, blow them and then we export them for the most part. We export our own.

What would you like to achieve moving forward?

Joey Akan: I want to do a lot more work, have more impact on people. I want to get to a point where I could be able to make more people consume the art.

That’s the goal, I want more artists to be successful and I want to contribute my quota to making this market grow. If I can do that by documenting the stories via writing, via podcasting, video, anything. Going forward that’s what I want to achieve and I want to do more.

Documentation is a huge part of being a journalist, any untold story in Africa’s music/culture scene you’ll still love to tell?

Joey Akan: I’ve always wanted to study the music economics of low-income populations around the continent. Picking the key cities where people listen to music, like Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Luanda.

The economics of consumption, I want to tell those stories and make them connect.

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