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On-Air: Kemi Smallz’s Audible Personality Is Reshaping Radio In Lagos, Nigeria

Radio is a prominent part of the Nigerian media system, it could be the low internet penetration that equipped the radio with so much power or we’re  just stuck in the past. Either way, the star power of any radio station lies in their roaster of on-air personalities. For the previous generation, we’ve had these personas own the mic and our ears for years but the old must make way for the new.

These new stars of the radio are leading the change in reinventing the radio’s entire sphere from the kind of music being played, the idea of what their voice represents in a generation consciously aware of all that’s around them and what’s entertaining content currently. Award-Winning OAP, Kemi Smallz is one these on-air stars working with Cool FM, but also owning skills as a Voice Over Artist, MC and TV Girl. The 27-years-old OAP, full name Oluwakemi Owatemi, got the alias she says when ‘random people in my life just kept calling me “Smallzz” as a nickname, because of my height so it stuck. I added ‘Kemi’ because I wanted my real name in it.’

Growing up in Lagos, Ojodu, her journey started at an early age, born into a creative home she gravitated into literary and debating society in school. ‘Uncle Dami approached my parents and told them he thought I would make a good kiddie presenter’, she says on how she got her first presenting experience. Leading to her presenting Tales Africa and Kiddies Island, which aired on MITV and MBI from age 12 – 16.

In 2012, a friend and ex-colleague of hers, Yola had reached out saying he remembered she always talked about wanting to work radio and an opening had emerged on an independent programme called ‘Nightlife Radio’ on City FM and they needed a presenter urgently.

I was to go on air the next day, to host the show live, they would listen in and if they liked it, I would get the job. I did my research on nightlife in Lagos, showed up early, convinced the studio manager to stay with me through the show as I had never been in a radio studio in my life and didn’t understand the board. He handled the equipment while I just spoke. I got the job and that’s how my career on the radio started.

Now with a midday spot at Cool FM alongside Dotun, one of Nigeria’s top stations, and primetime spot and more recently a growing followership of young listeners, with Kemi’s calm, quirky and intuitive voice attracting this audience. ‘I am all about positive vibes and energy.  I believe in being a kind person. I eat anything that has a lot of pepper. Strawberry Capri-Sonne is my favourite. I pole dance and do some archery in my spare time.  I dislike bad energy, unnecessary stress and drama, hate and people that come with these traits.’

We caught up with Kemi Smallz via email to chat about building her brand, what she thinks about the Nigerian radio system and her top songs of the year.

You’ve built quite an on-air personality with your brand. How was Kemi Smallz the award-winning OAP and brand formed?

Kemi Smallz: By having amazing Mentors like Oscar Oyinsan, Mazino to mention but a few. By working a radio job free just to get the radio experience, by constantly learning about new ways I could do radio better, to working with and learning under a radio icon like Dan Foster.  I do know how to directly answer how my brand was formed because I am basically just doing me.

Nigerian radio stations have been a corrupt system for years, using their platform for personal gains at the detriment of an upcoming artist looking for plays. But you’re part of a new generation of OAPs taking the mic and breaking this corrupt culture. What’s your take on the past society of being a radio OAP and this new refreshing era that actually cares about the listeners and sounds they play.

Kemi Smallz: I think it is rather unfair to insinuate that the past generation of radio didn’t care about the music and/or to refer to them as corrupt. We cannot generalize this way. This past generation of radio that we speak of paved the way for some of us new generation presenters. They gave a lot of musicians their big breaks. I remember listening to Wild Child, Kemistry, Dan Foster, JAJ and being introduced to new music. I care about good music. I think good music should be heard and so I do my part, which is also my job, in making sure that it does. I can also know that a lot of my colleagues do the same.

Media and content hold a major role in how the younger generation consumes perspectives as the internet makes this more versatile, how relevant is the radio in an African social media climate?

Kemi Smallz: Radio has been around and will always remain relevant as it serves as a credible source of information and entertainment. It is accessible to a percentage of people that might lack access for different reasons, to any other means of information technology, especially where data is limited, and illiteracy rates are high. It is not a fluke that in the last two years, there has been a dramatic increase in radio stations across Nigeria even Africa as a whole.  The ability of radio to even provide information and entertainment on a smaller scale i.e. on a local level cannot be overemphasized, especially on issues that will not make international headlines. Radio still has a broad reach even with its evolution to online radio. Radio is emotional and there is that connection with the audience that social media may not have. I think radio is still very relevant today and will be for a while.

What would you say is good music, music good enough in all elements to get radio play in Nigeria’s current music space? 

Kemi Smallz: Good music is relative and to be honest, I don’t have a general definition for it. I do think, however, that music that touches the audience, makes them feel some emotion, and more often than not, gets you new fans can be classified as good music. Of course, there are other elements that come into play like the composition and so on.

Is the Alté genre of sonics an evolution of Nigerian music, and which artists stand out to your ear?

Kemi Smallz: I would say that the Alté genre of sounds is part of the evolution of Nigerian music, but as with most things related with evolving it borrows from the past and existing sounds and vibe. I love these artists a lot Tay Iwar, BOJ, Ajebutter, SDC, LADY DONLI, DAVINA, DAPO TUBURNA, BELLA ALUBO, ODUNSI, NONSO AMADI… THERE’S A WHOLE LIST.

Your top 3 songs so far this year?

Kemi Smallz: This is so hard, but for now, I’d say ‘Ye’ by Burna Boy, ‘So Mi So’ by Wande Coal and ‘Soco’ by the Starboy crew.

Is there any patriarchy in being an On-Air persona? How can we even it out if any?

Kemi Smallz: There is patriarchy in every industry and the radio business is not exempted. The process of changing this is already ongoing. It might take some time, but every step counts. We can even it out by working together to change the narrative. Women lifting each other up and supporting each other.  We are a powerful force when we act as one. Men should take responsibility for challenging these traditional patriarchal traits and men around them as well.

You’re building a brand that goes beyond being an On-Air personality, what other roles will you like to embrace in your career?

Kemi Smallz: I would like to dabble into some fashion, create a line perhaps. I would like to do a little acting as well.

What are your political views for the 2019 election if any?

Kemi Smallz: Your vote is your power. Do not waste it, use it.

What’s been the best moment in your on-going career?

Kemi Smallz: I’ve had so many, I actually don’t have a specific one. It has been so many great experiences over time

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