Asake Is Pumping Nigerian Street-Pop Full of New Life. Next Stop: ‘Greatness’

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asake-image00053-By-Walter-Banks - Credit: Walter Banks*
asake-image00053-By-Walter-Banks - Credit: Walter Banks*

Asake appears on the Zoom screen, a puff of smoke rising behind him, his chunky dreads — often dyed gold and green — hidden under a black Ushanka that contrasts his plain white shirt.

Asake’s music evokes a deep connection to the gritty realities of Lagos, and our interview had been slated to take place in a part of the city that bears significant meaning to him. But the singer, 27, needed to fly to the U.S. for his first international promo tour, and so we are instead soldiering through sporadic moments of wonky cross-continental internet.

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As we talk, Asake mostly maintains a calm, almost Zen presence. His voice is flat and unaffected; his answers short and precise. When I ask how he’s feeling about his debut album, Mr. Money With The Vibe, out now, he tells me, “There is something you need to know about me: Everything is like a dream to me, something I’ve imagined before, so I am not amazed by anything that comes or any level that I am. I just give thanks.”

Minutes into our interview, Asake stopped me abruptly in the middle of a question about his childhood. “Can I say something?” he asks. “Do we want to talk about my life or do we want to talk about the music? ‘Cause I don’t like to talk about my life, I only like to talk about the music. Do you get?”

I tell him that I indeed get it — though, of course, it would be difficult to talk about his music without talking about his life in Lagos, too.

Asake, born Ahmed Ololade Asake, considers himself a reserved person. This revelation might come as a surprise for fans of his intense, high-energy music. Performing in Yoruba and pidgin — two of Nigeria’s most popular languages — offers him the flexibility to consistently deliver catchy, indelible choruses. He unleashes a supple tenor between engrossing, narrative-driven verses. His songs have come to dominate the clubs, airwaves, and gathering spaces across the country, and continue to elevate the place of street-pop in Nigerian music. In just a few short years, he’s amassed more than 350 million streams from just a string of singles and an EP.

Nigerian street-pop is an important subgenre that blends rudimentary elements of Afrobeats from pop, to rap, with gritty, cheeky lyrics and a propensity for documenting Nigerian street life. Asake emerged on the scene in 2020 with “Mr. Money,” and his subsequent collaboration with Olamide, the legendary Nigerian street-pop artist, on the slow-burning, amapiano-infused “Omo Ope,” announced him as one of the country’s fastest-rising acts. Asake’s most notable work, “Sungba,” has the same sonic elements: Amapiano bass lines paired with skeletal instrumentations that hold the listener hostage. Just as “Sungba” was blowing up, Burna Boy joined him on the remix — then performed it during his historic headlining show at New York’s Madison Square Garden this spring.

But away from the catchy, club-ready bangers he’s known for, Asake favors a memoiristic method of writing, similar to that of street-pop legends before him. Rappers like the late DaGrin, Seriki, Lord of Ajasa, and Olamide infused indigenous rap with Afropop elements. These artists regularly drew inspiration from their experiences in the underbelly of Lagos, documenting their hustles and their revulsion at a seemingly endless chain of economic disparity they’ve endured. This approach has trickled down to newer street-pop stars like Bella Shmurda, Zinoleesky, and Asake.

“My music talks about life in general,” he says. “I grew up in a neighborhood that is considered dangerous, a neighborhood where everyone wakes up to hustle for their daily meals. It taught me how to survive in good times and bad times. So I draw inspiration from my real life experiences to encourage everyone who thinks their present reality is constant; I want them to always remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Asake, who’s signed to Olamide’s YBNL and the label’s international partner Empire, is at his best when telling stories. With crisp, didactic writing, he chronicles his life on the street, the turbulence of Lagos life, and his unending dance with acknowledging his religion, which he wouldn’t specify. “I take my practice very seriously,” he says. “I believe there is a higher power that controls everything happening, so am I a religious or spiritual person? It’s a thin line between these two.” Although Asake grew up in an Islamic household, the religious references in his music come from both Islamic and Christian beliefs and function as a tool of survival and as a lens through which he perceives his existence.

In “Peace Be Unto You (PBUY),” Asake sings, “As-salamu alaykum/I get many many disciples.” The song, whose video was shot on the streets of Lagos, is one of the singles that speaks to the importance of gratitude and hustle culture — a major aspect of Lagos life.

“Lagos shapes everything I do,” Asake says. “It teaches you how to survive, strive for success, and be the best at what you do. When I record a new song, I enjoy driving around the city with my manager listening to the song. I am my own inspiration. I have experienced life and I have a lot to say about it. As time goes on more stories will be told.”

In “Nzaza,” another number from Mr. Money, Asake explores his experiences living on the streets of Lagos. “Won le le from Ojuelegba to Ikate/I show dem pepper ki n to sa n le o,” he reminisces, signing about moving from Ojuelegba to Ikate — both popular neighborhoods in Lagos — and running away from home.

The slow-burning, gospel-esque “Dull,” which opens the album, is a kind of prayer; Asake implores gods and entities watching over him, declaring his humility and making a staunch refusal to ever be boring. “I swear I no go dull/Ise mi (my work)/Ba mi fe re si (please multiply it for me)/Aje I no go dull/ Wetin Mama go chop/I swear no go dull” he promises.

Asake says that since he arrived in the U.S, he’s spent most of his time indoors. His days begin with his morning prayers and involve taking naps, speaking with his father, playing some gospel music, and going out only when he has to — catering to the introvert in him, perhaps. “I’ve been relaxing and trying to know how to live here,” he says. “It’s like coming here for another energy entirely. I only go out to make money. My outdoors is when I am at my balcony. I like to see outside, not go outside.”

Like his fellow YBNL/Empire signee Fireboy DML, Asake was part of the creative community at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, within the state of Osun in southern Nigeria. He studied theatre and performing arts, and Asake considers OAU a crucial part of his creative journey, so much that he has a tattoo of Oduduwa, a Yoruba deity that is a part of the university’s logo, on his left arm.

Asake first dabbled in music at OAU in 2013. Even before then, he had always been surrounded by it, thanks to his mother and father, a teacher and a businessman, respectively. “My parents loved listening to music,” he says, “so if it gives a good mood, I listen to it.”

When it came time to record his debut, Asake felt at home. “Making the album didn’t even come with stress for me at all,”  he says. “From the name of the album, you know I was just enjoying myself. Life is not that hard. It’s all about the vibes, how I feel at this moment that things I’ve imagined are happening.”

Mr. Money With the Vibe presents a multidimensional view of Asake, as an artist and a human being. He is at once a motivational speaker and your average Lagos big boy looking to get fucked up on a Friday night. He’s someone who has not only taken the time to find himself, but remains committed to ensuring that his self-perception remains unperturbed. “See, I am big on critics,” he says. “’Cause I criticize a lot too, so I feel like anything that makes me like a particular song, people will like it.”

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Asake where he sees Afrobeats headed.  “I don’t know what will happen to Afrobeats,” he begins, maintaining that level-toned voice. “I am here to make an impact, so there are some questions I won’t be able to answer.”

And when I ask him what he sees for himself in the future, he answers, simply, “Greatness, my bro.” When I ask what this “greatness” might look like, he replies with a question: “Do you know what is going to happen tomorrow morning?” I tell him that while I don’t know, I imagine he might have some projections for what his future holds for him.

“I see a light,” he says, laughing a little and breaking his level tone. “Don’t worry.”

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