The Headies’ Founder Explains Why the Awards Are Coming to America for the First Time: ‘We Need to Take Center Stage’

·10 min read

In the last couple of years, American awards shows have gradually embraced African talent, from Burna Boy winning a Grammy in 2021 for best global music album with Twice as Tall to Wizkid and Tems taking home the award for best collaboration (alongside Justin Bieber) with their Billboard Hot 100 No. 9 hit “Essence” at the 2022 BET Awards. “Great thing is happening out of Africa right now, and the light is on everyone there. This is dedicated to Africa and Nigeria,” Tems said during her BET Awards acceptance speech.

As promising and established Nigerian stars continue receiving their long overdue shine outside of the motherland, awards show The Headies have been recognizing them since its inception in 2006. Ayo Animashaun, CEO of Smooth Productions, which publishes the weekly Hip Hop World Magazine that sponsors The Headies, “started a movement” when he created the country’s first “specialized magazine for music” that promoted local-turned-international acts, he tells Billboard over Zoom days before the show.

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And for the first time in The Headies’ 15-year history, it’s coming to America. The 15th annual awards show will take place at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, Ga. on Sunday, Sept. 4. “We’re creating opportunities like this so that the world can see a different kind of entertainment,” says Animashaun.

Wizkid – who is this year’s leading nominee with 10 nods – will be performing at the 2022 Headies, along with Davido, Tiwa Savage, Fireboy DML, Adekunle Gold, Lojay, 2Baba, Asake, Olamide and many more. Additionally, new categories have been added to The Headies this year – international artiste of the year, best inspirational single and digital artiste of the year. Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Drake, Ed Sheeran, Nas and Bieber are nominated in the international artiste of the year field, which goes to “a non-African artiste or group with the most outstanding achievement and impact on Afrobeats,” according to the Headies’ website.

Within the last couple of years, Western acts like Brown (U.S.), Sheeran (U.K.) and Bieber (Canada) have amplified Afrobeats music around the world with their cross-cultural collaborations, including, respectively, the remixes of Lojay and Sarz’s “Monalisa,” Fireboy DML’s “Peru” and Wizkid and Tems’ “Essence.” And with the show making its way to the U.S. for the first time, Animashauan is making sure The Headies are bridging both sides of the world just like the collaborations have been doing.

Billboard caught up with Animashaun to discuss how the new U.S. location, three additional categories and major sponsors will contribute to the evolution of The Headies.

For the first time in 15 years, The Headies are coming to the U.S. Why did you decide to make that shift? And why was Atlanta the ideal location for the first U.S.-based show?

Over the years, the Afrobeats artists have grown, they’ve evolved. They’re no longer local champions. They sell out concert venues around the world, from Madison Square Garden to [Atlanta’s] State Farm Arena. Afrobeats is not just about our own music anymore. We need to take center stage, where there’s so many artists doing Afrobeats that nobody’s gonna see if you do not create opportunities like this. There’s so many now that a lot of people don’t know yet, and they are so talented.

Having the awards in Nigeria, in Africa, the same old way, will not open new doors for this talent. That’s part of the reason why we moved it here…. [and] Atlanta is like the Black entertainment capital of the world. After asking questions about everything, a consultant said for this kind of award, Atlanta is a good spot for it. You have a lot going on here. We decided, “You know what? Let’s settle there and make a difference.”

Are The Headies supporting nominees and other attendees in terms of getting visas to enter the U.S.?

Yes, we’re lucky to get a good partnership with the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria. They’re been diligently supporting us. The ambassador to the U.S., Mary Beth Leonard, had a big reception in honor of The Headies at the Consulate’s residence in Lagos. That was the first time they were having that kind of massive event at the Consulate General’s house. It’s not just the idea that they’re supporting us — they’re supporting the creative industry in Nigeria. So they’ve been supporting people with visas, of course. They’re not going to open up to everybody, but when an artist wants to go, they do their shows and they’re able to come back home. They’ve helped with visas for a lot of artists.

Will The Headies become an annual event in the U.S. or rotate between the States and Nigeria? Will other counties around the world be considered in the future, such as the U.K., which has a heavy Nigerian presence?

Right now, we don’t want to leave the nest yet ‘cause we put a lot in bringing the awards here. We started like a year and a half ago, and we want to see it through. This year will be like an experiment. We’d want to do better next year because we invested a lot to have it happen this year. And it would not be fair on everything we’re trying to build to just have this one and run away. So at some point, [we’ll] consider U.K. or even UAE [United Arab Emirates]. But I think we’re gonna be [in the U.S.] next year.

Will this year’s Headies still be broadcast through HipTV, or how will fans back home be able to tune into the U.S. show? How will fans here in the U.S. be able to watch the Headies if they can’t physically attend?

We’re partnering with YouTube, so YouTube is streaming it live. On HipTV, we started like a month or two months ago, we have a countdown to The Headies [called] “Road Map to The Headies.” Every day, they’re showing past Headies interviews. We’re partnering with YouTube and The African Channel.

[According to The Headies’ website, the show will air on Ch.324 on Dstv and Ch.74 on Gotv for viewers based in Nigeria.]

Three new categories have been added to this year’s Headies: international artiste of the year, best inspirational single and digital artiste of the year. How did you come up with those additions?

As the music industry evolves, the award does too. We pretty much have to follow the trend in the industry and sometimes be ahead of it. You can’t have the same awards that we have in Nigeria when you’re coming to America.

[For international artiste of the year], for example, Beyoncé with The Lion King album had Afrobeats songs on them, Drake partnered with Wizkid, Ed Sheeran and Fireboy. There are artists that actually have extended the levels where we’re from and we needed to do something about that. With best inspirational, in Nigeria and Africa, spiritual songs are so big and some of the best singers started from church and are still singing in church. They put a lot of energy in their craft, in their creativity, and there’s just no way that this should be left out, or continued to be left out, in the music awards show because they’re not doing secular music.

[And] digital artiste of the year. With mobile devices and digital platforms, you don’t even need television like way back in the day, when you needed MTV or BET to play your music so much and be on rotation for you to become so popular. Right now, the guys out there can actually be the ones making [the artists] sell out shows by actually streaming the songs. So we had to put that into consideration, too, so that way we have data from artists that actually have streaming numbers based on how they’re doing digitally.

What kind of show can viewers expect with so many changes?

A different kind of show that is not seen before. I’m excited because I speak with the artists every day now and everybody’s looking forward [to The Headies]. They want to bring their A-game. We want to have some moments that remind people of the days they’re familiar with back home. They’re still putting the script together and the plans keep shifting, because we want to get the best show. But I’m really, really, really excited. I think it’s going to be a beautiful show.

What have been your favorite highlights from The Headies over the last 14 years?

First year, D’banj came out and it was like, Boom! He came out wearing a towel on stage and everyone was talking about it. Oh, so many memorable moments. Patoranking when he won his award Next Rated; [which is the] most promising artists of the year category, where we give out a brand new car. And he told his story, it was very emotional. Wizkid has performed a couple of times – it was really, really massive. The host Bovi did a good job. Then Burna performed at the 10th Headies and he fell on stage. That was his first performance on any stage. Everybody was talking about it. Olamide and Don Jazzy had a disagreement on stage. There’s so many things to remember about The Headies.

Some of the songs with multiple nominations — such as “Essence,” “Monalisa,” and “Peru”— have either been remixed or featured superstar Western acts, such as Justin Bieber, Chris Brown and Ed Sheeran. What is the value of such collaborations, and do you believe they’re helping amplify Afrobeats around the world?

You can argue for and against but depends on where you’re seeing it from. If we didn’t have collaborations like this, Beyoncé’s fans would definitely never know some of the artists cause you want to listen to Beyoncé. But when you listen to Beyoncé and Shatta Wale or Yemi Alade or Wizkid, then it’s different. Wizkid fans get to listen to the song because of Beyoncé, and Beyoncé fans get to ask, “Who is this guy?” Once two parties are coming together, they’re bringing strength. And you can actually argue that it’s not exactly the way you want to play your music, but it’s collaboration. And more often than not, it’s stronger because I believe it’s extending the visibility of Afrobeats by doing big collaborations.

With the rise of Afrobeats, amapiano and other African styles of music in the West, do you believe more non-African people in the U.S. will be inclined to tap into The Headies?

Yeah, it’s amazing the kind of reception that we’re getting and the number of people that want to attend. Also, there’s never been any award show here with all the artists together in one room – Wizkid’s gonna be there, Davido’s gonna be there, Tiwa Savage’s gonna be there, Fireboy’s gonna be there, Lojay’s gonna be there, Ayra Starr’s gonna be there, and the list goes on. I know a couple of artists that even moved or canceled shows or blocked the date just because of The Headies. It’s a powerful period in our history, and we want to come together and make this happen.

What is your vision for Afrobeats’ future expansion and mainstream success stateside?  

I see talent back home every day. I know what they’re capable of doing. I know the market is big. See what Jamaica did to reggae, just a small country that is not even half the size of Lagos. The whole world at some point was listening to reggae music. Afrobeats is doing well now, and it’s going to even do better. They’re going to be like international superstars and remain international superstars.

The scary thing about all of this is once we step in, we don’t go back. We don’t go back once you give us the room and opportunity to step in. We’ve come so far, we’ve worked so hard. Those guys don’t want to go back. They know where they’re coming from. They fought for everything. And a lot of them didn’t know they were gonna get here. They want to do better, so they continue to make good music.

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