Yemi Alade on ghosting Beyoncé, Nigerian cancel-culture and the rise of ‘End SARS’

African queen: Yemi Alade
African queen: Yemi Alade

It’s surely not often that Beyoncé receives the silent treatment, but Yemi Alade ignored the star’s emails for months. Beyoncé wanted Alade, the African continent’s most successful female Afropop artist, to feature on her 2019 album Black is King, which soundtracked The Lion King. But Alade’s manager had never heard of the company Parkwood Entertainment, and simply assumed it was a scam. The emails were sent to junk.

“Oh my,” laughs 31-year-old Alade on Zoom from her home in Nigeria, where she broke through in 2014 with her cheeky Afro anthem, Johnny, about a cheating man that has mysteriously disappeared. Today, the star releases her fifth album, EMPRESS. “If someone had told me a few years ago that I was going to be asked to collaborate with Beyoncé, I would have said, ‘Girl, dream on.’”

Immediately after learning of her manager’s error, Alade got on the plane to Las Vegas, and made her way to Beyoncé’s collection of studios. “They were all-white with lights everywhere, and it was like, OK, a diva is running this ship,” says Alade, who was particularly impressed by Beyoncé’s attention to detail – the star’s chefs cooked her Nigerian food. “But that night, I lost my voice. I can’t sing – I’m like, ‘Am I cursed?’”

Three days later, after buying out the local pharmacy and refusing to speak to anyone without a piece of paper and a pen, Alade managed to record her two contributions to the album: The Gift, and Don’t Jealous Me, and finally met Beyoncé on the red carpet. “I hugged her and I said to her, ‘Oh my god, y’all see my heart is beating so fast.’ And she replied: ‘Oh, that’s all right. That’s the same way I felt when I met Michelle Obama’.” Alade peels off into laughter.

“When I look back now, I think, ‘Wow, is that really me?’” she whistles, leaning back. With over 450 million streams to her name, 12.4 million Instagram fans and a string of award nominations from the BETs to the MOBOs, as well as a new gig as judge on Nigeria’s The Voice and an upcoming gig on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, Alade is a force to be reckoned with.

Her joyous new album EMPRESS, is a celebration of her culture, full of infectious tribal dance rhythms and exuberant beats; it, like Alade, is making its mark across the world. Afrobeats now has its very own official chart in the UK, and last month the Grammys renamed their World Music category Best Global Music Album, to reflect the increasing significance of music from the African continent in Western music.

“Eight years ago, I didn’t even know if I wanted to do music,” says Alade. “I wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to be a teacher. I thought of being an astronaut. I wanted to be everything  except a musician,” she laughs. Her mother was keen on her becoming a doctor, but a spanner in the works became clear when Alade kept fainting at the sight of blood. “I realised I had to derail my mother’s dream pretty quickly, so I decided to fail my Chemistry exam. I didn’t write a single answer. I got an F.”

After settling on studying Geography at university instead, Alade signed up to a local talent contest, which she won by singing Beyoncé’s Listen, and Sweet Dreams. “I really did come full circle!” she adds, grinning.

Her first single, Johnny, was an immediate success. “It brought the spotlight to my little corner!” she says – an understatement, considering the video has over 124 million views on YouTube. “I also consider it part of the journey that has brought music from Africa to the rest of the world,” she reflects. “I started to notice I was selling venues outside of Africa, that my European bookings were tripling.”

Alade believes that the Grammys’ re-brand of that World Music category was necessary. “A lot of people are listening to a lot of songs that the Grammys sometimes don’t even nominate.

“I have had the opportunity of talking to one or two people in the industry to understand the structure of the Grammys, and there has to be a revisiting of certain rules and regulations upon which the Grammys are established because Afrobeats is beyond the World category. We’re no longer playing catch-up.”

Alade is a woman of principle – or, as per her Instagram bio, a “woman of steel”. Does she feel respected as a woman in the music industry? “We’re earning our spots, we don’t need to be given them. Despite all the restrictions, females continue to push. We empower with our actions, not just our words.

“People would say to me when I was starting out, don’t bother releasing music this week because this male artist is releasing music. Girls can only sell out certain venues, so don’t bother with that venue. Well, I’m just right here selling out all the venues, I’m not waiting around for anything,” she says triumphantly.

Particularly important for the star, who is also a Goodwill Ambassador at the United Nations, has been the campaign, “End Sars”, against police brutality in Nigeria. Her late father was in the police, giving her a uniquely nuanced view of the crisis. “Yes, I am the daughter of a retired commissioner, but I am also a civilian. I have been with police officers, but I am also on the ground, and I can see the pain.” She pauses for a little while – the subject is thorny.

“A large number of bad cops are actually targeting us. And that means I don’t know when I might be next. That means I don’t know when my brother might be next. Why do we live in a society where the people that are supposed to protect you are the ones you now need protection from?”

She continues. “But also I’m very aware that there are good cops and bad cops. I still speak to people in the police, and I understand where they come from. The common denominator here is the government. It needs to be entirely reformed.”

I wonder if Alade is ever worried about voicing such political opinions to her millions of  Instagram followers; does Nigeria have a cancel culture?

“Ha! It is learning, they’re beginning to learn the cancel culture. But we’re still premature.  But I hate it. What gives you the privilege of waking up and deciding to cancel an entire person? An entire business? An entire history? What happens to freedom of speech?”

Has anyone ever tried to cancel Alade? She snorts in derision. “Ha! They can try. But you can’t cancel me unless I let you. And I won’t let you.”

EMPRESS is out now