“The shoot has been cancelled.”
Emily’s face was fallen as she delivered the message to me. We were in a studio in Yaba. We had both travelled across the Lagos lagoon to function in this lit room. But all of that was not going to happen. We were not going to work. She was a photographer, I was a writer. But neither of us could do our job because of one person’s mistake.
“We don't have the exact clothes that we wanted, so I would rather not shoot than make do with something that doesn’t capture my idea.” She explained, crestfallen.
Emily Nkanga is not a regular photographer. She is a 22-year-old music photographer, who prefers to be acknowledged as one. Her images have been given life to projects by Olamide, Lil Kesh, Ycee, Sarz and many other musicians in Lagos – Nigeria’s pop music hub which churns out enough entertainment for Africa and beyond.
And standing there, on that sunny afternoon in Yaba, she had to reschedule a chance to contribute to that growing portfolio. She was disappointed.
The artist this time is named Bbanks, a producer and recording artist for YBNL, who is looking to start a campaign for a new project. He is trusting Emily Nkanga to capture images that will be the marketing visuals for his new campaign.
“I chose Emily because she is family, and she is dope,” Bbanks told me, as I sneakily asked him behind her back. His eyes lit up as he responded.
What sets Nkanga apart is her vision: she gets musicians to do things they take for granted, interpreting them in their most basic element. Whether it’s interpreting Olamide’s album art or dressing up Ycee as an introspective artist, even Lil Kesh got to look the part of a young and rich hustler. She is a portrait photographer who normalises the absurd.
These days, Nkanga is racking up points by shooting at concerts and music gigs. To her, the future remains hopeful but packed with music. Between chasing her next gig, and retouching images for big campaigns, she took time out to talk to me. That conversation has been condensed and edited below.
Why do you have such an affinity for musicians?
I tried weddings, and I realised it wasn't my thing. I can count the weddings I have shot in one hand, and they are more family related. They are lucrative but stressful, I would rather do something that I have the passion for and make money from it. I like the crowds, not a certain type of crowd. I’ll rather do something I enjoy, and make money from it.
In 2014, I came to Lagos. Moses Johnson of talent management firm, The Zone Agency, discovered me. That was after my internship. I was in Yola, and Skales came to perform. I was expecting popular talent manager, Osagie Okunkpolor because I was going to pitch myself to her. And then I saw him, but we spoke, he saw my work and invited me to Lagos. He made it happen. I came to Lagos, and Osagie took me for almost all the shows in Lagos in December. I kept on shooting at all these events and I found out that it was actually something I love.
How is music connected to photography?
For me, when I listen to your music, I’m able to connect with the type of music that you want. That’s how it is for me. I prefer to listen to your music, so I would know what type of image would go with the sound. There are some people that would sing R&B and you can’t give them Hip hop look. It wouldn't work out. I prefer to listen to your music, to know the kind of things you connect with, the kind of things you sing about, and all that. I would be able to give you a visual representation of that.
I feel that if you don’t listen to the person’s music and try and connect with the person through music, you will have a disconnect, or you might just see a basic white background. I think it goes deep down to expressions also. If you sing hardcore rap, and you are smiling, ‘I would say ‘don’t smile’.
They are trying to sell their music, and you have to represent them right with their brand identity. I also try to give them a side that people haven’t seen. Also, when I shoot musicians, I look at their old images, so that when you come for my shoot, I want people to see a different side. So they know you actually took new images.
Olamide: The Glory Album Cover
I didn’t previously pay attention to Nigerian music. When I first started music photography, they used to call me ‘Ajebo’. I used to listen to foreign music such as Drake, Lil Wayne and others. The only Nigerian I listened to back then was M.I Abaga and Eva. When I came to do my internship for 7 weeks in 2013 with August Udoh. He was already in the game, photographing artists, so I met a lot of them through him, and so I started listening to their music through him.
I met Olamide while I was with August Udoh. He came to take some pictures, and after the shoot, I said I wanted to take pictures of him. And then we spoke and exchanged contacts. The shoot we were planning didn’t happen. A couple of others still didn’t happen. And then in 2014, when I was doing that show for Osagie Okunkpolor, at that point we lost contact because he stopped using BBM. And it was just his pin I had. I tried to reach out to him through his manager, but he was understandably protective of his artist.
Then I went for one bank’s end-of-year concert and took photos of him while he was performing. I posted on Instagram and tagged him. He saw it and contacted me to shoot for OLIC. I did that.
In 2015, I was almost done with school, I finished my exams, it was just that week to graduate, and so he brought me down to do the ‘Shakiti bobo’ shoot. And when I graduated, pretty much we have been working together. We have been able to do OLIC 1, 2, 3.
I was initially contracted to shoot for OLIC, the billboards and promotion. I had series of ideas, and we did all of them, creating different images. That particular one was the last thing we shot. We had finished shooting when I remembered and called them back. We quickly shot it and when we saw this everyone screamed. So they decided to keep this one for it. I felt good. Prior to that, I had only three album covers I knew about.
I would love to shoot Wizkid and Davido. They are at the peak of their careers. I would also love to shoot Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade.
Ycee: “The First Wave” album cover
I was at Chocolate City, I was leaving, and then a music executive asked me how long I'll be around. He said he has an artist that he wants me to shoot, and I said okay. And then we exchanged numbers, and I told him to send me pictures of the artist and it was Ycee. And then we did the shoot. It was for his Jagaban shoot.
After ‘Jagaban’, it worked out well, so when he was going to do “The First Wave” EP, I had listened to his music. When I work with someone, I listen to your music to feel how you progress also. If you come back as a returnee client, I know I can’t do the same thing I did last time because you are supposed to have grown. Some people don’t grow. So I can keep up with your growth.
For "The First Wave", Ycee had grown, his music had changed a bit, and he was rapping in more English now. So I thought of an idea, and so I told them.
Some clients become friends, and if you are around them, you would want to support. There are some people I have shot, and I wouldn’t really attend their listening. I don’t feel obligated. Ycee has become a friend, and so we grew. For example, if I’m in the same city, and Olamide is performing, I will attend and show support.
On “First Wave” I think he brought a new version of his art. He tried R&B. I like the song with Falz. I prefer it to ‘Don’t need bae’ which has become a single. For ‘Juice’, they played it during the shoot, and I didn’t know the name of the song was ‘Juice’. So when he asked on Instagram what song to release, I commented ‘Too much juice, too much sauce.’ I liked the song.
The crowd reaction. It baffles me how people see the celebrities and they go bonkers. They need to understand that they are human beings like you. If you touch them, they will not disappear or turn into something else. They breathe the same air, they drink the same water. But it’s actually the madness that makes me want to cover more shows.
I love the colours and lights from events. But sometimes I get jaded. There was one event I attended, and I felt like that. So the thing with me is that I pick events. If I see an event and check who’s performing. If I shot the talent yesterday, I am not going to that event.
Also, there are shows that happen, and it’s not the same thing. Sometimes, I do what the performers would do next. I don’t know who was performing, but I knew what they were going to do next. In 2014, I got jaded. I attended some events, and I was like ‘same thing, same thing, same thing.’
But in December 2016, I picked events. I tried to make sure I wasn’t going to the same concerts all over again. Most times I shoot for myself, the organisers or sometimes for the artist.