When Lil Kesh was 18 years old, he was in Bariga when a future legend of Nigerian music found him.
That legend’s name is Olamide Adedeji, popularly known as Olamide Baddo. Kesh says, “Baddo finding me was pure grace. I was never in the industry, attending shows and hoping to meet artists. Fam, I was in Bariga when I got the call from Baddo and it all came from ‘Lyrically.’ I downloaded the beat online because I had no money and recorded on it.”
By the time Kesh was 19 years old, he had three smash hits under his belt with a fourth smash on the way. He was flying high in a new type of lifestyle with new habits. In between those songs, he felt intense pressure to keep recreating the success.
He says, “After I released ‘Shoki,’ people felt like I wouldn’t come back. The pressure was no joke, brother. I knew I had to produce something great or risk some problems. When we recorded ‘Gbese,’ we were living in a house in Gbagada. I remember that I was still under that pressure when Young Jonn called me about the ‘Gbese’ beat one night like that.
“Kudos to Young Jonn, he made that night happen - he even set up the studio session and all. He also knows how to inspire me the right way - I freestyled the hook inside this intense heat because there was no AC [laughs]. The next morning, I played the song and I sort of knew. We played it for Baddo and on the spot, he talked about a video. The hits kept coming after that...”
His stagecraft got better and by 2016, he wasn’t just Lil Kesh, Olamide’s prodigy anymore, he was Lil Kesh, a Nigerian star in his own right. The same year, he released his debut album, Young and Getting It [Y.A.G.I].
In hindsight, that album never got the love and respect it deserves and Kesh agrees.
“I don’t listen to my own content, but I recently listened to the album. Bro, I was envious of the guy on that album [laughs].,” he enthused. “That guy was strong. Some of the songs on that album saw me through the uncertain times. I don’t think the album got the love it deserves.”
Part of the lukewarm reception the album got was due to its mixing and length. Kesh also notes that the album came during an uncertain time when his contract with YBNL Nation was winding down. That album turned out to be his only body of work with the label. He exited in 2016 and founded his own label, YAGI.
There, he released a string of hits and buzz-worthy singles. After a reasonable 2017, Kesh had a stellar run from the middle of 2018 till the end of the year. He was featured on Naira Marley’s unofficial World Cup anthem, ‘Issa Goal,’ the christmas anthem, ‘Able God’ and Zlatan’s street-hop banger, ‘Jogor.’ He also had a couple of songs that he released by himself.
Struggles with mental health
But around that period, Lil Kesh started battling mental health issues without even realizing.
“It creeped up on me, bro [scoffs]. I would have lucid moments of clarity and then some dark times,” he says. “I got it all wrong because I kept going into the studio to recreate ‘that guy.’ Not just the ‘Y.A.G.I guy,’ but that era.”
“I would go into the studio to create hits and that was wrong. When I had those hits, I didn’t go into the studio to create hits, I just created them because of a good beat or great inspiration.” he continues, “Fame changes people, but we have to handle things better.”
Despite that 2018 run and his 2019 releases, Kesh always felt like he could have done more and be way more consistent. He was also candid enough with himself to realize that his success between 2013 and 2016 had not been replicated. His will and need to recreate or continue that run led to the pressure he put on himself to fight and create more.
Kesh’s circle is small; he lives alone with his dog because he likes protecting his space. Sharing these feelings with people who look up to him also dreaded him. Equally, he didn’t want them to be scared. But eventually, he shared his feelings with someone he preferred not to discuss.
“After that conversation and examining myself, I now realize that it was because I blew up way too early. I got my first record deal at 19 and 20,” he continues. “I also had some of the biggest songs in the country. There were the relationships that I got in at that age and the fame as well - fame comes with a price.”
“I think exerting myself to get all those songs made me feel exhausted at that age. It’s nobody’s fault that I felt that pressure, it comes with the life I chose,” he confessed. “Baddo did try to protect me, but I also branched out on my own when I was 21 or 22.”
He says that when you’ve tasted stardom and consistency, you wouldn’t want to lose it for anything. He was also scared of being judged by music lovers across the country. He lost some of his confidence and even his will to create.
As the first son and second child in a Yoruba family, the pressure also got to him.
“Bro, I have people that rely on me. When Baddo found me, I was just a boy who loved to make music. Then all of a sudden, I started making all this money and responsibility came with that,” he confessed. “I didn’t want to disappoint anybody and neither did I want them to feel like they couldn’t rely on me and it caused some issues.”
While he was going through these struggles, his coping mechanism was mostly staying alone and moving alone. He says, “Thankfully, I didn’t start taking drugs or excessive alcohol or anything like that.”
Thankfully, his darkest moments never involved any extreme contemplations, but it affected his will to go through his normal life. When he started recovering, he changed his diet, started working out a lot and started getting out of the house more.
He says, “I bought gym bags, created a gym in the house, bought myself a dirtbike and all. I didn’t even realize how consumed I was till I started living my life a little differently. All I had to do was just take one step and we are still taking one step at a time. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
“I only choose to speak about it because I want other people who are going through the same thing to know that things can get better,” He clarifies. “No matter how dark it gets, you can always find your way to the light. I’m not saying that I’m completely out of the blues yet, but I can confidently say that the worst is definitely over. It was important that I spoke to someone.”
Earlier in the year, Kesh started recreating with freedom again. He even had Young Jonn recreate ‘All The Way’ into a single - a rough idea for the song was originally recorded in 2017 on a different beat.
His latest EP, Ecstasy has that title because it represents where he currently sits at, mentally. From the crushing lows of mental health struggles, he’s now on a high. It’s not a conceptual title for the project, it’s just commemorative of where he currently stands as an artist.
While he knows that he’s a hybrid, he still sees a part of himself as a rapper. But then, he says that these days, he thinks more from the strategy point of view.
“I had to get my bag, you know. I am now a businessman, not just an artist. The modern realities of streaming and distribution means that some songs won’t get me the ‘Efejoku’ bag, but they can still get me major bags,” he says. “I’ve also learned that bodies of work can be a better strategy than singles. Right now, I don’t care about ‘best rapper’ or whatever the argument is.”
“I didn’t start off being the best rapper, I started off with my sister as my first fan after I used to drop random lines and stuff. Then I released ‘Lyrically’ and had thousands of fans and then millions of fans,” he continues. “I’m not saying fan conversation is unimportant, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m just saying that I can’t be creating with that pressure and mindset of ‘best rapper.’”
Kesh also says that he realizes that his day one fans are people who love to hear him rap, so he will never completely discard that side of himself.
But then he warns, “People still tweet at me that they want the old Kesh, but that’s not going to happen. I’m grown, I’ve seen things, I’m not around the same people and I’m not of the same mindset. I’m not even as poor as I used to be. I just want the EP to set grounds for my album. It’s a way to reestablish connection with my fans.”
Star signs and going forward
Kesh loves to make love songs even though he thinks the term “loverboy” can be demeaning in Nigeria. He says, “I’m pisces, I love love, but I’m not a fool for it.”
When he mentioned pisces, a conversation ensued about star signs.
Kesh says, “I’ve not bothered to consider whether it’s a science, art or metaphysics. But I can tell you for a fact that to an extent, it can be an accurate way to discern peculiarities and personality traits. I don’t believe in the memes and the forced Twitter narratives, but I know that different signs have common traits. Pisces are emotional beings.”
Kesh says that, “Mentally, I’m back!”
He says that creatively, he’s past the EP. He says that he’s already in album mode. With the current streaming realities and Kesh’s state of mind, the plan is to be more consistent and release one body of work every year.