"I knew about Rema before you knew about Rema," Lyor Cohen tells me on a sunny afternoon in Lagos, Nigeria.
The interest of the 59-year-old Global Head of Music at YouTube in Nigerian music isn’t much of a surprise. This isn't his first contact with Nigerian music.
Lyor Cohen's connection with Nigeria
In the 1960s, hundreds of Israeli experts and professionals came to Nigeria to help the country in the areas of agriculture, education, medicine and technology training. According to Lyor Cohen, the construction company RCC Nigeria was owned by his father.
"My family's been here since 1960" he boasts, "don't forget Israelis were here for a long time."
If you watch his interview on ‘The Breakfast Club’, he speaks about the explosive music genre that has taken the continent by storm, Afrobeats (or Afrofusion, or contemporary Nigerian pop music, or contemporary West African pop music, depending on which tag you prefer).
YouTube Music and Nigerian pop music
Lyor Cohen is in the city not just to talk about the new Mavin act who is adept at scoring both pop hits and scorching New Age trap freestyles.
He is here to announce that YouTube Music will be teaming up with Afrobeats star Mr Eazi and his emPawa Africa scheme to help 10 promising music artists from Nigeria.
"I like the fact that he is having the imagination to create the excitement around him and help bring new artists, that's entrepreneurial...he's not satisfied just with himself, but he wants to create an organization that helps bring new artists. That's what attracted us to him" he says of Mr Eazi.
This is not the first time Mr Eazi and YouTube are working together. For the rollout of his mixtape ‘Life is Eazi Vol. II: Lagos to London’, the two parties collaborated to bring to life the Lagos To London artwork - a yellow double-decker bus, symbolising two of the most recognisable forms of transport from both cities.
Another Nigerian act that has received a push from YouTube is singer/producer Maleek Berry. According to YouTube, Maleek Berry “is a part of YouTube Music’s international independent artist development program, Foundry, receiving marketing promotion and best practices for growing and engaging their audience on an international scale.”
The international market used to be the stuff of dreams and wishful thinking back in the days when Kenny ‘Keke’ Ogungbe and Dayo ‘D1’ Adeneye appeared on AIT Jamz every Friday night by 9 pm, rocking Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein polo shirts and playing the hottest music videos, both Nigerian and foreign.
Now, Davido featuring Chris Brown on his latest single ‘Blow my Mind’ is seen as more of a superstar flex than an earth-shattering collabo that it would have been perceived as a few years ago.
Pardon us for being slightly jaded. This generation has seen Drake tap Wizkid to help extend his reign by mining sounds from the Carribean and West Africa. It has witnessed Burna Boy perform live on Jimmy Kimmel. And of course, we have marvelled at Beyonce enlisting the services of some of the country’s finest to help create a Lion King-themed LP.
YouTube is littered with countless dancers performing their latest choreography to hit Nigerian songs.
In the last few years, Afrobeats is one of the few genres to take aim at the American market. The resurgence of Latin pop music and K-Pop with its mannequin-like poster boys and girls have taken stabs at North America and they have the numbers to prove it.
The 2017 global smash hit ‘Despacito’ sits at 6.3bn views on YouTube. BTS (the leading K-Pop export) has 791m views for its video ‘DNA’ released in 2018.
Davido’s ‘Fall’ and Yemi Alade’s ‘Johnny’ have 138m views and 106m views respectively.
When it comes to impact, Afrobeats scores very high but with regards to numbers, the genre might not be there yet. Lyor Cohen sees no problem with this. “My opinion is nothing is overnight,” he says, “...by the way, you're not getting out of the music business. This is part of your culture. What I think happened is you guys have become world citizens.”
“The combination of what makes you uniquely African, the rhythms, the sensibilities, but you're a global citizen, you got a passport, that's full. You guys, with this emerging economy...and you want to experience and see what's happening around the globe. And to me, it's that combination, the world getting smaller, you Nigerians becoming real global citizens. And it's that combination that is going to take this music to another level. There's no stopping it” he further says.
For Cohen, it is essential that we continue to be unique and not tamper with our sonic template that has brought the world to our doorsteps, just to fit in on the world stage.
Our sound is unique and comes from our rich heritage and music culture. It’s in us. “I think when you cut Nigerians open, they bleed music, they bleed those melodies. That's generational” observes Cohen.
He advises Nigerians not to share our secret. “That's your unique advantage,” he says, “they don't have to learn, they have to find their own secret sauce. Your secret sauce to me is the rich heritage of music. And the melodies. It's just unbelievable.”
In the gold rush for contemporary Nigerian pop music, creating and owning our narrative is essential.
For example, Afrobeats as the branded name for contemporary Nigerian music didn’t arrive organically or through cultural consensus. It was a name that surprised most Nigerians who had been dancing to the sounds of Wizkid, Davido and others by the start of this decade.
Even though the term ‘Afrobeats’ originated from the rich Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom, it was only begrudgingly accepted in most quarters after a few years.
To own our narrative and navigate its direction, Lyor Cohen is of the opinion that a strong infrastructure should be in place and entrepreneurs too.
“I believe the only way that you could see the narrative, give it up, is not having real entrepreneurs and infrastructure in place that is going to do a respectful long term job. If this infrastructure is only about tomorrow, the next day, I think that you may lose the opportunity.
“And I think you already have the creative juices, you have the heritage juices, it's now can the apparatus, the entrepreneurs, the record companies, the publishers, could they have a five or 10-year vision? Could they create an infrastructure and support for the creative community that will help take them around the world and be successful for a long time? That's really, I think one of the only reasons why you could see your position” he shares.
Can Afrobeats stick around for a while? It depends on how many more business-minded men like Don Jazzy and Mr Eazi we have in the game.
When I asked Cohen how we can groom moguls of our own like the Puffys, the Russell Simmons, JAY-Zs that helped Hip-Hop culture crossover to the mainstream, he had this to say.
“I think you're going to find that happening naturally because of the opportunities there. I think now people understand there's a ton of money to be made. And so you're going to get these characters, you're going to get these entrepreneurs.
“You have people that are serious businessmen, that are now starting to invest in the cultural music of Nigeria. And so I'm not worried about that you're going to have a lot of flavours. The key is how long is their vision” he says.
He, however, warns that “If they're going to try to shortcut it, that puts everything at risk.”
Lyor Cohen and the rise of Hip-Hop in America
Lyor Cohen knows a lot about risk. In 1981, he graduated with a degree in Marketing and Finance from the University of Miami. He got a job at the Beverly Hills branch of Bank Leumi. Cohen did not stick around for long. He took a bet on himself and a new genre of music called rap.
In 1984, Lyor Cohen moved to New York and became the road manager for the seminal rap group Run-DMC. Due to his success with the group, he started working with other acts such as Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys.
Cohen also signed artists to Rush Management (owned by Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons) such as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Eric B & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and others.
Then came one of the most pivotal events in Hip-Hop culture that would shape the young art form as a commercial force. In 1986, Run-DMC would sign an endorsement deal Adidas worth $1.6m off the strength of their classic hit single ‘My Adidas’. Lyor Cohen was instrumental to that ground-breaking move.
When Rick Rubin, the other Def Jam co-founder, left the label to form his own imprint in 1988, Lyor Cohen filled his role and became the president of the stellar record label. Under his leadership, Def Jam established itself as the greatest Hip-Hop label.
Cohen gave deals to Rocafella Records, Ruff Ryders Entertainment and Murda Inc., a move that saw JAY-Z, DMX and Ja Rule become commercial juggernauts of rap music in that era.
In 1998, Def Jam merged with Island and Mercury to become Island Def Jam. Cohen became co-president of the label and admitted that he was “the first Hip-Hop president in charge of a major label.”
Six years later, Cohen would leave Def Jam and move to Warner Music with his proteges Kevin Liles and Julie Greenwald. Under his leadership, Atlantic and Elektra merged into Atlantic. With Greenwald as the Chairman and COO of the post-merger Atlantic, the label saw numerous successes with acts such as T.I, Lupe Fiasco, Bruno Mars, Wiz Khalifa and others.
Lyor Cohen made another move in 2012 when he resigned from Warner to create his imprint 300 Entertainment with Kevin Liles. Using analytics and data to look for emerging acts, the label broke Fetty Wap and Migos to the mainstream. Also, the hottest female rapper in the game right now, Megan thee Stallion has a working relationship with 300.
In 2016, Lyor Cohen moved to YouTube. His plan for YouTube’s music streaming service and mobile app is to “help the creative community the artists, songwriters find their fans and grow their fans and be able to make a living making music.”
He has a four-thronged approach to achieve this- advertising, subscription, alternative monetization, and promotion.
There is a fifth throng which he says is “information back to the investor to determine does their investment on this product or this video on the platform paying off? So data that helps inform how you're doing is really critical and we're building that as well.”
Even though he is on the other side of the game now, Cohen is still in the pocket, looking for what’s the hottest thing moving on the streets. I tell him about Zlatan, one of the hottest rappers in Nigeria right now. “Zlatan, I am looking for you. Where you at Zlatan? Hit me up” he says looking straight at the camera.
He also has a few tips for emerging acts who want to stay long in the game.
- “Be authentic.”
- “When you get on that stage, make sure you deliver. Because everybody could fake people out digitally. The truth is told on stage.”
- “Surround yourself with the right people. Look them in the eye. And if they're going to just be yes people, throw them out the window.”
- “Push yourself, be consistent and persistent.”
- “Love what you do.”
- “Find that song. (It’s) like a great script. The hardest thing in Hollywood to find a great script. A great song is hard to find but it could change your life.
After doing it all and seeing it all, I ask Lyor Cohen what’s next for the music business. “I don't know. I'm not a weatherman” he admits.
The great Hip-Hop impresario just wants to be in the mix of what is going down. “I just want to be in that pocket. I want to be nimble and curious enough that when they say ‘Yo, it's going down in Lagos’, I jump on a plane and come.”
Well, right now, the man who describes himself as a “big game hunter” has his eyes fixed on LasGidi to plug Afrobeats to the global landscape.