In the late hours of February 18, 2020, legendary Nigerian rapper, Olamide Adedeji announced that his label, YBNL Nation had signed a deal with Empire Distribution.
In one breath, Olamide announced new albums from himself and Fireboy DML while also thanking his fans for their patience. The excitement in Olamide was palpable, it was almost like he had what he had been waiting on for a long time. The pictures from the deal were also like a big vindictive moment for Olamide.
Why was Olamide excited about the deal?
1.) International record deals are now all the rage for Nigerian artists. First, it's the greatest evidence that 'afrobeats to the world' has not left an artist of Olamide's standing behind. Second, most people in Olamide's 'set' have signed one or more foreign record deals with foreign record labels. With fans, it was like Olamide - who is largely on par with Wizkid in Nigeria - is struggling to match his mates.
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2.) For a long time, a lot of Nigerian fans have criticized Olamide for his supposed 'rigidity' - rapping in Yoruba. They have also ignorantly argued that the language barrier is why Olamide has struggled to properly scale as an artist. To them, 'afrobeats to the world' needs people with flexible means of expression to truly resonate.
Some fans see the deal as vindication for Olamide
As much as it strikes me that people argue that language barrier impedes Olamide, I also find it it hilarious that people argue that Olamide shamed everybody the naysayers by getting a record deal. It's almost like these people think Olamide is now home free now that he has an international deal. Well, they are wrong.
Is Language really a barrier?
For one, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido perform in Yoruba and pidgin all the time. While it might be an impediment to why afrobeats has not truly made a mark on the American mainstream, it is not that big of a deal.
We might argue that Spanish has a bigger chance of permeating the American soundscape than Yoruba, Igbo or pidgin. We will have a point, but according a 2017 survey, only 13.4% or 41 million of America speaks Spanish. Of that number, only 22.5 million speaks English and Spanish fluently. That might be higher than what Yoruba or Pidgin enjoys, but it's still not the sole reason latin pop flourishes.
Yes, we might argue that Spanish has a bigger attraction to American audiences due to its aesthetic beauty, its phonetic construction and the sexy tunes of latin pop, but in the end, if language is a factor, it's not that big a factor. Like latin pop has, Psy had a number one single in American off a song performed in 97.6% Korean.
Equally, Ghanaian rapper, Sarkodie had no problem scaling and getting international recognition while Olamide was still in Nigeria, unable to get sufficient international recognition. Sarkodie recorded a song with Ace Hood and performed his verses in Twi.
Sarkodie is signed to Sony Music UK and he has been able to get significant coverage from international media. He has been nominated for continental an international awards and has won some international awards. The foreign media is literally not even remotely as aware of Olamide. The problem with Olamide has never really been the language.
What has the problem been with Olamide?
Olamide has been selling out shows in the UK and the US for a minute. While most of those shows were attended by Africans - mostly Nigerians - it shows the problem with the music has never been about reach, but proper branding.
Even on the African continent, a lot of people don't reckon with a legendary Nigerian rapper in his own right. There were years when Olamide was hotter than some people who beat him to awards. It seems he was too focused on Nigeria that he failed to properly scale - even worse, he has no notable international collaboration both inside and outside Africa.
On the other hand, Sarkodie was almost like a mainstay in Nigerian music at some points. He even had one or two hits in Nigeria. Asides that, Olamide doesn't move intentionally. While his humility will always be his best trait, he has transcended the music into a successful label exec whose company has consistently churned out game-changing talent.
Yet, Olamide was content with not doing any media runs inside or outside Nigeria. That's why some oafs on social media compare him to Rema and Burna Boy when none of those acts - as good or great as they are - can dare touch Olamide with a pole as long as Nigeria.
What does YBNL's deal with Olamide mean?
As big a news as this deal is for Olamide, his family, the successful YBNL Nation and his legacy, he needs to make it mean more. This is not about language barrier, this is a chance for Olamide to move different as he slowly becomes a veteran of 10 full-length projects. This is his chance to move differently and reap the benefits - and he can do it.
This is his chance to be thoughtful about the music - not necessarily change who he is, but to move like a trendsetter. This is his chance to make himself more accessible to the process both home and abroad to document his story and journey. This is his chance to spearhead meaningful collaborations with artists across Africa and the west.
This is his chance to do something unique - something that we have been clamouring for a while. This is Olamide's chance to get out of his comfort zone and challenge his moves. This could also be his only chance to do that. If he doesn't do things differently, Fireboy DML might be the only beneficiary of the joint-venture deal with EMPIRE - as things stand.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Olamide is good enough to also benefit from this move on a grand scale. J Balvin is a huge deal in the world. He as the most-streamed artist on Deezer in 2019. For context, the biggest market for Latin pop market is India.
The deal with EMPIRE should be the start for Olamide, not his zenith.