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The Afrobeats star Davido, an upbeat voice in a turbulent time
Musician Davido in Accra, Ghana, Nov. 1, 2020. The American-born Nigerian Afrobeats artist David Adedeji Adeleke — has built an international career on songs about love and lust that have collectively amassed more than a billion streams. The album he is releasing on Friday, “A Better Time,” is filled with them. Stephen Tayo/The New York Times.

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Davido — the American-born Nigerian Afrobeats artist David Adedeji Adeleke — has built an international career on songs about love and lust that have collectively amassed more than 1 billion streams. The album he is releasing Friday, “A Better Time,” is filled with them.

But the perky song that opens the LP, “Fem” (“Shut Up”), has taken on an unexpected role since it appeared in September: as a protest song for Nigerians demonstrating to end police brutality and corruption.

“It was on an entirely different subject,” Davido, 27, said via a shaky video connection from his home in Lagos, with his fiancée, Chioma Rowland, and their 1-year-old son, Ifeanyi, nearby. “What the song is literally saying is to tell somebody that talks too much to shut up.”

The lyrics, mixing English and Yoruba, boast about Davido’s success and taunt those who envy him: “Before the whole matter gets dangerous/You need to make sure you don’t say too much.” Protesters have sung “Fem” in the faces of police and government officials.

The protests were set off by anger at a notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and became known as the #EndSARS movement. On Oct. 11, Davido joined protests in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, and ended up defusing a confrontation between the police and demonstrators; videos of the incident raced across social media. He had come for a meeting with the inspector general of police, Mohammed Adumu, initially hoping to bring along fellow artists. He also had a livestreamed meeting with Nigeria’s speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila.

“They kept on saying, ‘Yeah, but give us time, give us time,’ ” Davido recalled. “But it’s like, yo, we’ve given you time. You have to understand people have been fighting this system since 1960. It’s long overdue. And it doesn’t even end with SARS. EndSARS is one of a million problems.”

Unrest has continued. About a week after Davido’s meetings in Abuja, Nigerian soldiers shot and killed peaceful protesters in the Lekki neighborhood of Lagos. Burna Boy, another leading Afrobeats performer, released a furious single, “20 10 20,” that includes gunshots recorded at the scene.

Yet Burna Boy has often incorporated historical and sociopolitical messages in his songs. Davido, instead, has concentrated on more lighthearted topics: romance, ambition and positive thinking. One of his first big hits in Nigeria, “Dami Duro” from 2011, declares, “You can’t stop me”; it was his reaction, he told the website Bella Naija, to being picked up by the police on his way to the studio.

“One thing about Africans — rich or poor, happy or sad, no matter the situation going on in your culture, you always find time to smile and just be happy,” Davido said. “People always like to celebrate. So on this album, there’s no downers. It’s just straight bangers and music to make people happy.”

Nigerian Afrobeats was poised for its American breakthrough in 2020. The music is a gleaming, transparent, ultramodern reclamation of a broad African diaspora — American and Afro-Caribbean styles as well as music from all around Africa — programmed by some of the world’s most creative producers and songwriters.

Like hip-hop, Afrobeats revels in collaborations and crossovers. Tiwa Savage, who sings a duet with Davido for “Tanana,” on the new album (after his appearance on her 2020 album, “Celia”), said in a video interview that Afrobeats is “a new genre and still growing. I think we all realize that we need to work together. We’ve all realized that it can’t be just one person. We all have to come as a force.”

Leading Afrobeats performers like Davido, Savage, Burna Boy, Wizkid and Mr Eazi have already proved themselves across Africa and Europe. They have been signed to multinational labels, drawn millions of streams and sung alongside American and British superstars — notably Drake, who collaborated with Wizkid on the hit “One Dance,” and Beyoncé, who embraced Afrobeats on her 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift” and its 2020 “visual album” expansion, “Black Is King.”

American album releases, concert tours and festival dates were booked for Afrobeats stars in 2020. Then the pandemic hit and plans collapsed. Davido had to cancel a sold-out, 26-show American tour soon after it began — but it only made him more prolific.

He returned to Lagos and brought a revolving cast of producers to his home studio, working at all hours. “I definitely like to be there for the whole process, from the beat, to the engineering, to the arrangements, to the mixing, to the mastering — everything,” he said.

In a few months, they churned out more than three dozen songs; 17 appear on “A Better Time.” Davido said, “I just kept on recording. I had nothing else to do.”

Davido was born in Atlanta but grew up in Lagos; his father, Adedeji T. Adeleke, is one of Nigeria’s wealthiest businessmen, the founder and CEO of the conglomerate Pacific Holdings Ltd. “I’m from both sides of the world,” he said. “I’m from Nigeria and at the same time I’m from America. And it’s like both sides are going crazy right now.”

After attending the British International School in Lagos, he returned to America to study business administration at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. But he was more interested in music, and he got the equipment to start producing his own beats. While in the United States, he also soaked up hip-hop’s entrepreneurial spirit. “I wouldn’t say my time in the States affects my African music,” he said. “But my style, the way I dress, my attitude, my charisma, the way I run my label — I think I get a lot of that from studying the American system and people like 50 Cent.”

Against his parents’ wishes, Davido left college and moved to London and then to Lagos to make music, determined to prove he was not merely some wealthy dilettante. He released his first album, “Omo Baba Olowo” (“Son of a Rich Man”), in 2012, when he was 19. He had hit after hit in Nigeria, and he drew collaborators from Africa and then beyond: Meek Mill and Rae Sremmurd on non-album singles, Tinashe on his 2016 EP “Son of Mercy,” Chris Brown and the Jamaican hitmaker Popcaan on his 2019 album “A Good Time.” Meanwhile his tour venues kept getting larger; in 2019, he headlined the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena in London.

While his international audience expanded, Davido found himself singing more, not fewer, lyrics in Yoruba rather than English. “Back in the day, I’d say everybody really had the mindset that, ‘Oh, the more English you sing, the more they understand you,’ ” he said. “But my biggest records in America are records where I’ve spoken my dialect.”

The new album includes a twinkling affirmation of deep affection, “Very Special”; the breezily suspicious “Something Fishy”; a touch of 1990s hip-hop with appearances from Nas and Hit-Boy on “Birthday Cake”; and “So Crazy,” a midtempo duet with Atlanta rapper Lil Baby that seesaws between heartbreak and come-on. Davido also has African collaborators, including Kenyan band Sauti Sol, South African rapper and singer Sho Madjozi and Nigerian singer and producer CKay.

Davido secured a collaboration with Nicki Minaj, “Holy Ground,” when, drunk after a night at a club, he sent her a direct message on Instagram, where she follows him. “I’m like, ‘Hello, Nicki, I’m a big fan. I got a hit for us.’ She says, ‘Send it.’ I’m like, what? And then I send it. And two days later she sent it back. That’s exactly what happened: no label in between, no mutual friend, nothing like that. It was just plain magic.”

Despite his excitement about the new work, the pandemic has left Davido, like countless other musicians, frustrated about what comes next. “I’m not even sure if I’m going to be able to perform in the near future — and I’ve got all these banging records,” he said. “It’s taking a toll on me.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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