After an incredible 2020, Nigerian superstar and Queen of Afro-house, Niniola, sits down F Word Music Columnist, Gracey Mae, to walk through the last 12 months; touching on inspiring Beyonce’s latest album, rising to fame on reality TV, the moment Drake and Timbaland jumped into her DMs, a possible collab with Missy Elliot and, of course, her brand new album, Colours and Sounds.
Gracey Mae: Hi, Niniola Welcome to F Word. I am in awe of you and your amazingness. The Queen of Afro-House has graced us with her presence. Congratulations on your brand-new project, ‘Colours and Sounds’.
Ninola: Thank you so much.Thank you.
G.M: It's an incredible body of work. Before we get into the project itself. I wanted to ask you, are you a Synesthete?
G.M: Are you a Synesthete? Do you know what that is?
G.M: That is a person who sees colour when they listen to music.
N: Oh, okay. I see colours in every area of my life; in everything that I do, in everything that I am. I make sure that I see the beauty in everything, every single thing and every person, you know. I try as much as possible not to allow darkness into anything that I do or see or love; I'm full of colours, I love to make people happy. I love to make people forget about their sorrows, hence the title of the album. It's very much me.
G.M: I definitely hear that with your music. What was the creation process for this 15-track album like?
N: Let me start from the title of the album, ‘Colours and Sounds’. Why colours? Because I'm full of life. Because my music is listened to by different people, of different colours, of different sexualities, all over the world. Sounds? Because of the different genres of music that are being represented on the album. It’s got my root genre of music, of course, Afro-house, along with R’n’B, proper Afrobeats, and a little bit of, you know, the Reggaeton and the South African influences as well. That's what the album is all about!
If you look at the album artwork, you’ll see me - Niniola, of course, sitting on the throne with the drums by my side, the African drums, because I love to dance, sing and just be merry. On this album, I worked with super talented creatives. I also worked with legends, and for me, I just don't sit down and be like, okay, so who am I gonna work with now? No! The piece of music I'm working on determines whose vocals I'll be needing on the piece of music.
Let talk about the producers before I talk about the artists that I've collaborated with. I worked with super talented producers, Grammy nominated producers, Grammy winners! I'm talking about top notch people that know their onions. I worked with Grammy nominated Kel P three or four songs: Boda Sodiq, Fantasy featuring the legend Femi Kuti, Innocent - Fagbo and So Serious featuring Sauti Sol from Kenya, East Africa. I also worked with Sarz on the Beat, of course, I love him so much. I remember walking into his studio seven years ago, in 2013, and I told him I wanted to hit song and it's been hit songs from the get go! The friendship and the working relationship that we have is something that I will cherish forever. My story can never be complete without mentioning Sarz. He produced four tracks on the album as well. Designer, Omo Rapala, Addicted and Bana. Sarz is a Grammy nominated producer as well! Now on to the next producer, Jamaica’s Teflon. He's a Grammy winner. He produced the track, My Body featuring Afro B. Then I worked with Shuffle Muzik from South Africa; he produced two of the tracks on the album. Oh Sharp featuring Busiswa and Look Like Me. Lastly, Nonso Amadi produced the first track on the album, Night and Day. He also sang on the album and I am very grateful to him for his contribution in the album.
Okay, so let me move now to the artists! Of course, Busiswa. My South African sister; this is the second time we're doing a song together, although we have a few unreleased songs together. I love the track so much. I remember when I got the beats from Shuffle Muzik, and I did my part… I voiced on it. I knew I wanted to put Busiswa on it, so I called her up, sent her the song, and then she was like, “Oh my God, I love this.” You know, the usual styles, she sent me a full song back; she's so hard walking, she's such a queen. I love her so much, she is ready to work and the musicality, in everything that she does… She's so professional. The love for the art is there. She’s not just in it for the money or the fame. I appreciate her so much. Next? I talked about Nonso Amadi. Let’s talk about Afro B. When I did the song, My Body, I was like, “Yes! I need to get Afro B for this one”, so I reached out to him on Instagram and he obliged. I was like “Ah, you know… can I have you on a song?” and he was very happy to do that. Then we linked up again via WhatsApp, and when he got the song, he loved it, he voiced on it, sent it back. He killed it. I'm grateful to him.
Now let’s talk about, Femi Kuti – the legend, the king of Afrobeat. I remember when I did the song, Fantasy, I did the full song. My team and I talked about him and we were like, “it won't be bad to have the King of Afrobeat on this track”. My management reached out to his and a meeting was set up at The Shrine. I went to Auntie Yeni’s room - his sister. She was there with her lovely cats. She's such a blessing. She's such a peaceful woman. God bless her so much; she was very hospitable. When her brother came in, he was like, “Ah, I’m not doing any collab oh!” [laughs] I was like “Oh my God! Please don’t stress me. Nooo”. He's such a cool person, you know, for a legend. He's such a sweet person. Very respectful, very jovial. Oh my goodness! He can crack jokes from now to forever, and [I had] to remind [my]self constantly that I'm in the presence of a legend, don't get carried away, because he’s so nice and sweet. Before I knew it, he said “Okay, you know what? Book a studio session” and he did that without even listening to the song so that that means a lot that he trusts my music. I just feel great having that endorsement/co-sign from a legend. So we did the song, he got into the studio loved it and you know the rest is history. I'm very thankful to him, I’ll be thankful to him forever, till I die, for blessing this record because he didn't have to do it, but he did it for me and I'm just very thankful. I feel so blessed.
Now on to the next legend icon, Timberland, Timbo, King Timbo. I don't know how God just blesses me. When people ask me “Oh, so how did you do this? How did you do that?” I’m like, “I don't know, it's just the grace of God and my work”. It’s not like I have so many plugins, or I'm signed to a big label, you know, I'm not. It's not the work of my hands. By the grace of God, first of all, and then my team, my manager/business partner, Michael Indika. You know, and people that love me, the fans, the media all over the world. God bless everybody! When I get the opportunity to say thank you to everyone, I don't hesitate to. So how did this happen? He went on my Instagram page and commented saying “I love your new single”. I was excited. I went straight to the DMs, I messaged him, and he replied. I messaged him saying “Oh, which of the songs, oh legend?! I can't believe this”, and he said he loved Designer. I just dropped the song at the time. He said, he had listened to my debut album, This is Me, and he said he loved my sound… like tone and everything about my music. This was after Drake also followed me! I also went to into the DMs, I spoke with him and he was telling me, he loves my music and that he hadn't listened to music as good as mine in a while. He listens to my music before it gets on stage and off stage. And I'm like, “Okay, so God was happening to me? [laughs] I’m questioning you but you know, a rhetorical question.” Like “God, what's happening? Don't worry, don’t answer. You’ve answered already!”
There's this sort of lesson that comes with being surrounded by or being in association with legends. It just shows that you're doing a good thing and you should keep on doing what you're doing. The only way people will take interest in you is when you're different and excellent at what you do. So yeah, that's how it happened. I asked him if we could do a song together and he obliged. We have a few tracks that we've done but I released just one of the songs, that’s Fire. That's the one on the album.
On the album you have dance tracks because I love to dance and my fans love to dance, we love dance music. People really love Addicted. That song actually means a lot to me because when I first heard the beat, I thought of my father. I started thinking about how he was killed and then I had to change the lyrics so it's [wasn’t] so gloomy. On first listen, people might think, it's just about a boy - girl relationship but it's not. It's actually about missing somebody or something; be it a boy or a girl, man or woman, habits or something that you've missed that you still have space for in your life. Also the song, Look Like Me, is also a very special song because yes, it's dance music, but it also has a strong message. A message that says you can be as unconventional as you want to be, and you can still shine. In the music video that dropped the day the album dropped, shot by Clarence [Peters], I play different female characters, different women, different in every sense of the word: different, and yet they shine. People like Missy Elliott, the Yoruba woman with her big gele, the one who wants to be noticed when she gets into a room. Harlequin, Cat Woman, Lady Gaga – they’re all very different but they shine. When I posted a picture on social media of me with my Missy Elliott costume, a lot of people were like, “Oh, you remind us of Missy Elliot in this costume”, blah, blah, blah. And before I knew it, it caught Missy’s attention and she came on my page. She commented “Oh, nice…good”. When I realised that it got her attention, which was not planned, I dropped a video of me vibing like her in all her glory. Immediately she followed me, and she was like, “oh, my goodness, this is so cool. You're so good”. Trust me! Into the DMs [I went] and you know, you never know what can happen from there!
For me, everything is just exciting. It’s a beautiful journey of meeting different people, talking to different people, and you know, just loving life. I always like to dwell on the beautiful things and not the negativity or struggles or challenges that everyone faces. So basically, this album just oozes confidence.
G.M: An amazing body of work! Should we talk about linking up with Beyonce and being Grammy nominated?
N: I don't even know where to start from. I'm just very thankful! When The Gift dropped, a lot of people were sending messages… were tweeting… they were telling me about how they felt Beyonce sounded like me and doing my sound on the track, Find Your Way Back. Some people even insinuated that she stole my work. Some people actually made videos ranting like “Beyonce don't do this…don’t steal from her”. Blah blah blah. “Nini, drag her!” I was just laughing, like “Oh my goodness, these people – don’t kill me! I'm sure this concern was born out of the love you have for me”. You know, I'm not a troublemaker and the fact that I didn't talk about it, doesn't mean that Beyonce didn't go through the due process. She's such a queen and she I don't think she's that messy. I will always respect and love her.
Before the project dropped, her team reached out to mine and asked for permission to use some elements from Maradona. I obliged, you know, and so I was paid! I was duly credited, and I'm earning off the song; I wasn't cheated in any way. Before I knew it, the project became Grammy nominated, which in turn, made me a Grammy nominee. I got my plaque, you know, and, different things have been happening since then. I feel so elated because it's not every day that you get to be an inspiration to a legend. I'm inspiring Beyonce to do something, it's a big deal! She is someone who has conquered the world.
I remember when I started in the industry, some people raised the concerns about me singing in my language; I love singing in my language because I love the melodies. Yes, I'll sing a bit of English but I'll do it my way. Now people who don't even understand Yoruba are singing my songs and vibing to my songs. At the end of the day music is a universal language. It's about how it touches your soul, not so much, the language that you're speaking. All you have to do is strike that chord in the person's heart and you’ve won a soul. I just, I just feel very, very, very good. You know, it's not just for me, it's for other other girls looking up to me, or looking to have a career in music, to let them know that just be you, work hard, be focused and anything can happen.
G.M: You are so inspirational! Your story is one of persistence, perseverance and determination. Not many people would’ve kept going after hearing “no” on several reality TV singing shows. Thank God you didn’t give up because it led you to the semi-finals on Project Fame which built you a large audience and edged you closer to this point. Do you think it’s been harder for you as a female in a male-dominated music industry?
N: When I was coming into this industry, I didn’t come as a female artist, I came in as a human being who wanted to do music for the world to listen to. I wasn't coming with any baggage or stuff. All I was after was the music. I told myself, it will always be about the music and not all about fake hype. I'm not all about you know, jumping up and down. Some people jump up and down, and it's their person - it fits their brand. In this business, it's for you to know yourself, and know what works for you and don't use another person's clock. Use your own clock, you get what I mean? I focus more on my wings! I have challenges. I will always have challenges. Challenges are always going to be there. Because for you to move forward, you need to overcome those challenges. Challenges and successes go side by side. Anytime I have the opportunity to tell them tell my story, I do it with a joyful heart because people need to understand that the results you see is a result of a long journey hard work, perseverance and of course, good management. Having good people around, good A&R… I just try to preach to people to be humble, basically, because it will open doors. It's always open doors for me.
G.M: You’ve spoken about your journey in the last 12-18 months but it doesn't just stop and start at music with you. Tell me about your foundation and how you're helping kids kind of get the education they need.
N: My late father, God bless his soul, was a philanthropist and an educationalist. He believed in helping people, not just giving them money, you know, but giving them a good education. He used to say to us to say, “I'd rather teach you how to fish then give you a fish”.
Which is why I setup my own foundation “Adopt A Childs Education”.
Whilst he was here, he gave her a lot of people scholarships and I just wanted to step into his shoes. I was my dad's favourite child, and I loved him so much – we share the same birthday. I still miss him now because we're really, really close. So I decided, let me give some kids scholarships… let me contribute my own quarter to my own community, no matter how little it is. I grew up in isolo Ire-Akari Estate, Lagos and I went to about six government primary schools and I asked for their best students…five of their best students. Each sat for an exam that I personally invigilated because I didn't want any stories. I didn’t want anyone to be cheated on. I wanted to be sure of who and what was getting the scholarship. And at the end of the day, I was going to pick just two children. Thankfully, it was a boy and a girl so I didn't have to do anything or feel any certain way… because I didn't care about who won it or what gender. Mine was, I wanted the best so that I won't have any headache and so that the kids will be able to hold on to the scholarship to through their high school. I'm happy to see that right now, they're in their final year in secondary school. By God's grace, I'm not going to abandon them. I'm going to make sure I help to see them through their tertiary education.
Also, I will help other children as well, by giving out educational materials, writing materials, sporting equipment… Even during the COVID pandemic when children had to learn via E learning, I also provided tablets. I gave children tablets and also a good Samaritan, who didn't want me to mention his name, he saw what I was doing, and then he sent some tablets. God bless his soul, wherever he is. He said, “since you're doing it for the children, here! Take - give it to the children”. I'm very thankful because it just shows that if you're doing one good thing, somebody else is going to see it and, follow suit. You know, we should always set good examples because you're definitely influencing one or two people. I'm just very happy that the children are doing so well. They always come out in flying colours. Looking back [to] when I first met them, [if I compare it to] now I'm like, “God, I thank you.” They're in good health, and the boy is a senior prefect… the head boy of the school right now.
G.M: It's just a beautiful story all around. How does that tie in with the work that I've just seen you announce with Pledge for Peace?
N: When it comes to peace, nation building and unity, I'm always up for it because home is home. Where you live is your abode. If there's war, and unrest, you can't rest…you can't live a peaceful life. So all we're trying to do is spread the word, educate people, sensitise the public on the need for us to join hands together and build our nation. Build Africa and erase violence. You know, reduce it to the barest minimum. The violence, killing of women, children, men…brothers turning against brothers, we're trying to change that narrative. Whoever has any negative agenda, collectively, we can put a stop to that agenda. You get what I mean? If we can play and laugh, then we should be able to come and talk about very serious matters concerning us and our future generations. So, no to violence, yes to peace, yes to unity. That's why even on my album, I achieved that by featuring artists from different parts of Africa. So if I do a song with someone from another part of Africa, I'm exposing that person to my fans, the person's exposing me to his fans. That way, promoting unity.
G.M: You touched on violence! Are you able to share any of your thoughts and feelings on #EndSARS?
N: First of all, #EndSARS, #EndPoliceBrutality. For me, it’s about the need for good governance. I always stress that everything boils down to the smallest unit of society and that's the family. We should teach love, we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Let's promote positivity rather than negativity. Let’s promote love, let's not build a toxic environment because the people in government are from the, smallest unit of society: the family. They've learned different things in the community they grew up in, what did they learn from there? What did they pick from there? So we can, yes, the government is answerable to us as people, but also for us to get the end result, the ultimate end result, that's peace, we also have to talk to ourselves and be like, we have to be of good behaviour. We have to look out for ourselves. When we show that good example, and when the government knows that they can't use any of us against us, then we can win.
Also, this is for the government - to let them know that we, the youth, have realised more than ever before, that we have a voice. These protests made me love my country more, like I'm a part of it. The government has to realise that democracy is the government for the people, by the people, and so it's what we say. Even though they're trying to silence us, it's not going to work. It's not going to work at all! I don't want to promote negativity of any sort, but the thing is this, let them do what is right. The world is watching. We are watching. Nigeria is for everybody. One day you're gonna leave there, as a government official, what’s going to be your legacy? It’s not about the lies you're spreading now or your PR, branding, your good image… but it's about your legacy. At the end of the day, we're all watching and we're here to build.
G.M: They have the authority, but we have the power and we have to hold them to account.
G.M: Thank you so much for being so open. You are an intelligent and beautiful person who makes amazing music.
N: [laughs] Thank you!
G.M: Lastly, this is F Word. The final question we asked every single guest is: What is your favourite F Word?
N: Oh, of course. It's obvious. FOOD. I’m a foodie – I love food!