Diplo In Africa
GQ Style|Fall 2017

What happens when a superstar DJ leaves a pile of Coachella cash on the table to go break even on a tour of Africa—where a red-hot music scene is on the verge of going global? We flew to Uganda and Ethiopia to find out.

Will Welch

It’s 3:22 a.m. at the Protea Hotel in Kampala, Uganda, when my phone buzzes. The text is from Thomas Wesley Pentz, a.k.a. Diplo, who’s in his room upstairs. Earlier in the evening, Diplo brought a globe-spanning DJ set to an un-air-conditioned banquet hall full of stylish young Ugandans at the nearby Golf Course Hotel. After the show, a few of us went out to a small local bar called Deuces to drink Nile beer and dance to an Afro-pop set by a local DJ. And now we’re back at the Protea, praying for sleep to descend before the sun starts to rise.

The text message is just a BBC News link— I click to find the headline “The Nation in Love with Country Music.” The story features photos from an annual event in Kampala called Let’s Go Country, where Ugandan country music fans wear cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats while riding horses and watching mud wrestling. Apparently Diplo is up, doing online anthropological research—he’s been fascinated by his local driver’s “wild-ass country-music station that has been pumping not just outlaw country like Johnny Cash,” Diplo tells me, “but new country pop like Sam Hunt.” The eternal search for this kind of culture clash is what drives uniquely Diplovian exploits like this six-date DJ tour of Africa. Meanwhile, it’s Coachella week in America. Diplo guesses that he’s breaking even by doing shows in Nairobi, Lagos, Kampala, Addis Ababa, and Johannesburg, plus a Burning Man–like festival called AfrikaBurn. He sees the African audience as a burgeoning one, and he hopes to build his rep on the continent so he can return in the future. Diplo being Diplo, he’s also here to connect and make music— primarily with the Afro-pop artists in Lagos. If he were back in Southern California, he figures,he could’ve pulled down seven figures at Coachella’s two festival weekends and all the celebrity-starved satellite parties.

But money aside, this is where Diplo thrives: thousands of miles from his peers, exploring the edges of global pop music. At the end of a free day that we spend 50 miles east of Kampala in the disarmingly chill town of Jinja, Diplo posts a photo of himself standing atop an unfinished building we climbed for a sweeping view of the Nile. He’s wearing a Princess Diana memorial T-shirt. The caption is blunt: “Everything u think you know about Africa is wrong.”

The following interviews took place during a long Range Rover ride from Jinja to Kampala— and a phone call weeks later that finds the DJ still on tour, this time in Alberta, Canada.

GQ STYLE: Before we met here in Uganda, you were in Nigeria, which is the center of the Afro-pop movement. What was that like?

DIPLO: Everybody always warned me not to go to Nigeria to do shows. All the reggae artists— I remember having a conversation years ago with Sean Paul and Shaggy about Nigeria. Sean Paul’s like, I was going through Nigeria and they put these cactuses up in front of the stage. People just stood on the cactuses trying to get onstage until guys with guns batted them in the head to get ’em off. And Shaggy’s like, I got a better story. My first tour in Nigeria, they had a fence up around the venue, and the crowd was so crazy, they were shaking the fence. The police were afraid, so they sent the dogs out on the people to break up the crowd. And then one dog came back over the fence dead. They killed the dog and threw it back over the fence. So that was what I knew. I’d never been to Africa, besides South Africa, and everybody in South Africa calls it fake Africa.

I’ve always heard the same thing: South Africa is safe Africa for tourists.

Like, I’m in Uganda right now. I never thought this place would be so beautiful. I’m ignorant on that level. But Nigeria has this huge diaspora, like Jamaica. Nigerians live everywhere: England, L.A., New York. Nigerians have had a huge impact on music in the last ten years. Like the UK funky stuff that ended up becoming “One Dance” by Drake. And then, over the last three or four years, Nigerians have been taking over with this new Afro-pop movement.

It’s almost like Lagos is the Atlanta of Africa.

One hundred percent. I didn’t know this before I got there, but the music scene is amazing because they have pop stations—you’re gonna hear Bieber and Katy Perry. Then they have all the hip-hop and R&B—“Bad and Boujee” was a hit in Lagos before America. Then they have all the Nigerian stuff—the Afro-pop like Davido, Wizkid, Mr Eazi. And then they also have legacy stuff, like Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti, palm-wine music, and highlife. It’s crazy.

When you arrived in Lagos, how did you get in the mix?

It reminds me of the first time I went to Jamaica. My only calling card was that I produced “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. and it was on the radio there. I was trying to explain, but no one cared. Now everybody in Jamaica knows who I am and I’ve worked with every artist there. I’m dialed in. This was my first time in Lagos, and it felt like that. Like, everybody knows me from doing Major Lazer and [Major Lazer hit] “Run Up” and Bieber.

So how was the show?

It was a weird kind of success. I was headlining this outdoor festival in Lagos that happens every year, but there was a crazy thunderstorm. We didn’t start until 2 a.m. It turns out the sound had blown out, but nobody told me. So I start my set and I was playing records and, like, dancing. I look up and there are all these Nigerian faces just staring at me. It was like that scene where George Michael’s band, Wham!, played Communist China. I had to banter onstage for half an hour [while they fixed the sound]. By then there were probably 500 people left. But I was just like, You know what? It’s 3 a.m. and there’s a thunderstorm in Nigeria. What do I have to lose? It was one of the hardest moments of my career. The next night, I had to do a private party on this rooftop where people were just, like, eating steak. I said to [Major Lazer MC] Walshy Fire, Man, Nigeria is where you either live or die as a DJ. This is like the DJ Olympics.

This was Saturday, during the first weekend of Coachella, right?

Yeah. You look at Instagram, and it’s the same picture with girls in front of the Coachella Ferris wheel 100 times over again. And I’m in Nigeria, playing a late-night show. Afterwards, Davido and Burna Boy and all these artists came back to the hotel with me at 5 a.m. We watched Future play Coachella online for like ten minutes. He brought Drake out. I got high, actually. I was stoned. Which I don’t ever do, but I was like, I gotta get some sleep. But instead of going to sleep, we all went out to this nightclub. They opened it up for us. It was like 30 or 40 people at the club total—they’re playing Afro-pop music until like 8 a.m. It was a vibe, ya know?

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