THE KING OF AFROPOP
GQ India|October 2021
He’s the guy Drake and Beyoncé call up whenever they need a continent-spanning smash hit and now, Lagos’s own Wizkid is taking over speakers everywhere with the sounds of home.
EDWIN STATS HOUGHTON

“Ayy, hello. Come say hi. No?”

“He’s acting shy,” says Wizkid, turning to me. He’s referring to his son Zion Ayo Balogun, the beautiful, cherub-like three-year-old who has just interrupted our conversation to remind his father that he was promised a trip to the zoo today. “He’s not shy.”

As for many of us, domestic life for Africa’s biggest pop star has gotten tricky. Wizkid is calling from Accra, Ghana, where he has spent the past several months, somewhat unexpectedly, on account of pandemic travel restrictions that have kept him from returning to his native Nigeria. “I was in Ghana for a two-week holiday and now I’ve been here for six months,” he says in the pidgin cadence of Lagos, the city he calls home. “So I’m just here working, making music, spending time with my family and son. Just taking each day as it comes.”

Unlike most of us, however, Wizkid looks to be living inside an Old Master painting, at least judging by the slice of domestic reality that is visible through our shared Zoom window. Framed by the pristine backdrop of a floor-to-ceiling white curtain, Wiz is draped in a black-and-gold Versace robe, which falls open just enough to reveal the heavy platinum links that adorn his neck and wrist. His “work from home” mode strongly suggests a 21st-century avatar of Mansa Musa, the 14th-century West African ruler whose personal wealth was so great that he disrupted the gold markets of Cairo with the gifts he dispensed along his pilgrimage to Mecca. If not for Wiz’s faintly visible tattoos and the spliff tucked behind his left ear, you’d think you were talking to actual royalty.

In a way, it’s easy to see why the nickname Little Prince has trailed Wizkid, born Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun, since he started making music in the mid-2000s. It’s a career arc that runs parallel with the emergence of Afrobeats as a distinct genre, or at least as a distinct wave within Afropop. The genre fuses the song structures of R&B with the distinctive melodic energy of West African palm wine music, pushing the hard, offbeat pulse of Jamaican dancehall into a more polyrhythmic clave. The s in Afrobeats nicely captures a plurality inherent to the sound itself, which is less a set formula than a constellation of Afromusics, made in West Africa but for an audience that encompasses the whole Black Atlantic diaspora.

In the 2010s, that Black Atlantic wave became a global phenomenon, and Wizkid was the scene’s standard-bearer—a position only solidified when he collaborated with Drake on “One Dance,” which became the most-streamed song in the world. (It was also around this time that Wizkid’s fans stopped referring to him as Little Prince, and instead started calling him Starboy.) By the time Beyoncé released her Black Is King visual album for Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King, there was really only one artist she could have called to provide the proper Afrodiasporic stamp of approval on “Brown Skin Girl,” the track on which her daughter, Blue Ivy, made her musical debut.

In the music video, which won a Grammy, Wiz performs against the tableau of a Black debutante ball, initially frozen in time like a 3D version of a painting by John Singer Sargent. It’s a fantasy celebration in which every stream of the Black diaspora seems to be represented, from Kenyan-Mexican Lupita Nyong’o to Guyanese-American rapper Saint Jhn. The interplay of visual and vocal almost seems to be saying: global pop music has always been African—it’s only now that it is centered in the continent of Africa, and only now that the world recognizes the source. And no one has done more to crystallize that recognition than Wizkid, the Starboy.

He was raised in Surulere, a sprawling central district of the Lagos mainland. Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, Wizkid is the youngest of 11 children and his mother’s only boy. His older sisters were both his first audience and his first team, covering for him when he went to the studio instead of school. By age 11, he had formed a band—Glorious Five—with friends from his Pentecostal church, who, like him, were more into rap and R&B than spiritual hymns. Glorious Five pressed up a seven-track EP and sold enough copies to put some money in young Wiz’s pocket. His talent was evident enough that, by the age of 15, a Surulerebased producer named OJB Jezreel took him into the studio to observe the sessions he was recording with artists like D’Banj and 2Face Idibia, and advised him to hold off on releasing music until he was ready—to take his time.

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