It's an overcast Friday evening in early May, and Davido, the hottest young pop artist in Nigeria, is on his way to the Dolce Lounge in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for a gig. On Tuesday, the self-proclaimed "Omo Baba Olowo" — Yoruba for "son of a rich man" — realized he would be in New York for Ghana's 58th Independence Day, so he messaged the only DJ in the region he trusted to throw a last-minute party, fill it with people and make sure those people dance until the club closed: Brooklyn's 26-year-old DJ Tunez.
The doors open in less than an hour, and fans of both Davido and Tunez are currently driving from as far as away D.C. and Rhode Island, but the DJ himself is finishing an early gig at the Nigerian consulate. After crossing state lines, he'll begin to play West Africa's hottest club hits of the last few years; right now he's keeping the mood light with the French-Nigerian singer-songwriter Aṣa and South African house trio Mi Casa. The event celebrates the release of a local professor's self-help book for young girls.
"I also DJ'd her wedding and bridal shower," Tunez says as he closes his laptop and heads toward the car. "That's how I spread the music."
Tunez was born Michael Baba Tunde Adeyinka in Brooklyn's Long Island Hospital. His early music education followed a pattern he recalls as "everything African at home, everything else outside." He learned to speak the Nigerian language Yoruba by listening to his father's King Sunny Ade records, and when his parents sent him to boarding school in Africa, he caught up with the new sound coming out of their home country. "That's when the rebirth of Afrobeat started," Tunez says. "The music sounded so natural. When you heard it, you had to move."
"When you heard Afrobeat, you had to move." —DJ Tunez
"Afrobeat" originally referred to Fela Kuti's polyrhythmic, big-band jazz-funk, but in the late 2000s and early 2010s, a new generation of artists began to apply the term to fresh combinations of hip-hop, dancehall, soca, EDM and local styles including the juju popularized by Ade and the Afrobeat of old. At the time, the genre's biggest artist was D'Banj, a Nigerian singer who signed a deal with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music in 2011 and reached the U.K. Top 10 with 2012's "Oliver Twist."
Back in the U.S., Tunez began DJ'ing in 2007 when his father asked for a hand selecting music at their church's Christmas party. After he'd spent two years mixing African classics with teen hits like "Chicken Noodle Soup," members of the congregation began to book him for outside events — everything from Sweet 16's to 60th-birthday parties. "Older people were so shocked that I could play for them because I was a young guy," says Tunez. "It was like, 'How?'"
"That older community enjoys us just as much as the younger people," says Thierry Lohier, Tunez's friend and manager. "Some of these women will not go out unless DJ Tunez is playing, 'cause they want to hear their old music, they want to hear the new music and they want to hear some of it fused."
Then as now, Tunez was creating his own lane. Outside the Nigerian community, his first break came from New York's Caribbean DJs. Afrobeat hadn't yet reached hip-hop, but tracks like Flavour's "Nwa Baby," which sets Highlife melodies to the drums from the ever-popular "Bam Bam" riddim, were beginning to be mixed alongside dancehall hits. In 2012, Nigerian artist Timaya's soca-influenced "Bum Bum" became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Inside the Nigerian community, word continued to spread, with Tunez's mother originally serving as his de facto manager. "His mother's very active in her community," says Lohier. "It started out with 'Let me get business with your son' and quickly went to 'Yo, your son is on to something.'"
New York's African population is now the largest in the country — the 2012 census recorded more than 200,000 first-generation immigrants alone — and Tunez has become their go-to DJ, particularly for those from West Africa. And when Nigeria's biggest stars come to America — Davido in early March, Wizkid for a show at Irving Plaza in 2013 — he is the person they reach out to. He is the only American to be nominated for Best World DJ at both the 2013 and 2014 Nigeria Entertainment Awards.
The size of the parties has grown accordingly. His biggest event, a Black Friday "Blackout" party, brought 1,700 people to Queens' Amazura Concert Hall last November (nearly doubling the attendance at the 2013 Wizkid show) and his Afrobeat Nights series regularly draws crowds from across the region, usually including a few who were previously unfamiliar with his sound.
Lohier, being of Haitian descent, is himself a convert. "It wasn't like what I was used to seeing growing up," he says of the first parties Tunez showed him. "It's not even sexual. You're gonna get some grinding going on, but for the most part, it's face-to-face dancing, hundreds of people knowing the same dance. For the first time, I saw clean fun."
Tunez fills these parties with a wide range of music, but by 1 a.m., he reveals his hand. "You definitely love to throw in the reggae and the soca," he says, "but in the peak hour, you gotta give them a good section of Afrobeat."
"In the peak hour, you gotta give them a good section of Afrobeat." —Tunez
This usually includes a couple throwbacks — Awilo Logomba's irrepressible Congolese hit "Karolina" always leads sing-alongs, as does Magic System's slow-burning "1er Gaou" — but recent records still hit the hardest. This means tracks like Skales' Swizz Beats–style "Shake Body"; Burna Boy's crooned "Tonight"; and L.A.X.'s "Ginger" and Davido's "Skelewu," a pair of bangers driven by ominous, percussive synth riffs. When Davido performs the latter at the Elizabeth show, the Dolce Lounge becomes a mosh pit of iPhone photographers and screaming foreground vocalists.
Lately, Tunez has been drawn to the slightly more traditional sound heard on two recent Wizkid singles: "Expensive Shit," which moves under live horns and percussion, and "Ojuelegba," which was recently remixed by Drake and Skepta. Tunez is pushing further in this direction with a band of his own: the Afrobeat All-Stars, a collection of musicians he's met through church, the Internet and trips to Nigeria. The crew also includes a handful of DJs who followed him into Afrobeat and now open most of his parties.
"He's the blueprint in this field," says Lohier. "Like, 'OK, How did Tunez do it? Who did Tunez reach out to? What kind of venue did he use? How did he learn the music?'"
Both Tunez and Lohier think that Afrobeat can cross over to audiences outside the African community. This is certainly possible — the sound already snuck into one of the biggest gospel songs of 2014, and Davido's latest track is a collaboration with Meek Mill — but the pair aren't pushing the genre because it's the fresh new trend. For them, Afrobeat is exciting because it puts cultures in dialogue and celebrates their shared history. More than that, it celebrates Africa.
"People are reaching out to home now," says Tunez. "A lot people who didn't know about the music, they're finding out about it with the Internet and social media."
"It's something that was never cool before," adds Lohier. "It was never cool to be African; it was never cool to be in touch with that side of you. We think that's dope. We think it's dope to represent ourselves in a way that people respect us and respect our culture. As we gave more respect to the culture, more people around us gave respect to it. And more people respected the fact that Tunez is doing what he's doing."