Last September, the Nigerian artist Davido was a guest on Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, one of rap radio’s most popular morning shows. “You got American people singing Nigerian music,” said DJ Envy, one of the co-hosts. But even as DJ Envy praised Davido songs like “Fall” and “If,” the notoriously skeptical co-host Charlamagne Tha God remained unimpressed. “What song is it?” Charlamagne wondered. “I ain’t never heard it.”
Seven months later, Davido has pushed afrobeats — weightless, polyrhythmic pop songs often sung partly in English — to a completely new level of global popularity. “Fall” has been steadily rising on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay charts since it entered in early January of 2019. And it continues to entice listeners who encounter it for the first time: “Fall” remains on the upper reaches of the U.S. Shazam chart, more than 18 months after its release. It’s now the longest-charting Nigerian pop song in Billboard history.
“I’m just as surprised as everybody else [at ‘Fall”s belated success],” Davido says. “I released almost 10 records after ‘Fall.’ I’d forgotten about ‘Fall,’ basically,” he says with a laugh.
Davido was born David Adeleke in Atlanta, but spent his formative years in Lagos, Nigeria. He returned to the U.S. for college at Oakwood University, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he began making beats in his dorm room. “I came here for college and did two years, went back to Nigeria, quit school, and tried to complete some music,” he says.
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While in Nigeria, he met some of the country’s biggest artists at the time, including D’Banj, who was signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music from 2011 to 2016. Davido also started to release his own songs, starting with “Back When,” with Nigerian heavy-hitter Naeto C. While this was a promising start, Davido found more success with 2011’s “Dami Duro,” which became a hit in Nigeria and in the U.K.’s bustling afrobeats scene. Davido continued releasing hits in the years to follow, and in 2016 he became one of the first Nigerian singers to sign a deal with Sony’s RCA records.
“I was around for his signing through Sony U.K.,” says Tunji Balogun, executive vice president of A&R at RCA. “When we found out that there was an opportunity to work with him, we immediately raised our hands.”
Balogun says that Davido’s signing was a win not just for him but for the whole afrobeats movement. “The genre is maturing, and this new generation of artists is pushing boundaries creatively,” Balogun says. “He is one of the most important artists in the genre, and by making records that cross culture, he is opening doors. He’s been doing that for a while.”
Davido is not the first Nigerian star to build a following abroad. Long before afrobeats, there was afrobeat, created in part by Fela Kuti in the 1960s. This new musical genre took local sounds and mixed them with improvisational elements from American jazz and fierce, propulsive funk. Afrobeats is a more recent development: Lilting and laid-back, with influence borrowed from modern R&B and hip-hop. The genre has become popular in club scenes in a number of European countries, especially the U.K. On January 27th, 2018, Davido joined the likes of Rihanna and Justin Bieber when he sold out London’s massive O2 Arena.
But Davido didn’t immediately enjoy the same success here in the U.S. With a major label deal in hand and half a dozen hit songs under his belt, Davido started work on what he thought would be his global takeover: The five-track EP Son of Mercy, which had credits from high-profile producers and an appearance from Tinashe. The EP relied on punchy beats and reggae vibes — a different sound than what made Davido successful in the first place. When the project was released, it didn’t get much attention. “When I first signed the deal it was new for me. I didn’t know how to approach the market,” Davido says now.
So he went back to Nigeria and resumed recording with artists and producers there. “We are supportive of any artist that needs to find their inspiration — any artist going home is a good thing,” says Balogun. “There was so much going on at that time in the African music scene in Nigeria and it was important for him to be a part of that. You can hear that through the records he made. They feel current.”
Back in Nigeria, Davido met an artist and producer named Tekno, and their partnership paid off quickly. (Tekno’s 2016 single “Pana” was a hit in Africa and he was subsequently signed by Columbia Records for three singles.) In October of 2016, the two men recorded and released Davido’s next single, “If.” The popular track, which sampled Usher, Ludacris and Lil Jon’s classic “Yeah,” has accumulated more than 80 million views on YouTube to date. While “If” didn’t blow up in the U.S., the single’s streamlined bounce paved the way for “Fall.”
The rise of “Fall” in the U.S. can largely be attributed to radio play: The single received more than 2,000 plays this week, helping it reach an audience of over 11 million, according to Nielsen BDS, which tracks airplay activity. (Streaming growth has been much slower; “Fall” has 22 million streams on Spotify, but it took over 20 months to reach that level.)
One radio station that has heavily supported “Fall” is New York’s Hot 97. “I came across the song because I was scrolling on YouTube one day,” says TT Torrez, a radio personality and music director for the station. “I noticed the views” — “Fall” currently has over 121 million views on YouTube, more than any other afrobeats song — “I heard the song, and [I] thought that it would be a good fit.”
Radio stations often rely on call-out research to determine if songs connect with their listeners. After adding “Fall” to Hot 97’s rotation in the summer of 2018, Torrez’s research started to show the song was resonating. She then began playing other songs associated with Davido, including “If” and “Way Too Fly,” a collaboration with New York rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie.
Davido believes “Fall” is succeeding in the U.S. for the same reason it succeeded everywhere else. “It pleases all markets, the afrobeats market, the Latin market — talking about Cristiano Ronaldo [in the lyrics],” he says. “It’s really all cultures together in one song.”
This is a vision Davido holds dear: In 2018, when he won the award for Best International Act at the BET Awards in Los Angeles, he implored the artists in the audience to “come to Africa.” Davido attributes his next few collaborations and opportunities — like being featured on Quavo’s album and being asked to perform at J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival — to the exposure that came from the globe-spanning success of “Fall.” Getting those slots comes from “being around artists and being in the culture. Coming to America a lot and bringing them to Nigeria and showing them our culture,” says Davido.
In the end, maybe nothing is more effective for spreading culture than a hit single. Now that “Fall” is performing well at radio, stations are more comfortable playing a sound that once seemed so foreign. “‘Joanna’ is a big record for us as well,” says Torrez, referring to a rising afrobeats single from Afro B.
Davido is aiming to finish his next album by the end of the year, which will mark his first big release with Sony since his debut EP. Getting a second hit in the U.S. won’t be easy, but the next time Davido visits the Breakfast Club, Charlamagne will know who he is.