What Makes Davido Afrobeats’ Benevolent King
Outside the Conrad hotel in downtown Washington DC, a high-end stay outfitted in tasteful neutral tones, a mass of men with deep skin stood congregated around an SUV, bantering in what sounded like West African Pidgin English. Meanwhile, in the lobby, the language filled the air as another pocket of men loudly and playfully debated who would call the next Uber. They are Davido’s entourage, associates of one of Afropop’s biggest and most beloved acts, all in DC to support his set at Pharrell’s Something in the Water Festival. Upstairs, through a maze of elevators and hallways was a neat and smokey suite where Davido, born David Adedeji Adeleke, beckoned me to take a seat near him on the plush, stone-colored couch. “Feel comfortable,” he said.
At just 29, he’s something of a veteran performer, having broken through in Africa as a teen with his hit single “Dami Duro” in 2011, from his debut album, Omo Baba Olowo (Yoruba for “son of a rich man,” which he is). Davido’s sophomore album, 2019’s A Good Time, has earned over a billion streams, and he was joined by stars Nicki Minaj, Nas, Lil Baby, and Young Thug on the 2020 follow-up, A Better Time. When we met, he was just a few hours removed from landing in D.C. after a run of three consecutive shows on a North American tour.
Two thick Cuban links guarded his chest, and four chunky, iced-out rings, one of a large dollar sign and another, a sort of class ring representing his crew 30BG. He lounged in a breezy, purple and yellow two-piece by Nigerian-American designer Niyi Okuboyejo’s Post-Imperial. On this tour run, Davido decided to wear nothing but African designers for his performances and appearances, like the Forty Seven fits he wore on stage in New York and Toronto, or the bejeweled Emmy Kasbit button-down he donned on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
“Normally, I be putting in a big budget — It could be thousands, hundreds, crazy on clothes. So this year I was like, ‘Yo, why are we celebrating African music and wearing western clothes? Might as well do the whole package. Let’s give people opportunities.’”
Davido’s music is ubiquitous among Afrobeats listeners, with his biggest hits, like 2017’s “Fall,” reliably in rotation at functions after amassing well over 300 million streams between Spotify and YouTube alone. His music soon made its impact in the states, where he was born and spent time growing up, though he was raised primarily in Nigeria. In 2014, he held his first U.S. show at a warehouse in Brooklyn, as Osita Ugeh, CEO of the premiere Afropop touring company, Duke Concept, explained. “It was sold out to the point where we had more people outside than inside, and it was shut down because the fire marshal could not have that number of people trying to get into one place,” he recalled.
Now, his shows are at much larger venues, though fans still might have trouble making it inside. His show at London’s famous O2 arena this past March quickly sold out, the second such occurrence for the musician. I asked whether the recent spate of shows left him feeling energized or depleted. “I missed performing a lot, so I can’t really complain and say, ‘It’s tiring.’ It’s really not tiring, but it’s a lot of energy getting on stage,” he said. Davido’s nearly two-hour set — accompanied by a ten-piece band of two drummers, a pair of keyboardists, a wind section, and background vocalists — would do a number on his body each night.
The tour was titled ‘We Rise by Lifting Others,’ and was inspired by the spirit of giving he said his parents instilled in him. His father, Adedeji Adeleke, is a renowned businessman, founding and leading a company with real estate, banking, and oil investments. His late mother, Veronica Adeleke, was a lecturer at Babcock University in southwestern Nigeria. The college’s School of Social Sciences bears her name.
From their guidance comes Davido’s grand acts of giving, like when he crowdsourced over $600,000 for his 29th birthday, pledged it to orphanages across Nigeria, and shared a record of the donations. Then, there’s the people close to him for whom he’s created opportunities through his label, Davido Music Worldwide. “I got famous. I put my cousins on. I put my friends on,” he said. Then, there’s the way he tries to carry himself — humble and kind, even on his worst days.
“Sometimes I might not be the happiest. You might see me on the road [and, still] I’ll try to smile, because at the end of the day, that’s my job. My job is to entertain. My music makes people happy.”
But Davido also knows tragedy. After losing his mother at about ten years old, Davido had shown resilience in the face of death, but was especially tested when his close friend Habeeb Uthman passed last June. Uthman, widely and affectionately known as “Obama” and “44,” reportedly died after driving himself to the hospital while experiencing difficulty breathing. “All my life it’s been ‘David you’re strong, David you’re strong.’ 44 I won’t lie to you, this time around, this one WEAK ME!!” Davido wrote in a pained and sprawling Instagram post a week after his confidant’s death. Within the same year, he lost a security guard and then a rising photographer (“[He] drowned trying to get a shot. He was on a photo shoot with somebody,” Davido explained). He said that writing his May single, “Stand Strong,” helped him cope with the losses. “My steps are guided by Jehovah,” he sings. “And 44 looking over.”
A gorgeous and peaceful hymn marrying African percussion with the sweet harmonies of the Sunday Service Choir, which rose to prominence performing with Kanye West, “Stand Strong” introduced the era of Davido’s next album, a project he told me was basically complete (“A lot of bangers on there.”) He described some selections on the album as “Typical Davido music,” which one could deduce is a mix of light-hearted love songs and pulsing dance records. He also pushed himself to sample new sounds, like the gospel of “Stand Strong.” He said the project is expansive but united in its African inspirations. “Afrobeats is on the world stage right now. We’re trying to tap into every type of music, but predominantly African music.” The growing reach of African music is undeniable. Even the Midtown Atlanta coworking space from which I wrote this profile queues up hours of Afrobeats tracks for its diverse membership — including “High,” a recent party-starter from Davido and Adekunle Gold.
He said the album will likely feature more marquee American acts, as well as African up-and-comers. In his career, he’s made a point to collaborate with burgeoning acts from the continent. His video for “La La” — a song that featured CKay well before his global breakthrough with “Love Nwantiti” — also stars a cast of newer Nigerian musicians, such as Joeboy, Oxlade, and Blaqbonez. “You can’t just come and say, ‘Oh, I want to make a song with this guy because he’s going to get a million views in one day,’” he explained. “I don’t work like that. I work based on vibes. If I like the record, I’m probably going to do it. And that’s how me and CKay linked up, because I love his sound, and then he ended up having the biggest Afrobeats record ever.”
Though African music is hot internationally, Davido has found that African musicians should take care to secure a base in Africa. “I always tell artists, ‘Always have that home love first. Then, you could take over the world,’” he said, explaining that having the backing of a plentiful and fervent fandom there can make artists in the crowded field of professional entertainers stand out. He mainly recorded his next album in Lagos, where he, naturally, feels most tapped into Nigeria’s ever-evolving musical and cultural landscape. “I get more creative when I’m home,” he said. “Just even having [my] boys around. It was like, ‘What’s going on in town? What are the new slangs? What’s going on? I’ve been away for three months. Update me.’”
During one stint in Lagos, Davido invited his friend, oft-embroiled rapper DaBaby, to shoot a music video for their recently released collaboration “Showing Off Her Body.” Their friendship, Davido said, developed after DaBaby hit him up to work a year or two ago. “When he came out, people used to always compare us,” Davido said of DaBaby. “It was the energy, the eyes. And then funny enough, everybody around DaBaby is African. Everybody,” he said, explaining that most of DaBaby’s close friends are from Charlotte, but also Nigerian.
He said he and DaBaby bonded over their sense of vision for themselves and their careers. “I like his work ethic,” Davido said. “I just see a lot of myself in him; the way he carries people along as well.”
However, Davido didn’t turn a blind eye to his controversies, like his infamous offensive spiel at Rolling Loud Miami in 2021.“I spoke to him about it too,” Davido told me. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve said the wrong things and then really understand what I said like two days later. I feel like everybody makes mistakes. I’m not approving or saying what he said was right, but I know sometimes being on stage, you might get carried away. We did speak about it.”
“But you don’t think that is reflective of his character?” I asked.
“I personally don’t, because I know him personally. I haven’t seen him being violent or stuff like that. Sometimes I do see it online, but exactly what I was telling you — everybody’s human and people go through stuff.”
I asked Davido when he’s found it difficult to live by his mantra of lifting others. He said he’s had to work to balance providing for his associates with providing for his three kids. “I’ve had friends that [I’ve] gone all out for and maybe I can’t do as much as I used to do before—reason being, I got children, bro,” said Davido. He implies that people may take his aid for granted: “I can understand where you do so much for some people, and then after a while, they forget…But I can’t use that to punish the rest of the people that I still want to help grow, so I don’t look at it as much of a problem,” he conceded.
In the midst of his giving, he’s got his own dreams to finance. He wants to write a children’s book featuring his children, something like a “Africanized” Dr. Seuss story. He’s working on a documentary on his life now and hopes to make a biopic too, something covering life before and after fame: “It’ll probably be a little pre, and have ’10 years later’ type stuff. Something like that. Still thinking.” A bit like his father, he’s thinking of expanding his empire. “I want to own a big media house: shoot movies, documentaries, game shows, cooking shows, reality TV.”
On “Stand Strong,” he bellows, “That’s the reason why they call me Davido,” likening himself to the biblical sovereign who defeated a giant and defended the Israelites. “If you read the story of David in the Bible, he overcame a lot. He wasn’t really projected to be a king, and that’s really how my life story has been. I’m the last born of five kids. I wasn’t the best. I didn’t have the best grades. I wasn’t projected to be successful in high school,” Davido said to me. “My whole life has just been me shocking the world, me shocking people, God blessing me. It’s been a lot of grace in my story.” And so, he tries to give that grace to others.