Africa is the second-biggest continent on the planet. Yet “there is no company in the world solely committed to servicing African music,” says Mr. Eazi, the Nigerian star who has collaborated with Beyonce and Diplo. The singer is aiming to plug this hole with emPawa, a company that identifies talented artists, funds their studio time and music video production, connects them with mentors in the music industry, and provides low-cost distribution around the globe. “We just want to enable,” Mr. Eazi says. “I’m essentially an Uber for African music.”
Mr. Eazi is a passionate but low-key presence, a star in Nigeria who can still walk the streets of New York in peace. During a recent visit, he could not escape the sounds of “Como Un Bebe,” his bilingual collaboration with J Balvin and Bad Bunny, which was released in July. Unlike most artists, he has a keen grasp of statistics — the cost of a radio campaign in the U.S., listenership habits in Nigeria. He cites Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., as one important influence, while one of his favorite t-shirts celebrates the great Nigerian music Fela Kuti.
Long before Mr. Eazi was exchanging frequent Whatsapps with J Balvin, one of the most popular artists on the planet, he was a phone salesmen with artist dreams who needed funding. emPawa sprang from his desire to replicate a key moment in his career. “He always told us the story of the $1,000 investment someone made [to fund a video] and how that made a huge difference,” says E-Kelly, a producer and close collaborator. “If he can give other artists a good kickstart, they can find their feet from then on.”
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U.S. major labels have largely ignored Africa until recently. “Nobody has properly broken an African act in the U.S.,” Mr. Eazi says matter-of-factly. This is partially because of the cruel reality of the streaming landscape, which prioritizes the preferences of digitally-connected populations. Data is still expensive in Nigeria, which makes the cost of streaming prohibitively high. As a result, many listeners pirate music.
This cuts off streaming revenue for artists and makes the kind of viral trajectory so common in American music much harder for African artists. emPawa hopes to offer them a different route to success. Artists can apply to join the program by uploading a performance clip — no longer than a minute — to Instagram. 30 applicants will be selected by Mr. Eazi and provided with funding for their first professional music video, as well as individual mentors, including E-Kelly and Diplo, for seven months. All the music made during the program will be distributed internationally through the platform Vydia.
An elite group of ten will be selected for a two-week boot camp that provides additional teaching on the music business, marketing and production. Finally, four artists will receive additional funding to create music in 2020. In emPawa’s first iteration, the two artists who received extra funding, Joeboy and J.Derobie, both scored regional hits.
This is not a cheap initiative: emPawa has already cost over one million dollars, and Mr. Eazi says roughly half of that came from his personal bank account, with sponsorships accounting for the rest. Despite the up-front costs, he remains focused on the long-term benefits of his program. “Ten years from now, we’ll be listening to music that’ll be different,” Mr. Eazi says. “I want to be in that conversation.”