Nigerian singer-songwriter Kah-Lo has had success with conversational club music, but she understands why listeners tend to lump her songs in with afrobeats: That minimal, swaying, polyrhythmic strain of pop that’s become an “explosive industry” in her country and hit the charts in London, Paris and elsewhere. “It is great for the people who are making afrobeats,” she says. “But there are other genres that other people are making, and they’re not being given as much of a platform. I’m hoping to change that narrative.”
Working with the veteran producer Riton, she recently released Foreign Ororo, an album of modern dance music with flashes of house and disco. Tomorrow they follow it with “Bad Boy,” which melds what Kah-Lo describes as “talk statements that rhyme” with a four-to-the-floor kick drum and funky, pin-prick guitar lines.
The two artists first connected via Twitter; at the time, Kah-Lo was making “electronica-infused R&B with lots of reverb” because “that’s the only stuff that I could record that would sound good in the closet and on GarageBand.” Riton is a well-known producer, but, he says, “I’m not like Selena Gomez or Diplo,” so he doesn’t get “as many DMs [on Twitter] as you’d think.”
Much of his inbox is taken up with questions from other gear-heads curious about his vintage collection of studio hardware. But he tries to read through all his messages when he can, looking for potential collaborators, figuring that “most people who like music have got one or two good songs in them.” Riton heard a Kah-Lo demo — she was singing the melody from Blondie’s “Rapture” — and it reminded him of Lumidee, who stormed the charts with “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” in 2003. “Lumidee’s my benchmark of good pop vocals,” he says, so they decided to work on a track together.
Coordinating schedules to get into the studio was difficult, as Riton is an itinerant DJ and Kah-Lo was holding down a day job in New York City, but they nonetheless managed to create a first collaboration, “Rinse and Repeat,” a hard-nosed hip-house cut. Riton put it in a mix online, but it didn’t catch fire immediately. In the months that followed, “I’d gotten fired, and I couldn’t afford to live [in the U.S.] anymore,” Kah-Lo says. “I had more connections in the Nigerian music scenes than I had in the American music scene, so I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna make afrobeats and move home.'” Just as she prepared to move, labels started calling asking about her publishing share on “Rinse and Repeat.”
The popularity of that single, which eventually earned a Grammy nomination, enabled Kah-Lo to work with Riton on a month’s worth of tracks, most of which surfaced on Foreign Ororo. Riton proudly points out that “Rinse and Repeat” is “just one note, basically,” and he took a similar approach on the slashing “Fake ID,” which is “all done on one box in a drum machine.” “Ready to Make a Move” is wilder, a pretty, almost trance-like record full of pleasing electronic gurgles courtesy of an old Seventies synthesizer.
Kah-Lo also invited two Nigerian afrobeats stars to work on Foreign Ororo, but they didn’t make afrobeats: Mr. Eazi appears on “Catching Feelings,” which builds around a circular disco guitar pattern — kind of Sister Sledge “He’s the Greatest Dancer” — and a sample of an old Japanese TV theme. (“If you ask anyone [Mr. Eazi] works with, he just sends you big-ass voice notes and expects you to write to them, but that’s the beauty of the friendship,” Kah-Lo says.) Davido joins the crew on “Money,” a racing electronic track.
Foreign Ororo didn’t take long to make, but it took around two years to surface in full, largely due to the slow-grinding gears of various labels, who wanted to give each single — there were seven before the album — “three months on each side [of the release],” according to Riton. While waiting, both musicians got involved in other projects: Riton has been helping Mark Ronson and Diplo with their upcoming dance album as Silk City, and Kah-Lo has been working on a solo album.
In the end, the album’s long-delayed release might have worked to Riton and Kah-Lo’s benefit. “Pretty much every song on pop radio [in England now] is sort of a Mr. Eazi-style, chill, afrobeats, world-music-Major-Lazer thing, so I think it’s good timing,” the producer says. Even though, “what we did was not that,” the association helps.
Kah-Lo is now in an odd spot: “The average Nigerians don’t know my music or aren’t familiar with my music,” she says, largely because it isn’t afrobeats. (She mentions other artists, including Odunsi the Engine, Bella Aluba and Nova, who face a similar challenge.) But at the same time, Kah-Lo “was the most-streamed female artist out of Nigeria, which is crazy because there are obviously bigger artists, like Tiwa Savage [a Roc Nation signee who graces afrobeats hits like ‘Diet’ and ‘Ma Lo’].”
Kah-Lo acknowledges that Spotify isn’t available in the country, which partially skews the statistics. Still, “there’s a whole market that Nigerians are not making music for because it’s kind of a fear: They’re like, ‘Nigerians aren’t gonna listen to this,'” Kah-Lo adds. But her streams suggest that there is an audience out there, ready and willing to press play.