Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Gift, a companion to her soundtrack to The Lion King, finds sturdy footing on its fourth track. “Find Your Way Back” is supported by the graceful thrum of Niniola’s “Maradona,” an indelible house music single released early in 2017.
This nod marked the latest jump in global exposure for Niniola, a Nigerian singer who has gradually built an international profile since “Maradona” became a multi-country hit three years ago. Her latest release, “Fantasy,” came out on Thursday; it’s a wiry collaboration with the Nigerian luminary Femi Kuti driven by pinprick guitar, jolts of brass, and pattering hand-drums. “I don’t know why I’m working with these legends now,” Niniola says happily.
It’s a long way from where she started. She took to music early, absorbing her parents’ record collection. “In secondary school I started entertaining my friends during lunchtime — I had a sort of request show where my friends would request songs and I would sing,” Niniola recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m a star!'”
But not everyone felt the same. When she started to audition for televised talent shows in Nigeria, she faced a string of rejections. “I got my fair share of, ‘No, you’re not good enough,'” Niniola says. “I remember a particular incident where I went for an audition at West African Idol, the Lagos edition. I got one yes from a judge but two no’s, so I couldn’t move on to the next level. I got on a plane and went to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. I went to audition, but I was told that I couldn’t. I cried, told them I came all the way from Lagos. At the end of the day I was picked — but then dropped.”
Niniola temporarily stopped doing music, dispirited by all the rejections. She was jarred back into action by her brother, who called and told her that X Factor was holding auditions in Nigeria; Niniola tried out but fell short once again. She allowed herself one final opportunity, deciding that “if I was not picked, then music is not for me.” She made it on to Project Fame West Africa and finished fourth.
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With prize money from the show in hand, Niniola sought out a collaborator who could help turn a TV performance into a career. That turned out to be Sarz, a gifted beatmaker who has worked with stars like Wizkid and Wande Coal; Niniola learned about him by googling “Top Ten Nigerian music producers.” “We had a meeting in the studio, and the minute I walked in, I told him I want a hit song,” Niniola says. “He laughed at me — ‘You haven’t even released any songs!’ I just said, ‘It has to be worth my money.'”
And it was: In contrast to the early wave of rejections from talent-show judges, listeners took to Niniola’s debut single quickly. “Ibadi” was supple but pushy, a dance-floor-ready barrage of percussion shrouded in Niniola’s vocal lines, which she delivered in both English and Yoruba. After releasing the track, Niniola didn’t have enough money to make a video for months, but even that setback didn’t hamper “Ibadi,” which became a hit around Nigeria.
That was partially due to Niniola’s sound. While many of her peers in the Nigerian mainstream were cohering around the easy, charming bounce dubbed Afrobeats, Niniola was more connected to the four-on-the-floor thump of house music — so connected, in fact, that she has taken on the mantle of “the Queen of Afro House.” “I wanted the kind of beat that would give me freedom to sing,” she says.
She used the same mold on subsequent singles like “Maradona,” which flutters and twirls, and “Sicker,” which swaggers and darts; both appeared on her 2017 debut This Is Me. “Maradona” spread outside of Nigeria, becoming popular in South Africa, a country with a long-standing appetite for house music. At the time, “I’d never been to South Africa, and I didn’t know anyone in South Africa,” Niniola says. “Maradona” hit Number One there anyway.
Dominique Keegan, vice president of creative at Kobalt, signed Niniola to a publishing deal the same year. “I love Afro house because of the warmth in the production, and I find the drum programming really fresh,” he says. “The rhythm has a certain skip to it that you don’t hear in a lot of modern dance music. I recognized Niniola’s talent the minute I heard her music.”
Over the past few years, the mainstream American music business has become increasingly attuned to music released in Africa. The signs are scattered around the industry, a Grammy nod here (Burna Boy), a radio hit there (Afro B), deals with American labels (Santi, Wande Coal), and of course, the Beyoncé homage.
That makes it a favorable time for Niniola to return with a sophomore album, which is sure to attract more ears — from more countries — than her last. The endurance of “Maradona,” which was also remixed by DJ Snake, a mainstay of Western electronic music festivals, has helped give her cover as she works on a This Is Me follow-up. “Fantasy” is expected to appear on the new album, which Niniola hopes to release this year. She’s also been sending music to the veteran hitmaker Timbaland, who has been teasing a collaboration on Instagram.
“I’m glad I can be comfortable as an African and sing in my language,” Niniola says. She finishes with a prediction, almost a warning: “When I drop songs, I drop hit songs.”