Obi Asika & SMADE
Photo: Courtesy of Afro Nation
Afro Nation Co-Founders Smade & Obi Asika Talk Festival Origins, Uniting The African Diaspora & Celebrating Diversity
With Afro Nation Puerto Rico around the corner on March 18-21 (and a second Afro Nation Portugal in July), the fast-growing new music festival is bringing its vibrant energy to the U.S. for the first time. The first-ever American iteration of the fest—taking place beachside at San Juan's Balneario de Carolina—will be the third event in total since its launch last summer.
Nigerian superstar singers Burna Boy and WizKid, American rap kings Fabolous and Rick Ross, Jamaican reggae act Chronixx, Nigerian Afropop songstress Yemi Alade and Trinidadian soca hero Machel Montano are among the headliners for this month's event. Those are just a few of the names within the epic lineup, which has been rolled out in waves over the past four months.
Each Afro Nation fest highlights the biggest players—and up-and-comers—in Afro-fusion, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, soca and other black-led musical movements. As cofounders SMADE and Obi Asika share, the idea for the event came from what they saw as a lack of representation in the event space for Afrobeats artists they worked with.
We caught up with the two Nigerian-born, London-based music industry powerhouses over the phone recently to discuss their groundbreaking Afro Nation movement. Read on to learn about the story behind this successful partnership, how they're learning as they go, their hopes and vision for the future and more.
The next Afro Nation fest is coming up soon, the first-ever Puerto Rican event. What are you most looking forward to with this one?
SMADE: We're on our third edition now. The first one was in Portugal in August, and then we've just finished the second one in Ghana in December. We're moving on to Puerto Rico next month, which I'm excited about. I'm looking forward to enjoying the beautiful sandy beaches in San Juan and having fun, as we always do. I'm also looking forward to seeing people from different races and cultures coming together to celebrate African music and seeing the unity that Afro Nation brings to people.
Obi: SMADE and I are both Nigerian, so obviously we do these events to give a platform to artists from the African diaspora. We've done Portugal and it was a lot of the European diaspora. Then, we've done Ghana which is more like the brand coming home. But for me, I'm really looking forward to seeing America because we sold so many tickets to Americans interested in the brand, the music and culture, and the diaspora there.
Also, Puerto Rico is a really interesting place because it's America, but it's also the Caribbean. I can't wait to see how people are going to vibe there and what's going to happen. Every festival we've done so far in different places, they all have their own feel. I think that this is going to be a really interesting one. We've literally got people coming from every part of America. I think it's going to be super interesting and really cool.
You've been announcing the Puerto Rico lineup in several waves, and it just keeps getting better! How did you choose who to work with?
Obi: When we kick off the lineup, SMADE and I always have a chat and go, "What do we think? Who do we think our crowd's going to be? What are they going to want to see and be interested in?" One of the reasons why we don't announce everything at the beginning is that we want to read the crowd. We read a lot of the messages, we get a lot of the DMs, have all our team telling us what they hear and we do adapt things on the fly. We say, "Okay, let's add that."
These events are something that haven't been done before. We have such a complex and layered culture in terms of from the east, to the south, to the west of Africa, and obviously all the diaspora as well. SMADE and I were saying, we need to go and do a trip to Angola and go and hang there, understand what's going on, so we can understand what the Portuguese side is at.
SMADE: Also, we research and see the best acts to be on the stage. The platform is a huge one. Our stage is one of the biggest stages in the world for the acts, to be honest. What we try to do is research, look out for people that deserve to be on that stage, both from Africa and the diaspora and everywhere really. There's so much talent.
Obi: It is a bit of a voyage of discovery for us. There's so much talent and we want to include everyone, and we want to include everyone for each destination, but it's a process even for us. We are constantly learning about new music and new artists. One thing that we're very fortunate in what we're doing right now is that there's just so much talent. It's a constantly evolving process.
Our crowd is very active on social media. You have some people like, "Why can't we have this person?" and it's always the same names. But we try and give other people opportunities. SMADE and I were laughing the other day because we can't wait to see a performance, I won't say who it is. We wanted to put these two acts together because when we know when they get on the stage, it's just going to be crazy and make new fans. They might be overlooked on social media, but we know that they will be one of the highlights. We try not to make it about booking the same people at every show. We really want to give a focus for everyone. Particularly in Puerto Rico, we are going to add some local acts but expect that year two, there'll be even more local acts.
It's funny, year one of Portugal, everyone was like, "All you guys are about is West Africa." We are West African, so we're understanding things as we go along. SMADE and I spent a lot of time in France this year, because a lot of French people are coming to our show and we didn't even push it for France that much. It was organic. Then we had a couple of shows in France. It was crazy. We realized the market is massive. So, we were like, "We've got to include more French acts next year."
Sometimes we need to push our customers to new things. You don't have to worry about maybe someone doesn't speak the language, because with music you can feel it. When people are on stage, even if they're singing in Spanish or Portuguese or French, we don't actually see an issue in mixing everything up. It can be quite powerful. It's not a worry for us if we think it breaks those barriers.
It sounds like it really keeps growing naturally as you meet more people and explore different scenes. Do you have any plans or ideas for future locations this year or next?
Obi: Yeah, it does. We've already confirmed another location for this year that will be announced in another month or so. We want to always let people focus on what's next. Right now it's Puerto Rico and Portugal, but yeah, we've got another really great location.
SMADE & Obi onstage at Afro Nation | Photo Courtesy of Afro Nation
Looking back a bit, can you tell me a little more about what inspired you to start Afro Nation together?
SMADE: I think Obi and I, we noticed a lack of representation of our acts. We know how talented they are and how much work they put into their music, but we weren't seeing them on the big stages. So Obi and I came together and we were like, we're just going to do it ourselves. We didn't even think it was going to be this big.
Obi: It's exactly what SMADE said. I'm a talent agent and he is a promoter. One of the things you do as a talent agent is headline shows in order to get your artists on big stages at the festivals. We struck up a partnership quite quickly, because SMADE is incredible. He was selling tickets for Afrobeats where all the big promoters weren't able to do it. We both obviously had a passion for this music, this genre, the culture because of our background. We struck up a partnership and we started having real successes, selling big tickets in London.
It wasn't really translating to the major festivals booking the acts. They wouldn't give them what we perceived as the respect they deserved, and I know a lot of these guys, they're my friends. It was like, "Obi, man, we just got our heads around hip-hop a few years ago, and now you're telling us to put these Afrobeats acts and give them serious, high up billing? We started off as a rock festival." They were also like, all those Afrobeats fans, they won't come to the festivals. They don't buy tickets. Everyone said it's not possible and I was like, how can we be selling out the O2 Arena with WizKid or SMADE selling them out with Davido, and then you're telling me that they can't play this?
"At our events, all the fans are very passionate. It's more than just going to a festival. I feel like it's the pride in their heritage and their culture and in their identity." - Obi Asika
We were just like, "Look, we're just going to do ourselves." And when we did it, it just felt—we weren't expecting it. We just wanted to prove a point, and within 24 hours, all the tickets were gone. People decided to buy a flight, buy a hotel, buy the ticket and go to another country, all for their love of Afrobeats. That's not small, it's a real commitment. I think that's why at our events, all the fans are very passionate. It's more than just going to a festival. I feel like it's the pride in their heritage and their culture and in their identity. It's driven us to keep going. We're having so much fun with it.
It's a very unique situation. Our people are everywhere in every part of the globe and the fans are everywhere. The biggest thing is if you just went on the norms of our industry of music and you say, "Oh, this person isn't on the charts or that person isn't signed to that label," but Afrobeats doesn't actually move to that. One of the things, obviously the success of Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido, all the younger guys coming through is now shining a light on that in the records world. In the live music world, I think Afro Nation has shocked a lot of people that this crowd will buy tickets in advance and [pauses] I don't know many festivals that most of the crowd are female. In Portugal, we had 85 percent female.
The crowd at Afro Nation Portugal 2019 | Photo Courtesy of Afro Nation
That's so cool.
Obi: I tell you, they are really amazing. Watching, I felt, "This is girl power going on." It was crazy. We'd never seen anything like it. It's a very powerful statement. It was a very unique festival. [Afro Nation] is such a positive event and is very special to us. We're very proud of it.
When you think of Afro Nation, what song comes to mind?
SMADE: For me, it's Fela [Kuti], any sound that comes from the legend Fela. Because a lot of these new acts now and the ones that have done great, from Wizkid to Davido to Yemi Alade to Burna Boy, when you see them on stage, that right there, for me, is Fela. That reminds me of Afro Nation. It's not just in West Africa alone. If you look at the highlife artists or the dancehall artists in Ghana, Shatta Wale, Stonebwoy, the way they present their performances and all the stuff that they do on stage just reminds me of Fela.
From your perspective, what you think real diversity and inclusion looks like in the music event space?
SMADE: Honestly with this, it's hard to define because everyone's got a different perspective of what equality looks like. However, right now in the music industry, I think we are heading in the right direction although we still have a long way to go. There needs to be more recognition of all types of genres.
That's the beauty of Afro Nation. Even though the most [focus is on] Afrobeats and African music and the culture, we also infuse the Jamaican acts. Like in Portugal, we had Busy Signal, Buju Banton. And there's the different genres, there's your Afroswing, soca, bashment, reggae, and then Afrobeats. There's also hip-hop. We bring everybody together as one on our stages. We had acts from the U.S., the U.K. and then also from the Caribbean and Africa. Bringing them all together to celebrate the African culture and music in Portugal was a great experience and feeling. The way everybody just connected, I felt like it was part of it.
Obi: I really agree with what SMADE said. To be honest with you, as we said before, it's ever-evolving. As an event and as a brand, we are constantly learning about new genres and what different parts of the world are listening to. It's just about trying to push the envelope. There's a lot of people involved in Afro Nation, from all different parts of the world, putting the show together. We're a very diverse brand and company, but we're always trying to do more. We all have to strive to include everyone and just give everyone an opportunity to do their thing. I think we're a very diverse event. I don't think there's many events that have French, Portuguese, Spanish and English speaking artists.
At our first couple of events, we were very aware that we didn't have enough female acts. There's a lot more female acts for Puerto Rico, and that is something that we have to check ourselves on a little bit to make sure. You just can't be lazy with it. Sometimes, you have to just take your time and find new acts. Maybe if your first choice wasn't available, take a risk on a younger act or newer act. It's important.
What is your biggest hope, for the next five or so years, in connecting the African diaspora through music and entertainment?
SMADE: My biggest hope is to connect and to use this platform to unify not only the Africans in the diaspora but also for other races as well to also experience and know the African culture. I'll give you an example. We just finished Afro Nation Ghana, and we had people from different races and different culture come down to Ghana. We had [Jamaican act] Popcaan buy a house in Ghana, and shown interest in Africa. We have people that never ever thought they would be in Africa celebrating, leaving their homes, or coming with their families to celebrate in Africa during the festive period.
Obi: Yeah, you were right, SMADE. It was crazy, wasn't it? We'd see the tickets sales and be, "Russia?" Russia, Australia, Ukraine…
SMADE: Right. It was amazing. This is what Afro Nation is doing. This can bring unity amongst everyone, every one of us. I hope the generation coming behind can also be inspired by the growth of the industry, and we can have many more superstar talent like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade. And even the French-speaking and the Portuguese—there's Afro Portuguese now. From Afro Nation Portugal there are people trying to connect with the [Portuguese] culture, people going back home to check their DNA and all that stuff. This is what we're doing. This is what Afro Nation stands for, unifying.
Obi: I know for me, to be honest with you, I've got two real hopes. I want more, like SMADE's saying, of all these young artists coming through. I just want them to get through and become superstars, so we can have more headliners to keep pushing the industry forward. Now, in Europe anyway, every festival is booking Afrobeats, so half of our job's done. We want to see more commercial festivals booking Afrobeats. Those like Coachella, Reading and Leeds, Lollapalooza, we want to see them booking these acts. That helps the whole machine of it.
We got Ghana done and we're very proud of all we achieved because it's very difficult, as there's no infrastructure of the industry. Ghana is an amazing place. A lot of things work in Ghana like the roads, the airport. It's a safe place, it's super cool, but the entertainment industry, they've got lots of artists but there's no festival. You can't just call up someone and say, "Oh yeah, bring me this fence in and bring me this sound." It was really tough and we really put ourselves on the line because it's very expensive doing these events. But, we came through it, we produced something that we're proud of but we want to build it. We want to help keep building the African entertainment industry, because there's so much potential, there's so many acts.