x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nigerian rapper D'banj teams up with Kanye West after DXB run-in

A fateful meeting with Kanye West at Dubai International Airport resulted in D'banj, a Nigerian rapper, hitting the big time - bling and all.

The Nigerian rapper D'banj, who was catapulted to stardom after a chance meeting with Kanye West in Dubai. Here, he performs at the Wireless Festival in London earlier this month. Christie Goodwin / Redferns via Getty Images
The Nigerian rapper D'banj, who was catapulted to stardom after a chance meeting with Kanye West in Dubai. Here, he performs at the Wireless Festival in London earlier this month. Christie Goodwin / Redferns via Getty Images

An Emirates business class lounge is rightly renowned as a place for posh nibbles and refreshing hot towels. But a place to launch an international music career after crossing paths with a famous rap star? Not so much.

Yet the Nigerian pop sensation D'banj managed to clear himself a space amid the crush of Air Miles-rich business suits at Dubai International Airport oasis and do just that.

The 32-year-old, who is Dapo Oyebanjo to his parents, was already a multi-platinum-selling Afropop music artist in his home country in 2010, when he was passing through Dubai airport. He was with his entourage when an official attempted to usher him from the lounge towards a waiting limousine. It was only when the official referred to him as "Kanye West" that he figured something wasn't quite right.

"If I was a sensitive soul I might have been upset and asked this lady: 'Don't you know who I am?'" he says. "But to be honest, I was just as excited as everyone else to hear that Kanye West was supposed to be passing through the airport. So I just put down my bags and waited with the fans, wondering how I could make the most of this opportunity."

When he finally spotted the US superstar, he introduced himself and insisted he hear three of his tracks on an iPad. West, well known as an artist highly preoccupied with his own genius, was so impressed he offered D'banj a record deal right there and then.

"There was a moment of doubt after we met," D'banj admits. "I tried calling and e-mailing him and I just never heard back from him. It felt almost as though it had all been a dream."

But West finally answered one of his many phone calls and three months later D'banj was in New York, signing contracts with the star's G.O.O.D. music label. West also gave him the fist-sized, solid gold, ruby and sapphire-encrusted head of Jesus medallion that swings like a wrecking ball from his neck today.

"Kanye is a man of his word, I think," says D'banj, smiling. "And his word is often backed up by jewellery."

More than a year later, D'banj's conviction that this whole episode was not one of pop music's fortuitous flukes but rather an act of God is striking.

"I am a vessel of the almighty and I believe he engineered that meeting that I might build a bridge for music between Africa and the world," D'banj affirms. "For most people, to meet Kanye in this way would be sheer chance. But I believe that it was meant to happen. When you hear what Kanye does and then listen to what I do, you can hear that the music of America and Africa are closely related and I think this was God's way of saying: 'Come on, you are brothers and your musical destinies must be entwined for the pleasure of the world.'"

Back home, D'banj's Afropop career has already earned him two MTV awards as well as driving a mind-boggling array of brand diversification: he has his own breakfast cereal, a reality TV show, a clothing line, even his own mobile phone network. The rewards of such success have made for quirky personal style. For example, he wears a gold Rolex on each wrist. "I couldn't decide which arm so I chose both," he explains.

Singing in his native Yoruba, English or in pidgin, the charismatic and effervescent D'banj is not exporting indigenous "world music". Instead, over three albums to date, he has cooked up a witty, ultra-slick African response to western dance and US hip-hop. His latest single, Oliver Twist ("Like him, I always want some more!") lustily name-checks Rihanna, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. D'banj knows how to press all the appropriate summer dance floor buttons and the imminent new album, Mr Endowed, takes the nudge-nudge cheekiness to a whole new level.

Since striking his deal with West, D'banj has based himself in London where Oliver Twist has given him a summer dance-floor hit. With West and Jay-Z recently passing through with their Watch the Throne tour, it has been quite an apprenticeship.

"I have been travelling with them and watching how they do things," he says. "It's a great way to learn the craft of the superstar. There is so much talent in Africa and if they can see that a guy like me can make it then I think it will give them the encouragement to know that the world will take notice eventually."

The son of well-to-do military parents, D'banj was 11 and a student at Nigeria's military college when his older brother Femi died in a plane crash. He inherited his brother's harmonica and learnt to play it.

There was a major family-bust up when, five years later, he said he wanted to pursue music as a career. In time he won his parents over.

"When something like that tragedy happens, it makes you think about what you really want in life," he says. "My parents were persuaded in the end. I'll always have my training. I can fire guns and do drills and survive on grubs in a woodland if need be. But I'm really hoping it won't come to that."

More recently he has split with his long-time producer Don Jazzy, who wasn't keen on D'banj's worldwide expansion plans. That led to rumours of a Tupac Shakur/Biggie Smalls-style feud between the pair.

"In Nigeria we have a saying: 'No wahala.' It means: 'No trouble.' We parted ways and there is no wahala. I have chosen to start again alone but with help from the world's biggest players."

As if on cue, D'banj's phone rings. It is West. He asks his new investment to meet him at the Eurostar terminal so that they can travel to Paris together this evening.

He wants to take in a show and have dinner. And, once again, a meeting with Kanye West in a business class lounge awaits.

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