Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Styling: Ade Udoma
There’s a photo from a Santi show in Lagos that looks like a Renaissance painting. Each body in the crowd is a work of art: limbs splayed, teeth bared, a mosh pit forming a perfect circle, and Santi, clutching the mic, ready.
Something’s been brewing in Nigeria for a while, and people overseas are finally paying attention. The alté movement has captured a new generation. Less of a genre and more of a cultural movement, it’s found Lagos’ cool kids shunning the conservatism of their parents’ generation and creating new sounds, fashion and art. Along with Odunsi and Lady Donli, Santi, the 27-year-old Nigerian rapper born Osayaba Ize-Iyama, sits at the forefront of this subculture, merging the connective tissues of dancehall, Afrobeats and rap into a genre all of his own.
Top: Silhou Archive
Trousers: Telfar Global
Shoes: Bally c/o Silhou Archive
The cultural wave Santi is fronting hasn’t made for plain sailing, though. “There are people at home who don’t really like what we do,” he says, speaking on the phone from Lagos (he divides his time between Nigeria’s commercial capital and Dubai). He’s referring specifically to his Monster Boys collective, which includes fellow Nigerian producers Genio and GMK. “[What we do] goes off everything you’re meant to do, you know – go to school, get a job, don’t have dreads or dress in a certain way.”
Santi’s video output in particular has been met with resistance. The visuals he’s directed – for the likes of GoldLink, Tyler, the Creator and himself – are littered with symbolism, inspired by the 90s Nollywood horrors of his youth, like the insidious films of controversial Nigerian pastor Helen Ukpabio. “I don't think there's one video I’ve dropped that hasn't gotten backlash,” he admits. “People say, ‘He’s promoting violence, Santi is the devil!’” Shrugging off the horror genre on standout single Sparky, Santi dealt with dark themes with more realism, delivering trigger-fast snapshots of life and death with the friendship, joy and betrayal that comes in between. The style betrays another set of influences. As well as films about demonic possession, Santi grew up on The Sopranos and the films of Martin Scorsese, works which taught him how to tell a story through interesting, well-drawn characters. Intriguingly, Santi’s next project is a TV show. “That’s where my heart is right now. In Nigeria, we have never had a show about high school, sexuality and drugs. I feel like the kids need a safe space, something to explore and escape to.”
Trousers: Jean Paul Gaultier
Jacket: Silhou Archive
Pushing boundaries is something he’s been familiar with since his youth. The nonconformist attitude of Santi’s sound reflects the diversity of the music he grew up on: Billy Ocean, Phil Collins, Yellowman and “lots of Fela [Kuti]”. It was discovering Vampire Weekend, though, that “changed my life,” he says, amazed that they used highlife guitars and similar chords to the church songs he’d listen to on Sundays. Later, Adam Young’s twang on Owl City track Fireflies and the drawling chorus of Len’s Steal My Sunshine would form the blueprint for Santi’s unique vocal style.
Full Look: Louis Vuitton
The wistful, almost dreamlike quality of Santi’s music has made it an unlikely candidate for mass appeal, but points to a changing appetite for pop music. Low-key bubblers like Rapid Fire and Sparky have been played by experimental DJs and producers like Anthony Naples and Ben UFO, as well as the wider reaches of the rap elite. In 2017, Skepta asked Santi to play a private homecoming party in Nigeria for him and a select group of fans. “There aren’t many people I look up to in the world, but I look up to Skepta a lot,” he beams. “When I met him, it was just natural. He heard my song and fucked with it and asked me to perform at his show. He probably has no idea how much I bumped him before we met. I don’t really know that many people in the industry ‘cause I’m always locked in, but he’s a really great guy.”
Full Suit: Monad
Skepta’s seal of approval is just one example of Santi’s ever-expanding fanbase. Last year’s debut album Mandy & the Jungle, an accomplished work that shoots Afrobeat and dancehall rhythms through a lo-fi prism, featured high-profile collaborations with US rappers GoldLink and DRAM, building on his global draw even further. Moving forward, however, Santi promises a new direction for his sound. And the message to his doubters is simple: “To them [a new direction] is being rebellious, but to me, it's just being myself and doing what I'm meant to do.”
Mandy & the Jungle is out now
via Monster Boy
Trousers: ABAGA VELLI