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Mr Eazi and Zilo on the power of community

11.11.20
Words by:

2020 has, unequivocally, become a year marked by turbulence.

As many countries around the world entered their first lockdowns earlier this year, what lay ahead was, and still remains, uncertain. While the world initially took pause, lockdown has continued to prove that now, more than ever, action is needed. People of colour continue to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus due to an unequal and rigged system. A wave of Black Lives Matter protests have swept across the nation, becoming the largest movement of US history. And Nigerian protestors, who gathered at Lagos’ Lekki Toll gate, have become victims of state violence and police brutality.

In the midst of it all, the internet has become a vital source of connection. Though he’s physically situated away from the country, pioneering artist Mr Eazi has stayed connected to his community in Nigeria, and the roster of artists that Empawa Africa – his music incubator scheme – fosters. Soulful London singer Zilo has taken a different approach, having used isolation as a vehicle for self-growth, but still having found ways to deepen her online interactions with fans.

The two recently performed for the first time, since the pandemic began, at a Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music event in London as part of a global series called In The Round – which will continue on to South Africa, Brazil and Spain. The series celebrates a global feeling of positivity through music, reuniting audiences both online and (socially distanced) in real life. Ahead of the show, the two artists had a chat over Zoom to discuss what “2020 vision” means to them, and how people have come together to address shifting power structures – both within the music industry and their wider communities.

© Vicky Grout/Boiler Room x Ballantine’s

How’s lockdown been for you? What’s your situation been like?

Zilo: I am pretty introverted so I spend a lot of time indoors anyway. It’s funny that my normal way of going about things was called quarantine. What was really eye-opening was when I would go outside and see everybody wearing masks. Noticing everybody else being indoors was what let me know that the whole world is affected by the pandemic.

Mr Eazi: Right now I’m in Dubai. For me, it’s given me an opportunity to review because I have been feeling like I need to take a pause and re-centre. At the beginning I was in the Cotswolds in the UK so it was just peace and lakeside. When I would go online I would see the reality of what lockdown was for some of my fans, especially some of my fans from my community back in Nigeria. It’s like a choice for them to select between the risk of dying from the virus or the immediate reality of dying of hunger from sitting in their house. There’s no electricity for them to even say they want to sit down and watch Netflix or go on the internet – the internet is expensive.

Z: I am very grateful, fortunate and blessed to at least be able to use the internet to connect with people, but there are people in different places in the world that didn’t have that. It must have been a completely different experience. What has been really important is finding interesting ways to still connect with people and listen to their stories, and how they can be helped in different ways. Togetherness and unity is something that amidst all of this chaos people felt like they had lost.

ME: Yeah, I entertain fans and take them away from their hardship for two minutes or two minutes, 30 seconds. I thought that was exclusively my mission: to bring amusement and relaxation to people in the middle of all the craziness going on in the world. But then lockdown made me realise that I am living in a bubble, and the level of my consciousness to my community woke me up to the sense that I have been given this access and a voice for a reason.

© Vicky Grout/Boiler Room x Ballantine’s

How have you both had to adapt to change this year?

Z: At the [beginning] I was doing an immense amount of self-reflection. Putting myself out there and fully connecting with people was something I didn’t do a lot of because I was self-incubating; I was in a cocoon. There was a lot of growth, but I was observing and taking everything in. I found out about Discord which is a pretty cool way of connecting with fans. I was thinking of different ways to create the same sort of spaces, but in ways that work for people that relate to me and that I relate to.

ME: Last year, [with Empawa Africa] we had a physical masterclass where 32 people turned up from eight African countries, and we had producers, business managers, songwriters, artists from across the world. We had Diplo fly in from LA. We had some of the most talented people I’ve worked with. This year, unfortunately, we couldn’t have that physical mentorship space where we could all come together, but luckily we have been able to do some of that via Zoom recording sessions, WhatsApp writing sessions and we started to use Slack.

It’s been an unfortunate time for the new artists we’re working with. It’s harder to connect with your fans when it’s a tough time for everybody, so who is going to buy your music and who is going to come out to watch your show when they have not been able to solve their problems?

I just learnt to record myself during this session by laptop, by speaker, and it cost me £2,000 – but that kid doesn’t have £2,000. In some cases we have had to gift people equipment so that they can record. If anything, with Empawa Africa we have been more motivated to do what we are doing. It is now becoming more obvious that this is a cause that trumps profit because we realised that we have to do more.

“It’s like 2020 vision. Everyone is seeing things clearly for the first time”
– Zilo

Z: 100%. Listening to your perspective is so interesting because it’s at the complete different end of the spectrum. Trying to create more opportunities for people who may not have been as fortunate, but still connect and relate to you, is something that is also extremely important to me. For me personally, it’s been the best year in terms of growth and connecting with people because I spent a lot of time observing and listening to different people. I’m really into psychology, human behaviour and learning from people anyway, but I found that through doing that I have been able to connect with a core type of fan base that is on more of a family tip. How can we uplift each other and keep each other going? Because a lot of people have lost hope this year.

ME: In Nigeria, it’s like our eyes have suddenly opened; we have realised that our leaders have not got the work for us and they should be held accountable. There’s been this sudden enlightenment that has caught everybody and now the leaders are thinking, hey what happened. This is a new movement that is leaderless. There is no one person that is driving it. You have movements that are usually started or driven by somebody. In the past, there’s been one or two leaders, but lockdown has suddenly made the same awareness hit everybody. You have every artist, every actor, every yout, every hustler on the street. Nigeria’s youth population of over 60%. We have all come together.

We demanded basic things that we deserve. There are people in the UK who are on benefits, there is free health care, there’s things you can get. There is nothing of that sort [in Nigeria]. That’s why I have decided to do the show. This is an opportunity to not only entertain, but also use that same platform – which is my canvas – to paint a story of what is going on back home. There should be more of that to balance things out.

Mr Eazi © Vicky Grout/Boiler Room x Ballantine’s

Do you have plans to use Empawa Africa to support the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria?

ME: We’ve been doing some, particularly as it affects creatives. A lot of the people that have been affected by police profiling in Nigeria have been artists so, for instance, if Zilo here was driving in Lagos she would have been stopped by the cops and put in prison by now because she has tattoos, and has a hat on in a certain way that does not conform to what they think we should be. That’s typical of the artists we work with. Myself and my dreadlocks, I am immediately a criminal and a target for cops. That’s why we have been vocal about it and have been supporting the people on the ground with things – not with just our voice but also donations because it directly affects our community.

The last time I was in Nigeria I was riding casually with my friend in his new car with no escort, and we got stopped and accosted front and back. Imagine you’re driving on the road with your friend and two cars pull up front and back and you see people in plain clothes pull up with AK-47s and tell you to get out of the car. You don’t know if you’re about to get kidnapped, you’re not even sure if they are police.

You think because I’m famous I might be disconnected. When I came out, someone was passing by at the time and said, “Wait, is that not Mr Eazi?” That’s the only thing that saved me. ‘Cause I didn’t say I’m Mr Eazi, maybe I would have been put in the boot of the car, and if I tried to argue I might have gotten shot.

“The diaspora started to send money back to help communities, and now everybody together is united”
– Mr Eazi

Outside of Empawa Africa, how has the Nigerian music scene mobilised to support the movement?

ME: It’s not just the Nigerian music or entertainment community in the country, but outside too. For years millions of Nigerians have been killed in the north by Boko Haram. Over three million people have been displaced in the north by Boko Haram and nothing was done. There was no collective push against that. When the Chibok girls got kidnapped there was some, but not at this level.

Everybody is looking within and saying, “hey I have a responsibility to my kids, to my grandkids, to make sure Nigeria is fixed”. It’s this collective consciousness. [This] has been the best thing to happen to me as a Nigerian, to Nigeria as a country and to the youths of Nigeria. Our eyes have been opened and in some ways it’s happened because of the lockdown.

You had a lot of ordinary Nigerian youths making donations; myself, Empawa, people making donations to communities for food, medical supplies, security – so that’s where it all started. The Nigerian citizens realising that we can change our country by ourselves. The diaspora started to send money back to help communities, and now everybody together is united, which is why it is surprising to the leaders. We’re like, you don’t talk to one person, you talk to us; you address us at the same time and you do what you’re meant to do. It’s a beautiful awakening and this is what I am thankful for most this year. I am happy the entertainment scene is also coming together ‘cause there is a louder voice.

© Vicky Grout/Boiler Room x Ballantine’s

Z: It’s like 2020 vision. Everyone is seeing things clearly for the first time. In the UK the rioting has highlighted racial injustices and that there has been an ongoing thing for a long time. What has been really beautiful in this period of time as well, because everybody has been so disconnected and been forced to look within themselves, [lockdown] has highlighted everybody’s individual differences and how useful they can be when combined as a team. Everybody has different skill sets, so, for example, you said you performed and used your platform to speak and you’re quite vocal in how you go about doing things. Some people go and lead the riots, and do a lot of the activist type of work, but then there’s other people that go about it in different ways. Maybe they are better at speaking to people one-on-one, or other people use their creative outlets to offer a bit of escapism as a form of entertainment.

What I hope to see, and what I feel is happening, is people understanding how much power they have themselves. Maybe they’re small teams, and there’s been less of a reliance on what they would look to before, which might have been the music industry that says “you’ve gotta be doing this, in this specific way, from these people that are in charge and hold all this power or resources”.

ME: People are realising their power and I think that is going to go into 2021, in the sense that people are realising that you couldn’t release music because the label said you couldn’t release it, or you had to wait six or eight weeks. People are now realising, “you know what? Forget about any strategy or release plan, I release music when I want to release music and I just go online and upload it straight to my fans”. You are realising that maybe you don’t have the funds to go on tour but maybe you could do your online show and 200 fans will pay to watch. I can have a series and perform to them and grow things independently, so the barrier is going to be dropping lower and lower. I think it is generally good for the music.

We’ve had loads of breakout artists doing things their own way. I’m loving the adaptation. Sometime very soon I will start doing my own live shows; I’ve seen that happen – not just in Nigeria but in Ghana and across Africa. More democratisation of music, direct to your audience and then the organisations that used to be gatekeepers are now trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s beautiful in the sense that there are more opportunities for emerging artists and more freedom for artists in general.

© Vicky Grout/Boiler Room x Ballantine’s

Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music: In The Round series kicked off on 14 October. Head here for more information.

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