Words by:
Photography: Danielle Mbonu
Styling: Morinsola Hassan-Odukale

This article is taken from Issue 129. Get your copy now via the online store.

Teni Zaccheaus Jr. has a habit of being in the right place at the right time – the result of good instincts as much as good luck. The Nigerian artist, who goes by TeeZee, has spent his life living between London and Lagos – two cities that have shaped the way he approaches his art, which possesses a sensibility that transcends genre and borders.

The Lagos native and self-proclaimed “Prince of Lasgidi” is fresh off the release of his debut EP, Arrested by Love. The project, his first major artistic statement, epitomises not just TeeZee’s musical style – which blends Afrobeats, grime and trap, and connects musical traditions from across the African diaspora – but also illustrates how the walls that once enclosed African music are being torn down. TeeZee is riding the crest of a wave that’s been building momentum in recent years, as a cohort of artists from west Africa have reached a level of global fame that would have seemed unimaginable even just a few years ago. And he’s helping to blaze a path for the artists coming up behind him.

© Danielle Mbonu

TeeZee’s inclination towards music and performance is, in a way, his birthright. He credits his father, Teni Zaccheaus Sr., for that intuition. “He was always super hip to whatever was poppin’!” TeeZee smiles over Zoom from his London studio. His father ran nightclubs in Lagos during his childhood, which meant that he had to be on top of what was hot on the radio. Teni Sr.’s tastes inevitably trickled down to TeeZee. “I was listening to everything from SWV to 112 to Usher, as well as Lágbájá and Fela Kuti. I [was exposed to] a wide scope of music from an early age.”

By the time he reached his teens, his appetite for music was voracious and genre-agnostic. He was just as excited to bump a Hov record as he was the Spice Girls. This fascination with song stuck with him, and you can hear it in the assortment of sounds on Arrested by Love: he’s just as at home cooing over the Afrobeats rhythm of Ancestors as he is trading verses with Lancey Foux and BackRoad Gee over moody grime production.

© Danielle Mbonu

With this firm musical education, a young TeeZee began to dream what stardom could look like for him, despite there being no clear roadmap for a Nigerian kid to make it in the industry. “Where we’re from, [a career in music] becoming reality was so far removed from actualisation,” TeeZee says. But, as he approached adolescence, he started to see some examples.

In the early 2000s, long before it was a cornerstone of British culture, grime was a new sound that was starting to bubble up. The release of Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album, Boy in da Corner, nudged grime into the mainstream and opened a portal of opportunity for young Black artists. “My first thought was, ‘You’re Black. Where are you from, man?’ A lot of guys like Dizzee and Skepta were of African descent, predominantly Nigerian,” says TeeZee. “That made me feel like these guys are like me too, so there’s a possibility. If they did it, I can too.”

TeeZee’s family then made a move that would forever alter his musical path. They relocated to London when TeeZee was 16, around the time he started college. Already experimenting with songwriting, he found a group of like-minded friends who shared his musical ambitions – many of whom he already knew from back home in Lagos. At first, they attempted to imitate the artists they looked up to, like Kid Cudi and Skepta, while folding in their own unique touches. As they explored their artistic urges and sharpened their skills, the reality of their creative connection truly began to set in. “We knew each other from Nigeria – some of us went to the same churches, some of us the same preschool or high school,” he remembers of their early bonds. “Music brought us together in an attic in Golders Green.”

© Danielle Mbonu

TeeZee didn’t experience his first taste of fame until a video of him freestyling blew up among his social circle and began circulating around his school. “The principal called me into the office and I got told off. People were upset that I didn’t give them a shout out in the song!” he recalls. That’s when he realised that he might be onto something.

As a result, TeeZee officially formed the music collective DRB Lasgidi with his friends Boj and Fresh L in 2011. After watching other zeitgeist-defining groups like A$AP Mob, Boy Better Know and Odd Future rise to success, TeeZee began to see a path to stardom. “We wanted to be the greatest artists in the world. We wanted to take over the world with this new sound that no one’s heard before,” he beams. “All that stuff that kids dream about, but don’t take that seriously.”

Together, DRB started recording music, recruiting new collaborators and releasing their songs via email, LimeWire and burnt CDs. They even performed around college campuses, developing a small but loyal following. In spite of this, success still wasn’t materialising the way they had hoped for. And at least for TeeZee, London wasn’t home, and his lack of UK citizenship made his residence feel unstable. He made the decision to live between London and Lagos, where he felt DRB’s sound stood a better chance of taking hold. But the roadahead wasn’t easy.

“When I first got back [to Lagos] it was difficult. No one really understood us,” he sighs. “In Africa, it can feel like there’s only one way of doing things. So when you’re doing things [a different] way, it’s looked down upon. It was disheartening. We still did our shows, and a little community was building, but there were times I was down and out, and didn’t think this would work.”

© Danielle Mbonu

Still, giving up wasn’t an option. TeeZee had been laying the groundwork in the hope that the industry would catch up. Eventually it did. Their energetic 2012 single, Toyin, was picked up by a few radio stations and gave them the momentum to keep pushing. DRB are now credited for helping to introduce a new face of Nigerian music to the world; one aware and even referential of the music traditions that came before, but ultimately fuelled by youth culture.

DRB’s ascent in the mid-2010s happened as the internet became a primary conduit for music discovery and distribution, allowing them to find audiences that were hungry for something fresh. According to a 2019 report from the African Development review – a journal devoted to the analysis of development policy inAfrica – the percentage of Nigerians who had internet access from 2007 to 2016 increased from just under seven percent to over 46 percent. This didn’t just allow different styles of music to gain a foothold in the country, but it also exposed people – particularly young people – to new schools of thought that are often at odds with the status quo within their communities. This has especially been the case in regards to sexuality, gender roles and politics.

TeeZee and fellow DRB member Boj coined the term Alté, shortened from alternative, to describe this new way of thinking taking hold of west African youth. Over time, the term has expanded to encompass music, art and fashion. “Alté just means alternative forms of expression for young Africans,” TeeZee explains. “It goes against the hierarchy. Certain things just aren’t allowed where we’re from: having dreadlocks, dyed hair, being of a different sexual orientation. Those things can be illegal.” Consequently, respecting individuality regardless of how it may be received by society is a guiding principle of the Alté scene. Truth trumps all.

“We’re so often told, ‘You can’t be soft, you can't be vulnerable.’ I’m just trying to break all those moulds”

In 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill passed in Nigeria, prohibiting marriage between persons of the same sex, as well as forbidding any public displays of affection or cohabitation between same-sex partners. It’s just one example of the cultural conservatism that continues to persist in the country. But along with the Alté scene, young Nigerians are increasingly emboldened to resist oppressive cultural norms.

In the years since their debut, DRB have certainly found an audience, and the Alté movement has grown bigger than they could have ever imagined. The group released two full-length projects in 2018 and 2020, the latter featuring a slew of artists that have come to be associated with the Alté scene, like Lady Donli, Tems and Cruel Santino. But that wasn’t by chance – it was the result of TeeZee’s ambitions outside of the studio.

Afrobeats’ recent growth in popularity means that there are more eyes than ever on west African artists, but the infrastructure required to make these emerging musicians and producers major global stars is still lacking. The lessons he learned on DRB’s journey incensed TeeZee to try and solve this problem. He and co-founder Seni Saraki established NATIVE, a media platform and festival that features a wide range of art coming out of the African diaspora. “I just didn’t think Nigerian art was being discussed in the way it needed to be discussed,” Seni Saraki told Teen Vogue last October. “We’ve played a pivotal role in contextualising Nigerian art.”

© Danielle Mbonu

TeeZee has helped to cultivate the artists that are now his contemporaries– and it seems to have been his goal all along. The importance of collaboration continues to be his North Star. “I learn from everyone I work with – whether it’s patience, learning something about my vocal range or knowing which chords I like more than the others,” he says. Arrested by Love features artists from across the diaspora like Nigerian-American powerhouse Davido, who brings a sweetness to single Badi, which is otherwise a steamy love letter to the female form, as well as boisterous British-Congolese rapper BackRoad Gee, who tears through his verse on DRK SKN, making the case that bad boys need love too. “There’s always something to get. That talent exchange is really important to respect,” TeeZee asserts.

On this new project, TeeZee also explores themes of love, lust and loss over grooves that feel firmly rooted in the club. “I want you to feel my heart on the line. The death of my ego. Me being as honest as possible,” he says. He hopes his transparency challenges ideas of masculinity that normally go unchecked, and in the spirit of Alté, presents new ways of being. Above all, though, he wants to make something real. “We’re so often told, ‘You can’t be soft, you can’t be vulnerable,’” he says. “I’m just trying to break all those moulds. I’m going to do everything they said I shouldn’t do.”

TeeZee expresses the hope that his contemporaries inspire in him. “This new generation, we’re free thinkers – we don’t want to be boxed in,” he resolutely states. “We just want to show the kids that they can be free, too.” But in TeeZee’s eyes, that freedom can only come from a place of honesty. “You can actually just do whatever you fucking want to do. It’s crazy!” he laughs. And what he wants to do is simple: inspire a different way of life, where a kid from Lagos is able to be whoever they want to be.

Arrested by Love is out now via Platoon