Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer and political activist shares his thoughts on his work and wining a Nobel Prize. via CNN
MI Abaga came out on top with 2 awards for Best New Act and Best Hip-Hop Act, at the recent MAMAs in Kenya. It was only fitting to follow up with an interview from ‘Mr. Incredible’ himself.
NEN: You have had a fantastic year so far. But did you know you were gonna be picking up two plaques at the MAMAs and that soon?
MI: Well, for the people that are reading, first you have to understand the pedigree of the MTV Awards. Unlike the Hip-Hop World Awards this year, where I already knew (sort of) that I was going to get something, it was anti-climactic cuz as they would say my name as one of the nominees, people go like ‘Oh MI MI’. But The MAMAs was completely different. Everybody is high quality, and they are really doing their thing. If you look at the other people that won: 2Face, D’banj, HHP are serious people you know what I mean? So when they called the first one (Best New Artiste) I was shocked, I was like “Yo I can’t believe this is happening”. Then I went up for Hip-Hop, with that one I was just lost. It was a really powerful moment and, after the ceremony, almost all the Nigerians went backstage to my locker-room and it was really nice. There was a lot of talking and giving speeches. It was actually pretty gay [laughs] but also quite an inspiring moment.
NEN: With Wyclef and Akon in the same hotel as you and all, did you try to spit rhymes on a light note?
MI: I did rap with Wyclef. Props have to go to D’banj for this cuz he organized everybody to have a little time with Wyclef in his room jus freestylin’ listening to different people’s albums. It was really cool. Wyclef is truly an African mehn. He’s not just doing it to be cool. That is really who he is. He is just very humble and down-to-earth. I don’t know any musician that has had more influence on Nigerian Music, or even African music as a whole, than Wyclef. That being said, we did kick it. And Akon walked by and said hi to me.
NEN: [Sarcastic looks] Alright…. [laughter all around]…In the next few weeks [maybe, maybe not] you will be in Monaco for the World Music Awards, what’s your speech for that award?
MI: I don’t even know if I am nominated. But uhh, I don’t have any speech. I never have any speech. For the MAMAs I just thought it was important for everybody to put their one finger up and say Africa is one. So that was my whole speech, so it was not Nigeria winning, I won on behalf of new musicians, I won on behalf of Hip-Hop across Africa. If I do win something, I’ll just let it be spontaneous.
NEN: A Nigerian artiste won Artiste of the Year, Best New Act and Best Hip-Hop, Best R&B and Best Group. As an artiste yourself, and someone who in recent times has become highly influential in what we Nigerians call our music; what do you have to say about the growth of Nigerian Music?
MI: Well, [clears throat] it’s growing. It’s a stunted growth at times but it truly is growing. If you think about the mix down 2Face did on his first album and then the work he did on his last album, I mean he worked with Chaka Demus & Pliers you know what I mean? We are definitely moving forward. Being technical now, people are using Pro Tools, Logic which is world class standard. I remember when 2Face first came out and his album was mastered in the States which was like the biggest deal at that time and now it’s no longer such a big deal. Even here in Ikeja you can get Foster to do world-class mastering for you. That being said, we are making as much money as a lot of international artistes per show. At the same time, there’s a lot to be done. Our music needs to be more socially-conscious. It needs to have a more lasting quality about it. On the whole though, we’re doing very well and the truth is that we are inspiring the rest of Africa. People are doing videos because we do videos. They are doing movies because we do movies.
NEN: At some point you were supposed to release a record, One, which was supposed to come out before MI2 and then IM2 – Illegal Music 2 and so on. Where are you recording wise?
MI: [chuckles] To be honest, I bit off a lil’ more than I could chew. I was just talking, saying I’m gonna release my album this year. It’s not been easy to come up with new songs, partly because I am just so busy. I had a lot of time on my hands before Talk About It but this time it’s a lil’ more difficult. But I always set goals for myself and I want MI2 to be a really big record. With the One album, I am about to get into talks with some directors to shoot a video. The issue [with One] has always been that I didn’t want to release it on a strictly Naija platform. I think it’s world class music and I wanna treat it thus. But it’s ready. It’s been ready for a long time. And then, Illegal Music is like I pick Bumper to Bumper and rap on it, Ako Mi Ti Poju, you know, like stuff that I am feeling right now. And just resample it and rap on it. That stuff comes easier than making an album. But a lot of the weight of making MI2 is off my shoulders cuz I am working with Don Jazzy, Dr Frabz, Sossick hopefully, Frenzy and ofcourse Jesse Jagz so its gonna be great. I am happy with where I am songwriting-wise. But I still have a lot of trouble with getting those collabos in.
NEN: Where are you in your production life, seeing that you obviously don’t have time for even yourself? There’s Rytus Era which is you and Jesse. Does that still work for you right now especially with your schedule?
MI: Well I’ve never been the producer that tooted his own horn. I never comment, except, like you know me personally and you know that I produce. I never go anywhere and tell people that I produce unless I really wanna work with you. So I am happy doing ten songs a year. This year I worked with the effervescent Lami – we did Know together and I’m doing something for Banky, I did something with Rooftop MCs earlier this year, I am doing one or two joints for 2Face, and probably one song for Darey. On the whole, I don’t really want to be a prolific producer. I leave that to Jesse Jagz and other people. There is music, definitely, in my soul and sometimes it’s not music that I can put out on my own.
NEN: So who for you is the number one producer, as far as MI is concerned? For obvious reasons you will say his technique so that it will show that it is not about hate it is just respect.
MI: The person I am gonna call is an easy choice. He is arguably the best Nigerian producer to ever hit the keys – Don Jazzy mehn. He came in with D’banj and they made a hit, another and another and another and yet still another till D’banj became one of the biggest names in Nigerian music. If you listen to the CV album, he goes from doing Pere, to doing Anaconda and then a song like Close to You. And he just switched across genres. To cap it all up, when we were freestyling with Wyclef, and we were listening to the new Mo’ Hits joints, he [Wyclef] kept going “Yo who made this beat?” He is at that level where Wyclef who is a beat maker himself is saying, “Who is this guy?” And then they played a new song of D’banj Endowed and then Wyclef is like, “this song is done, its bananas.”
NEN: When is MI2 dropping?
MI: Hopefully, it drops first quarter of next year. I would have liked to drop it December 1st. The reason I can’t do that anymore is cuz I really want to go the distance as per what you can do in promoting an album, creating other things around the album. There is a detailed way we want to release it, the hype we want to build around it. So I really want to take my time and do that. And to bring all these amazing people to the same table to work together is not gonna be easy. I’m about to put out a single very soon. “Somebody Wants To Die” came out, and people that know me, know that it was really more for the rap heads. Its gotten a lot of love but it was not meant to be the big single. I’m not even sure it will be on the album. But it did what it was meant to do when it came out. Very soon the single is going to come out and hopefully it will be a dancey tune. On MI2 I am really try to go the distance. I’m going to talk about the South-South. I’m working with this Indian kid who lives in Boston who is doing production work for me. The idea behind MI2 will be saying, ok you guys have accepted Talk About It, let’s expand our minds a bit more. If Nigerians could enjoy songs like Short Black Boy and Safe, then let’s take it a step further.
NEN: So who are those artistes that are on the same journey with you?
MI: Almost everybody, and when I say that I mean the ones I like to call the serious-minded People. Not every artiste is aware and focused. It is one thing to be aware and yet another to be focused. Mo’ Hits are the people that highlighted what Techno music was going to become with “Move Your Body”, even at a time when Techno was not being played in clubs anymore. 2Face also gets a mention. P-Square with their new song Danger – tried something different in songwriting than what they used to before. And of course people like Banky and Naeto C – who is one of the people I really appreciate in terms of being able to put himself out there musically and I am very excited about his album, he’s been doing work with Sway and Terry G. Shout out to Dagrin as well, even though he raps in Yoruba, he has been very futuristic in terms of his flow.
NEN: On a final note, how are you able to balance being COO with your already busy schedule AND how do you balance C-City and the Loopy Crew?
MI: Well, Loopy is a music brand. For example D’banj and Don Jazzy have Mo’ Hits – which is the music brand. Then they have the business arm which they work with a little bit with Cecil Hammond of Flytime Promotions. That is sort of the way it is with Chocolate City. Audu [Maikori] and I are now like brothers. We’ve been through a lot from the humble days right till now that we’re winning MTV Awards. We have loyalty which is the real key to any sort of success as a family. To the point that even if I wanna do something that is not Chocolate City, we discuss it across the board. So everybody is looking out for everybody’s best interest. As per being able to balance both things, the truth is with music, what keeps most of us going through hard times and otherwise is passion. With being the COO of Chocolate City, which is not a permanent position, all I am doing is holding the fort here in Lagos and bringing and executing ideas. By creating music products that the music inspires, from the video CDs to audio CDs to concerts.
We want to really change the game. We’ve come to realize that people have seen us (Chocolate City) as the new boys that have come to do new things and we want to be worthy of that God giving us the life and the health. And the key to that is just surrounding yourself with good people – from the people at Chocolate City to the ones that are just friends, and well-wishers. Shoutout to my friends and all the fans that voted for us for the MAMAs. Shout out to you Bayo. You’ve been a constant source of inspiration and friendship. I guess that’s it.
Interview by Bayo Omisore
MI was born Jude Abaga to a pastor father and choir mistress mother in Jos, Plateau State.
His encounter with hip-hop started with sampling the works of DMX and Lauryn Hill in 1998. He wrote poetry and in 1999, left for Calvin College, Michigan, U.S.A. to pursue a degree in business and economics. His album Talk About It has become the subject of discourse on the Nigerian music scene gathering awards along the way.
In this hearty interview with Reporter, Gbenga Bada, the ‘short black dude’ talked about his life, career and love.
Is the poetry in your rap songs a result of your background as a budding poet?
I fell in love with poetry way back, and I got used to poets like Pablo Dohuda and Sanya Sanchez. I wrote poetry even before I started rap and if you go to poetry.com, you’d see some of my works as Jude Abaga. When I started rapping, I couldn’t just overlook that part of me because the best headlines are quite poetic and that is why my rhymes are poetic.
At the time you started music professionally even while you were in the U.S.A., not every Nigerian parent would have supported their wards to rap because of the violence involved. Also, considering your parents as pastor and choir mistress in the church. How did you deal with your parents?
I started in the church and obviously my parents knew about my love for music and they encouraged me because my family really loves music. In fact, my father used to have people sing in his church even though the elders think otherwise. My father loves music, he loves singing even though he’s got a horrible voice, so he encouraged me. When I decided to go into full time music my parents encouraged and supported me. In fact, they are my biggest fans now, it wasn’t really ever a problem.
You attended the Calvin College in Michigan, U.S.A., where you graduated with a degree in business and economics and the state is fondly referred to as MI Did this inform your choice of stage name?
Absolutely not. My schooling in Michigan has little or nothing to do with my stage name. It was even when we wanted a website that we started having the problem because anytime we type MI you come out with Michigan. MI is just a name I got while I was in secondary school in Nigeria. I used to rap spelling out Mister Incredible but people got used to calling me MI
In that same school, you were said to have taken part in a competition referred to as ‘Hip Hopera’ where you came out as the second runner up. What was it like for you?
Honestly, when you sell yourself, you only sell small things, which end up being big. And I’m always honest with the press and I can tell you that it wasn’t a big deal. I went to a school which was frequented by a lot of white people and as such, I didn’t really have the New York type of competition and that being said, I think I do well with what I do. I knew a pretty few rappers in the states and these people encouraged me by telling me that they felt what I was doing was pretty good.
You studied business and economics, why the choice of music as a source of livelihood?
Every musician needs to be a businessman. But really, I feel I shouldn’t just do music alone because while doing music, you are made to study music investment but I think I use most of time doing music, which is what I love and enjoy doing.
Did you develop this accent as a result of your sojourn in the U.S.A. or it was just a ploy to get into the mainstream as some acts do here in Nigeria?
Number one, I was born in a missionary environment, which is also an American organisation, and half of my friends were Americans, so I grew up speaking with the American accent in Nigeria. I went to an American school called Kent Academy in Jos and when I started Primary school, I had to learn how to speak the Nigerian accent and 10 or 12 years later, I was back in the States and pretty got back into it. So, I learnt rapping with that accent. I have the dual accent and that is why I could speak like the American and also a Nigerian but because of rap, when you have people like Nigga Raw, Lord of Ajasa, Da Grin, who are already holding it down for Nigerian music in terms of the identity, there should be people who would say we can rap as good as Jay-Z and take the other side of the hip-hop identity. We have people who are changing the identity and others, who are contributing to the identity. I like to say myself, Naeto C and Sauce Kid work at the international level as almost international artiste and not to be viewed or called a Nigerian rapper but a rapper from Nigeria.
You came into the industry and started getting recognition and awards from everywhere despite the fact that the record label, which you were signed on was relatively new. You also won an award while in Tanzania. Did you ever think you would get this big without a big record label?
First of all, I must commend your research because you have got facts on me. I don’t know I guess again between me, Sauce kid and Naeto C you’d probably get the right answers for what we do because obviously it’s not the label in terms of money but it’s the team, the people behind me. My label believed in me, in my music and pushed me to the limits of its pocket, physical, mental and networking resources. I had a city that believed in my music, Jos. I came to Lagos, I worked hard, I did whatever it took, I hosted some things for a while, I did things that normally if you were trying to be a star you should not do. I performed everywhere, I gave out my songs free and so many things but at the end of the day, you can’t tell, because the road towards success is something else. I guess God was just there for me, so ultimately, we are here, we thank God and we want to continue to work worthy of the success.
What makes you tick as an individual and a performer?
As a performer, just always wanting to be big, always wanting to do what people would always remember. I think as an individual, I think my upbringing, my believe in God, my background, my friends, my family, the structures around me, my team, my focus and people because you need people to be great and I have wonderful people around me.
Sometimes, I’m very happy about it when you look back and where you are coming from and you just give praises and adoration to God. I just moved into my house and I moved in and I just couldn’t say anything than God thank you. Sometimes, it’s a little boring because things that you used to struggle for, you get them freely and you are like wow…I enjoyed the struggle. I enjoy working, I enjoy the shows, I keep striving hard to be better than I am because I still have a lot to do and I pray God gives me the time, chance and talent to continually do all that. I would continue working hard and I know it’s just God’s work.
How long do you see yourself in the spotlight?
If I do my job very well, that is if I’m the best MI that I can be, I would still be here for a very long time, maybe 10 years. But if I do my job to the utmost height, then it means I would inspire a group of young men, who would come and be greater than I am. So, if I’m really good, that means, some group of people would look up to me and be better. I hope that very soon, young rappers would say, MI inspired us and I believe this could be done with hard work.
Your brother, Jesse Jags is also a music producer and rapper, did you at any point in time influence his decision to take up music as a way of life?
I can say so without trying to sound like putting him down, I’ve been a very great influence on my brother’s life. The talent is his although the ideas sometimes come from me, direction also comes from me. He’s a fantastic performer and producer. We both copy from each other as much as we both gain and give to each other. He’s been one of my greatest friends.
Very few performing and recording artistes have been able to successfully manage being a producer but you are a producer and also a performing cum recording artiste. How well have you been able to combine the two without hitches?
Music is a job for me and I take it seriously and I’m trying to be all I can be. I never see myself as a producer because I’m not the greatest producer, I’m MI and he’s a recording artiste and a performing artiste who produces. I take productions seriously, I want to go into film soundtracks. I do commercials and I’ve done one or two but with great opportunities come great responsibilities, so I take it very seriously.
So, which would you pick over the others if the need arises?
Now, I’m definitely MI and as time goes on, the picking thing comes like an evolution as time goes on but for now, I love being MI, being on stage and doing good as an artiste, I enjoy it a lot.
Despite the usual buzz and scandals attached to several male Nigerian acts, you seem to have cleverly kept yourself off the glare without a lady or woman linked to you. How have you been able to maintain that?
It’s funny because I know what I’m cut out to do and what my aims and aspirations are. I’m not D’banj and I’m not Tuface, who are seen as sexual gods. I remember that at a time, when I wasn’t in the country, I was said to be romancing Kenny Saint Brown and I just laughed over it because I know very well that I have only met Kenny Saint Brown just thrice in my entire life. Nobody is a saint though but I don’t come across like a sex idol kind of rapper or musician. I am what I do and what I preach, my kind of music is conversational and you grab whatever I’m talking about.