CKay: “Music is more heart than science.”
CKay, the Nigerian artist born Chukwuka Ekweani, has been making music since childhood and developing his career since 2018. In 2021, he joined the second #YouTubeBlack Voices Artist Class and earned over 900 million views globally with his breakout hit “Love Nwantiti,” which reached No. 1 on the YouTube charts in more than 15 markets. While preparing for the release of his debut album, he spoke about the evolution of Afrobeats and what “pop” music means to him.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s amazing to see music cutting across cultures and languages, people of different backgrounds all connected by one song.”
You grew up in the church, and began singing when you were very young. What was your upbringing like, and how did you first get into creating music?
Ckay: I grew up in a Christian home, in a town called Kaduna, in northern Nigeria. Both Muslims and Christians live there, and my childhood was punctuated with some religious violence. I started singing when I was three. I’d sing along to music I loved, by boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and artists like Usher and Chris Brown. A couple of years later, I learned how to play the piano from my dad. Eventually, when I was around 13 or so, I felt like I didn’t want to just play other people’s music for the rest of my life. I wanted to make my own. A friend of mine taught me the basics of production, and I started messing around with software and recording myself. My parents were really strict and didn’t let me go out much. I was a straight A student in school, but mostly I stayed home and made music, and now here we are.
Your song “Love Nwantiti” has charted in more than 50 different territories, and been at the top of the YouTube Global Top Songs chart for weeks at a time this year. Why do you think so many people have connected with that song so strongly?
CKay: I don’t see music as a product. I see music as art. So when I’m making music, I’m literally expressing myself and trying to make something that sounds good to me, that I’d want to listen to. I’m not going to tell you about how I inverted the chords. I did that, but it wasn’t some deliberate strategy; I was just trying to make something that sounded good. Music is more heart than science. The song connected with people because they can listen to it, and they can tell that it’s real.
You and Tems are among the young Afrobeats artists who’ve had a major impact on the U.S. Billboard charts this year. What does it mean for you to see Afrobeats songs be the best-performing songs in the world, period?
CKay: It makes me feel amazing. It feels really great to have my song doing all of this. But this is a dream I had not just for myself, but for the genre. Pop music is not a genre. Pop music is whatever genre people like at a particular time. There was a time when pop was classical music or disco. Right now, Afrobeats is the new pop; the genre that literally everyone vibes to and everyone likes, around the world, whether they understand the language or not. It’s amazing to see music cutting across cultures and languages, people of different backgrounds all connected by one song.
You’ve called your music “emo Afrobeats.” What does that mean to you?
CKay: African music has evolved a lot over the past few decades. The Afrobeats artists of today are founded upon music of the 50s and 60s, from artists like Fela Kuti, Victor Olaiya, Cardinal Rex Lawson. Afrobeats as a genre is dance intensive and rhythm intensive. The Afrobeats pioneers I grew up listening to made music about social injustice, politics, and straight-up partying that reflected the time and place they were in. But in the time and place I find myself in, I’m a young Nigerian who has an interesting love life. So if I’m making Afrobeats, I would like to put lots of energy and emotion into it, and bring something different to the table. I’m a Cancer sun and a Pisces moon sign. I'm very aware of my emotions. So the music is emo! It’s a way for me to transfer what I’m feeling to other people, who can connect it with what they’re feeling.
As we head into a new year, what are you hoping for, for yourself as an artist, and for your fans as they experience your music?
CKay: My first album is coming out in 2022. I’ve been working on it for a while, and I like surprises so I don’t want to say too much. But let’s just say it’s going to be an album full of art. Next year, I’m looking forward to breaking more ground. This is an exciting journey, and I’m grateful to be on it with the support that I have.