“Afrobeats is a culture and as long as I have something to do with it… afrobeats is here to stay”Sheila O.
I had this interview done while sitting through traffic, in a bus (troski): usually a miserable two-hour journey until I started my interview with Sheila O.
For someone who’s affected by others’ energies, I completely lapped up the charged up energy that came with this interview. You could practically feel the cackle of electrically-charged aura all through the text and voice notes. When she randomly said “Shekpe!” and ended the conversation with another random “BHIM!” I knew I was going to have so much fun talking to this ball of energy known as Sheila O.
Born Sheila Okonji-Ashinze, Sheila O is a Nigerian based in the USA and is responsible for being the link between Africa and the USA in numerous entertainment and music dealings.
Growing up in Nigeria before leaving to get her degree in Marketing and Public Relations at the University of Westminster in London, Sheila O did not necessarily think she’d end up in the entertainment industry. In her words “Entertainment chose me.”
Sheila’s stumble into the entertainment world started while she interned with Kanya King, the founder of the MOBO Awards (Music of Black Origin). She remembers thinking back to a time in the 80s when she was much younger and A-list artistes from different parts of the world used to come hold shows in Nigeria. Unsure as to why it seemed to have suddenly ceased, she set out to bring that experience back to life by birthing ZONS Tour.
At ZONS Tour, she’s worked with Heineken for the Star Maker jam concert in Nigeria, bringing several global big-name artistes to perform in the country. She has also worked with Charter House in Ghana, bringing the likes of Shaggy, Usher and Chris Brown and more to perform in the country at events. Her International clients’ list is a long one with the likes of Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Mariah Carey, Usher, 50 Cent, Dionne Warwick and more.
Sheila O had found a gap and was bridging it nicely: Giving A list artistes their first African tour while presenting Africans the chance to see their global idols perform live. Recounting some of her memorable moments from when she’d first started ZONS Tour, she recalled some of her early struggles:
“I didn’t know much about tours. I didn’t even know what a technical write up was. I knew it was a piece of paper with a list of demands: ‘I want this type of guitar… I want this, and I want that, don’t mix this with that, when you book my flight I want the middle seat, etc…’ But I failed woefully and always had this baby look on my face anytime the artists called to yell at me because something hadn’t been done as they wanted” That didn’t deter her at all: “I wanted to learn. I wanted to do better. Shaggy, I call him Papa Shaggy now…He noticed this zeal to learn and took his time to teach me.”
Laughing, she recounted another encounter with Usher. Her voice laced with amusement the whole time she told the story:
“Usher or was it Chris Brown? No, it was Usher! He was so mad at me for so many things but he realised he was older than me so he calmed himself down and his mum had to tell him to calm down you know: ‘This girl is doing her very best, she booked us in Nigeria, in South Africa, what more do you want?”
If there’s something she’s appreciative for from all those experiences, it’s that each person she came in contact with could tell that she was eager to learn and helped her carve her vision into reality.
“I just wanted to learn and had good sponsors who were patient with me and saw my vision and understood that it was a work in progress… especially Ghana!”
At the moment, not only is she recognized for AFROZONS Tours which is still bringing global artistes like Megan Thee Stallion and more to Africa, she’s currently the host of the Afrozons show that supports Afrobeats, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latin music, making her the first female personality to host a nationally syndicated Afrobeats show in the United States on mainstream terrestrial platforms
In addition to that, she’s the host of the show, “How Far” with Sheila O on Hip TV and YouTube where she has conversations with afrobeats and hip-hop artistes. She’s already had Stonebwoy, Nasty C, Wizkid and more as guests.
Her passion for Afrobeats and music from Africa, in general, is evident in the way she talked about the future of the genre especially now that Africa is being spied as an untapped market for music by several global music syndicates.
As long as she has something to do with it, Sheila O wants to contribute to the genre reaching a million more ears not only in the USA but worldwide and well… she’s obviously well on her way.
She’s a woman of action and is already creator and sponsor of the African Act Category for the MOBO Awards… a huge feat that made this one of the first award schemes to recognize African acts way before others started making their categories much more inclusive.
The media mogul is full of hope for African acts and even though she’s doing her part and seeing others do their part too, she’s not entirely satisfied. There’s more music to be explored, and that’s what she wants to make easy with her AFROZONS show on TV and radio.
“I want more space for the music. Afrobeats has transitioned and embraced African music to the fullest and bringing it to the mainstream waves but more has to be done.
“There are so many other songs and they’re not being played on the same level that they should be played. That’s where the fight is. The good fight. The fight to make afrobeats stay on. Afrobeats is a lifestyle… a culture and not a phase. It’s like hip-hop. We are far but not far off. We just have to keep pushing our agenda.”
It’s heartwarming listening to Sheila speak so lovingly about Afrobeats. She describes it as one that’s full of good energy, makes people want to dance and is very non-threatening.
The world has noticed this too and inasmuch as she’s doing her part, artistes in Africa also need to seize this newfound interest. For her, maintaining originality is key in addition to amassing as much knowledge as you can on how to push your music and get yourself in the space that makes you visible to all the eyes tuned in to African music right now.
“We have to stay original. We can’t just drop music that doesn’t have meaning anymore. We have to make sure the music can be translated and felt. It doesn’t have to be in the English dialect. It could be in our own dialect because music is a universal language and long as your music is right, your hooks are right, the beat is right … people will feel it.”
“One other important thing is we have to be knowledgable. You have to register your tracks in the USA so when the songs are being played like people like myself on terrestrial radio you get paid. There are companies like Nielsen that put together data like this for you to ensure that you get your money.”
“When you record your music, have a radio edit version without all the cuss words so it can be played on air. When you get offered deals, try and go for ones that give you not just upfront deals but royalties etc.”
“Social and digital media are the future but they do not pay as much as terrestrial radio. You want to make sure you’re getting the best of both worlds, and it’s not just for you but everyone else on your record: songwriters, producers etc.”
For her, successfully leveraging on your music has everything to do with schooling yourself and even though she understands that sometimes we think there aren’t enough resources, it still isn’t an excuse. There’s a reason the internet is available.
Researching will help most artistes make the right decisions and for artistes looking to get signed to record labels, she had one thing she vehemently insisted on: “do not sign your life away.”
“If you’re a young artiste and you’re going to be signed to a label you have to be sure they are well equipped. They should know how to market you globally internationally especially as the afrobeats is now being accepted internationally. Ask relevant questions like “will I get all my revenues?”
“Don’t sign to a label without experience or connections abroad. Sometimes labels with artistes like Stonebwoy, Sarkodie, Becca and other established artistes have experience and a relationship already. They may be helping these artistes with distribution and can help you. The only fear here is when you sign to a label by the big-name artists, sometimes they end up being more involved in themselves and sideline you but… There no right answer here. Just read. Google. Learn.”
For someone so passionate about the music coming from Africa in general, Sheila O is optimistic and hopeful for African artistes and their music. As she said, afrobeats is a culture and there’s no way it is dying off anytime soon. Her projection in 10 years is that our music will successfully transcend borders and find a home in the global music scene. More globally celebrated Awards shows will recognize our music and the kind of music we are enjoying now is going to evolve and be so much better. She has hope in Africa and will do everything she can to make sure she sees this happen.
“The artistes we have today are just the tip of the iceberg. They are just soldiers paving the way for the real gems. We’d be way further than we are today.”Sheila O of AFROZONS
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