The vocalist, producer and songwriter Nonso Amadi’s first time out of his country of birth was in 2015, when he went to pursue further education in the UK. He was nineteen and experiencing relative freedom for the first time following a relatively quiet, confined upbringing.
“I was always indoors. Most of my childhood memories are limited to things that happened at home, or in school, or in church. Leaving Nigeria to go school outside, it was a scary thing. I didn’t know what to expect,” he tells me during a Skype conversation some days before the release of his latest EP, Free.
In the UK, he became socialized into a community of fellow Nigerians who made the discomfort of leaving familiar settings bearable for him.
He continued making music, something he’d started back home, while an undergrad pursuing a BSc in Chemical Engineering.
“I used to rap with my friends in school. Where music became serious is in the UK. I started recording myself. I would do the rap verses and whatnot, [but] what was really fascinating to me was when I did the choruses. I would sing, and I was ‘yo, I should probably experiment more in that area’,” he says.
“Tonight”, his 2017 breakout hit, came about in the midst that confusing phase of his life. Everything was moving at an exceptionally high rate.
“I had to do interviews, meet fans. Once I got off university, I had to do my own shows, all those things. That’s a huge reason why I’m still the way I am, which is very reserved. I’m just observing and learning at this point,” he says.
Nonso Amadi’s discography is impressive. He’s amassed collaborations from top acts in Naija’s Alté and rap scenes, released a joint EP with the soul assassin, Odunsi, and looks set to advance to greater heights if what his peers in the music industry, the likes of Wizkid, Burna Boy, Santi, Simi and Mr Eazi are the yardstick. The latter two also happen to be the only features on his new set.
His production work started out on FL Studio, and his friends in the UK helped him buy the recording equipment.
“They put money together, and they were like we like what you’ve been so far with your head…I used to use the Apple headphones to record…they were like yeah, let’s take it seriously. That’s how it started,” he says.
“Producing was actually very fun. If you’re constantly doing it, you’re constantly seeing results. You can make a hip hop joint, and after that you can make an RnB joint. You are just constantly learning. I just kept on trying.”
He says that he’d load a Wizkid joint onto FL Studio, and figure out how to recreate the beat. He mentions House music, too, and points to Mzansi’s DJ Maphorisa as an influence. “You need that ear to know, okay, I need a soft sound here, I need a hard drum, whatever. All those things really helped.”
“My EP is a blend of different genres. I’ve been studying sounds that connect for such a long time. All I did was that I chose the sounds that would make people feel relaxed. I didn’t want to do an EP you listened to and you’re so hype. I wanted it to be something that you listen to while you’re driving, while you’re having a chilled day at work,” says the Nigerian artist, currently based in Canada.
Nonso Amadi not only sings his crux out; he’s managed to compose beats that swing to a different groove, as gentle to the spirit as they are on the ear. Free is an endearing listen, guaranteed to get better with each spin.
“I really don’t want this project to be a thing where it’s Nigerians that know, or it’s Africans that know [about it]. I want it to be a thing where everyone gets involved with the project, and they listen to it. That’s why I’ve made it as open as possible; even though it has the Afro element in there, it’s still chilled, it’s still RnB, and it’s still global music.”
He continues: “It’s gonna be really tough to put myself in a particular box. I’d say [that] I’m trying to play a role when it comes to the less dance-y, lower-tempo versions of African music. Back in the day we had legends like Miriam, we had Brenda Fassie; so many legends that were doing a slower version of African music that translated across the world. I really wanna bring that back. I don’t just want it to be a case where, when people say African music, all they can think of is dance. There’s a lot more to our sound than just dance music.”