The Nigerian Alté star discusses making art fearlessly, confiding in community and her new album, Pan African Rockstar.
Pan African Rockstar, the sophomore album by Nigerian polymath Lady Donli, has been four years in the making. Written during lockdown to save herself from internal tribulations, its production became a transformative moment for the 27-year-old. Trading the textured Afrobeats of previous singles for something more genre-bending, she welcomed the sounds of Nigeria’s past to accelerate her own into the future. Soul, Afro-fusion and Afrobeat weave throughout the project gracefully, harking back to the grooves laid down by Tony Allen and Egypt 80. There’s considerable depth and nuance, not only to the music, but the storytelling she encompasses on the album.
“It’s not easy to be an African rockstar,” sings Lady Donli on the title track’s hook. And she’s right. Trailblazers of the past have often been vilified; it only takes a look into the life of Nigerian art provocateur Fela Kuti to realise this. More recently, the Alté movement, made up of non-conforming African artists including Lady Donli, has tussled with mainstream success. Thanks to the grit and determination so eloquently portrayed by Pan African Rockstar, you wonder whether times might be changing.
Cleveland-born, Abuja-raised Lady Donli sees community as the requisite factor that drives culture forward. Setting up the Pan African Rockstar Club, which aims to build a network of budding artists and creatives, the Ragz Originale collaborator sees strength in the unification of like-minded individuals. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on Pan African Rockstar. Joining forces with Obongjayar and Kah-Lo, two artists Lady Donli’s admired for many years, she crafts infectious soundscapes that ripple below her whimsical storytelling.
Even with a 12-track musical opus dropping today, you get the feeling Lady Donli still has so much to give. And with that being said, we sat down with the singer, songwriter and producer to discuss: making art fearlessly, confiding in community and her new album, Pan African Rockstar.
Congratulations on the release of Pan African Rockstar! How are you feeling now that it’s out in the world?
I’m really grateful that I finally get to share it. Getting to this point has been a long but super rewarding journey. I hope people love it as much as I do; it really feels like letting your child into the world. I mean, I don’t have any children, but I imagine that this is what it feels like.
What were some of your initial inspirations and intentions for the project?
With this project, I really wanted to tell my story. I wanted to create a personal project while showcasing my musical range. In the past, I’ve been afraid to experiment with some of the sounds I like. For this album, I just wanted to be myself. When I first started making this project, I was listening to a lot of Kelis, especially her album Thirsty because of its diverse yet cohesive sound. I was also inspired by Santigold and the way she approaches music. I thought to myself, ‘You could do something like this’.
Did it evolve in any unexpected ways since then?
It definitely did. Initially, I was working on psychedelic-type songs; the first song I made for the album was ‘The Bad Ones.’ But the record quickly evolved beyond that. I wanted to incorporate elements of production that sounded heavy. Everything changed when I opened up to infusing R&B. I took vocal classes and healed my vocal injuries. Vocal classes made me more confident and changed how I approached the music.
What genres do you draw from on the album?
A lot of alternative rock and Afrobeat. Many people don’t know that Nigeria had numerous rock groups in the 80s. I wanted to create something as full and intense as those songs.
How has it evolved sonically since your breakout project, Enjoy Your Life, in 2019?
I think one of the most important things to me is musicality. How music is composed is a core part of who I am as an artist. That’s where there’s a point of intersection between Enjoy Your Life and Pan African Rockstar. Both albums sound really big, with production at the forefront. However, with Pan African Rockstar, I’m making more personal music and being more myself. Enjoy Your Life was more consumable, fun and happy, just like the name implies. Pan African Rockstar is more in-your-face and hard-hitting. It feels like the start of something new.
What were you inspired by lyrically when writing?
These days, it’s really just my life. I write a lot about confidence because I’ve struggled to be confident in my life. Now that I am here, I want everyone to hear about it. I also write about being a woman existing in a country like Nigeria, where it constantly feels like we’re fighting for our lives.
Was making it a cathartic process for you?
It really was. I started making the album during the pandemic when I was supposed to be touring Enjoy Your Life. Creating this album saved me from myself. I had strong emotions that I wasn’t processing well, but being able to write music served as a buffer until I was able to digest my feelings.
How do you hope it will make listeners feel?
I hope they gain a new wave of confidence! I want them to listen and feel like they’re the Pan African Rockstar.
Are there any tracks that feel vulnerable for you to put out?
I think the title track is the most vulnerable. I wrote it right after my grandmother’s burial. I was really sad and in my feelings, and I just let it all out. One of the things I struggled with is being overlooked and undervalued, but I’ve reached a space where the most important judge of my value is myself. The industry will wake up when they’re ready, but even without them, I know this is my time, and success is at my front door.
The project features the likes of Obongjayar and Kah-Lo. What drew you to collaborating with these artists?
I have a lot of love and respect for both artists. With Obongjayar, people were constantly asking me to collaborate with him, and I knew it would happen at the right time. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and that admiration has turned into a friendship. He’s an incredible artist and reminds me of myself in many ways, and his energy is contagious. Kah-Lo is the absolute best, and I’ve always been a fan of hers. She’s someone who really supports me. Working with her was a privilege, and it’s super important for me to always have women on my album, so that felt great.
As an active member of Nigeria’s Alté community, how important is community and collaboration to you?
Community is the most important thing to me. I now have a Pan African Rockstar Club where I want to do charity work and community building. I think my main focus with music is building ecosystems where other people can thrive as well. That’s what I want to be doing for the rest of the year, collaborating, putting people on, and building. Community should be the focus of every creative ecosystem; we will always be stronger together.
Who else are you excited about on the scene right now?
Right now, I really love Bloody Civilian as well as SOMADINA. Their music is jut so fresh and beautiful.
Despite being collaborative, you lead all aspects of your creative world, from vocals and production to visuals and art direction. How important is it to you to be in control of all aspects of your identity as an artist?
I’m a control freak! So, I really want to control everything, and sometimes that might be bad. I experience a lot of burnout, but nothing frustrates me more than when someone messes up something I could have done myself. I think, when I find people I can trust more, I relinquish some parts of my control. I have a very strong vision for myself, so I know it can never get lost, but I am more than happy to expand and grow with the right people.
How would you describe your sonic and visual worlds?
I would call my visual world simple and nostalgic. I love tapping into simpler times because I am a really simple person. I want people to see my visual world and be reminded of something but also feel like they’re seeing that thing for the first time. I think with my music, I would describe it as big sounds meeting participatory music. It’s music that almost everyone can sing along to regardless of age or location. It is quite literally world music, music for the world.
In what ways do they complement each other?
The simplicity complements the bigness in a way that when they come together, it doesn’t feel excessive. It just feels right.
Looking to the future, how do you envision that world growing?
I look forward to building my community and expanding my club. I also have a band, The Lagos Panic, and I am looking forward to composing new music with them. The most important thing for me right now is watering all the ecosystems that I am building and taking as many people to the top with me as possible.