Ace rapper, Jude Abaga, better known as MI, speaks with MOBOLA SADIQ on why he left his former record label, Chocolate City, how he has managed to keep his private life off social media and other issues
You have been described by some fans as ‘Hip hop messiah’. How does that make you feel?
This is something they care about and would like to see leaders within the genre and also elevate the style of music. In that way, it is an amazing compliment and I am grateful for that. However, note that the word ‘messiah’ is used by fans in a metaphoric manner. But, it also gives me something to aspire towards, which is making sure I always do my best.
What endeared you to rap music?
I have always been a fan of music and being around music makes me feel complete. However, I quickly realised that I could not sing the way I wanted to sing, and that’s how I discovered rap music. Rap music makes one have so much texture and gives more depth than any other genre of music. I think I fell in love with some of the stories I was hearing about rap. By the time I recorded my first two rap songs, I found that I was good at it.
Music was not as lucrative as now when you started. Why didn’t you pursue a white-collar job?
When I started, music was not as lucrative as it is now. I attended Calvin College, in the United States of America, and when I came back (to Nigeria), I was having some financial troubles. I initially got a job but I loved music more. It started out as a hobby but gradually evolved into a career.
What are some of the most memorable moments of your career?
I don’t really know how to speak about those moments but I have been blessed and have enjoyed a long career. I am grateful for coming this far. It is such a great feeling to do what one loves and make money from it. I always look forward to making memories. I recently placed all my awards in a box and put them away. I have won almost 70 awards so far but I don’t want to see them anymore. I want to look forward to new feats.
You once talked about the absence of structure in the music industry. What solutions would you proffer?
With everything in Nigeria, we just have to keep building. There are now many young labels and a lot of money is coming into the music industry. A lot of international imprints have also set up shop in the country. I think the government needs to get more involved in protecting intellectual properties though.
In what areas do you think the Nigerian music industry needs improvement?
I think the young generation are doing an amazing job. But, the government needs to get involved and provide institutional funding.
How would you rate the quality of music being churned out now, compared to when you started?
I think this generation of music artistes are doing well. Young artistes are carving an amazing legacy for themselves.
Some music lovers have continued to complain about the absence of good lyrics in songs these days. Do you agree?
It is not a new criticism; it seems to be the norm with music. For example, Marvin Gaye sang of ‘sexual healing’ in 1982, while the music duo, Zule Zoo, released Kerewa in early 2000. Kerewa was a big song in Nigeria and these same people (critics) danced and laughed to it. Music is supposed to entertain and it should also punch holes in culture and try new ideas. Some songs focus on government and social issues, some border on love and sex, and some are just for fun. But, there has never been a time that one has been lyrically more superior to the other. I think people should rather find and support the artistes that are doing what they like. If some people like socially conscious music, there are a lot of artistes doing that. You don’t have to listen to music you don’t like. However, one cannot change the energy that these young artistes are on or determine how they should sing. Every generation should be allowed to find its voice.
Have you ever contemplated giving up music due to competition or any other reason?
No, not really. There are tough moments but I cannot remember any time that I have seriously contemplated leaving the music industry.
Do you plan to retire anytime soon?
I think that should be determined by the fans. I have plans to do at least five more albums but if the fans would still want more of me, I think I would oblige them. Creativity never goes away and there are a lot of artistes that adapt and change as they grow older. There are always opportunities for change and growth, and I am open to all of that. I don’t have any plans to retire anytime soon.
Which of your albums or songs gave you a tough time?
My song titled, African Rapper Number One probably took me the longest time to write. It took me about three months to write it.
Which song surpassed your expectation?
That would be my first single titled, Safe. It blew me away. I did not expect it to turn out the way it did.
You’re quite vocal about ills in society. Do you have any plans for an elective post?
I have no plans for that. I think it is important to be political but I don’t have political plans.
Do you have any routine before performing on stage?
I do not have any special ritual before my performances. I just get prepared, do a proper sound check to make sure everything is working fine. I treat music like a job, so I don’t take alcohol before performing on stage. When I am done and decide to party, then so be it. After all, one cannot drink before one flies a plane or performs surgery?
What are the things people don’t know about you?
I am a regular guy that likes his privacy a lot. I generally keep to myself within the industry. Also, I love football. I am an Arsenal fan and in recent times, I have developed a love for running, so I try to do that every day. I love my family because I’m a very family-oriented person.
Why don’t you post about your private life online?
I have a social media account that is for me and my family and it is private. It is important to note that music is my job. I am Jude Abaga and MI is a moniker under which I record songs. I cannot confuse that identity with my personal life.
Don’t you feel showing some aspects of your private life could endear some brands to you?
I agree with you and I know there are celebrities that show off their family, which I think is beautiful. However, I am a different kind of person.
You are one of the most eligible bachelors in the industry. Why are you not married?
It just has not happened but it will happen in its time.
What do you have to say about supremacy battles in the music industry?
It is a conversation for fans which I don’t care about. I don’t even think that artistes care (about it) as much as people think they do. Artistes are just making music and trying to entertain. Speaking from an artiste point of view, there is no real supremacy battle. People just want to take care of their families and make good music. For fans, I think competition is part of life. For instance, when people support something, they would want to compare. I am an Arsenal fan, and if I meet a fan of Manchester United, we would have a debate. There is something called an ‘infinite gain’. Debating about the best football team is an indefinite gain because next year, there would be another team and the following year, there would be yet another. I think supremacy is just a topic for fans to debate and there would never be a right or wrong answer.
Why did you leave Chocolate City after spending more than 12 years with them?
It was just time for me to do something new and go in a different direction from the leadership. It is nothing complex; there were no undercurrents. We all had a wonderful time and we are still great friends. I am still on the board (of the company). I am part of Chocolate City and Chocolate City is a part of me and my story. However, it was time for me to go on a new journey and let someone else be in charge.
Are you moving to another record label or starting a new one?
I have started another one called Incredible Music, and I am the only artiste there for now. I have gained a lot of experience, stronger network and better funding options. So, I hope it would not take me long to build.
Why do some artistes have sour relationships with their former record labels?
Sometimes, conflicts could make an artiste leave a label and sometimes, it is about growth. I have good relationships with everyone I have worked with. Contracts elapse and people move on. For example, Banky W has a good relationship with his former label signees such as Wizkid, Niyola and Skales. There is a difference between what makes the headlines and the truth.
Are feuds part of the music industry?
Feuds happen a lot in hip hop. Hip hop is a genre that allows people to say they are the best or the greatest, and it sometimes rubs on people the wrong way. As long as it is not personal or does not result in injury but just competitive, I think it is fine. Competition pushes people to be good. As long as it is well managed and people are not fighting, insulting or threatening each other in real life, then I do not have a problem with it.
Does this mean you’ve never had beef with anyone on a personal level?
That is not my life. Of course, people have upset me but it is not personal. It is never more than entertainment.
What inspires the titles of your albums?
Every album has been different. For me, there is no process behind giving an album a title.
People have said that there are similarities between your style and that of Jay Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Do you agree?
The technique of rap is basically the same. The difference is the individual, voices and stories. I try to be unique as much as possible but I am very inspired by the people you mentioned. I am sure that, in some ways, people would be able to tell that there is a creative link between the people that inspire one and the music that one makes.
Who is your favourite rap artiste in Nigeria?
That would be a guy called AQ. I like him for his unique perspective.
Do you have a foundation like some of your colleagues?
I have an organisation called Tasck and we do a lot of work trying to get people that have platforms to use them for good. The organisation is just a year old though.
What are your hobbies?
I like playing football, running and reading.
What type of woman piques your fancy?
When I was younger, I might have given you a physical specification but now, it is all about who the person is and me having a genuine connection with the person.
Why don’t you have baby mothers like many of your colleagues?
I don’t have any child because I am not yet married. When I am married, I would have them. I love kids and I would be honoured to have one.
How do you spend your vacations?
I sit by the pool or beach, reading and relaxing.