D'banj, Simi, Obi Asika: how to find the perfect Nigerian Idol
As the show nears its end, Nigerian Idol judges, break down what it means to go looking for Africa's next music behemoth.
Nigerian Idol is the last of our great music reality TV shows. An enduring format, the show’s legacy is in the discovery of stars, grooming them via public performances and in-house music training, and rewarding contestants with resources to help get them running in the music industry. This edition has already made its mark. Every week for the past two months, D’banj, Simi and Obi Asika guide proceedings as judges on the show, captivating the continent with consideration for strangers with a music dream.
And boy we have seen. We’ve watched people with just a prayer and little skill make their way up from nothing to stardom, pushing themselves to the edge of their abilities for a chance at self-actualization. The comic videos of those who didn’t make the cut, litter the internet, a source of unlimited humour for fans of music, and reality TV. 12 contestants who made the final cut have gone on to accumulate TV time, a growing fanbase, and access to services and people within the game.
It’s been over 10 years since the first Nigerian Idol was held in Lagos. In 2011, Onyekachi Onwuka won over the judges including Jeffrey Daniel, Audu Maikori and Yinka Davies, singing her heart out on her being the first Nigerian Idol. Popularly called Yeka Onka, her prize included N7.5m, a recording contract with Sony Music, as well as an all-expense-paid vacation to South Africa. Since then, we’ve had a raft of winners including Mercy Chinwo, Moses Obi Adigwe, Evelle, K-Peace and Kingdom Kroseide.
Last year, things took a super turn. Bayelsa native, Kingdom Kroseide rode through adversity and steep competition to the finish line, smiling home with three times the original winning prize (N30 million), and an incubation system to introduce him into the game. Appraised by Seyi Shay, DJ Sose and Obi Asika, his first single is already out.
This year, more stars have already been born, with sponsorship from Binance and Bigi, and a growing fanbase and followership who rally behind them. Obi Asika returns for an encore, and pop star D’banj has improved the air with his electric personality and showmanship, while Simi brings all her technical expertise to bear.
But what does it mean to be a judge on the show? How do you find the one, in a sea of hyper-competition? We talk to all three judges, exploring their connection to the show and how they conduct the business of talent discovery and grooming.
Why did you decide to take this role?
First of all, it was offered to me. And I said yes because to be honest, it was something that would be interesting for me. You know, sitting on a nice chair and judging people. I just felt like I wanted to be part of other people’s stories in a positive way, and give insights, whatever insights I had. To also share experiences of people that are trying to break into the industry. I thought it was gonna be exciting. I also believed it was going to be a way for people to see the side of me that they’d never seen before.
It’s been fun, has it not been fun for you?
Yeah very fun, actually.
You appear to be having fun, I saw you and your cake the other day.
Yeah, I’m having a great time.
How do you judge how contestants advance? What signifies growth for you?
That’s interesting because I was saying to my colleagues, the other judges, recently that it’s funny how at the beginning of the show, we had some opinions. And over time, you know these opinions have been changing, and you see all the contestants responding to criticism differently or trying to show varying sides of themselves. And, it’s fascinating to me because there were things I said before and those things are completely changed now. So I think it’s being able to take criticisms that you get and transform, using them to grow yourself. And, I like how they are all unique and they have different strengths. Some of them have used the strength to their benefit, while some of them have not necessarily adapted in the same way. So, I think this whole competition has made me look at them all individually, as opposed to just a group of competitors.
Has anyone surprised you so far?
Erm yeah, but she don’t know. (laughs)
Okay, you don’t wanna mention the name?
Simi - Hmm Faith, I mean I always liked her, I always loved her voice. She was probably one of the most unique singers on the show. But what impressed me the most was how week after week, it’s like she knows she has a special technique in using her voice. She’s a master of using her voice the way it is. She doesn’t try to do or be something that she’s not. And, week after week I think she has come out as one of the strongest singers and performers in most of the exercises.
You’re highly regarded for your technicality. What do you think an artist should know to be able to swim technically, at least?
Definitely, you have to know what you’re doing. You know a lot of people have opinions of the show. People that are coming on social media for example. But the thing is, competition is different from you doing your own thing. When you’re there, your goal is to win, your goal is to be on top of the game in the middle of all the people you’re with. Your goal is not to be saying you’re better than someone that is sitting at home, or you’re better than someone else. It is to win that show. Coming in and understanding that is important and for you to start now, you have to know what you’re doing.
Like I said, they all have unique sounds. They all have their own thing that sets them apart. I enjoy it when I see that they are actually using their strengths to their own benefit. Doing things that are actually working for them, not trying to experiment. I don’t think the competition is as much for experimentation as it is for shining.
So know what you’re doing, and continue working on yourself. There’s a limit to how much technicality you can show, apart from using your voice. Except maybe you’re playing an instrument. So know how to use your voice, know what you’re doing, know the craft, know your skills, know what your voice can do - stay there. Know what your voice cannot do, don’t try it in a competition.
When does the real work start for contestants?
To get the truth to that question, we should ask people that have won previous competitions. You know, that hype and energy lasts as long as the show lasts. The career begins from the end of that or when you come out, what happens afterwards. You know, people pay attention to you, how much work are you putting in. And, how much work are you not putting in? You can be the most talented, you can have the best voice. But when you’re in the middle of the industry, you’re doing the actual work, can you actually stand out? Some of the biggest artists in Nigeria are not necessarily the best singers. There’s a reason why they are where they are right now.
I’ve seen many contestants struggle with local songs.
I actually agree with you, I thought it would be the opposite actually. It’s because the strength of Afrobeats is not necessarily in the best vocals. There is a way about it, if you’re singing pidgin, you have to sing the sound well. If you’re singing a song you have to hit it the right way. But if you’re doing maybe something like a Vibrato, it’s easy for people to disconnect when you’re doing Afrobeats specifically. That’s why people are not hard to switch, when they’re doing like a real vocalist song, versus a strong Afrobeats song. There are some people that when they switch, kill it. But there are some people when they switch, who struggle a little bit. And it’s been interesting to see because I actually thought it would be easier to be doing our songs.
What’s the greatest benefit for a show like this? For the contestants and the public?
The platform obviously. Because starting out in the industry is a lot of work, so you’ve already gotten the platform here. You don’t have to pay to be on TV, you’re on TV for one hour every week. For one hour every week, you have millions of people watching you, and you gain attention. So I would say that’s the biggest benefit for the contestants. For the public, they get to be entertained, they get to have an opinion and you know, entertainment is a great thing, an incredible thing. Just to sit down and be entertained, you don’t have to pay them to sing to you.
When the cameras are off, are you part of the process in the house?
During the audition, the judges are there for the screening. All those stuff behind is for the vocal coaches and stuff. But me, Dbanj and Obi are usually there for when they actually sing on stage.
So you don’t provide any nurturing when you leave stage?
I was careful not to reach out to anyone while they are still on the show. And that’s important, I don’t want to give anybody the idea that I’m on one person’s side or anything. But I’ve reached out to few people after they left the show to tell them they did a great job. That’s on my own, not necessarily on the platform as Nigerian Idol. Just me as an artist.
After the show, what should contestants know?
Just shine. It’s not gonna be easy. And I feel like sometimes it might be harder for people that have been on reality TV because there’s already a pressure, people already know you. There’s a kind of fame there, and if you don’t win the show, there’s no money per se to back it up. So there’s a burden thing, there’s a pressure thing. You’ve been given a platform that so many people that want to be in the music industry want to be. So you have to make the most of that platform. Before I had my break, I used to do covers all the time, I did all covers I could. I went to YouTube to download free beats. I used my USB mic to record myself. But a lot of people don’t want to put that work in because they’re looking for someone to sign them. Even when you get signed nobody’s gonna hand everything to you. Most labels push artists that are giving a lot of push to themselves.
So they help you pour fuel on your fire, rather than helping you start it?
Yeah. So you have to give them something to work with. Show people what you have, that you’re really here and you mean business.
This is the second year running for this show and there have been a lot of improvements. Does it get easier doing this?
I dunno, It’s interesting you know, I have a different perspective. I come at the show from two sides. I’ve produced the shows before. But this is the first time being on the show as a judge. The experiences of the judge is not hardly different. Except that the studios are bigger, it’s more spectacular for the audience definitely. And I think this being the second season, we're gonna lock more talent and the talent is gonna be incredible. That’s the key thing.
What does this provide the contestants?
I think the first thing is obviously exposure. The second thing is hope. I think hope is a powerful passion that people need to hold on to, especially when times are difficult. And you know, I see a lot of inspiration coming through shows of this nature, because you have to realize that the winner is not always the winner. There are people that will come off to the shows and don’t end up in the top ten or top five. But they may end up having long careers. And one of the things about it is that, not everybody will end up having a big career in front of the camera. So people will always get into other spaces as well. I’m just hoping to see more of this talent having more opportunities in the professional space.
And for you dealing with the green hands coming in, what do you think they lack the most?
It’s hard to say because sometimes. Really at this stage of the game, it’s about public votes right. So public votes as we all know can be whatever. Depending on the public’s mood will typically determine the way they react to a person. So I wouldn’t tell talents who got to the top five, six to worry too much about the public votes, I think what they gotta do is to hone their own craft. Be confident that what you have already got you to this level, and just keep on working on what you have. Not so much worrying about, “oh I came third or second,” because that’s really just to the gods you know. It depends on how you perform that particular day. You can canvass for votes, people do that all the time. But the reality is most people who say my favourite didn’t win, they didn’t actually vote. That’s the thing.
Why do contestants struggle with local sounds?.
The thing is that first of all, it’s part of the fact that I think our tastes are changing and the impact of our sound has globalized. So Pop and all these formats were built specifically around western formats of music and pop genres. And you know the big spectacular, the big broadway song, the big rock song, the big ballad. But now, when you get deeper into black music and black expression, our experience from where we come from is a different way of singing. And that’s the rhythmic way we sing, and it also has to do with the melodies and how we sing them.
And sometimes you see the dichotomy between Afrobeats, African more organic sound and the European-structured pop sound. And that in itself is even part of the transition. For artists that come to this kind of show trying to break into the commercial markets. Because, if you come out singing based on Celine Dion songs, nobody is gonna be buying your records, not in 2022. So you gotta find a way to be able to do that. But it’s still common dealing with it, what it is right now.
Have you seen a lot of people achieve that intersection?
It’s a process, Kingdom is coming through that now, who won last season. You gotta give people the opportunity to transit the show. So when you hear them after they’ve won, you think about their music, not the show. Because on the shows, they’re singing covers, not original music. But the covers are in the expression, it’s like the voice of the idols of any of the shows that own the same thing in that respect. They’re different ways of doing it, but it’s really covers. But now when you come into the real game, and that’s why Idols have always done it differently, they’ve produced millions of stars, millions of records and even on the continent, we’ve seen that as well…Timi Dakolo, Iyanya, you know, people that have come off this particular format and have been able to go further.
So yeah it’s definitely possible, I’m excited because we are involved in trying to help them. We are trying to guide that process. The thing about it is, I think what we’re seeing, this year with that top four, I have no idea who’s gonna win. I can’t tell you, so it’s wide open to me. But the interesting thing is we have very unique voices out there and what’s good to see is the different parts of the country they’re coming from. I love to see Jordan coming from the North, I think the North has been looking for somebody like that to get behind for a very long time. Banty has really come out of the shell, like a tomboy, now dressed up like a lady singing like a diva. She’s somebody that I think is ready today, someone like Banty, I don’t think she has any issues if she has to get down into the groove of what is happening in the commercial marketplace tomorrow. She can make that transition easy, easier than some of the others, that is what I’m thinking.
So when people leave this, I call this simulation. When people leave this beautiful simulation, for much of them, what’s most important for them in that transition process ?
I think the most important thing is to hold on to the fact that I did this. I got on that stage and I killed it. I represented myself, my family, my people and what I stand for. I hold on to that. That is something significant. Your music got into audience of millions. And if you hold that and you dont fuck up with that energy, you have huge opportunity ahead of them. If they come out with the wrong energy, don’t be entitled, don’t think you’ve arrived, don’t think it has happened, it has not yet happened.
So you still have to go find the original song, the original angle, and story to make you connect with the audience, for you to become that thing that everybody wants you to be. But in terms of the show itself, if you get to the top level of the show, ride as fast as you can, enjoy because it needs to be enjoyed. And so celebrate it, because it’s not easy. And these kids are super-talented. And one of the things I, you know people like to be negative, I think it’s good to be positive because you’re seeing talents that is really homegrown, I mean still raw, some of them haven’t really been in the studios. They haven’t had those opportunities to work with songwriters, they’re just singing - and that’s the beautiful thing.
What do you look out for, what’s a marker for growth for you?
For growth, it’s to see how they’re progressing, confidence, presentation, attitude and personality. All these things are taken for granted that you can sing. But in terms of, if you can win the show, it’s a culmination of star power. Star power is important, that’s what separates a good singer from a great singer. It’s not just the vocal prowess, it’s the attitude of the personality. So star power is critical. You know how it is, you’re in this game. When you meet a star, you know a star. And that’s one of the things you can’t buy and you can’t train. So always look for that as one of the key issues.
Of course, a great voice. But even more than a great voice, I’m looking for a great presence. Performer’s ability to connect to the audience. How do you get the crowd? Does the crowd get connected to you? Are you connected to the crowd? If you’re able to connect to the crowd and you got good presence, and you’re good-looking, you are already getting AAA. And that’s like what you need to win these kinds of things. To me that’s what I look for. I’m looking for personality, presence, and attitude. Taking the fact that everybody can sing well, now it’s about bringing those things, that’s where the separation comes for me.
Kingdom won last year. How’s he?.
You know the funny thing, it’s not easy. It’s not easy for him, it’s not easy for us. But the good thing about it is that he’s so talented. He has an incredible voice and also we’re trying not to rush him. Allow him to find himself, allow him to arrive at the music that he wants to sing. I was quite sold off. Initially when we got together, I was like “nah we can’t do that.” Which is like, I think there was a certain perception of who he was, who he is. Coming out of the church, a church boy. He was very much in that frame. But I was like, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not what we wanna present you as. We wanna give you an opportunity, you’re 26 years old, I want you to be able to sing to 24-year-old girls, I want young girls to feel your music. I want you to communicate, and be natural about it. Not be worried about affecting anybody. We had to walk through those things and come to his own natural arrival. He’s at that place now. Kingdom has recorded like 9 songs, it’s supposed to be a 6 track EP, but now we are gonna work out, shave it down. Because the boy has put down a lot of tracks and how it is, his writing is very personal.
In what ways can a seamless connection be made between what’s happening here, what’s happening in the music industry?
It’s funny when we say that because obviously, everybody who is holding a role in the industry knows this is part of what you have to be concerned about. The key thing that I think about is discovery, number one. I think because of the size of our country, the number of places where music is coming out of, for a lot of people, it’s so hard. It’s impossible to even dream they can get heard. So I think about what we can do to come up with a discovering talent process. It’s not necessarily Idol, but it still deals with the grassroots, at the grassroots level, where somebody in the village — from Kafanchan to Orlu —can actually think, “hey man, I can do this and get heard.” So that’s one side of it.
The other side of it is mentoring, there’s a lot of talent in the music industry that’s done quite a lot of work. From producers to engineers, to video directors, and choreographers. You know all these kind of guys, and I think there must be a way where we must be able to transfer skills. There’s a lot of people in Nigeria that are talented but the talent is more intuition than applied knowledge. So we can find ways to get guys to help them transfer that knowledge to grassroot communities. And it’s about the bridge, because what we are talking about is a bridge. What’s the bridge between the highest part of the industry and the grassroots. I think that’s a talent bridge and a discovery peg. It’s something that we all have to think about. Find the best ways because we, what we are about is what’s the best possible way in a country like Nigeria that has possibly 100 million kids under 20.
All of them are doing something full of entertainment-creative action. What’s the best way we can actively enable our people to be seen? Because it’s about being seen and really discovered. So I think we can do this with technology, with the use of social media platforms, we are now entering the markets. I’m thinking about how we mind our culture, to break it out.
This is kind of personal for you. Apart from doing the work and all that, what do you get out of this?
I’m a fan, number one, I love music. Number two, being an early adopter in the sense that, I’ve known from when I was born that our music was world-class. We have world-class talents. So when I see Burna Boy, Davido at 02, Wizkid at Afronation doing these things, they’re just manifestations of what I’ve always been expecting. What I’m telling you is that; we are still at 1 percent, we are just starting. For me, the road is the beginning. Some people think it’s happened already. I’m like, “no no no, it will happen already when we get to the situation when we get 10 Burna Boys and Burna Boy just attended residency in Las Vegas for ten months.”
I think we are at the beginning of the journey, for some of us older now, this is not the beginning. For somebody else, today is the new day. So for me, I tryna take it like that.
You’ve brought so much color, a different level of entertainment and it’s almost like people just show up every week because Dbanj is seated there as the judge.
Dude, no whine me.
I no Dey whine you na. I watched the two shows and you’re killing it!
Come, Nigerian Idol, una dey hear this thing? Una go increase my money o this is real-time review. I must greet him specially. Thank you for the compliment.
You’ve been around for a while. Why is this your first crack at judging?
You know, like officially, if we even go way back before there was even Big Brother, you know we did Koko Mansion. And so for me personally, I prioritize. So before now, I had a dream. I had to focus on that dream, which is to create a digital gateway platform to the creative hub. Because I kind of saw what the future will be like. That we will have a creative person or two in every household. So if we’re to have a hub where everyone can plugin, which is the same as Facebook has done, Instagram has done Snapchat, LinkedIn and that’s my vision for CREAM. so I had to get the right partners. What are the platforms I can partner with? And one thing I know about all these shows, why I mean not to take those shows because people don’t know but I’m an emotional artist. And so I know that on shows like Nigerian Idols and other ones, it’s not necessarily the best that will win.
At some point it turns into some popularity contest.
Yes indeed. And I didn’t want to be caught up in a place where.. and I’m so happy we’re not the ones chasing anybody. Our job was to get the top 10 and now that we’ve delivered…I fight them na. I fight them make them do top 20.
Yes. They con tell me say, “format format something.” But they still do top 12 because say...
So that was you?
No, I won’t take the…
But you were the driving force.
I am the ginger. Yeah I said, “listen I cannot choose and I tell them say if you drive this person, when we trend, I go put for Twitter say na una no let me choose top 20. Because there were so many talents. And also we got the top12, but inside my heart I felt whosoever wins, I’m still going to talk to my partners which we did before we got on the show. The CREAM platform will support. Be sure that’s the only way I feel people will get more value and the exposure so I wanted something that I could be happy with afterwards. So we got the top 12 and I saw so many beautiful talented people.
And then I reached out to the executive producers of the show, and I said to them that I don’t know who the winner would be, but I would like to give an opportunity to the top 12. So even though I had no plan of releasing any record or any EP, I started listening to some of my records that I did. And because of what those records stand for, which resonates with what I see in the growth and excellence of these people, so I said okay let us release like a 5 track EP which we’re gonna do around my birthday. We’re releasing a 5 track EP, and we are still on them. I have one of the best songwriters in the world. She’s Stacey Barthe. She wrote brown skin girl. Beyoncé’s side...
I know Stacey Barthe, that's elite.
Stacey picked like the best of the best songwriters for me, and very soon we had a whole documentary about it. And we were in Los Angeles, we went into the studio and and we worked on these records then and I poured my heart and I was waiting for the right time. And then I saw these people pour their heart, these top 12. They’ve given it all. I saw them from the beginning from the auditioning.
They’ve grown so much.
So you have also watched them grow?
So let me ask you a question so you saw baby dragon the first time she came to the audition.
She was very rough. But grew so fast.
You see am too…I see am o.
Every performance was a hit back to back.
Back to back, so now listen, they con drive am.
E pain me, I cry.
But now the only reason I feel confident to say this now is that through the CREAM platform and partners I know, that’s not the end for her. At least, I really thought she was going to be in the top 3. I won't lie and what we are trying to do now is to release an EP, and give each of the top 12 at least, to have a future alongside other people that I’ve spoken to.
What we would do is, we would bring the top 3 from Nigerian idol to come to the studio next week to come and record their verses of this song called ‘Prayer.’ And whosoever wins the competition means that person's prayer has been answered. So we will delete the remaining two verses or save it somewhere for a remix and then on the 22nd. I wanted to make it special for the person that won. Because I watched the growth and I know it’s not who anyone thought and I’m still in top 3.