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Zexzy: Music over escape to Canada
After trying and failing to get Hilary Clinton elected as US President in 2016, Zexzy was offered a chance to live the true Nigerian dream. He chose music over Canada's attractive greener pastures.
“It’s good to meet you bro,” Zexzy says, extending a bejewelled hand and taking a seat. Tall, dressed in a black turtle neck, boots and a brown Panama hat; he’s got that artistic vibe going for him. It’s my first ever meeting with the emerging artist. We’re in a sports bar in Lekki, on Lagos Island. Zexzy, beer in hand, and a manager lounging in the background was eager to share. He’s got a new record out, he tells me. A record that came at a huge opportunity cost.
Zexzy gave up the ultimate Nigerian dream, for a chance to drop his latest record, Troway,’ in the local market. Nigeria is dealing with mass migration, with young people leaving in droves for greener pastures in the West. Zexzy—had he wanted to—would have been in Canada, not here in Lekki. He would have faced colder temperatures, a saner working system, and a break from the dysfunction of Nigeria. But he said no. In 2020, as the world crashed around us, and borders closed to battle the Covid-19 pandemic. Zexzy’s march to Western freedom was halted. The pandemic slowed down his clear shot at getting his Express Entry Canadian visa due to embassy closures around the world
And as major borders opened up after months of forced hibernation, Zexzy had grown new ideas. The chance to leave was no longer a priority. “I've wanted to travel to Canada so I started preparing for my IELTS,” he says. “I passed the exams. That was late 2019. So I was already in the pool, the Canadian express entry pool. I think I had about 460, so my chances were very bright to get an invitation to apply. My brother in Canada sent me the proof of funds, I had about N4 million in my account. And then before it would get to my score, the pandemic hit.”
Zexzy dipped into his ‘japa’ money. Some of it went to producer DJ Coublon who whipped up a beat for the artist. The rest went to the video director, Unlimited LA, for a video. Each step burned some of his migration war chest. And as the final product dropped, he waved goodbye to a Toronto escape.
“I had to really ask myself: ‘Do you really want to just go somewhere? Definitely, you have to start from somewhere. ‘Oh go and work in a bar.’ Or, ‘oh go and work somewhere you have to wash dishes.’ I had to really ask myself. 'With your level of talent, should you really be doing this?” he asks.
Zexzy might have delayed his chance to travel, but he’s always had global ambitions for his art. While most local musicians believe that following the well-threaded ‘Afrobeats to the world’ path via international label deals and partnerships might secure you international success, Zexzy is built different. He believes in creating records to soundtrack the big moments in international politics.
Opportunity knocked for him during the The 2016 United States presidential election. Turns out Zexzy really loves America. Perhaps so much that his discography contains an America theme song for patriots, a Donald Trump praise record, a Donald Trump diss record, and another designed for Hilary Clinton’s campaign. “I remember writing a song for Hilary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections. I did it from Nigeria here, I even shot a video. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But that's just me. I like doing something different from what everybody is doing. Some folks were supporting Trump and I took my own to the studio and I did something. I remember somebody who I knew then called the image team and was like, 'oh I have some Nigerians here because I went to my team, they did something very nice and I want you to listen to it.”
A contact who claims to have a clear shot at granting Zexzy access to Clinton’s campaign failed to make the connection, because they “put it on speaker and listened to the song and they were like, ‘wow! this is a beautiful song. But then you're not in America. Bringing you down here would seem like we are trying to influence the US elections, which is against the law. And they didn't eventually accept the music because it was foreign material. They said, ‘if only I had just been in the US, they would have gladly used it as her opening song. Maybe before she comes on stage to speak,” he says.
Zexzy also claims he almost got his Donald Trump diss track on CNN, via a series of text message interaction with popular news anchor and correspondent for CNN International, Jonathan Mann, who hosts the show, Political Mann. According to Zexzy, Mann agreed to play his Hilary campaign record. But before that dream could materialized—and spurred by CNN’s negative coverage of Donald Trump—he sent in the Trump diss record. Mann responded with a cold ‘okay,’ and that was the last time that budding relationship flickered.
Why did that Mann do Zexzy dirty?
“I know say I don fuck up because this time, I was now getting invested for someone who is outside. Because they had already promised me, the guy even told me he liked the song, he was going to play it. And I knew that would have been a life-changing experience for me. But I made that other step, which became something that till today, I still look back and ask myself why did I have to send that other song. But here we are today, we're still pushing,” Zexzy says.
But that hasn’t stopped Zexzy. Born in Benin City, Zexzy’s says his ambitions are beyond Afrobeats or the tough terrain of elections. In fact, for his next project, he has an ace up his sleeve, with a planned collaboration with Korean pop group, BTS. “I feel like I like what they are doing. It's not like collaborating with them is everything, but I feel like it would be me joining forces with an Asian powerhouse that would really be a major force in the world,” he says.
I stay in conversation with Zexzy, who frankly, feels like a breath of fresh air. His dreams are vast. His music is primed for a global takeover. And when true commercial success finally knocks on his door, how will he know? Well, with a phone call from JAY-Z, of course. This guy is built different!
Why did you pass up a golden chance to leave Nigeria for good?
For me basically, music has always been something I loved. But funding is a very key part of music. So if you can’t get the funding, you can have great songs and they would just be there in your music book, and you and your soul and your spirit would be listening to it yourself. I've wanted to travel to Canada so I started preparing for my IELTS. I passed the exams. That was late 2019. So I was already in the pool, the Canadian express entry pool. I think I had about 460, so my chances were very bright to get an invitation to apply. My brother in Canada sent me the proof of funds, I had about 4 million in my account. And then before it would get to my score, the pandemic hit.
And then the whole world was in disarray, they stopped doing draws for those outside the country. So the money was there for a long time and I kept on asking myself, 'come o, this Canada that you even want to go, you're going to have to start from beneath the food chain. You don't just get to a society and then you assert your relevance and just go to the top. You have to start from probably menial jobs before you get a well paying job that suits your profession and all that.' So I've been given the mail before I prepared for the trip that you may have to do some things that you don't really want to. But I said, ‘this money is in my account, I have great songs written already. Why don't I just invest in my music? Hopefully, it pays off.’
So I started talking to a couple of people. 'Oh, I have this song I'd like to work on, who can I work with?'. So they said DJ Coublon. So I pulled out some money, I paid Coublon. And then after doing the song, I played it to some folks who said 'man, this tune is catchy.’ I said okay let's shoot a video. And then myself and my team talked with director Unlimited LA. We shot the video December 19 last year. And that was how I used up most of my proof of funds that had been sent to me. But the funny thing is that at some point, I told myself, ‘look are you not supposed to be scared spending this money? Everybody wan comot for Nigeria, here you are spending your own to stay in Nigeria. But I just felt a great level of positivity with what I was doing at that time.
And something inside of me told me to carry on that I would not regret what I was doing. But once in a while, I get that itchy feeling that, ‘please think twice about what you're doing.’ But then something inside me told me to keep going. And then I shot the video and showed it to a couple of folks who also said the visuals are nice. Let's keep pushing. And that's how we got to where we are today. 'Troway' is on radio, it's on cable tv already and it's beginning to garner the attention that I had always craved for my music. So I feel in the long run what are we all looking for? Greener pastures. My music can still take me to the whole world without necessarily tying me to one country where I'd have to be doing what one white man is telling me to do. So I feel in music, I can be a king. Why would I want to be a servant?
You're betting on yourself. Do you ever made the wrong call? What if this isn't the right pill to swallow? Do you ever think about that?
I would say, ‘not really,’ because the major bane in my entire music journey has been getting it right. Being able to work with the right group of people. Working with the right group of people usually comes at a cost. I know how much it cost me to get the song produced with DJ Coublon. I know how much it cost me to work with LA. So now that I have that funding or that money in my account, I felt that my future self is going to thank me someday. It was always that feeling that someday your future self is going to thank you for making this call. Do it. Don't look back.
I read a lot of motivational books and stuff. And someone once said that you can never go wrong betting on yourself. That's if you've been able to do a lot of introspection and you know that this is what you want to pursue. Nothing gives me as much joy as putting a song together. I've been a writer since forever. Since 19 years and till today, this morning I woke up to a new song. So for me, I feel like the world hasn't experienced who Zexzy is. And if I were to die someday, and I look back and never did explore the world of music, I don't think my spirit would be happy departing this world. So I don't want to live my life living in regrets. I want to be able to say yes, I did what I came to this world to do, because I'm all about purpose. And I feel music is my purpose.
If you even ask me now, 'if I weren't doing music what would I be doing?' I don't think I would have anything to tell you. That's how I'm invested in it emotionally and otherwise. So I feel I have made the right call. Even if being human, I'm short-sighted. I won't say I'm a seer, so I won’t get to see the future. But I feel the indices are right, and if I keep checking the right boxes, I would get to the Eldorado I desire.
The people in your life, how did they react to you making this call?
Definitely, there's a lot of paranoia. There's always that scare that, ‘this boy, I hope he won't regret this.’ But I've come to discover that every human being is here to run an individual race. And you can't really know how the other person feels about certain subjects as it pertains to their life. So the best you can do—I think I enjoy that a lot from my family and a couple of friends in whom I confide in. They give me that support. They realise that I've never really been a stupid person. I go into things that I've evaluated. Not to say I've not made mistakes in life, I've made a couple of blunders. But they understand that this is what makes me happy.
I had to really ask myself: ‘Do you really want to just go somewhere? Definitely, you have to start from somewhere. ‘Oh go and work in a bar.’ Or, ‘oh go and work somewhere you have to wash dishes.’ I had to really ask myself. 'With your level of talent, should you really be doing this?'
I mean, I remember writing a song for Hilary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections. I did it from Nigeria here, I even shot a video. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But that's just me. I like doing something different from what everybody is doing. Some folks were supporting Trump and I took my own to the studio and I did something. I remember somebody who I knew then called the image team and was like, 'oh I have some Nigerians here because I went to my team, they did something very nice and I want you to listen to it.'
They put it on speaker and listened to the song and they were like, ‘wow! this is a beautiful song. But then you're not in America. Bringing you down here would seem like we are trying to influence the US elections, which is against the law. And they didn't eventually accept the music because it was foreign material. They said, ‘if only I had just been in the US, they would have gladly used it as her opening song. Maybe before she comes on stage to speak. So all of that has given me the impression. For me, I see white men come here as expatriates. I tell myself, ‘why can't I be an expatriate to the white man?’ So it's with that mentality I do something. And I've gotten that mindset that I can really do something. If I want to do international stuff, I can do it. And if I want to do local stuff, I can do it.
Music is universal but like the one I did for Hilary Clinton was a Rock & Roll song. A lot of folks heard it and were like, ‘this song sounds like an American piece.’ But I did it here in Nigeria. And it was a wonderful experience for me because every time I approach a new topic, there is something ‘vistal’ about it. Talking about the US, you are now giving me a new field where there's so much to work around. Like in Nigeria, our topics are limited to poverty, girls, you go to clubs. But in that sphere, I'm dealing with new materials, new things. So it opens my mind to things that I'm not used to every day here. So the inspiration is fresh. There's so much I can write about. I really enjoyed that experience and all of those things.
In fact, CNN was going to...Jonathan Mann (Political Mann) told me he was going to play it on one of those Saturdays. And then I got overzealous and then to some of the wrong decisions that I've had to take. I wrote about 12 songs surrounding that US election, because the songs just kept on coming. And then I recorded a diss song for Trump. I dissed him and I felt oh CNN, I think they liked Hilary Clinton more, they'd gladly air it. This time, he had not heard the first song I sent to him which was also a support song for Hilary. And then when I sent that one to him, his response was "ok".
I know say I don fuck up because this time, I was now getting invested for someone who is outside. Because they had already promised me, the guy even told me he liked the song, he was going to play it. And I knew that would have been a life-changing experience for me. But I made that other step, which became something that till today, I still look back and ask myself why did I have to send that other song. But here we are today, we're still pushing.
It's rare to find an artist in Nigeria invested in the US elections and making records from here for candidates over there. Why did you think it was something you had to do?
It goes down once again to me being true to my emotions and where they take me. I really abhor Donald Trump's personality. I loved Hilary Clinton. And the fact that a woman was taking on the world. I just loved the whole idea. And she was putting out this message of unity. And then, to the core reason why I did it; it was because, do you know record companies, artists, were suing Trump for using their songs because they said he stood for hate?
To be frank, it was Trump I wrote the first song I did for. ‘Just make America great again.’ Then I had not gone into his personality and all that. Then I reached out to a friend in California. I was like, ‘I have this project and I'm thinking you can help me.’ If I record the song, can you help me reach out to Trump's team? Because then, he was still this Apprentice guy that we all liked. And then the guy was like no. He's a Nigerian, Babatunde. He said I can't work around anything that has to do with Trump. I said why? He said Trump doesn't like Nigerians. I'm going to send you a transcript of what he said about Nigerians and then he sent it to me. I read through it and I was mad. I was like this guy is a crazy human being.
So he now said if I can do something for Hilary Clinton, he would be able to push it for me. And then I eventually did it and sent it to him. While at that time I sent to him, he too got busy. Then I was left with the whole thing by myself. I had to start making my own moves. But basically, what moved me to write that first song I did for Trump that did the entire process was that these were not songs tailormade to his camping and yet even when they were suing he kept on using Eagle Eye Cherry, a rock band, he was using their song. They sued him and he kept on using it.
So I felt this campaign has a need that no American has been able to fill. If you heard the song that I had written, no, you won't be using a song that was not tailor-made to your campaign. I had something that was sort of an anthem. If I can remember, "it's time to make America great again...." [singing]. Every time I listened to it, it felt so entertaining. I felt like the world needed to hear. In fact, I felt very bad because I think that one sounds better than the one I did for Hilary. But I felt this was something that I needed to do. Let me be an expatriate to America. Let me do something that their people were not able to do for their candidate.
And it wasn't a big deal for me. These songs just came to me naturally. Because I write about every topic. Even as I sit here with you, I wrote a song for Pepsi like 15 years ago. And from then till now, I've heard Pepsi's jingle, I've heard songs from Pepsi and I still don't think anyone has done...not to be cocky. We all have a skill. We all measure ourselves with what we hear and what we see. I still don't think Justin Beiber, to all the people that Pepsi would have endorsed, I still haven't heard anything that I think can beat what I have done. So I feel like music history would never be complete if I don't do music. I feel like the world would have lost a great deal of what could have been. And I don't want to live through my life having that regret that I never brought to the fore what I had inside.
Do you think Nigeria has limited your chances in any way? Do you think that your presence in Nigeria limits your ability to connect to a larger market?
I don't think it’s about the presence, as it is about your network. I think life is about the network you can create or tap into. There are some people here whose songs are on the billboard and digital streaming platforms. Where somebody can just type in your name on the search bar of Spotify and then have access to your music. But in the long run it still balls down to the buzz you can create. You can create a buzz from anywhere in the world now. Internet has made the world a very small village. We have folks who are vibing to Burna Boy's music in America, in Sweden, all over the world because the internet is there.
But then you still need money to do your promotion. If you need your song to trend worldwide, you need to put in a lot of ads, a lot of PR into it. So in the long run, the bane is still funding. I may not have what I have now back then when I did what I did. Because I remember I was told "why don't you just trend the song online?" And all that. And I paid someone to actually promote the Youtube. The person actually took the money and didn't do it. And I didn’t know the person's house. I met him over the internet, we exchanged numbers. So even if I had wanted to, I could not arrest him or something. I didn't even have his contact address to do that. So we went back and forth for a while and I had to forgo trending the song.
But basically, in as much as I was in Nigeria as at that time, I still feel in all of this, there is the overseeing force which is destiny. I would not be seated with you here if probably I had that opportunity. If the pandemic had not come in 2020, I'd probably be in Canada right now. Maybe washing plates, maybe I could have struck luck early and I could have worked in a nice office. But I know that the returns my music can give me even from here in Nigeria, there's no way I'd make it there in Canada. I've watched Youtube videos where people advise you, look if the aim is to come here and be rich overnight, you can't do it. Because the system is so structured that you can't just come and then you become number one. No, they too need to look out for their own citizens, and ensure that you are there to practically slave for the system.
Yes, you have good roads, you have water, you have light. But then, you are putting all into the system and getting a little which sometimes when you send here becomes… I always felt that music would take me around the world. So if I have something that would take me around the world, why would I want to limit myself to just Canada? So that was another major factor why I had to make that decision. So for me as at that time, the US, but then I didn't have a visa. So I couldn't have just travelled there because I wanted to do something for Hilary Clinton.
Did you grow up in Benin?
How was your childhood?
It's a nuclear family, my father had just one wife. That's one of the reasons I love him a lot. From when I was small till now, I've never heard that, ‘oh, your papa get one babe somewhere.’ I've never heard that. So it's just been him, my mother and 6 of us. So I'm the fifth of 5 children. And it's been great.
You're from Benin?
Yes. And I have a wonderful family. Growing up in Benin was very eye-opening and having to run around the streets. Although Benin can be quite rough, there's a lot of cultism and all that. Everybody needs you to belong somewhere. Benin people are very proud people and it's one of those things I had to deal with. Growing up, I realised that that same Benin man feature of having pride is there. And it can be a limiting factor sometimes. There are times you need to admit that you're wrong and then learn from your mistakes. But the average Benin man wants to tell you he's the lord, ‘It's going to be my way.’
That also doesn't help with relationships especially as it pertains to women. If you want to lord it over her all the time, she's going to get tired. And at some point, there may be a split. So that Benin thing was there growing up. But I realised that as a young boy I was a very good singer. I could take a Whitney Houston song and murder it. So I was so confident about my future. I was too sure that all I needed to do was just get any degree even if it's a degree in toileting. Just get it and let people know that you went to school. The world would be yours for the taking, as it pertains to music. But then I lost my voice at some point because then...
How did you lose your voice?
I just woke up one day. What felt like normal catarrh, maybe nasal blockage. Normally you can't sing for that period. And then your catarrh goes and you start singing again. This became protracted. It would go, the nasal blockage continued. I did two nasal operations.
Yeah. In the first one, I was given full-body anaesthesia. Went into operation, came out of it worse than I even entered. The doctor had messed with my nose. My nasal walls were inflamed. Instead of getting better. -because I discovered that what doctors call the turbinate in the nose, my own grew and blocked my nose. So these are things I can't explain. I got so frustrated at some point that I started asking myself 'is this how I'm just going to live my life and not be able to achieve purpose?'
In fact, it is stuff like that that brought a song like 'Troway.' I was depressed for years. And I realized that if I continue like this, I may not make it out of the other side alive. And I was beginning to have high blood pressure from my young age, because I constantly put my problems in my mind. So I devised a means of carrying my problems and dropping them on the ground. Anything I need to solve today, "okay, I wan solve this problem today." I'd pick it from the bag of problems, put it on the table and solve it. Somebody once said, what you don't have in your hand to change, don't put it in your mind. So I started to adopt that philosophy and I'm here sitting before you. Not one pressure. Not one. Because I've come to discover that the pressure will only exacerbate the problem. It would not make it any better. So that's just it for me.
Let's talk about 'Troway'.
'Troway' is a very personal song to me. And most of my best songs are personal because they come from deep down inside. When it comes like that, you know it's coming from my subconscious, meaning it's the events that are ruling my life that that song was coming from. 'Troway' was like "Troway all your sorrows, Troway all your worries" [singing]. It came from a point where I was advising myself. Consequently now, I'm advising others that you can't be a control freak in this world. I was at some point a control freak. I like controlling things. I like things going my way, the way I want it to be.
So 'Troway' is a song that is telling everyone that look, you can't control the situation but you can control how you react to the situation. So things would definitely happen to you that you never planned for. But 90% of the outcome of that situation would now depend on how you respond, rather than even react to it. So 'Troway' came from that part of me that was telling me look, you can't continue harbouring all of these problems. You need to drop them. You need to throw them away. You need to enjoy life. live in the moment. Yes, your girlfriend is nagging you. Your best friend is probably bragging to you because he has had one achievement somewhere that you don't have. But what else can you do other than to put it aside and throwing it away, and just enjoy life?
Enjoy the moment, live in the moment, savour it and just be the best that you can be because those moments, all the times I spent being depressed in my bedroom lying on my bed, I can never get them back. Those are wasted years. Time wasted is a wasted life. I can never get it back. So I've come to realise that no matter what is happening to me, if you like if you're my babe today, carry saw tear my heart. What I need to do today, I'm going to do it. And I discover that when you have the ability to push things aside, you get to a level where things don't really bother you anymore.
Even when we did MMM, I lost 6 million naira.
But I had gotten to that point in my life where I've come to discover that money is paper. And what are you killing yourself for? Why are you tending towards ill health just because you lost paper? So this is money you can make back from one event. One show. One gig. So why are you worrying yourself so much that you cannot even get the opportunity to make that kind of money back? Because all worry does is take away your opportunities. Because you would not be able to think straight. You can't be creative. So 'Troway' came from that part of me that was advising me that I need to stop worrying about everything. I need to stop controlling everything. Let it happen. Then respond casually to it. So that's where 'Troway' came from.
What does success look like to you? When you close your eyes and envision this journey and what final form or prime time looks to you, what do you see for yourself?
Okay, success would be when I get to that point where I can hear that there's famine in Yemen and I can say, ‘send them $5 million.’ And part of my core value is being able to meet the needs of people around the world. So when I hear of things that happen around the world and I know there are people with billions of dollars. And some of them pretend like they don't know about it. There are also good-minded people like Mark Zukerberg and some other people. Jack Dorsey even sent some money during #EndSARS which was very good.
So, worthy causes around the world that I can be part of at some point. That's when I would term myself really successful. And the ability to do a worldwide song. In my next album, I'm planning to collaborate with BTS, this Korean pop group. I feel like I like what they are doing. It's not like collaborating with them is everything, but I feel like it would be me joining forces with an Asian powerhouse that would really be a major force in the world. So that would be when I term myself successful. When I say, ‘okay let me call Jay-Z and ask him where he’s hanging out this weekend.’ Those would be times when I say I'm really successful.
And then the US President can say Zegxy you know what? We want to rebrand America, we need a unity song. I actually did a unity song for America long ago. And I have a song for Nigeria, just in case you're thinking this guy is all about America. I did 'Promise Land' for Nigeria a couple of years ago. It's going to be in my EP that is coming sometime in May/June. So I like writing about different countries. Every time I get into a new topic, there's something new to write about. It's boring for me to stay in the same creative space. I hate it. I don't like doing the same thing over and over again.
So when I would term myself successful is when I can feed nations. When I can call whoever I want to call across the world. And then maybe make speeches in the UN about poverty about all that. So yes, that's when I would say I'm really fulfilled.