In less than three years of his debut in the music industry as a rap artiste, Azubuike Chibuzo Nelson (popularly known as Phyno) has been everywhere. In this interview with JOAN OMIONAWELE and NEWTON-RAY UKWUOMA, he speaks about his adaptation of indigenous language and its importance in the music industry.
This seems to be an explosive year for you with the release of your album No Guts No Glory. How do you feel about the acceptance of this album?
No Guts No Glory is my debut album. We’ve been working hard to get it out and now it is out. And I am very happy the way people accepted it. I cannot tell you the level of hard work that went into the album. It’s been massive. I put in my best and I am very impressed – at least with myself, yes.
You sound so sure of yourself…..
I need to be impressed with myself before putting such an album out. That’s exactly what I mean.
How long did it take you to put the album together?
I have been recording the album for about three years. It hasn’t been easy but I thank God. I had about five videos before I got the album.
You moved from being behind the scene (as you were once a producer) to the scene itself. Why?
Why? Nobody wants to be behind the scene now…
Some album titles bear the name of a hit song in the collection. Can you tell us the story behind your album title?
As of the time I entered the industry, indigenous rap music was just gaining ground. People still looked at indigenous artistes as local and uneducated people. I do indigenous rap because I think that is what I can do best, not because I cannot rap in English. Whenever I rap in Igbo, I end up being the real me. And judging from the criticisms I got from people, it took guts for me to get there. That is the message behind the title.
Is there a next level with Igbo rap?
There is obviously a next level. Advancement is when you move from here to there. You cannot advance by being in one place or maintaining your comfort zone. We cannot continue to emulate international rappers for long. We at some point will have to be ourselves. I don’t think it is proper to do what every other person does. However, it depends on the next level you are talking about. No one should determine my next level. I determine my next level.
How far would you say the Nigerian music industry has gone?
You can’t compare what we have now to what we used to be back then. We are about the third largest marketers of music. If you compare our music with those on the international level, you would see that Nigerian music is almost as good as theirs, even if it’s not 100 per cent, but it is almost there.
Can you tell us those who have affected your kind of music?
I have role models. These people have affected my music one way or the other; people like (the late Osita) Osadebe, Bright Chemezie, BIG, MI, TuFace, PSquare, Mr Raw. And I listen to people. I also like Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake. I listen to anything music.
What would you have to say about Mr (Nigga) Raw’s influence in your music?
Inspiration can come from anybody. Those who are doing something worthwhile are most likely to influence others. Like I said, Nigga Raw is one of my role models. We respect Nigga Raw a lot in this industry. He came out with a unique style. Everybody loves him for his contribution to the music industry. He has carved a niche for himself. However, it’s also left for us to create something exclusively original for ourselves. That people inspire you doesn’t mean you should lose a sense of who you are and your own original thoughts and creativity. So, while I get my inspirations from these role models I have mentioned, I still bring in a lot of my own thing into the mix.
As an ambassador of rap music in Igbo language, what are your thoughts about the language?
I grew up speaking Igbo. I grew up in Enugu State, and I do not agree with people who feel that the Igbo language is facing some sort of extinction. I think the presence of music has done a lot of good to the Igbo language. Outside this country, Igbo songs are being played and listened to. Even white people are singing Parcel. And it is likely that they would go around asking their Nigerian friends what the meaning of the song is. As far as I am concerned, Igbo language is not dying. And if it is, I will blame parents and teachers for not doing their work, because if you look at the number of gospel songs in Nigeria, you will find out that majority of them are done in Igbo. And for those who sell these gospel songs in the market, it will be absurd to tell them that Igbo language is dying. And I think it depends the aspect we are looking at it.
You are holding the flag for Igbo rap music, beside the likes of Flavour and Nigga Raw. How do you see the future of indigenous rap music? Do you have any followers?
People inspired me, and I know I have inspired a lot of indigenous rappers. I believe that Nigeria will witness great harvest of indigenous rappers, people who will expand the scope of our languages with rap and great music. I know that my music is mentoring other people and you will hear them very soon. I believe that within the next three years, people will emerge who may be better than I am in the industry. It’s a matter of time. I know this is the beginning.
But do you think you are gaining acceptance from those who do not understand your language?
Yes, I am. I know there is nowhere in Nigeria that my music is not played. I do not only rap in Igbo; I also combine a bit of pidgin and English. Sometimes the lyrics are English. Let’s not also forget about the beat. So, when these elements are rolled into one, those who do not understand all of the rap will definitely flow with the beat. And I should say one beautiful thing about music is that beside language (which is never a barrier), we can still appreciate a piece of music whenever we hear it. I can listen to a Spanish song even when I do not understand what they are saying and I will be like ‘Wow! This guy is on point.’ I listen to French songs. I do not understand French. I listen to anything as long the music elements are well used. For instance, you know how Awilo sold in Nigeria even when we did not (understand) a word he was saying. Look at those guys from Ghana, the VIP group. We bought their song just like that, the language barrier notwithstanding. I don’t understand Yoruba, but the first time I heard Olamide’s song, I completely loved it. So, I think in music, we have to look beyond language (though it is also important).
Now that you mentioned Olamide, it’s been said that your collaboration with Olamide is the greatest collaboration of the year. What would you have to say about that?
Olamide is a great guy. We had the privilege of working together. We had a chemistry that bonded us. We do things together. He understands music, and he understands me very well. Anytime we are together, it’s always fun.
Did you always see yourself doing music as a child?
Not exactly; but I know, I had a thing for music.
But you once said you wanted to be a pilot.
The pilot dream happened since I was a small boy o (laughs). I studied Public Administration in school.
People say your signature hairdo is too wild. Do you sometimes think that yourself?
Well, it depends on the people saying it. I try my best to stand out in anything I do. I have my fans who love the way I look and enjoy what I do, and as far as I have them, I am cool with it.
On stage, people see a wild person who is all glammed up. But when you are alone, in your room, who is the real Phyno?
I am a loner; I basically keep to myself.
So far, what has been your motivational force?
Seeing results motivates me in everything I do. When you do something and you see the results, it will always motivate you to do more.
We saw a number of collaborations in this album.
Yes, I did with PSquare, MI, Olamide, Omawunmi, Runtown and many others.
Some people feel that your collaboration with Olamide is a conscious effort to promote the use of indigenous language for rap music. Is that correct?
They can say that. To some extent, I think it is. Because Igbo people are now asking about Olamide and what his songs mean and Yoruba people are also asking questions about my songs. It will end up selling. And as a country, we may be better for things like this.