D’banj: Two Decades of Showmanship

It’s like yesterday when the entertainment phenomenon called D’banj invaded and charmed the African continent; more with his charisma than the music. Twenty years later, Vanessa Obioha documents his checkered career comprising the good, the bad and the ugly

D’banj is a showman. And he knows it. It’s a natural gift that shines through his persona. No need to fake it. It shows in his dressing. Even though he denies having a unique style, a glance at his outfits tells a different story. Whether it is the bespoke suits that give a nod to the iconic TV character James Bond, or the casual outfits that give him a younger vibe, his distinct style is exclusive to the entertainer and creative entrepreneur, making him a show-stopper in every manner. His wit and charm are magnetic, almost too hard to resist. It is in the way he embraces everyone, treating them as if he has known them all their lives. And also the deftness with which he comes up with catchphrases: kokolets, babylets, mamalets and even grannylets.

Just as he did on a recent cloudy morning during a media round and mini tour. The moment he emerged from the vehicle, he raised his hands and greeted the small group of people who had converged to welcome him with his iconic “I must greet you specially,” smiling willingly at the sea of cameras clicking speedily to capture every inch of him. He greeted everyone, offering a friendly “hi’ here, taking a hug there, exuding such infectious camaraderie that a stranger would have difficulty differentiating between him and others — except for the two unsmiling bodyguards ensuring no one got too close. Even that task was challenging as D’banj’s friendliness nearly dissolved every barrier.

“I’ve always loved entertaining,” he said during a chat. “I have always said that I’m not a singer or a rapper but an entertainer. And I think it’s a gift because it’s not as if I read any book, it just comes out naturally.”

D’banj’s amiability does not only endear him to millions of fans across the continent and beyond but also fetches him relevance that has lasted the stretch of his 20-year career. It was in 2004, that a hustling D’banj, eager to conquer the music industry found his way in a concert held in London and persuaded DJ Abass and Ayo Shonaiya to perform on stage. He was only allowed to perform one song. The effect he had on the crowd with that performance was so electrifying that the veteran journalist and former Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Steve Ayorinde, wrote an eight-paragraph article about him, declaring him a star to watch out for. That endorsement convinced his mother to support his music career.

Together with Don Jazzy, he returned to Nigeria and by 2005, released his debut album ‘No Long Thing.’ Fame instantly found D’banj fueled by his impeccable stagecraft. Ladies wanted him, men adored him. He was a charismatic and witty demigod, a deadly combination for the faint-hearted. Twenty years later, D’banj still has that magic. At the Trace Live event last month, he got the crowd swooning to him as if he cast a magic spell on them. They belted his songs back to him with every breath, and he urged them on, entertaining them like the entertainer he truly is.

“I’m only me,” he said, explaining the source of his relevance in the music industry. “Anytime you see me you get entertainment. From a long time ago, I realised that music gets you into the room but what you do inside is up to you. So in 20 years, the music has got me through but I have also realised that I’m not the smartest, not the best singer, not the best dressed but you just have to package,” he concluded amusingly.

Born Oladapo Daniel Oyebanjo, D’banj grew up in Zaria. His father was a military officer while his mother was a shrewd businesswoman.

“I would have been a soldier if I didn’t become a musician,” he said, attributing his energetic vibe to the military drills he did as a student at Nigerian Military School. He inherited his business acumen from his mother and does not shy away from calling himself a “mummy’s boy.” In fact, he declared that if given a second chance, he would make his mother his manager. Clearly, his love and respect for her runs deep.

D’banj was among the pioneers of the music genre loosely called afrobeats, which is now gaining global appeal. Artists like Innocent ‘2Baba’ Idibia and the defunct Remedies were already on the scene, striving for international recognition. Therefore, when D’banj entered the music industry, he had a clear vision of how he wanted to be perceived.

“When we started, we always knew that this was all we had. And I always used to say dress how you want to be addressed. I always had it in my mind that even though we were Nigerian musicians, we were on the same bar as the global artists. From day one, if you check, that was what we stood for. From the quality of sound to the quality of video and marketing, and if you fast forward to today, to see what’s happening, it’s just a testament to that vision that we had.”

While D’banj found fame early in his music career, it was not always smooth sailing. In 2012, he parted ways with his longtime partner Don Jazzy, leading to the dissolution of their joint venture, Mo’Hits Records, shortly after signing with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music. D’banj then started his own record label, DB Records. However, the seeming misunderstanding between D’banj and Don Jazzy was short-lived. They reconciled and were frequently seen promoting each other’s music. In his latest single, ‘Since 04,’ Don Jazzy featured in an Instagram post promoting the song alongside D’banj. The song also references their former record label, Mo’Hits.

More challenges hit D’banj: the tragic loss of his son in 2018 as well as financial and sexual allegations subsequently. For the first time, D’banj opened up on how he dealt with the crises that rocked his life.

“First of all, I want to thank God that I even went through such, because it would have been funny that we’re celebrating 20 years and you don’t have any pain,” he began. “Now that I’m here, I understand why God took me through this so I can be a source of hope for other people because people often see me as one that doesn’t have a problem,” he said, switching to pidgin English. “Say I fresh, I no get wahala, I don dey chop money since, they just believed all of that. But with what happened, everyone could feel the pain. Especially people who loved us or the brand or even supported the brand one time. For me personally, I now became human.  I came to understand that this life is a gift.

“And the same people that love you can turn against you, on something that you’re totally innocent of. That sent me back to my foundation, which is God. I could look at no one but God at that time. Baba na you bring me come here, na only you fit save me. I think that’s how I was able to stay afloat from the loss of my child to false allegations. It just made me connect directly with Him and find the most important people which is my family. My family never left me.”

D’banj also discussed his mental health during this difficult period, revealing that he and his wife, Lineo Didi Kilgrow went to therapy after losing their son.

“But I couldn’t go to therapy more than once because of how I’m built. I  had to look for a different way to heal, but she kept going,” he said.

In seeking God, D’banj discovered his inner strength, which he describes as being an entertainer and a happy soul.

“I had to find that entertainer within me, entertaining myself, to be able to stay afloat again.”

“You will never really eradicate it totally,” he continued a bit emotionally. “Sometimes I watch a movie and have PTSD. Maybe I’ll see a swimming pool with a child or something related to that, or even see news online about him, it still triggers something in me. Same with my wife. It’s something that you don’t wish for your enemy, but it’s something that if you ever overcome it, you’re definitely a stronger person. You’re definitely going to be able to use that to help other people and that’s what we’re doing,” he said, also revealing how he provided succour to Davido when he faced a similar tragedy.

“You never really know where God is directing our steps but as long as we can hold that faith in Him, the light at the end of the tunnel is sure.”

The entertainer has often felt misunderstood by the public, particularly on social media, where false narratives can cast him in a negative light. He hopes to reveal his true self in an upcoming documentary.

To keep the memory of his son, D’banj disclosed that he and his wife would officially launch the DOTT Foundation, named after his late son as part of his 20th anniversary managed by the Temple Management Company. The foundation will focus on young children while providing support for parents who have gone through similar experiences.

Other activities lined up for his 20th anniversary include hosting 20 shows in 20 cities, starting from Lagos, Nigeria. On June 7, there will be a VIP dinner to celebrate his birthday followed by the launch of his new album ‘Entertainer: The Sequel.’ This will be followed by a free concert at the New Afrika Shrine on June 11. His admiration for the late Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is well-known. During a tour of the Kalakuta Museum, his curiosity about the legend was palpable, and he was given the rare opportunity to enter Fela’s preserved room. D’banj also announced plans to tour cities in America, Europe, and other African countries, returning to Nigeria in December for the Koko Festival.

“In each city, we will be having a concert and also a meet and greet with emerging artists. We like to connect these artists to our partners as well as financial institutions such as AfreximBank or Nexim Bank. The aim of going to these cities is to see how we can impact their creative talents.”

As he reflected on his 20-year sojourn in the industry, D’banj is most thankful for the Grace of God in his life, his relevance and recognition as a pacesetter in the industry. More importantly, the timing of his music career. In the next 20 years, he wants to help aspiring musicians achieve their dreams. Well, he is already doing that with his CREAM platform which has empowered many creatives. For now, he remains the entertainer, sequel or not.

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