24 Jun THE INTERVIEW: JULS ON NEO-AFRICANISM AND THE AFRICAN MUSIC INDUSTRY
Best believe, Juls is as resolute as he sounds. Only one of the pioneers of Afropop in diaspora, a prolific DJ and sound artist, Julian Nicco-Annan, comes through as authentic as the hits he produces. His cross-cultural music influences stem from a mixed heritage having grown up in East London and Ghana. His family was also very music- inclined. Julian holds a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s in Finance from the University of Surrey in England. He worked his way onto the music scene starting out by producing old school songs and eventually leaving a 9 to 5 job to produce music full-time. His first popular output was Feel Alright with Show Dem Camp in 2012, before his worldwide fame in the following year. Juls is an in-house producer for BBnZ Live and has produced songs for several African artists including Sarkodie, E.L, Stonebwoy, Mr. Eazi and a host of others across the globe. He is considered a pioneer in the African music industry having contributed hugely to what the new Afropop sound is today.
Unarguably, Africa is at the crux of a global revolution. Ghana Must Go on international runways, African-themed music by international artistes, a new taste for African cuisine and so on are among the endless list of things that show us that Afro-urbanism is a trend that has come to stay. Africans have over time crafted a unique cultural aesthetic that becomes more globally appealing by the day such that even our colloquialism and rurality hold an originality that many are craving to emulate. It is something to be proud of. We owe a lot of this visibility to the African music industry; seeing as the growth is parallel and across all aspects of popular culture, music is the very thread that weaves it all together. In recent times though, the trend is starting to pose some questions as regards cultural appropriation- should we celebrate that international artistes are dancing shaku shaku and the gwara gwara or do we sulk at the fact that they are only beginning to pay attention? Cultural appropriation in itself is a tricky thing and navigating what is respectful or not proves more and more to be a very thin line. All of this regardless, Juls seems more intent on keeping to what he knows and working hard at improving his already impressive craft; an attitude most Africans creatives should consider emulating. He says “I don’t think there is anything wrong with our content. Look at all the quality videos that our artistes are putting out. Boasting our culture and our identity. The western media isn’t used to this new narrative. As our music scene gets bigger, it’s getting harder to ignore because African Pop music is what is hot right now. Look around you. Our influence is all over everything from film, to music to fashion. Also, I don’t think our aim or my aim anyways is to rub shoulders with “foreign counterparts”. It’s about spreading the culture and our music and getting heard. We haven’t had those resources and access to major funding that’s the only issue. And most African artistes are now getting educated on the business side of things so we don’t get cheated. It takes time. Illiteracy has been Africa’s major problem for developing as a continent. First solution is to take pride in our culture and educate ourselves first.” We couldn’t agree more.
The UK Afropop scene is also a huge deal at the moment. Nigerian-British artistes are emerging everyday with the now-familiar UK-amplified Afropop. Quite a number of them are Nigerians but as Juls rightly points out, that flow is not exclusive to Nigerians. “I’m not Nigerian, he reiterates. “I don’t think there is a Nigerian-British Afropop scene either. Nigerian music is the most popular African pop genre right now and it’s brilliant. The likes of Wizkid, Burna Boy, Wande Coal & Davido are all killing it! But these artistes and others have also tapped into other influences from countries in Africa like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Congo & South Africa. Afro-pop isn’t just Nigeria please. Let’s make that clear. My circle is good music. I collaborate with anyone that I want to when the time comes. I’ve worked or had sessions with all those artistes mentioned. But that’s because that’s what happened at that time. I’ve also worked with my fellow Ghanaians. I’m in the studio with an upcoming congolese artiste. My guitarist Sonzi is Congolese. I also grew up on reggae and Dancehall, which is also another heavy influence to my sound. So the position is Pan- Africa. That’s what I’m trying to represent. I’m trying to cross over and make records with artistes all over the continent. And then over the world. The Caribbean especially because reggae music is actually my first love and would like to merge afro with reggae, dancehall, etc. But my most obvious sound/style reflects pure African vibes and I’m extremely proud of this.”
This inadvertently removes focus from any particular country or African sub-genre. Africa is one and our music should reflect that.
Juls has DJ’ed at some of the biggest festivals worldwide including SXSW and TIDAL x Diaspora Calling with Lauryn Hill. He has been nominated for several awards and received recognition as Producer of the Year at the Ghana Music Awards UK and AFRIMMA Awards for 2017. The British Born Ghanaian released his debut LP Leap of Faith in the same year and it can be said that his faith did reap rewards for him. He had been a banker and part-time DJ/producer working in London until his girlfriend advised him to do differently. “When I met her she told me straight up that my beats were boring and my style of hiphop wouldn’t really do well commercially if I wanted a career from it. So she made some suggestions. It was a long conversation we had and she played me some of her favorite records and gave me some dope ideas on how I can make my grooves and drums a bit more soulful and spiritual. And also easier on the ear for that global appeal. So I have her to thank.” And so do we. Juls’ confidence has grown since his coming out and it’s been success after success. One may think that all his mellow influences may water down the ‘Africanness’ of his sound but he insists otherwise. “Listen to my music, he opines. “It screams highlife. It screams Afrobeat influences. Tanzanian Jazz. It’s always been global. It’s just getting popular amongst the masses now. My sound is just tweaked a bit to be a bit easier on the ear for some who may not get it but it’s still minimalistic. And it depends on the collaboration and where the song goes. ‘So Mi So’ is a highlife record with major Afrobeat influence and Wande takes an R&B approach to it. It’s a beautiful blend. People back home can relate to it and people away from home too.”
Juls clearly doesn’t just pay music a passing interest; he exudes a dogged, dedicated approach to producing music. One that his easy style belies. He continues “I would explore anything I don’t like. I plan to experiment with a lot of genres but my African elements in my music have to stand our significantly or I lose my identity. Yes, I would like to spread my sound and collaborate with different artistes in different genres under the condition that the sound identifies with my people first and worldwide.” His music is intentional. And now we can prove it.
It is a bit strange to some to separate him from Mr Eazi and this is largely due to the fact that he helped A&R Mr.Eazi’s outstanding Life is Eazi album. However, his influence is even more far-reaching. Nonso Amadi croons on his popular ‘Radio’ track, “… Juls thought it through and put me on”. Mr Eazi also, was apparently not so into music until he met Juls and we can attest to the result of their significant collaboration. However, when asked why he and Eazi compliment each other more than their other collaborations, Juls seemed slightly put off. For one with such an intimidating portfolio, one can understand why.. “There are plenty records I’ve done with other artists that have also done extremely well. Have you heard “Rock your body?” “So Mi So?” One of the biggest Afrobeats song of 2018? You heard my album Leap of Faith? If you mean the records Mr Eazi has done with me are better than his other collaborations maybe but again that’s an opinion. Our success is down to good chemistry. When I reached out to him he wasn’t even taking music seriously and was running a phone company. I had to force him to get into music. I wanted to try a new sound to what i was doing before which was sampling old school highlife and making boom bap hiphop beats. A man by the name Panji Anoff, Legend from Ghana in the music business gave me some advice before I moved back to London that I needed to find someone who can fit my sound and build my way up. That’s what happened with Eazi. I was looking for other artistes but no one took me seriously then.” We bet they do now. So, it doesn’t come off as conceited when he mentions that he’d be limiting himself if he narrowed his favourite artistes to a single one. He does have his African favourites though, and also mentions Rihanna, Goldlink, Popcaan and Koffee as people he’d love to work with. There also may be a version of Juls the Singer. He says “we’ll see what happens” and we truly hope we can sit still till it does.
Global positioning also brings up the issue of international deals, collaborations and such. Now that Africa is the vogue, other international artistes and brands want to form relationships. As far as expanding businesses and merging ideas, it works well. However, there is also a potential threat of being shortchanged like in the past when that was the norm.
Recently, Nigerian artiste Burna Boy made a public statement about such collaborations saying “he felt sorry” for those who took the plunge. While reluctant to comment on Burna Boy’s opinions, Juls had this to say “Chale you have to ask Burna man (lol). I can’t speak for my bro. But like I said before. We need to educate ourselves on the business side of things. A lot of the labels have the ability to take artistes to the next level if they want to or not. But once you are locked into a situation it’s the most frustrating thing ever as an artist because you can’t do anything. And African artistes need to be active and put out music, do shows, etc. Some international deals can restrain you from doing that. So you need to make sure you have a good deal and a good lawyer to fight your corner. But what motivated his (Burna Boy’s) comment you really have to ask him.” Regardless of how far the African music industry still has to go, Juls has high hopes for the industry and forsees “more dope collaborations, growth and a good structure”.
Juls is only just starting out. He may have revolutionised African music but he still assures us there’s a lot more under his belt.
He says to expect “More music. More Pies. More Money. More Life. More Dodo. More Rice”. We are beyond gratified. More, was all he had to say.
All images courtesy Juls.
Interview by Aby Odusola