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I heard Rihanna’s iconic “Only Girl In The World” for the first time on my palito radio when I was 12 years old. I had gotten back from school, taken off my uniform and tuned the radio to City FM 101.5 with the earphones stuck in my ears. When the song came on, with Rihanna’s solid-textured voice hitting those notes, I took a deep breath, grateful for the gift of music and my two hundred and fifty naira palito radio.
When Oladunni Lawal told me about discovering music as a little girl, it felt familiar. Hearing about her cocktail of musical talents and how they have evolved over the years was nothing short of astonishing. Although Dunnie has been in the music industry for only a few years, she has come a long way from the little girl who found solace in music, and she intends to go even further.
I had a little chat with her, where she shared with me her upbringing, musical journey and career – a story as captivating as The Mona Lisa.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Dunnie. I am the last of 8 children. I sing I produce, I write, I play a couple of instruments. I am a graduate of Sociology from the University of Abuja. That’s pretty much it. And I love music!
Tell me about your childhood.
My childhood was borderline boring and lonely. I am the last child of 8. My immediate older sister is 15 years older than me, so by the time I was in primary school, she was already in Uni. I grew up alone and what that did, was that it made me a very introspective person, because I spent most of my time growing up alone so I got to have a strong self of being early in life, knowing who I am and you know just figuring out life on my own as opposed to being influenced by other people because I did not get to mingle with many people while I was growing up. But it was being a loner that made me discover music.
Music became like an outlet for me – the things I couldn’t say to people, I would write them down in a song. I discovered listening to music, and it made the time pass. You know, coming back from school around 3:30 pm and there would be nothing to do after doing my assignments so I would just listen to music and it made me feel better. Before I knew it, it would be bedtime and it would be time to sleep. It was like my best companion and that’s why I always say that music saved me and gave me some form of Identity. So yeah that is pretty much what my childhood was.
Along the way, my mum discovered that I liked to sing so she dumped me in the children’s choir. I was always singing and disturbing her in the house so she was like instead of just wasting it and making noise, she took me to the choirmaster and said “this girl is always disturbing me in the house, let her use this thing to serve God”. Along the way, I also started drumming on her buckets in the house and I was breaking a lot of them, so she felt like I’m wasting away and destroying things, so she took me to the proprietress in school at the time and said “this girl is always breaking all my buckets in the house, I think she should join the band”, but those, they said they didn’t want me, they wanted it to be strictly boys. So, that didn’t work out until I got to secondary school where I now started playing the drums. I learnt how to play the guitar from church, and I also learnt how to play the piano.
The church and your mum seemed to have played very important roles in shaping your musical journey. That is very interesting. At that time, did you have any future ambitions?
Well, initially you know how when you are a child, you go through a series of future ambitions. Some are because of what your parents want, which is usually medicine, or law, etc. So yeah, initially I was like that because that is what my parents were trying to ginger me to do.
So what exactly did you want to study?
I didn’t even know what I wanted to study until I just decided to study one thing, I won’t lie to you. I’m from a conservative family. So, I’m from a family where they don’t play secular music like that so it is always like gospel music. If you sing secular songs, they would be like “do you want to go to hell?” that kind of thing. That’s what my sister used to tell me. So if I should sing any secular songs, I would start saying “father lord please forgive me, father lord please forgive me”. The kind of songs that we used to listen to was Hillsong and Don Moes. So in my head, when I was in primary school, all I wanted to do was just to finish school and find my way to Australia, then join Hillsong and become a worship leader.
Interesting. Now that you are an artist who is clearly not singing gospel songs, how is that dynamic working out?
My mum still calls it my ministry, she still believes it is a ministry. For them, they wish I was doing gospel music, but I know my calling is definitely not in the church. And I know that music is beyond praise and worship. I know I’m doing what I should be doing. But you know Nigerian parents and religion, religion is the opium of the masses. They don’t seem to have a problem with what I do, they are proud of what I’m doing but in their heart of hearts sha…
Do they support you?
Absolutely! Yes, they do! My mum, to anybody that cares to listen, goes “My daughter is an artist. She produces.” She is really proud of me.
Congratulations! So how exactly did you get into this music thing? So far I’ve heard about your interest in music from a young age, but how exactly did you end up here?
I think it was just by chance because I need to add that we moved a lot as a family. When I started out in the children’s choir, we were living in Ibadan at the time. So after a while, we moved to Lagos, and in Lagos, I had a brief stint doing music in church, but you know this church thing is not something you think of as a career. It is just something you are doing, and you don’t even really know what you are doing. So I think it was after I finished secondary school, and I was looking for admission, so I was looking for something to while away time. I was always going to a studio around my area. Yes, after I finished secondary school, we now moved to Abuja. By the time we moved, there was a studio around my area, so I would always go there and just sit down and just watch people record. There was this producer, he is like a legend. He has a studio in Abuja so I would just go there, and I told him that I would like to learn how to produce.
So, he tried to teach me but for some reason, the thing did not enter my head, I now told him that “I can write songs o!” He was like really? I said Yes. He now said okay what would it take for me to write a song for him, and I was like eh ehn?? It can take something? I now said “okay if you buy a phone for me, I will write a song for you” – because at that time, I didn’t have a phone. So I wrote the song and he really loved the song, and he bought a phone for me. I think that was the beginning of me thinking “Oh! You can actually monetize your craft.” Up until then, I never saw it as a business, but that was when my eyes started opening into songwriting. That’s how the journey started for me, from that studio in Abuja watching everyone like God when?
You started from songwriting and branched into other aspects. I’m interested in the trajectory. How did that happen?
It started from me wanting to be a producer but it didn’t enter my head. It now branched into songwriting, that one was working a little bit cause I was getting some small small change on the side, and then I decided to become an artist. I started recording. Finally, they would allow me to record in the studio – so, I would record a couple of covers here and there. From there, in 2017, Buhari came into power and things became tough and I was just thinking. I have a theory of survival that when your back is pushed to the wall, and you need something to survive, you ask yourself certain questions like what am i good at? And how can I monetize what I am good at?
So, I figured that I can play a couple of instruments and I have a laptop, so why don’t I just get some softwares on the laptop and start producing and selling beats. And that’s what I just started doing. I would post these beats on Instagram and I would sell them. Interestingly, this month marks my fourth year of doing this. I sold my first beat on the 9th of September, 2017. It has been an interesting journey from there.
Wonderful! From what I gather, being a singer and being a producer are two different things. I have always seen them as two things that don’t mix, except in Don Jazzy’s case. Now I’m learning that’s not necessarily true.
I get what you mean. Sometimes it is like that sha, but for example, Johnny Drille is a fantastic producer and a singer as well
JOHNNY DRILLE IS A PRODUCER??
Yeah! In fact, he is a sound engineer, he is everything. There are people like that, although I agree with you that it is not very common. But you know how they say sometimes condition can make you start developing certain skills in life? What makes artists become producers sometimes is because they cannot afford to pay producers, and you know producers will not answer you unless you have money. They will not take you seriously. So a lot of artists in my generation are being forced to do it themselves, like just learning how to do it so you save costs. And instead of using money to pay for a producer, you can just add it to your promo money and use it to promote the record. So I think that is why artists of this generation learn how to produce.
Labels can be intimidating for a lot of creatives. At what point did you have the confidence to call yourself a musician? Was there a defining moment?
No o! Let me tell you something. Me ehn? I am a fake it until you make it kind of person. Even before I recorded my first song, I had been introducing myself as a musician. See, even before I could produce my first beat, I have been calling myself a producer. There was a conversation on WhatsApp where I was telling my manager that I am the best producer alive and he was like “with this rubbish?” I had sent him two beats and he was like “naa these beats are dead” because that was my early stages like in 2017, and the beats were really wack – I won’t lie to you. But in my mind, I saw where I could be. So, I wasn’t talking based on what I was sending to him, I was talking based on what I could see myself becoming. So, that is the kind of person that I am. My tag is called Legend o! I am not a legend right now, but I know that by the time I am done with my career, the only word they would use to describe my career would be legendary. That is the kind of person I have always been. I call the things that are not as though they were because I know eventually, they will be like that.
Confidence on steroids and I love it!
We have ironed out the journey. Now, about the music itself, how would you describe your style?
The backbone of my music is afrobeat – afrobeat with a lot of soul in it. I grew up listening to different genres – from gospel music to afro-beats, Fela, Lagbaja, then I discovered Asa, Beyonce. So there is a little bit of RnB and a lot of soul, but it is still afrobeat. Just to give it a label, I will call it afro-fusion according to Dunnie.
What inspires this style?
Life. I know that sounds very cliche but to be honest, I don’t know what else will inspire it apart from the life we are living right now.
And have Nigerians and Africans been receptive to this style?
Oh yes yes! I think that I have had an exponential increase in my reception, from last year to now. There has been tremendous growth for me and I think my music penetrates more in Nigeria, eastern Africa and Southern Africa. And that is my primary concern, to feed home. When we are done with that, then we can think of exporting.
Speaking of, you have a song with Oxylade called Overdose that has amassed quite the success, how did that collaboration happen?
I have always known Oxylade, we have been talking before he popped. We always said that we would work together but it never happened. Time and chance just never brought it together. When i dropped overdose, i dropped an EP it was supposed to be like a quarantine EP, Overdose the original was one of the songs on it and it got a lot of love and we felt that it deserved more. So, we decided to do a remix and we felt the perfect person to be on the song would be Oxylade. So, I just reached out to him like “guy, how far? Let’s do this” and he was like “sure no problem”. I feel like that was the easiest collaboration I have ever done. He did it like it was his own record and he put his heart and soul into it so it was really an organic process.
What is your favourite song you have ever produced?
My favourite song that I ever produced is not out yet, it is something I did for Wande Cole but it is not out yet and I don’t know when it is going to be out yet. My intention while producing that song is that when people listen to the song, the first thing they would ask is “who produced this song?”
To be honest, this is one of those songs where when I was making it, I wasn’t thinking too deep. I really did not have any intention with it other than it being witty. It’s like wordplay. You know I grew up in Ibadan. There is this thing that my mum used to say.. Mosafejo means running away from talk, so if you are talking too much, she is like “jo, jo, jo mosafejo, mosafejo”. When I was vibing to the beat, that was what came to my mind. So I made it to be an Ode to Mosafejo and Jericho in Ibadan.
This was such a fun conversation. Thank you so much for talking to me! I can’t wait to see you smash records out there!
Talking to Dunnie was pure delight. I am flattered to have told her story and in my own corner, will be rooting for her success as she takes on the world!