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New Beginnings With Maleek Berry [Interview]

Afrobeat history

Afrobeat's earliest star in the UK Maleek Berry returns with second single from an upcoming album 'Ole Gan'. After taking some time off for himself, the Berry's Room founder is finally ready to let the world know what he has been up to. We sat down with the artist on a zoom call to discuss about the rise of Afrobeat, his upbringing and new album title reveal.

Can you tell our readers who Maleek Berry is?

Maleek Berry is just a producer, songwriter, all-round musician, all-round creative, you know.

That sounds about right. Where are you based?

I am based in London, UK, but I go back and forth with Lagos a lot.

You played an instrumental role in the rise of Afrobeat in the UK. Can you tell us how it all unfolded in your perspective?

My earliest memory is back in 2011, I remember taking a family trip to Lagos. I was supposed to stay with my family the whole period but, I told my mom that I wanted to go and chill with Davido instead. At the time, he was fairly unknown and I don’t think he even had the ‘Back When’ record out yet. So I stayed with Davido for a little while and we just got to creating! It was my first experience as a grown up feeling in touch with my culture and roots.

These days, there wasn't an (Afrobeat) scene in the UK at all: It was just Wretch 32, Scorcher, Tinie - those were the guys who were popping. Through him (Davido), I met so many amazing musicians in the industry like Wizkid as well. So before I met Wizkid, I was actually rolling with Davido and his people for quite a while. On that trip in particular, I met Wizkid and I remember having one conversation with him that just let me know that, you know what? There’s actually a lane and an avenue to bridge these worlds and different sounds together.

Then and there, we jumped on three of my beats and nothing really came out of it. However, we kept in contact and once he had a huge UK tour - one of his first UK appearances around 2012, I was just following him around and playing keys at some of his concerts. This is when he was doing about 5,000 capacity venues. The industry was still starting to bubble at the time and that’s when I saw that the UK was about to be a melting pot for this sound and culture because there're so many Africans here, it’s multi-cultural and this is literally going to be the gateway. I remember us having that conversation back then.

To kick it all off, we were in this London apartment and I think it was about 10 at night and just decided; “Let’s change this sound! Let’s switch it up!” Everyone was making all of this dance synthesised heavy music and we just came in with ‘Back To The Matter’ raw, grimey and street. I wanted to introduce Wiz to that South London vibe that I grew up with. I used to tell him as a joke that deep down, you’re a South London boy [laughs] You might as well be from Peckham or somewhere, you know. That was the energy that we channelled and I honestly feel like the scene erupted from that song, and there was that whole new sound that was born - mid tempo, some would even say afro swinging. That’s the short version. [laughs]

So STARBOY entertainment takes over, which is Wizkid’s own label, and then, he suddenly has a switch of character around 2015, I believe? Where he basically rebrands himself. I’m curious, how is your relationship with the starboy king and the label today?

Wizkid is like family, that’s my brother for life, you know. Wizkid and I went through things since we’ve grinded together and we’ve been at the bottom together. There was a stage where we were all in a house just grinded and trying to think of a name for what was going to be STARBOY. Even as he has grown as an artist and musician, I always knew that he was going to become that big. I still don’t think he is as big as what I see him becoming. So we always had that faith in ourselves and from this day, we’re like super close and that’s my bro. I know he had a new baby and everything. STARBOY is still family.

I have not been a part of the STARBOY entertainment for a long time and everybody knows this, but I still have a STARBOY chain [laughs]. This is because Wiz is in a whole different era now and this is like the big Wiz era now! He has grown so much as a man and an artist that he’s figuring out something different. However, STARBOY is still STARBOY as it is a movement and it’s him as well.

We all have our own individual things now like Legendary Beatz have House of Legendury, me, I have my own label Berry’s Room, but we all still work together like I have music with Wizkid coming. ‘My Way’, my first single in a while, was produced by Legendary Beatz and so, we might not move as a collective anymore but we've grown to be independent.

Aside from your involvement in Afrobeat, you actually have some roots in grime music as well. Tell us a bit about your upbringing; How would you describe your entry in music as a newcomer?

If we want to talk about grime, that’s like early days. When I was in school, we would listen to Dizzie Rascal. I had formed a grime group in year 11, and I was the producer. I would make beats and MC as well. That’s how I actually got the name Berry because everyone had to pick up a name and I had to call myself Berry kid. So that’s the name I’ve had since secondary school. [laughs]

I grew up in Clapham and not far away from me was collective So Solid Crew. That was the first representation and example I was exposed to from artists being from London and being successful and black. From there, I just wanted to get into the industry.

I was trying to break into the UK rap scene at the time because there was no such thing as Afrobeat. There was a scene that was trying to bubble up from young Africans of Nigerians and Ghanaians beginning to become more proud of themselves. People would call themselves flygerian, there were more and more afrobeat parties in the unis and in clubs.

Let’s go back to the era of ‘Kontrol’, one of your biggest charting songs and then you followed up with three EPs. From the outside looking in, it seems like you purposely took the backburn. In your opinion, what happened?

For a long time, I just wanted to be behind the scenes - I just wanted to be the producer and the writer. A lot of people around me would say “Oh, why aren’t you more proud of your own record?” It even took me a long time to make this decision (recording solo music) and I would sit down with Wiz, play some of my records and ask him for some advice. He’d respond; “Yo listen, you've been doing this ting, what should you be scared of?”

My theory is it may take me a long time to do something but, I always like to have people around who have done it before and have seen whatever needs to be seen, so that I can know where I’m going. For me, to be able to do this thing properly and the way I want to do it, I have to be able to flesh this vision out on my own. This means fund my own music video, fund my own PR campaign, before any industry plant comes and checks in.

So I started Berry’s Room and funny enough, it has been around for a quite a while but I had to activate it. I wanted freedom to go whatever direction I wanted to. At the time, I felt like there was something missing about the industry which was vulnerability, pure songwriting and being able to create an actual theme. That was actually the best decision because no one was around me when I made ‘Last Daze of Summer’ as I made it in isolation. By the time I was done with the project, I think everyone understood why I went into the direction I went in. I always wanted to be my own boss and that was the birth of Berry’s Room.

I’m sure that during the time you spend away from the spotlight, you were still aware of what was happening around you, especially in the UK. How would you say afrobeat ended up developing? Are you proud of what the genre has turned into?

Yes, of course I’m proud of it! This is something, again, all of us had closed room conversations about days like this. Back then, just chilling in the apartment with Wiz and just dreaming and saying to ourselves; “Wow! One day we are going to be able to perform in this venue!”, “One day, we are going to be able to go gold and get plaques! And we really have our music travel and no visa” Same thing with Davido and Wande coal.

Seeing the industry get to this stage is not really surprising, I’m just excited to see where it’s going. I personally think it’s just the beginning. African music has always been the bag [laughs]. We’ve always had it but we just needed a lot more investments which are coming, labels which are coming, and just a lot more spotlight to be put by the industry.

You have to look at the kind of artists we have right now - excellence! So why would the world not be watching? I’m more excited to see where everything is going to go because I’m like a mad scientist in how I decode the culture. [laughs]

I feel like it’s the beginning of Afrobeat becoming a household product. For example, you see how we say; “Oh! Let’s eat Chinese tonight!”, “Yeah, let’s go eat jollof!” That's how it’s going to be. That’s how much it is going to spread because it’s new for the whole world. We’ve been hearing RnB and Hip-Hop forever. The reason why the world feels it is because it’s beat and the core of everything - it’s Africa! It’s exciting.

Recently, you dropped a new single ‘Ole Gan’, the second official single from your debut album. What can your supporters expect from this project? Any features you could reveal?

First with ‘Last Daze of Summer’, then with ‘First Daze of Winter’ and during covid ‘Isolation Room’. I always aim to make a themed body of work, stories that can carry on through culture and something that people can relate to. That’s one of the main reasons why I haven’t dropped an album and so, this is going to be my first one. [laughs]

It’s called ‘If Only Love was Enough’ and the title just speaks for itself. The best way I can describe it is every season of the year at once and just taking people through a rollercoaster in emotions. Love is just up and down and that’s what the project is about. That’s all I can say.

There are people who will look into your journey and ask themselves, why now? Why return now? How would you respond to them?

Why now? Why not? [laughs] music is energy, it’s frequency and it’s a gift from God. Like a radio, everyone has their own frequency band and it’s up to you to give your biggest, brightest and your most impactful frequency in your given time. So I just came back to give and vibrate at a serious frequency that has never been done before.

It's an exciting time to be part of an industry that I have been part of for most of my career. What I am most excited about after I put out my album is finding new talent for Berry’s Room across the UK and African continent. It’s always been a dream of mine. I need to feed the fans and they have not been fed for a long time.


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