The Nigerian-American singer, who is signed to Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records, received a Grammy nomination for his debut single “Classic Man.” Having recently performed at the 2016 ESSENCE Festival, now he sums up his life—from childhood to stardom—in 10 songs.
1. Fela Kuti, “Gentleman”
I love the attitude in this song; this record is punk at its core. It unapologetically romanticizes African traditions and mocks the stereotypical gentleman. When I heard this song as a boy, I fell in love with Fela’s character: a bonafide, certified rebel.
2. Michael Jackson, “Liberian Girl”
MJ honored African women over a swanky-ass beat. It was an important affirmation in the ’90s. I was wearing Cross Colours and looking for a Liberian Girl at the mall. Culturally speaking, I see a similar shift in popular culture right now with the embrace of African women and African fashion.
3. Prince, “When Dove Cry”
This joint had no bass line. I remember when my sister played this for me in Brooklyn on a tape cassette and the drums slapped against the walls without a bass at all.
4. Lauryn Hill, “Lost Ones”
This is the best and hardest way to begin an album and a movement. She really redefined female MCs as her sex became less relevant. She is one of the greatest. Period. “Lost Ones” marked a change in how I viewed women. From then on, I could see their wisdom, wit and maternal power more than ever before.
5. Celestine Ukwu, “Okwukwe Na Nchekwube”
Celestine brings me back to eating suya at a barbecue in Enugu, Nigeria. I can see all my uncles drinking beer while they reminisced about the year they left Nigeria to be schooled abroad during the Biafran War. This record and others by Celestine were the attempts of a man to find peace of mind amidst the crisis in the 1960s. I feel close to that now.
6. Jay Z, “Song Cry”
At the time, this was one of Jay Z’s most vulnerable records. I remember watching the video thinking that I had never seen this side of him. He still did it like a don of course.
7. Kanye West, “Lost in the World”
“Lost in the World” is a classic big Kanye production. I love the epic nature of his music and visuals. I lived in Oakland off of High Street when this dropped. I remember going to a High Street sign and smoking underneath it while I bumped “Lost in the World” from my IPod.
8. Rihanna, “We Found Love”
“We Found Love” is one of my favorite songs and videos ever. It captures that moment when pop and EDM were really rolling together. I was in Brooklyn and Detroit going to EDM raves when this record was in its prime.
9. Janelle Monáe featuring Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Janelle put me and all the homies in the back of that video. We were jammin’. I was so grateful for that. This “Q.U.E.E.N.” anthem marked the beginning of a new chapter for me. I was barely earning a living as a New York City public school teacher. When the record and the video came out, I found the faith to keep going at my vision.
10. Bob Marley, “Concrete Jungle”
Seeing him and the Wailers play this with such meditative and visionary attitude had a profound effect on me. He wasn’t a star because he cared about fame. He was a star because the Earth chose him to be. I was drawing Rastas on the floor in front of the TV as I’d watch Marley. It was no surprise to my family when I went through a serious Rasta phase in college.