The preacher's son who became a 'gangster romantic'

The story of Nigerian singer Lojay's journey from the church to celebrity status

Nigerian singer-songwriter Lekan Osifeso Jr. aja Lojay
Nigerian singer-songwriter Lekan Osifeso Jr also known as Lojay [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]
Nigerian singer-songwriter Lekan Osifeso Jr also known as Lojay [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]

Lagos, Nigeria - On the afternoon of July 4, the rapper Jay Z, one of the most recognisable people in the world, was driving to a Fourth of July party in New York. The speakers of the grey, open-air '90s Land Rover Defender were blasting Monalisa by the gap-toothed Nigerian singer-songwriter Lojay, one of the most recognisable songs in the world since 2021.

A short video of that scene travelled around the world within minutes, eliciting millions of "oohs" and "aahs", especially in Lagos by the next day.

Nigeria’s biggest city, where Lojay was born Lekan Osifeso Junior in April of 1996, remains Africa’s entertainment capital and home to Afrobeats, a genre that has dominated dancefloors worldwide over the last decade. But over the past four years, it has digested the electronic log drum sound of South Africa’s amapiano, an infectious house jazz hybrid.

Some of the results have been chaotic medleys but Monalisa is a distinctive example of the transcontinental amalgam, with its hypnotic melody and compelling emotive penmanship.

“His music doesn’t sound like anything out there,” Abiodun 'Bizzle' Osikoya, cofounder of Nigerian entertainment consultancy, The Plug, told Al Jazeera.

Since its release early in 2021 on LV N ATTN, the joint EP between Lojay and Grammy Award-winning producer Osabuohien "Sarz" Osaretin, the song has racked up wins on both sides of the Atlantic. That version and the remix with American superstar Chris Brown have permeated charts in dozens of countries and remain among the most searched-for songs on Shazam, the popular music-identifying app.

To many onlookers, the Jay Z-Monalisa moment this July further validated the widespread appeal of the song, marking yet another milestone in the global acceptability of Afrobeats.

But the man basking in the klieg light himself sees it merely as a stepping stone.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet in my life, where I feel like I’m a superstar,” the 27-year-old tells Al Jazeera at his home, a townhouse in the upscale Lagos district of Lekki in July. “I feel like there’s still so much work ahead of me. I haven’t even dropped an album yet.”

Singers Lojay and Chris Brown hug after performing their song Monalisa Remix, together
Singers Lojay and Chris Brown hug after performing their song Monalisa Remix, together [Courtesy of Lojay via Instagram]

Lojay is seated at the dining table as he answers, twiddling an empty ashtray and backing the staircase leading to the in-house studio and bedrooms. To his right, in the sitting room, two associates are watching on as the singer’s cousin and road manager plays the video game, God of War, on a massive TV.

“It made me feel good watching it, just knowing that I made music that could reach everybody,” he added. “There is a sense of verification, not validation that comes with that but I don't think I’ve gotten to that point yet and I hope not to get to that point anytime soon.”

“Maybe when Elon Musk starts listening to my music and he is like, 'Hi yeah, come to the Giga Factory, let's see what we can work on,' yeah. Maybe I might get like a little bit excited about that.”

Recently, the singer Rema, whose, Calm Down, song peaked at the number-three spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in July, toured India. That caught Lojay’s attention.

“What Rema did in India? That’s an award right there,” he said. And he is keen to replicate that elsewhere in Asia.

“Doing a stadium show in Japan, that's the icing on the cake,” he said. “Japan is one of those places that hasn't grown into Afrobeats as quickly as the rest of the world. It's one of those places that's far off east. A lot of them spend large periods of their lives without even seeing black people, let alone idolising black people and paying money to come and watch them in a stadium. That's an example of opening the sound to a new set of people and them just loving what you’re doing."

Drummer Boy

Lojay grew up in Lagos as the eldest of three children
Lojay grew up in Lagos as the eldest of three children [Courtesy of Lojay via Instagram]
Lojay grew up in Lagos as the eldest of three children [Courtesy of Lojay via Instagram]

As the eldest of three children growing up in Lagos, Lojay grew up around music. His mother played gospel songs as much as she sang them of her own accord. And then there was TV, with the sing-along songs of Disney shows and also acts like Michael Jackson, Timbaland, Bruno Mars and Wizkid.

So Lojay had a passion for music long before he realised he had a passion for music. By the time he was six years old, he was singing and dancing at home, and performing for family and friends, imitating Michael Jackson moves.

His father, who was away a lot, ran a construction business while his mother, a pastor, was also a petty business trader at the time in the Ikorodu area of Lagos, then in the old island district of Marina.

She took her children to church and by the time Lojay was 10, he began drumming there.

“On Tuesday and Thursday services, there was always one small boy that used to sit down and just watch the drummer play from the beginning of the service till the end. That small boy was me.”

In Nigeria’s Pentecostal churches, like the US evangelicals they are closely linked to, music features more than in other denominations with the choristers and ministers seemingly looking for the slightest excuse to break into song and dance.

Young Osifeso liked what he saw and he began imbibing the culture. Even today, his favourite part of church service is the praise and worship time. He is a fan of Sunday Services by Ye, the artist also known as Kanye West that are held at different locations including his studio and a forest in Los Angeles with an exclusive list of well-screened guests. The services are stripped of sermons and are more like gospel concerts.

Lojay was 10 or 11 when he wrote his first song while waiting in a car, for his friend with whom he took rides home after school, to join him. As many first attempts are, it fell flat - in his opinion. A couple of years later, a friend asked him to join a group, after hearing about his ability to rap.

That duo soon became a trio called Decoy. Within a few months, they had written multiple songs and were performing in school. Their first studio experience, in 2009, was with the producer known as Samklef, one of the earliest producers of the Afrobeats era, notching collaborations with acts like Wizkid and Ice Prince.

Samklef’s studio was in Ogba, a working-class neighbourhood in mainland Lagos and Decoy would scrounge together the 20,000 naira (approximately $130 then) to pay for each beat he produced for them. The group performed their handful of singles in and around other schools in Lagos, competing for popularity with other teenage boy bands.

A scene from the set of the music video for Ova
A scene from the set of the music video for Ova [Courtesy of Lojay via X]

When high school ended and the group split up, Lojay was 16 years old. Around that time, he began transitioning from rapper to singer, courtesy of a surprise session, not at the studio, but in church. One day, the choir mistress pointed at him, the drummer, during a meeting and asked him to be the lead soloist for a church ceremony on a Sunday.

“She had probably heard me sing somewhere, maybe when I probably thought I was alone, but she heard my voice, and like, she just said, 'I've heard you sing before, like you can do this.' I think it built confidence in my ability to actually sing, more than anything.”

An epiphany at home also helped; listening to his mum sing around the house and in church made him wonder: “This woman can actually sing, so what makes me think that I can't?”

His now recognisable falsetto began to take shape as he sang in the shower.

In 2016, Lojay was midway through his undergraduate degree programme in marketing at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. He had been experimenting with Fruity Loops production software, but he would travel to London to record.

“There was no proper Afrobeats producer in Portsmouth, so I had to take a bus for like three hours to London, maybe like three, four times a week,” he recalls.

The studio sessions cost a princely 400-500 pounds (roughly $550-700 at the time) for four studio sessions every month and drained his pocket money. But he felt he wasn’t doing enough and that the London production was subpar. So he took to producing his music before returning to Nigeria in 2018.

By then, he had completed a postgraduate degree in business management in Portsmouth. He was ready to market his dreams and his skills to the world. And a deadly virus would help him take off.

'The pandemic was a blessing for me'

“The pandemic was a blessing for me,” says Lojay
'The pandemic was a blessing for me,' says Lojay [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]
'The pandemic was a blessing for me,' says Lojay [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]

The pandemic paused many music careers, but it also launched others.

In 2020, Lojay’s music was passed around like the contagious COVID-19 virus that upturned the world that year, from his lawyer to friends he shared with Sarz the producer.

Sarz, who has produced for an array of artists across the globe including Burna Boy, Beyonce and Wizkid, heard the songs and arranged to meet a stunned Lojay, not just to record a single but a joint EP with the producer. So they rented an apartment along with Lojay’s manager and Sarz’s assistant, and kept making music.

“The pandemic was a blessing for me,” Lojay says. “Because I don't think he would have even had the time if there was no pandemic.”

They kept at it for three months. “It was probably one of my best musical experiences ever like in terms of like, in terms of creating music and till today, I still adopt a lot of the methods from that camp in my everyday music making.”

When Sarz decided to head to London, Lojay went along. They ended up staying there for another three months and completed the EP. Early in 2021, LV N ATTN was released and it catapulted him to fame.

Early in 2021, LV N ATTN, Lojay's debut EP was released.
Early in 2021, LV N ATTN, Lojay's debut EP was released [Courtesy of Lojay via X]

“Everything just went literally autopilot from there, like nothing has ever been this easy in my life since then,” Lojay says. “Monalisa is an autopilot song, that's how I see it. It is one of those songs that in the next 10 years, you will feel like you just heard it ‘cos you'll remember where you were when you first heard it.”

It quickly caught on in Lagos, said Melody Hassan, a radio jockey at City 105.1FM in Lagos, who was one of the first people to play it on radio. “First time I heard Monalisa, his label sent it to me and I was like 'This is soooo good,'” she told Al Jazeera. “My listeners love his music.”

As Lojay puts it, the song has opened many doors and led to new partnerships. He has gone on to perform in places like Mannheim and Luxembourg where he did not expect to get invitations to or to find enthusiastic audiences, only to find crowds screaming out the lyrics back to him.

'I'm still just a vessel'

"I'm still just a vessel…the song is king", says Lojay, 27
'I'm still just a vessel ... the song is king,' says Lojay, 27 [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]
"'I'm still just a vessel ... the song is king,' says Lojay, 27 [Kelenna Ogboso/Al Jazeera]

A legion of fans now await his debut album after the release of Gangster Romantic, his second EP, in March. But Lojay is in no hurry, he’s busy tinkering with it. “It's still cooking and I need all the artillery I can get,” he said.

He refuses to divulge much about the album including whether he’ll experiment with a singing-rapping style on it. “Nothing is off the table,” he said. “Everything is just flowing through me ... I stay connected to the source but I'm still just a vessel ... the song is king, that's the oga [boss]. If it demands it, it's up to you as an artist to just do it.”

Following up on a breakout song that’s a monster success comes with the weight of expectations that have followed projects as varied as rapper Nas’s 1994 classic, Illmatic, and PSY’s 2012 runaway hit, Gangnam Style.

Lojay has thought of it too but said he is unperturbed. He’s had conversations with friends and well-wishers including Sarz.

Their advice: Focus on the road ahead and not so much on what’s behind. It’s a road filled with promise for Lojay.

Stripper therapy

A still from the video to the song Routine Lover by Lojay and Haitian singer Joé Dwèt Filé
A still from the video to the song, Routine Lover, by Lojay and Haitian singer Joé Dwèt Filé [YouTube]
A still from the video to the song, Routine Lover, by Lojay and Haitian singer Joé Dwèt Filé [YouTube]

Lojay’s writing process draws on inspiration from the ever-recognisable themes of love and heartbreak. Monalisa stemmed from rising frustration with the girl in his life at the time. But at least two of his other hit songs are outcomes of visits to strip clubs.

Earlier this year, he released Canada alongside South African star DJ Maphorisa, a song made after the duo visited a strip club in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, and conversed with a stripper considering migration to the North American country.

Tonongo, a song on LV N ATTN, was inspired by a trip to the popular Lagos strip club Silver Fox. Lojay had just left his ex, who had inspired that EP.

“There was a period I was drowning in strip clubs,” he told Al Jazeera. At Silver Fox, one of the strippers stood out for the dexterity of her stripping, her ability to converse lucidly, and as he put it, the thickness of her thighs.

She was Kenyan, not Nigerian, so once she took a break and went home for a couple of months. When she returned, there was something different about her that inspired Lojay to write, Tonongo.

“She had gone back to Kenya and [when] she came back, she had gotten thicker,” he told Al Jazeera.

'I feel like there’s still so much work ahead of me,' says Lojay [Michael Agharese/Al Jazeera]

Condensing reality into lyrics is a necessity for the singer who believes that truth is indeed stranger than fiction and that his songs have to be confessions about love, sin, and the depths of emotions.

“I can’t make a love song if I'm not in love,” he said. “I've tried.”

Regardless of the sources of his inspiration, Lojay is focused on building a loyal fan base and a pathway to prosperity.

“I know that in my future, I want to be performing in arenas and I can't do that without having fans,” he says. “And I want money, because in this life, money is freedom. When you have money, you're free to do anything you want to do within the law or within your moral ethics.”

Jay Z, the latest unofficial brand ambassador for Lojay's music, has a record 24 Grammys; Lojay is still to be nominated. But the recognition he seeks is different.

“My greatest award is, if you say my song is number one around the world which means that crowds are listening and people are enjoying it,” he says. “If they tell me that your Spotify numbers and monthly listeners are increasing, that's an award for me. I do my first headline show, my first stadium show ... that's an award for me.

“The real award be say can you put 20,000 people in the O2 arena in London?”

Currently, Monalisa has over 100 million streams globally and has been added to more than 120,000 playlists, according to Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy who heads Spotify’s Sub-Saharan Africa division. Lojay’s listeners come mostly from the United States, United Kingdom, Nigeria, France and Germany.

But fame hasn’t gotten to Lojay’s head just yet.

“Music just flows through me and ... I feel like that in itself keeps me grounded. Because I never feel like I’m the baddest thing on the planet. I know I’m up there but I also know I’m just a vessel. Today it might come, tomorrow, it might not come.”

Source: Al Jazeera