The rapper with a coat of many colours

How Reminisce, Nigeria's ‘Lord of the Streets’, took on booth and boardroom

Nigerian rapper Remilekun Khalid Safaru, also known as Reminisce, or Alaga Ibile or Baba Hafusa
Nigerian rapper Remilekun Khalid Safaru is more popularly known as Reminisce, Alaga Ibile or Baba Hafusa [Courtesy of Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]
Nigerian rapper Remilekun Khalid Safaru is more popularly known as Reminisce, Alaga Ibile or Baba Hafusa [Courtesy of Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]

Lagos, Nigeria - It is a dark night in Ikeja, capital of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic powerhouse and de facto entertainment capital of Africa. Deep inside the bowels of an empty factory is the award-winning rapper Remilekun Khalid Safaru, aka Reminisce.

The factory is pitch black, the darkness broken only by small pools of blinding video lights. As a crew sets up the scene to shoot a music video for Why, the rapper’s song with singer Oxlade, Safaru sits in the back seat of his SUV nearby, waiting for his cue to be on set.

The scenario is an apt metaphor for the rapper’s brand as a well-known celebrity who likes to play in the shadows and only come out when he is ready. In a career spanning two decades, Safaru has methodically crafted timelines for the release of his music, thus remaining somewhat of a mysterious figure despite his fame.

In 2020, he released the EP, Vibes and Insha Allah
In 2020, Reminisce released the EP Vibes and Insha Allah [Courtesy of Remilekun Safaru/Twitter]

On his 2020 EP, the six-track Vibes & Insha Allah, the 42-year-old peeled back a few layers to show his complex nature and maturity as a devoted husband, father and elder statesman.

The EP was a stop-gap project designed to punctuate the seven-year gap between his last studio album, El-Hadj, and his anticipated fifth album, Alaye Toh Se Gogo, which is to drop this year.

The road to rapping

The rapper Reminisce on set for a music video with singer Oxlade in Lagos, Nigeria
The rapper Reminisce, left, on set for a music video with singer Oxlade in Lagos, Nigeria [Courtesy of Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]
The rapper Reminisce, left, on set for a music video with singer Oxlade in Lagos, Nigeria [Courtesy of Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]

Safaru was born on January 26, 1981, in the city of Kaduna in northwest Nigeria. He moved to Lagos with his family when he was six or seven. His parents separated, and he lived with his mother until she died when he was 13. Then he shuttled between his stepmother and grandmother until he became an adult.

He describes his childhood as "basically like every Nigerian male child. I played football. Also, if you messed up, you got disciplined."

Safaru still has fond memories of his mum and appreciates how she disciplined him as a child. "It shaped me into who I am today. I see the results of my upbringing. I was happy she straightened me," he says.

The rapper grew up in a large family with a dozen siblings. Eleven of them attended Comprehensive High School in Aiyetoro in Ogun state, next door to Lagos, following in the footsteps of one of Nigeria’s most famous families.

"We were the second largest family after the MKO Abiola family to attend the school," he says.

Abiola, the presumed winner of Nigeria’s 1993 presidential election, was detained by the military government, which annulled the vote before the results could be announced. A philanthropist and businessman, Abiola was also polygamous and had dozens of children.

At some point in that school, Safaru's love for music kicked in. As an ‘80s baby, his first music idol was unsurprisingly Michael Jackson, who was at his artistic and commercial peak during the decade. After the King of Pop, he discovered the world of hip-hop and was soon captivated by rap legend Nas.

It's from this point that the story of Safaru as Reminisce began, even before he knew it.

One day in school in 1996, he mimed 2Pac's Hit 'Em Up, one of that year’s biggest songs, on seniors' day and got a standing ovation from 4,000 students. With dreams of being a rap star, Safaru took his destiny into his own hands.

He sat for and passed the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board exams, which millions of Nigerians take every year to get into one of the country’s hundreds of tertiary institutions. He passed comfortably but did not want to attend the University of Lagos (UNILAG) because going to a school so close to home would mean commuting back and forth on a daily basis.

So he opted to enroll in Kwara State Polytechnic, an institution considered lower in stature than UNILAG but also a distance of four states and more than 300km (nearly 200 miles) away. The goal was to bag a diploma in two years, then move back to Lagos and focus on his music career.

"I wanted an easy way out to do music. Kwara State Poly was my shortcut. I had no business there. I calculated the time I would spend studying mechanical engineering at UNILAG. It was five years. I wanted to blow [make it big] on time," the rapper tells Al Jazeera.

But the polytechnic wasn’t the great escape Safaru had envisioned. "The weather was bad, and it was hot. There was a whole lot of cultism. I saw the real world there as a proper Lagos boy. It was a huge cultural shift," he said.

The Switch

Rapper Reminisce (right) has been strategic in his collaborations within and outside the entertainment industry
Rapper Reminisce, right, has been strategic in his collaborations in and out of the entertainment industry [Courtesy Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]
Rapper Reminisce, right, has been strategic in his collaborations in and out of the entertainment industry [Courtesy Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]

After his stint in Kwara, Safaru returned to Lagos and started meeting people in the entertainment industry. One day, his neighbour Dehinde "Mo Def" Fajana, who would go on to manage the singer 9ice, spoke to him about a producer in the neighbourhood.

Popularly known as ID Cabasa, Olumide Ogunade, 48, is a Nigerian music producer and label chief with numerous culturally significant hits and albums in his discography. More than a decade ago, he was the de facto leader and sonic architect of Coded Tunes, a collective of singers and rappers who created a modern version of Indigenous music.

That collective would also include rap star and mogul Olamide years later.

While Ogunade was working with Coded Tunes and a slew of other artists in the Yaba neighbourhood of Lagos, Fajana brought Safaru, whose unique style instantly caught the producer’s attention, to the studio.

“The fascinating thing about Reminisce was his diction for me. Reminisce was rapping like Nas and Jay-Z. He was rapping in English," Ogunade recalls.

The producer saw the potential in this new rapper if he switched to Indigenous rap music. "There was some point I was trying to convince him that he might need to switch," says ID Cabasa, who describes Safaru as phlegmatic.

The young rapper quickly worked on an album, but his first stab at music yielded no success.

"I was rapping then more like Nas. The market wasn't ready for that," Safaru recalls.

So he quit that career and began selling graffitied Converse sneakers in Yaba, an area with multiple campuses. While music had failed to bring any rewards, the shoe business was more instantly gratifying.

"I was making so much money. I sold shoes to club boys in UNILAG. They would order 60 pieces, and I would order them from America. I even got a car," he says.

The rapper initially quit music to start selling shoes in Lagos
The rapper initially quit music to start selling shoes in Lagos [Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]

Meanwhile, Ogunade tried to get him back.

"There was a day I called him up and told him he can't quit music," he says. According to the famed producer, Safaru was one of the acts he believed would make Coded Tunes bigger.

His fellow Coded Tunes members felt the same way, including 9ice, who had some buzz after a slew of impressive guest features and the release of his debut album, Certificate, in 2006.

9ice came to Safaru’s shop one day and pleaded with him to jump on a song from 9ice's sophomore album.

All of the talk eventually won over the rapper, who turned up at the studio.

"I just went there, and I rapped. I can never forget that day. I had seven bottles of beer," he laughs.

His verse was on the song Bachelor, which became part of Gongo Aso, 9ice's classic album, which remains one of the most popular projects in Nigerian music history. The success of the album and song convinced Safaru to take another stab at music.

He made the single One Chance, featuring Jahbless and Alash, which was produced by the teenage producer Osabuohien "Sarz" Osaretin.

"I think I met Reminisce in 2007. He came to the studio with Jahbless. This time, I was working with Edge Record," says Osaretin, now a 34-year-old Grammy Award-winning super-producer with production credits for Wizkid, Drake, Beyonce, Burna Boy and others.

The single got airplay, but it wasn't a smash hit. Safaru released two more singles, and nothing much happened.

But Osaretin turned out to be instrumental in Safaru's eventual breakthrough and would go on to be a frequent collaborator.

The breakthrough eventually came from a beat rejected by rap superstar Naeto C. Safaru heard it and was eager to record on it.

His first line is the iconic intro: "O ye rappers. I've moved on to greater things. I'll see you in a jiffy. Hehehe, thank you." The song would be called Kako Bi Chicken (Yoruba for Do Like a Chicken), a hybrid of rap, fuji and electro music.

It went against everything he stood for as a hardcore lyricist but launched his career.

"I was frustrated. I was rapping, and people were not listening," Safaru explains about why he came up with the intro. The gamble paid off, and the song became a hit. This time, Safaru had switched to Yoruba, and the reaction was positive.

Safaru included the song in Book of Rap Stories, his debut album, which was released in 2012, and was followed by Alaga Ibile in 2013, Baba Hafusa in 2015, and El-Hadj in 2016.

Alaga Ibile would be his most successful studio effort. According to his marketer, the album moved 6 million units.

The success of the album was so much that “the marketer was sending me papers to sign every week for the printing of the CD,” Safaru tells Al Jazeera. “He would bring the documents every Sunday to be able to print them on Monday. Every week, he would send money to me."

The follow-up album, Baba Hafusa, debuted at number 12 on the Billboard World Music Albums Chart.

Since his debut, Safaru has clearly crafted an image of a street-conscious rapper, using Yoruba catchphrases and lingo regularly in his music with an instantly recognisable voice.

With fellow rappers Olamide and Phyno, he made indigenous rap, usually seen as subpar, into a credible art form and a commercial force to be reckoned with.

Speaking about his contemporaries and their huge success, Safaru says: "We make music the way people actually want to consume it. People want to listen to rap in their own dialect. They want to recite rap lyrics in their own language.”

‘Lord of the Streets’

Safaru as Makanaki in the political action thriller, King of Boys
Rapper Reminisce, centre, did not see immediate success, but his music career took off once he began rapping in Yoruba [Courtesy Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]
Rapper Reminisce, centre, did not see immediate success, but his music career took off once he began rapping in Yoruba [Courtesy Tobi Tejumola/Wxrking Title Studios]

Alaga Ibile, which roughly translates to Lord of the Streets, is often seen as an icon of the gritty urban sound in southwest Nigeria. His ability to cross over between hip-hop and commercial circles, be eloquent unlike some of his comrades, stay scandal-free, and foster relationships with power players beyond the industry has made him a darling of corporate Nigeria.

In 2014, he became an ambassador for Samsung. A year later, he signed an endorsement deal with Orijin, an alcoholic beverage favoured on the streets.

"I was just smart enough to understand that in our era, you need to have a cordial relationship with brands because that's where the big bucks come from," he explains.

"We saw that his brand had a lot of potential and that we could actually speak to brands on his behalf," Edward Israel-Ayide, founder of the Lagos-based PR firm Carpe Diem Solutions and a longtime Safaru associate, tells Al Jazeera. "His brand is between the grassroots and emerging middle class. He is very sellable to either side of the crowd.”

Israel-Ayide has worked closely with the rapper for a decade in securing brand partnerships along with Uche Nwalie, the global content marketing manager at Guinness.

Both men say Safaru’s "authentic backbone" in the streets and in boardrooms is thanks by strategic thinking over the years in picking brand partnerships. Many of the offers that have come his way have been turned down in pursuit of the right deals, they say.

"He was deliberate with the choice of the first brand he associated with," Nwalie says.

In 2018, Safaru’s career took a surprising turn.

Award-winning Nollywood director Kemi Adetiba tapped him to play the role of underworld boss Makanaiki in her political action thriller King of Boys.

The movie was an instant hit and commercial success, earning 245 million nairas ($30m) at the box office. Surprisingly, Safaru, who was making his acting debut, stole the show with his raw delivery and noteworthy depiction of an ambitious, maniac crime lord steeped in the grimy underworld of Lagos. Critics and fans raved about the new Nollywood villain, which surprised Safaru.

"My wife went to the cinema to see it. She told me people were clapping anytime I came on the screen. I was surprised," he says.

For someone who admits to not even reading the script, Safaru received two acting nominations  in the best supporting actor category at the 2019 Africa Movie Academy Awards and the 2020 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, the continent’s two biggest award shows.

Safaru reprised his role in the sequel, the Netflix series King of Boys: Return of the King in 2021, which was met with more rave reviews.

Despite his performance, Safaru says he has no plans to act again. "I'm done with that. Now that I am trying to put out music, it [acting] is too stressful. I can't combine them. I just did the movie to tick it off my bucket list."

Conquering new ground

Safaru recently delived into the world of sports with his new LRR Agency
Safaru recently delved into the world of sports with his new LRR Agency [Courtesy of Remilekun Safaru via Twitter]
Safaru recently delved into the world of sports with his new LRR Agency [Courtesy of Remilekun Safaru via Twitter]

In January 2021, Safaru launched LRR Sports, a talent representation and marketing agency. He also entered the world of radio broadcasting not long after, announcing a partnership with Brila FM, a sports radio station and a football show called The Agenda With Reminisce.

"I do a lot of major sports business that a lot of people don't know it's me," the rapper says.

"He has always been a sportsman. Interestingly, he always used to have a football team. If he is not talking about music, he is talking about football," Israel-Ayide says.

For Nwalie, delving into the world of sports marketing is another stream of income for the rapper and a smart move that his peers ought to emulate.

“Artists should know that the ovation would die and prepare for that day."

Despite being an energetic all-rounder, juggling tough roles in hip-hop, film, business and on radio, the one job Safaru takes more seriously than any others is his job as a father to three girls.

While he shields them from the public eye, they nevertheless inspire him in his other roles.

On the cover of his third album, Baba Hafusa, Safaru wears a black agbada robe and holds onto a baby car seat and a red teddy bear. The album title is his neighbourhood nickname and a reference to Hafusa, his eldest daughter.

On the intro of his EP Vibes & Insha Allah, he features the vocals of two of his daughters. In his recent songs, he sings about being a father of girls and the responsibility of fatherhood.

"If I have to be in Disneyland with my kids ... or put out an album, I'm going to push that album forward," Safaru says matter-of-factly.

One of his child-rearing tactics is a rewards system to incentivise his daughters to be on their best behaviour and maximise their potential. “If you want a smartwatch, you must have good grades. I don't give my children anything for free. You purchase it with good behaviour," he says.

On the music video set, the director finally calls for Reminisce, and Safaru, the father and entrepreneur, takes a backseat for his alter ego.

But what's next for him? "You can't predict the next thing he wants to do," Ogunade says. Osaretin too is uncertain: "I won't be surprised if he becomes the governor of Ogun state one day.”

Right now, Safaru is keeping any future plans close to his chest and celebrating all his accomplishments so far. "I blew up when I was 31 years old,” he says. “Considering my story and where I'm from, I have achieved a lot."

Source: Al Jazeera