The Cameroonian-born ‘music conductor’ charming Ivory Coast

He started as a self-taught DJ in Paris, but Jeune Lio is now one of Francophone Africa’s most influential music personalities.

Jeune Lio
Lionel Obam aka Jeune Lio is one of Francophone Africa’s most influential music heads [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]
Lionel Obam aka Jeune Lio is one of Francophone Africa’s most influential music heads [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]

Assinie-Mafia, Ivory Coast - As the sun sets at the Akoula resort in the popular beach town of Assinie-Mafia, more than 100km (62 miles) east of the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan, hundreds of people huddled in scattered groups frantically converge by the DJ booth’s makeshift pit.

It is the afternoon of April 30th, 2023, and they are swaying to the music playing at another episode of La Sunday, the biggest music festival in Ivory Coast and one of the biggest in Francophone Africa.

The controlling rhythms are courtesy of Lionel Obam, more popularly known as DJ Jeune Lio, La Sunday’s co-founder and the event’s main act for the day, in the booth. As usual, his slender frame is in his signature white T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a beanie that neither the heat nor the humidity seem able to displace.

Next to him in the booth are one of his business partners and fellow DJ - Charles - a couple of friends and a handful of hypemen cheering Obam on and energising his smooth transitions from old-school Hip Hop classics, to Amapiano sounds and Afrobeats hits.

By the time Obam plays Zoblazo, the 1991 hit from Ivorian legend Meiway, a usual crowd pleaser, dozens have arranged themselves into an animated dance procession, waving white napkins over their heads. From that point on, there is no stopping the crowd.

An hour later when his set ends and another DJ takes over, the event’s security personnel struggle to clear the venue of partygoers who want more of Obam - and the festival. But he’s used to the attention; it is just another day in the life of one of Francophone Africa’s most influential music heads.

Leaving Paris

Obam, left, moved from Paris to West Africa in 2016, to escape ''the glass ceiling' that we [people of colour] are unlikely to break through' [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]
Obam, left, moved from Paris to West Africa in 2016, to escape ''the glass ceiling' that we [people of colour] are unlikely to break through' [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]

For Obam, born in the Cameroonian city of Douala in 1987 where he was raised before moving to Paris at the age of 15, the journey into the music industry has been an unconventional one.

The French-Cameroonian artist says he was born with an innate love for music. But he found his calling in his 20s while working in advertising and moonlighting as a party promoter in the French capital.

A self-taught DJ, he learned and perfected his craft by trial and error in his apartment after a friend gifted him his first turntable in December 2014.

From that moment forward, Obam had a vision of curating unique experiences for fellow music lovers, right at his fingertips. But he soon realised that his dream was too big to fit in the French entertainment scene. "It’s not easy for people like us [people of colour] to have ambition over there. There’s a glass ceiling that we are unlikely to break through,” he explained.

Jeune Lio is one of the best-known faces in Abidjan
Obam aka Jeune Lio is one of the best-known faces in Abidjan [Lionel Obam via Instagram]

In December 2016, he decided to leave Paris behind.

The first stop on his return to the continent was Senegal’s capital, Dakar. “I knew I wanted to move to West Africa. I wasn’t set on a specific city. I applied to a few jobs and Dakar was where I first got one in my professional field,” he said.

Working at a marketing agency provided him financial security while DJing at parties supplied the thrill and fulfilment.

After about 18 months of living in breezy Dakar, Obam decided to move to Abidjan and figure out the next stage of his career on the spot. “Dakar provided great opportunities to me. But after a while, I felt like Abidjan was calling. I tend to follow my instincts when it comes to life-altering decisions,” he said half-jokingly.

Within months of arriving in the city, he had secured a weekend DJing gig at Lifestar, a club in downtown Abidjan, marking a new chapter of adventures for the ambitious artist.

It’s been seven years since and Obam is now one of the best-known faces - and names - in the city.

'A bonafide superstar'

Obam in the studio in Abidjan
Obam in the studio in Abidjan [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]
Obam in the studio in Abidjan [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]

In June 2022, he was announced as artistic director for Francophone artistes at Sony Music Africa, highlighting his influential status on the Central and West African music scene. He is already working with up-and-coming artists such as Ivorian acts Revolution and Widgunz, as well as Gabonese singer Emma’a.

But it was the staple La Sunday party, first introduced in 2018, that turned him into a bonafide superstar and fulfilled his dream of music dominance, on the domestic scene.

“When I started DJing in Abidjan, I told myself that I was going to be the best in town. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I was going to do it no matter what,” Obam told Al Jazeera at a Sony Music recording studio in the city.

“I met my now business partner Faycal a few months after moving to Abidjan,” he said. “I would hang out at his creamery all the time and he would badger me about organising parties. But at first, I wasn’t having it. Having done that in Paris for 10 years, I knew it was hard. I knew it was time, energy, and money consuming.”

A scene from La Sunday festival in Abidjan
A scene from La Sunday festival in Abidjan [Courtesy: Instagram]

But Faycal persevered and Obam eventually caved.

“I met Lionel through friends right when I was starting to get bored with the nightlife in Abidjan,” Paris-born entrepreneur, Faycal Lazrac, told Al Jazeera.

“The initial idea was pretty selfish. I just wanted to have a good time and create a different kind of partying experience for us. Lio had the cool factor. He was passionate about music. It all just made sense. But none of us expected that this idea would turn into what it’s become” he explained.

The duo’s initial plan was to create an alternative musical experience for a close-knit group of pals. But when they met their other associates, the idea took on a life of its own.

“We partnered with Aziz who had this cool concept store in the city. Then there was Aurore who had the connections and marketing experience. And Charles who was also a great DJ. We all had our strong suits and complemented each other. From that alliance, the project evolved organically and soon became professional and serious,” Faycal said.

The very first La Sunday party took place on December 9th, 2018 in the parking lot of Aziz’s store with some 50 people in attendance. Within a year, a total of 30,000 people attended the recurring outdoor events, approximately 18 in total, which would feature more and more DJs from Ivory Coast and beyond.

The event's philosophy of carefree enjoyment resonated with many people. In a city known for vibrant nightlife with a "bottle culture" - an unsaid but obvious emphasis on sales of bottles over single drinks in nightclubs - Obam and his partners wanted to break the mould with an inclusive space for attendees to escape that form of societal pressure.

“Our formula was a breath of fresh air,” Obam told Al Jazeera. “We were basically telling people; “show up as you are." It’s not about fronting or showing off how many bottles of champagne you’ve got at your table. It’s all about enjoying the music and the experience.”

The organisers also chose not to invite popular artists to headline the festival, preferring instead to let the music reign supreme - through the DJs.

“There's a reason why La Sunday has been so popular over the years,” according to Ines, a young professional who moved to Abidjan in 2022 and has attended the festival on two separate occasions since.

“The event is well marketed on social media. They usually host it at an unusual location and there’s a pretty good mix of music and vibes to cater to a diverse audience. Plus, it’s affordable!” she added.

But the young woman admits that there are some areas to improve on. “The only problem when organising an event of this scale is to take into consideration that if the event has to be interrupted or doesn't go according to plan, coming from Europe, I generally expect a refund - full or partial. This is something that the team could consider in the future to enhance the customer experience,” she noted.

This is all the more crucial as the festival’s audience has expanded beyond Ivorian borders. Indeed, Obam and his partners have craved expansion and taken the festival on the road, holding it in Dakar, Accra, and Paris.

He says: “Over the years, we’ve kept asking ourselves, 'How do we sustain this? How do we make it better time after time?'”

La Sunday festival
La Sunday festival in December 2019 [Courtesy: Instagram]

Crossing over to Anglophone Africa has always appealed to Obam and the Accra edition of La Sunday 2021 began to open doors for the crew and has allowed them to dream more, he told Al Jazeera.

“My grandmother is from St Lucia. My mother grew up in Nigeria. I've always found myself in between those cultures and influences. Plus, the Nigerians, the Ghanaians, and the South Africans, they’ve conquered the world with their music and swag. I want the same for us Francophone artists and creatives,” he said.

His upbringing naturally influenced this need to build bridges between cultures; an aptitude that Lazrac noticed from the very beginning of the La Sunday adventure. “He had such an expansive and analytical approach to music. To this day, he truly enjoys creating connections. He has a flair for finding and curating sounds that will entice people of different backgrounds,” he explained.

And in his role as head of A&R for Francophone Africa at Sony Music, Obam now has a first-row seat in the development of budding acts in Ivory Coast and its environs.

‘The best in town’

Jeune Lio
The artist is now helping nurture careers as artistic director for Francophone artists at Sony Music Africa [Courtesy: Lionel Obam via Stephane Kevin Allou/Instagram]
The artist is now helping nurture careers as artistic director for Francophone artists at Sony Music Africa [Courtesy: Lionel Obam via Stephane Kevin Allou/Instagram]

When COVID-19 struck in early 2020 and caused a drop in outdoor entertainment activity and collaboration between creatives, Obam found himself forced to adapt to the newfound silence; he began producing his own music.

“I started doing Instagram Lives and interacting with people on my social media. It was a strange time for me like it was for everyone,” he said. “But I remember waking up one day and thinking 'That’s it, I’m going to make my own music.'”

By August that year, he released his first single, My Love, featuring fellow Cameroonian artist Magasco, an Afropop singer.

Obam made a few rookie mistakes at first. “I didn’t really know much about that side of the music industry ... how to produce, whom to talk to, how to cut costs. But I learned a lot through the process,” he said.

He has since gone from strength to strength and had a number of impressive collaborations including one with Nigerian star Oxlade.

In June 2021, Obam released his first musical project: an eight-track EP titled, A Night In Cocody, referring to an evening of fun in the city’s upscale neighbourhood. It was a curated mashup of sultry and enticing Pan-African sounds featuring artists from Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria.

“This continent has so much talent. Anywhere you go now DJs play Afrobeats, Afropop or Afrohouse all night. It doesn’t even make sense to play anything else. I want to showcase that and work with the best up-and-coming artists from all over Africa,” he told Al Jazeera.

His music has incorporated a diversity of influences ranging from Afrobeats to zouk and dancehall; a hybrid sound that he’s created without singing, rapping or even playing any instrument.

“You can’t do everything,” he told Al Jazeera during a studio listening session in Abidjan. “I could make my own beats, but I know so many people who have perfected this craft and I’d rather source from them and add the vocal talent that fits with the right beat. That’s what DJ Khaled has built his entire career on. I want to be the conductor that brings every layer of the music together and creates the perfect symphony.”

The music executive appears at ease in the conductor's seat. At the editing table, with a sound engineer by his right side, Obam listens to the latest body of music he’s been working on. “A surprise project that people won’t expect from me,” he says with a mischievous look on his face.

Indeed, Obam’s latest project rests firmly on an Afro-house foundation. “I was inspired over the summer to delve into a more amapiano, Afro-house sound. I feel like this is the kind of music that resonates with everyone right now, from Johannesburg to Lagos to Ibiza and Mykonos,” he adds.

Obam is in his element in the dimly lit room, bopping his head and genuinely enjoying each unfinished tune, stopping every now and then to instruct his colleague to edit out a piece of the vocal track.

When his favourite song comes on, he takes everything in from the singer’s sultry vocals to a rich and all-encompassing saxophone solo that evidently ties everything together. In the studio, Obam oozes the same contagious energy that he conveys every time he stands behind his turntable.

“He has everything it takes to be a star on the global stage; the potential, the discipline, the work ethic, and the grit. There’s no limit to what he can achieve,” his business partner and friend Faycall believes.

New frontiers

Obam began producing his own music during the pandemic
Obam began producing his own music during the pandemic [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]
Obam began producing his own music during the pandemic [Olivier Khouadiani/Al Jazeera]

Admittedly, Obam’s ambition knows no bounds.

Despite having achieved many of his goals in the past five years, there is still an extensive bucket list to check off. One of the items there is DJing at Afronation, an annual three-day music festival that has featured some of the biggest names in African music such as Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, and Adekunle Gold.

Previous editions have been held in Lisbon and Accra, with the next one scheduled for December 2023 in Lagos. Obam is optimistic that he will be part of the lineup one day, but is unsure when.

“It’s tough to make it in the lineup. It has a lot to do with one’s reach and brand. But one day, we’ll get there,” he said.

For now, Obam remains committed to creating musical experiences that push the boundaries of his creativity and transcend physical borders.

“I want to do more gigs in other parts of Africa and the world. But there’s no rush. We’ll get there in due time. I said I would stop DJing when I turn 40, so I have a few more years ahead of me.”

Source: Al Jazeera