Timi Dakolo: On His ‘Yard People’, Music And The Importance Of Consistency

After hours on standby, we finally got some time to speak with the 2007 West African Idol winner. For as long as anyone can remember, Timi Dakolo has always been present in the Nigerian music scene. Releasing songs that have withstood the test of time and remained evergreen such as Iyawo Mi and Medicine marinating in this category. His recent single ‘Amen’ has become something of an anthem since its release. The young veteran singer refers to himself as an upcoming artist. In his words, he believes that after you’ve blown, where do you go from there, what’s next? Which made complete sense. Playful, funny, and wise beyond his years, his interview with Downtown’s Tilewa Kazeem and Kehinde Fagbule took us on a journey of how he views love, family, music, and his overall outlook on this giant blue ball we call Earth.

What is your morning routine?

I am a very traditional person.
I wake up every day at 5 am regardless of the time I sleep because I like to attack my day and plan it very well.
I say my morning prayers; prayers full of gratitude and not exactly the violent ones.
I do a little workout to get my brain going. Not so tedious. Then I read about 5 pages of anything that I’m reading at the time after which I head straight to the gym.

How was the Easter holiday for you?

I don’t think I was in Lagos. My weekends are not necessarily mine anymore. It’s been like that for a while though. Anyways, this is the life I prayed for. I spent my Easter in Abuja.
How was it for you to be so far away from the family during such a period?
I’m used to my children waking me up so when I wake up alone something is always missing like nobody is quarreling, nobody is doing stuff. It always comes with great rewards and everybody gets ice cream. However, when I’m in Lagos, I’m almost always at home.
Home is where the heart is…
Home is where the Wi-Fi is free *laughs*.

What inspired the name “The Yard people”?

Timi Dakolo with Family - The Yard People

I grew up in a yard. When I mean a yard, I mean face me I face you where everybody knows everybody’s issues. So, I wanted to grow my children in that way, like everybody is concerned with what is happening with everybody. In the yard, everybody is closer to everybody. Everybody raises everybody’s child and is interested in building each other up. I want us to have that close-knit relationship like they’re my guys.

From what you said, I’ve been able to pick up that you are big on communication…

I feel like for any family, even with children, they like validation, they like to be heard, so I try to listen; even if what they’re saying does not seem to make sense. You listen then tell them later. If you keep chasing them away, they’ll find somebody else to tell and that will be their closest person. You don’t know the intention of that person, so you don’t want that in your life. Build the communication so that when they are gone they can still have a place to come. You can still be that ear.

I would like to ask about the West African idols. How did that happen?

In the beginning, I lived in a yard and we didn’t have DStv so my friend told me about a talent hunt and I remember being very skeptical about it because I thought these reality shows were in the shady business of fixing the winners of their shows. He came the next day and the day after that. I eventually listened to him. I’d like to think it was his relentless effort that pushed me there; to a point where I went all the way down to Calabar for my auditions. I took it a step at a time going from one stage to another until… you know the rest of the story *laughs*

How did you meet your wife?

Timi Dakolo's Wife and Children

I met her in church. I saw a fine girl in church that was frowning and I walked up to her to ask why she was sad, trying to be slick. Then she gave me a fake number *laughs*. I didn’t give up. I went up to her the next Sunday to challenge her about it and she revealed that she wasn’t lying and her phone got stolen. That was how we started talking as friends. That was 12 years ago.
Was this before or after the West African Idol?
No, it was well after that.

Was there a song you wrote for her?

Iyawo mi. She starred in the music video as well as others.

At home who does the most cooking? I ask this because I have this image of you in an apron slicing onions.

*laughs* It’s madam. She does the most cooking. If my kids see me in the kitchen they’ll ask me “ Daddy, what’s wrong?” “What are you doing?”

Your song “Amen” has become a real anthem. What inspired your frequent collaboration with Cobhams?

Music comes to people differently. Sometimes in part, sometimes whole. I will define music as the sound of my emotion at that point in time, how I feel within. Cobhams and I have this relationship where I can wake him up by three. Like if a song wakes me up at night like you know how you tap someone “Wake up! Wake up!” at night. Okay. I can get a song from my sleep that I did not plan for. Most people think I’m crazy *laughs*. So I woke him up and told him “there’s this song playing in my head. I don’t have it in full oh but the song enter *laughs*.” Guess what? This song we’re talking about has been with me for the past two years. That’s how I am; I have songs. I have a song with Davido, I have another with M.I. Abaga, Falz, TuFace and so on.
So it comes to me and I wake up to call Cobhams like this is what I’m hearing. I want it to be the kind of song people catch themselves singing even after they’ve stopped singing it. I want it to be simple, yet hit the nerves so everybody can relate to it, irrespective of your religion. I want it to be engraved in your soul because, in all honesty, music is for the listener.

You very recently turned 40. What have you learnt from your 30s up until this moment?

The thing I’ve learnt about life, in general, is that we know nothing. The things that used to be important to us, as we grow, we outgrow them. The things that were important to us 5 or 10 years ago are not as important to us now. Like I was telling somebody yesterday, you know you can be aging and you think that is growing, it’s not. So I try to be like a minimalist and define the important things that I want to chase in life. It’s setting your priorities right. However, I don’t feel 40. I just live my life as easy as it comes and try to steer clear of stress. Whenever I sense stress, I elope *laughs*

What was growing up like for you? Can you describe your family structure growing up?

I grew up with my grandmother, she was a petty trader. She was always selling things in seasons for instance if it was an orange season, she was selling oranges; if it were a banana season, we’re doing bananas. It was that kind of household where there was never enough but we strive regardless. Growing up with an old woman, you have to be an adult at a very young age. It was me doing laundry, dishes, sweeping the whole compound, and going to the market as early as 10 years old. You have to look after yourself basically because you don’t want to stress your old grandma.

You’re saying you had a fun childhood?

I had a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else because those are the things that fashioned me the way I am. This was what brought me here. If I had rich parents and had things my way growing up, I wouldn’t have been here.

Who are your kids? Tell me about them.

Timi Dakolo's Children

From left: Zoe, Alexander and Hallel

They’re all brilliant children and I will say for one, they are different sets of very unique human beings and I try to relate to them on that basis. Zoe is the quiet one, albeit very precise. It’s hard to convince her not to do the things she wants to do. Zoe tells you I want this kind of pizza with this particular topping on it. She would tell you “when you were buying that stuff for me, make sure it is in pink.” “I want a crop top, I don’t want this kind of gown”, she’s that specific. You can’t convince her to take something else, she will sulk the whole day.
The next is Hallel; she’s very dramatic. tries to change your mind and the decisions you have made. She will play with you and all of that, she knows the perfect time to strike you. She knows when you’re happy and that’s when she asks you for things.
Then my son Alexander is the least problematic as he just wants to play his video games. He doesn’t like it when you’re not happy with him. One of the best things I discovered this week is that my son can sing *laughs*. Also naturally, he can write. He wrote something that I found one day and I was marvelled by how well he writes for a 10-year-old. These are the things that we ought to look out for in our kids instead of trying to force them into the traditional white- collar industry.
So that’s my children for you. They always want what they want and I like that in them as you can’t easily manipulate them.

Your parents… I’ve scoured the Internet for something about them and I found little to no information on them. Please who are they?

My parents were too young to take care of me so they dropped me off with my grandmother. By the time they came back for me, I was already used to living with my grandma so I opted to remain with her. They were in Lagos and I grew up in Port Harcourt.

If you were going to open up a show for any artist, who would it be?

I’d love to open for Jay-Z. I know it’s an unexpected option but I’m a big Jay-Z fan. If I had given you 25 options to pick from you wouldn’t have picked him *laughs*

So what artists do you admire?

I kind of listen to everything. I’ve always been a fan of Asa, Davido, Wizkid, I listen to everybody including the new artists that are springing up, the likes of Fireboy, JoeBoy, my friends VK, Blessed and a lot of artists that are less popular with awesome songs. Before I sleep now, I just put on the Nigeria playlist on my Apple Music and let it just keep playing.

Aren’t you afraid that, that might influence your craft?

It used to in the early stages. But I’m a grown man now. Now I just listen to it for the fun of it not like I want to pick a thing or two. What I do as a songwriter is when I listen to music, I try to understand what the artist’s state of mind was like whilst they were writing the song. I try to decipher what the story behind the song is. Like if I hear a song by Bob Marley for instance, I’m thinking about where he was when he chose that chord progression. I like creating images in my head as I listen and ask a lot of questions like “why this, why that?” So the answers to these questions form principles that guide me when I write. I like to dissect songs.

At what point did you get intrigued about your sound?

I don’t tell people that I was an accidental musician. To become a musician was never the plan for me. I grew up in a family where the typical mentality was to study hard, get good grades, graduate, get a job in Shell, settle down and go on vacation with your kids. However, I was just always close to where music was being played and it made me feel a certain way. I grew up in a house where they play a lot of reggae music – my aunt’s husband, we all stayed together with my grandmother. I used to sing these songs all the time. I even had a music book where I would write lyrics of songs. I did all of these things but it was never the plan to become a musician. It was after I won the competition that the plan changed to a ‘maybe’. You dare not dream to become a musician growing up in the household I did. Of course, I was in the choir and I was in a few groups but those were the things you do during your spare time. Even after winning the West African Idol, I didn’t know what the next move was. For the duration of the show, we were doing covers of people’s songs. Now that the show was over, I had to come up with original songs and I didn’t know how to go about it. For about 3 years after I left West African idols, I didn’t put anything out. That was because I did intensive research and reading most especially on how to make music after which I’d meet Cobhams. I would listen to songs and make my own versions of them in my head. That was how I began making music.

How would you describe the music that you create?

I am very intentional about the things I put out. I like them to be evergreen, to speak to different aspects of humanity.
I like them to be here when I’m gone.
I am my biggest critic. My job is to speak to the heart of the listeners.
To create an experience that doesn’t go anywhere; that even as you grow old, you can tell people about the experience.

What is your creative process?

I have my creative hours and I think it is early morning. I think my mind is at best very early before the distractions of the day. I think that when an idea comes to you, don’t wait till later to attend to it. I could be in a conversation with the president, Buhari, and if I had the idea of a beautiful song, I’d ask to be excused to go record it as a voice note on my phone. Sometimes, it is just a hum that comes to me with no lyrics to it. Other times it is a conversation that doesn’t concern me or something someone says. Sometimes it is something I heard in a movie; I’d rewind it and write it down. The fire that burns a house down started with just a spark so no idea is a waste.

In your home, who plays the good cop and who plays the bad cop?

I am the bad cop. Somebody has to do the job. My children know that I’m their guy but there are times when I’m their daddy.

Of all your performances, which would you say was the most memorable?

I’ve had a few though. There was a wedding that stood out for me. The husband told her that I couldn’t make it and all she had wanted was for me to be there. Then I eventually showed up and she couldn’t stop crying. The emotion displayed was so surreal.

If you could change anything in the industry, what would you change?

I’d want us to have a structure. If we had a structure, everyone would make more money. We don’t have to change anything as it is, we just need a system that everyone adheres to. If we have that in a place where creatives are reaping the fruits of their labour, our job is almost done. Sadly, in Nigeria, everything goes.
History, we’ve had foreign countries come to Africa to monetize our resources under false pretences. Fast forward to decades later, we are having foreign labels coming to tap and monetize our resources musically. Do you think we are ready for this, are we prepared to handle it better than our progenitors, and how do we use this to our advantage in pushing African music and culture?
Like I said, in every aspect of structure that is the building, human capital, the know-how, sales and everything that needs to be put in place has to be put in place. A better awareness makes you make better choices but a lot of people in the industry don’t even know. People don’t know what is supposed to be there and what isn’t. We are just going as we’re going. People think the only way artists should make money is through shows but the truth is that once your music is being played on the radio, you’re supposed to earn. So we need people who know this music business for what it is to lead it. Having been in the game for a long time doesn’t make you a better leader. That position should be based on merit and not just based on how long you’ve been around.

What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten and by whom?

A while ago, an older friend said to me “Don’t glory in yesterday’s victory.” If you glory too much in your yesterday’s win, you won’t put enough effort into today’s work. This is what is wrong with a lot of artists as you would notice. Their debut album is always their best work. That’s because of the energy and time they put into the first one and it becomes big, they oftentimes don’t replicate it. Oga Femi gave me that advice.
My second best advice was given to me by my mathematics teacher, Mr.
Odu. I was one of the best at maths at the time so I wasn’t paying attention as I ought to as I already knew what he was teaching. He then sat me down, wrote something on the blackboard, and asked me to solve it. It was a simultaneous equation with three variables and I didn’t know it. He then said, “never assume that you know because the day you have told yourself that you know, nothing can be added to what you’ve claimed to know and there is always another level to knowledge.”

How were you able to drown out all the media focus on your marriage?

In a relationship and a marriage, three is a crowd. It is what the both of you agree on and see as important that is truly important. Anyone that comes to say something else is not as important. I told someone at the time; the truth is the truth no matter what you choose to do with it, it remains the truth. The truth is the most powerful thing. Truth and love together are so powerful nobody can defeat them. I love my baby (wife) and my baby loves me and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. Someone tried to warn me that how I handled the situation would affect my career and I didn’t take that likely. I will always know how to sing but I will not always have the opportunity to defend my family. I will always have the opportunity to make good music because I know the ropes of it but I will not always have the opportunity to make my wife feel safe in moments like this. When we made our vows on the altar and we swore to stand by each other for better or worse, we never thought about what the worst would be but that period was the worst so I had to stand by my word and defend it. The same people who tried to tell me I was damaging my career standing by my wife are the same ones vibing to my new song now. The frailty of men is that they don’t get it. Do the important things and the rest would take care of themselves.

How did this affect your children?

I sat them down and told them exactly what happened. I told them that one day they’re going to hear about it so they need to hear it from me and there’s nothing to be ashamed of nor angry about. The fact is that their daddy and mummy stood by each other and fought through it together. At the end of the day, they are okay with it. Because of the way they’re going to grow in this internet age, it is surely going to pop up when they grow older so they must know about it all as early as possible.

What’s the advice you would give new artists?

The reason why I would never attest to the fact that I’ve blown is that after one blows, nothing comes next. So that feeling in itself is dangerous as there’s always a different higher level. If you’re on a commendable high level, but still think there’s a level higher you need to get to, you’ll wake up the next morning wanting more out of life.

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