Culture Custodians #3: Lil Kesh

In January 2014, the name Lil Kesh meant nothing to you and I. 18 months later in August 2015, he is one of the hottest acts out; a representative of the streets and the definition of a breakaway star. Shoki attained levels that very few could have achieved at entry point into the industry and it thrust the 21-year-old from Bariga onto the path of superstardom. Shoki was great but he’s taken steps showing he understands his market and put out great follow ups in Gbese and Efejoku that guarantee he’s definitely not on a one hit wonder. He’s also one hell of a performer.

A few weeks prior to our meeting, I sent out a couple of emails requesting a Kesh interview- I waited anxiously for a reply that never came. When I had lost all hope I got a message from a partner that an interview had been scheduled for the next week. The interview was scheduled for 12 noon on the 13th August 2015. I woke up that morning extra early and put all the Kesh music I had on repeat. At 1:30pm, we were still waiting for the address of Kesh’s location and I began to fear that all would not work out. Shortly before 2pm, we received the address of a studio in Gbagada where Kesh was recording. We move (d)!

Keshinro was born into a family of 5, the second of three kids and attended a number of primary schools- a byproduct of his refusal to take school seriously. Stockbridge College in his backyard, Bariga was the last school he attended before ending up at UNILAG. He claims that music was always the dream and he  learnt from the sounds of Wande Coal, M.I, Tu Face and many more picking up little things because no single artiste gave him all he wanted. He started off freestyling at UNILAG before he was lucky enough to get into the studio and start recording. One of his first recordings is the song that opened up the gates into the music industry for him, Lyrically. It was the song that Viktoh, his friend at the time and current label mate played to the King of the West, Olamide and led to Kesh getting his shot at music with the backing of the YBNL movement. We know the story from there. Generally, parents aren’t forthcoming to the idea of their children going into music, however with Kesh, they gave their blessings as it never stopped him from doing all that he needed to do which is evidenced by the fact that he is still studying linguistics at UNILAG despite the growth of his music career.

The typical musician claims there’s a message being passed across by his music, Kesh is typical in that sense. He admits that with every song he does there’s a message. With most of them thus far it’s been for the fans to dance, have fun and move their bodies. He claims that “the songs were for the good times.  They’ve all been for people to dance but I’m recording my album now so there will be songs that have deeper meanings there, just wait and see.” I stumbled on a tweet not too long ago that said, “By the time Lil Kesh retires, he will be NBC’s most banned artiste.” Kesh has actually been featured on a number of songs banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission for questionable lyrical content, Gbese, Shoki and Ladi to name a few. I probed Kesh on his vulgarity and claimed that a lot of people don’t understand what he is saying. For instance, very few people know that in Yoruba, Shoki loosely translates to a quickie. In what was a tetchy conversation, I told him about how I felt many people would listen to some of his songs less if they actually understood what was being said. As expected, he was quick to defend himself arguing that “People understand what I am saying and moreover I’m not violent or encouraging violence. I am vulgar because I choose to be but let’s get it straight, I don’t promote rape or violence or anything of the sort with my music so I don’t see how people understanding will impact things.”

What exactly YBNL is has continued to confuse many. In Gbemiga Ayeni’s interview with Pheelz, the producer claimed YBNL is a family as opposed to a record label. Olamide also once went on a rant on Twitter claiming that YBNL is everything but a record label. Go on the streets and ask the average person and you’d be told it’s a record label. Kesh stood by his colleagues when asked, stating that “it is a movement.” Olamide is the king pin at YBNL, and since Kesh came out last year he’s been called at various points,  Olamide’s “boy” and “protégé”. Sometimes, this can have a derogatory meaning but he is sanguine about it choosing to see  Olamide as his big brother and mentor. Olamide is putting him through things “When I came into the industry who else  would have helped me and taught me that this is what to do and what not to do?” I found it surprising that Kesh didn’t seem concerned about always being seen as Olamide’s boy and he went on to explain that, “Olamide picked me up from Bariga, the streets, so I owe him a lot. At the end of the day I look up to him, he’s my mentor so I don’t mind being called his boy. I want to be his boy sef.” Kesh’s allegiance to Olamide reminds me of so many other artistes who shared similar relationships and then fell out. Wande Coal and Don Jazzy, Wizkid and Banky W, May D and P Square. Some of these divorces weren’t smooth so I was keen to know how Kesh could be sure that the situation won’t be the same were he to decide YBNL wasn’t for him anymore. He once again replied that “YBNL isn’t a label, it’s a movement so basically I’m a free boy.” “Oh. So if a label came to you today you can sign with them?” “Yes now, but I will never. What do they have to offer me? What’s the point of signing to a record label when I have my own money to push my songs?” When asked whether pre Olamide giving him a shot he would have signed with a label, Kesh admitted that he would have “I was hungry and couldn’t afford it but YBNL invested in me despite not being a label so I now I can’t think about any label’s offer twice.”

YBNL is for the people. The artists  are street artists, something they particularly embrace. With so much affinity to the streets, international recognition can seem out of reach. Looking back at careers of 9ice, Da Grin and Olamide the argument can be made that all three artistes can boast of a combined total of one international award, Olamide’s Channel O Music Video Award for Most Gifted Western African video for Turn Up in 2014. The common theme- Yoruba lyrics might have limited appeal. Kesh does not agree and explained that he and Olamide will not deviate from what they do to win awards. “I don’t believe in that. Olamide is where he is today because he does his music in Yoruba. With awards it goes a long way, what if the songs in the category are better? Leave story, if it’s meant to be, it will come. The fact that one sings in Yoruba doesn’t affect too much. How about those South African guys (Cassper Nyovest) that don’t sing in English and win awards?” In Nigeria, Tu Face is pointed at the moment the word veteran is mentioned. It is near impossible to say there is any veteran in the music industry today that produced their music in their dialect. 9ice is a shoe in- however, his time at the top was very short-lived, he ran things for two years and since then has become preoccupied with political ambitions. Furthermore, it can be argued that children are losing touch with their local languages more. These factors remain reasons Kesh does his music dominantly in Yoruba and hopes that Olamide continues to also.

It can be argued that Nigerians don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics of songs until big claims are made on songs and then we actually notice that people were indeed listening. This was the case with Davido when he featured on his labelmate, Bred’s single Twerk It in 2014. Davido made claims that he made Shoki blow singing “she dance Shoki ooo, but she forget say na me make shoki blow.” I saw this as Davido claiming that Shoki would not have been hot without him when indeed Shoki was already doing well. I decided to ask Kesh what it feels like when someone tries to deprecate his work attributing the success of Shoki to good connections. Kesh swiftly blew out the fire stating that “Davido and I, we are good, anybody can say what he wants to say. I actually didn’t read any meaning to it, you will see two rappers on a song both claiming they’re the best, it’s all for the music at the end of the day. Three days ago we still turnt it up together at the club so we’re all good.”

Kesh became a celebrity overnight. 18 months ago, I didn’t know Kesh, the chances you did are minimal. Today he’s on par with some artistes that have been in the game for two-three years. I was keen on knowing how Kesh measures success and he explained to me that “People will see it and say ah that boy is successful, people will be listening to the music and at the same time money o. It’s a business so money is essential.” Kesh was a nominee for three awards at the Nigerian Entertainment Awards, the Best New Act, Song of the Year and Collaboration of the year and it was interesting discovering his approach to award shows. He claimed that “If I am nominated, I am happy because it means that I am being recognized, if I win good but if because of votes or politics, I don’t win, I’m still happy that I was recognized in the first place. I have to make my money at the end of the day.”

Kesh is set up for success in a number of ways. He is mentored by Olamide, arguably the hottest musician in Nigeria at the moment. He has broken into the industry comfortably and has a large following. Kesh represents the streets and is likely to always have their backing.  At the same time, he’s taking it further as he shall be touring the UK and Canada later this year. He shall also release his debut album towards the end of the year which ought to solidify his place. All in all, it shall be interesting watching Kesh continue to do his thing in the Nigerian music scene as he navigates the territory.