‘No Longer Would I Be Minimized to Support DJs’: Kah-Lo on the Challenges of Being a Nigerian, Female Dance Artist

Nigerian dance artist Kah-Lo released her debut album, Pain/Pleasure, on Sept. 8 via Epic Records. Here, she writes about the long journey that brought her to this achievement.

I always knew I would become a musician, before I even knew how to spell the word. I always wrote poetry and other bits, but didn’t start making music until I met a bunch of like-minded friends in secondary school in the mid-noughties. 

Prior to meeting these friends – most of them rappers and boys – a lot of my dreams of becoming a musician seemed so wildly far-fetched that at 13, my teachers and classmates once sat me down and, out of genuine concern, tried to talk me out of chasing these dreams.

Growing up in Nigeria at the time, telling most people you wanted to make music for a living was like telling them you wanted to toss your life in the trash. Telling them you wanted to make globally accepted music was even worse. To be a successful musician – one who made a lucrative living, was so beyond anyone’s imagination, you started to sound crazier the older you got.

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It was a dream that was never validated until I met those friends. We wanted to make music Nigerians had never even thought to make, and we wanted it to be so good it would be heard, respected, and measured on the same plane as the musicians we idolized. 

We started to see what could be possible when a label called Storm Records launched with a slew of rappers, musicians and producers fusing Nigerian instruments and slang with Western patterns and flow in a way we had never heard before. They had Naeto C and Ikechukwu, who came onto the rap scene fresh from New York. They also had Sasha P – a standout female MC who started out with one of the first rap collectives known as the Trybesmen. She came back on the scene with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lyrical maturity I’m still decoding to this day. 

It started to dawn on me that our dreams were, indeed, valid. These rappers weren’t making Afropop or Afro- anything. They were making rap. But this was 2007, and Afropop itself was barely even scratching the surface, let alone Nigerian artists making Western-adjacent music in Nigerian accents. However, I left Lagos for New York in 2009 — knowing at the very least, it was possible.

I eventually started cultivating a sound and posting my original music to SoundCloud. I started getting messages from DJs asking to use the monotone deadpan talk-rap sections of my reverb heavy alt-R&B over dance music. In that era, dance music was dubstep and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” so these requests confused me. How would it even work?

I eventually connected with electronic producer Riton via Twitter, and used what was then my last $20 to head to the studio in Brooklyn to record with him. We made two tracks. One of them was a carefully written alt-R&B number, and the other was “Rinse and Repeat.” 

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At his insistence, I used the talk-rap style over a minimalist dance beat he had made. I had never made dance music before – at least not intentionally. I couldn’t fathom how a genre I mostly associated with looped vocals and sample-heavy hits from the early-2000s by the likes of Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim and Groove Armada could possibly command significant attention. The climate of dance music I knew at the time didn’t accommodate such stylings. I cried on the way home and decided to move back home to Lagos since it was clear music wouldn’t work out for me. Who would listen to that?

I was wrong. The song became a global hit.

Over the next few years, I would perform in places I had yet to even dream of. All over Europe, North America opening for Sofi Tukker, touring in Australia and a brief gig in Russia. Albeit incredible, it was also a bit uncomfortable. The bulk of the shows would be lineups full of white male DJs where I’d end up being the only Black person/woman on the stage. Sometimes, it would be entire towns where I seemed to be the only Black person there at all. 

Once in a while, we’d do gigs where there would be other insanely talented Black artists in the green rooms – Raye, MNEK and Kelli-Leigh were frequent fixtures. However, I quickly started to notice, we weren’t on the lineups for our own merit. In most cases, we were there because we had collaborated on hit records with the white, male DJs who were booked for these gigs.

I dyed my wigs all sorts of bright colors to make sure I looked extra captivating on camera, because the recap videos and livestreams I asked my friends and family to watch almost always seemed to miss me. I figured perhaps I wasn’t dynamic enough on stage. 

I didn’t start attracting my own attention until I debuted an electric green wig in Ibiza in the summer of 2018. I visually became hard to ignore with such a bright color against my dark skin, and that bled into the music and my persona as well. Things started to change, and I started to get booked on my own accord – much to the chagrin of my collaborators.

We – the Black artists who made up the bulk of the vocal prowess that was in dance music – weren’t supposed to be in the limelight. We were supposed to live in the shrouded mystery of samples, topline vocalists or even session musicians. In dance music, the DJ was king. To draw attention to yourself in that way was to overstep, and to even be credited as a primary artist on a record was something you had to fight for, and viewed as a “favor” you were to be grateful for. 

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Meanwhile, Nigerian pop music was just starting to be recognized by mainstream media outlets as its own thing. My first few tracks had been referred to as having “Afrobeat elements” – I imagine due to my blended Nigerian accent. I had to constantly reiterate I was making house music, and not Afrohouse.

Regardless, it seemed like the very space I was taking up as an artist was defying odds, and it was wonderful, because it’s all I really ever wanted to prove. Being nominated for the Grammy for best dance recording in 2017, for “Rinse & Repeat,” was one of the best milestones of my career. One of the most respected musical bodies had recognized my art as it was, and not based it off of my cultural background.

I started getting collaboration requests on a larger scale from some of the biggest DJs in the world. Chances to release my own records were few and far between – and when I eventually did, I hardly got much support on the scale my features would. 

It wasn’t until my dear friend and DJ/producer, Michael Brun, taught me how to DJ that I fully understood the power of my vocals. The delivery and global citizen feel of it made it a perfect fit for beat-matching, and it was malleable enough to go over any beat style. It started to make sense why – since my days on SoundCloud and even to this day – my a cappellas were always in high demand. It gave me a new perspective, and I began understanding the power of “no,” for instance, when the track wasn’t one I felt was a good fit for me and my brand.

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Understanding that power, and going from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, opened me up to new opportunities. No longer would I be minimized to support DJs when I bring just as much to the track as they do. Some collaborators were not happy about this, and it led to a lot of friction, naturally so.

I moved back to New York and signed to Epic Records in 2020 at the peak of the global pandemic, and I released my debut EP in the summer of 2021, aptly called The Arrival.

For the first time in my career, I released a body of work that I had creative control over and truly represented me in every facet. It spawned a solo single on the Dance/Mix Show Airplay chart – a feat that was deemed unrealistic for a Nigerian and a Black woman making dance music.

“Drag Me Out,” a one-off single, followed the year after to the same acclaim. It wasn’t a fluke, and I could stand on my own. Black female “vocalists” – who are usually talented singer/songwriters in their own right – can stand on their own. I’m insanely proud of proving people wrong.

My debut album, Pain/Pleasure came out this past Friday, September 8th. The first half of it was written while I was going through a lot of these trials and tribulations, so I explore themes of anger on “fund$,” pain on the title track, and hurt on “Karma.”

The last half of it is a lot more triumphant, because through all of that and against all odds, I did it. I overcame, and there’s a lot to celebrate for it. 

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