Waje sits in front of the mirror, in a blue chequered shirt, as a stylist tries to roll her hair into a bun. It’s been 5 years since she released ‘I wish’, the 2013 hit single that led the drive for “W.A.J.E”, her debut album which cemented her place in mainstream consciousness. The album and everything that came with it, was a huge personal success that it became one of the best projects released by women in Nigeria. Now Aituaje Iruobe, 38, is facing a different type of growth, a new chapter that has her split between hope and introspection.
“I think the one thing I would really love them to know is my versatility, you understand?” she asks as we discuss the story. “I feel so many times including myself, I have boxed myself based on what I feel people want to hear,” she says, her eyes looking into the distance. “And I also feel people have also seen me in a particular way maybe because the first thing you think of when you talk about Waje is her voice.”
She isn’t wrong. Waje is regarded as one of the best vocal powerhouses of her generation of Nigerian musicians. Her vocal range covers three octaves and serves as the basis of all the good that has happened. She is a songstress with a strong performance focus, delivering specially curated sets with every chance. I have seen her do this a lot in the past 5 years.
Every time Waje takes on a crowd, at many points during her set, you could hear the crowd yell in a climaxing mix of delight and stupefaction. After a rousing performance at the 2014 Triple 9 concert organized by Beat FM in Lagos, a colleague had said, he had never heard a live voice sound so good. “There are certain types of songs and performances, and the truth is if you now look at the body of my discography, you see that there are some things that I have the ability to do,” she explains. “I might not be able to do them two hundred percent but you can see that it’s there. So, I just feel like as I discover myself more, people should trust me enough and journey with me and not necessarily put me in that box.”
With each sentence, you can hear Waje grappling with plans for the future in an industry that have embraced her voice but not all of her music. When I mention the word ‘redefinition’ as a unifying theme for her next career steps, she screams out in a Eureka-style admission. “oh! That is the hardest thing. Because to be honest eh, you first have to know where you’re coming from for you to redefine. And sometimes it gets hazy – like there is no clear picture.” She’s right.
Of all the demands the Nigerian music industry places on musicians at the highest level, the most daunting is the subconscious demand for a defined persona. Fans want a unique personality to back the art. They also demand constant growth of that personality, pushing fine musicians to the edge. How do you ceaselessly edit yourself and offer a newer version to people with roving attention spans, whose very decisions mean that you get to eat tomorrow? It’s an exercise that cuts deep and demands that you edit the core of your artistry and life to stay relevant. No one truly knows how to achieve it.
“There is no manual to it and sometimes people do by it a fluke,” Waje explains. “Sometimes you could just do one song and it would enter, and you’d be like ‘Okay this is the lane o’. So I don’t know man,” she resigns. “I don’t know about redefinition. I don’t know if I’ve been able to redefine myself. I know that I am on a journey where I’m discovering more and I’m willing to do more.”
She continues: “When I started in the music industry right, I was always about ‘Oh no, maybe we should do it like this because this is the type of gig we want, or we should do it like that”. But I started discovering that, at some point, it became boring for me and I’m a creative. When it becomes boring for you, there’s no zest, there’s no zeal, it’s just like a chore, and you’re doing the same thing over and over again.
“Redefinition for me is not just in music, but in style and persona. I feel maybe it shouldn’t solely be the artist’s job. We sometimes take just the creative side of things and especially for some that have done it for such a long time. If you check, they have the best teams because they are the ones who have fresh young people who see something that you don’t see and ask “why don’t you try it like this?” and you’d find out that “wow, why didn’t I think of it like that.”
Waje talks excitedly about her latest album “Red Velvet.” It’s taken her 5 years since her debut LP to return with another. Backed by guest efforts from love-merchants, Johnny Drille and Adekunle Gold, she unfurls a winding story about love, all of its various stages, emotions and drama. It’s a warm, heart-tugging experience, crammed with personal stories drawn from her and her loved ones experiences in romance. She blushes when I praise it and explains the unconventional nature of the record. She had spent years working on it but abandoned it for a more commercial EP which tentatively features Timaya, Phyno and Zoro. On completion, she compared both projects, and the weirdest thing happened; she was drawn in by the stories, rather than the vibe. After sampling it to trusted ears, she made the step to drop it due to the storytelling.
“At some point, the producers like Johnny Drille talk sey ‘mama, wetin happen, release this music’ Adekunle would say ‘Waje wey our song?’ I’d say “it’s there o” and the strange thing is that they didn’t even know that there was a possibility that those songs would never come out because I had started working on another project,” she shares.
“Red Velvet is a journey of a confused lover that went from. She has experienced love in different phases; Love between a friend, love between a lover, love between a child. So, love is not just one word for her or him. It has different faces and that’s why I called it “Red Velvet.” Because when you put all those faces together, it’s like the ingredients of a Red Velvet cake. Some sour, some sweet. But what comes out of it is a beautiful cake.”
Waje’s first taste of mainstream attention was unconventional. Her vocals sweetened Psquare’s classic smash hit single ‘Do me’. It was the start of an illustrious journey that included sharing stages with Wyclef and Keri Hilson, lifting up a classic Nigerian love song – M.I Abaga’s ‘One Naira’ – and a string of social campaign and advocacy programs to improve the lives of marginal people. In 2015, Waje headlined the song ‘Strong girl’ theme song for ONE Campaign’s ‘Poverty is Sexist.’ She also joined U2 frontman, Bono in Lagos for the campaign.
This organic growth through the years has had her become a mentor to musicians, who regard her as both big sister and idol. She says she doesn’t feel the weight of that growth, because she is yet to achieve her targets for this phase of her career. Although she doesn’t share what that goal is but admits that “I don’t like when people call me legend. I don’t think I’m in that space. I know that yes, I have inspired some people. But I don’t think I’m in that space. So, I feel like that mindset makes me hungry because I am still yearning for something that I haven’t gotten. For me, when I’m reminded of 2012 and 2010 and 2009 and 2008, I’d be like: “oh, that’s true, I dey that time”
“And it scares me because as I grow older I ask myself; ‘this jump-rope wey you don keep for yourself, you go fit?’ And it also makes me realize that there are so many things about myself that I have to really work on as an artist,” she says.
Waje grew up in Benin City, Edo state, where she was raised by her parents. Her daughter, Emerald, is 19. In January, she went into business with her best friend and colleague, Omawumi. The duo announced a new company – Hernanes Media – which would provide services including film/TV production, TV adverts, content creation, brand event activation, and creative digital marketing. She giggles when I highlight her relationship with Omawumi. “Yes it’s a great friendship, but we fight,” she admits, still laughing. “You know, iron sharpeneth iron,” she says with glee. “And you want to be around people that want you to grow and you genuinely want them to grow, because then you guys have the same ideologies about how to get there.”
True friendships in the Nigerian music industry are rare. It’s a system designed to be a facade; a deceptive veil, where everyone has to play nice on TV. When you scratch the underbelly of the industry, and pull back the curtains, you often find an entirely different scenario, almost the opposite of the glitter and camaraderie that’s projected on TV and social media. Artists working hard at undermining each other because of perceived competition. It’s hard to imagine that a real friendship can be had, let alone thrive in a place that’s designed to choke it. “It’s not supposed to be a big deal,” she agrees.
“Sometimes, Chidinma and I hang. There are times where Tiwa and I would have conversations. There are times when Seyi Shay and I would reach out to each other. Yemi Alade is my girl.” For women, these relationships are rarer, with comparisons and fan objectification fueling inexplicable beef. “It’s just like you’re working in a bank,” she explains. “You can be friends with people in the same industry as you and genuinely desire that they do well because it doesn’t stop your shine. We’ve just been told this lie that we are all competitors. Competition is great but it can be healthy. Competition is important but it can be healthy.”
There is an air of renewed resolution about Waje. She’s excited about everything. She cracks one-liner jokes all through the photo shoot. She’s also controlling the music in the room, scanning through her iPhone to switch tracks. At some point, she cues in 6LACK’s ‘Pretty Little Fears’, and everyone sings along. “You people have to pay for this song oh,” she mocks.
“Away from all these professional desires and new opportunities, what would be the one thing that would make you happy as a person?” I ask. She’s spent all day being Waje the musician, Waje the businesswoman, and Waje the industry leader. She stops, her smile vanishes as she looks to the floor as if she’s deciding which of her many desires would be the one that gets shared today. She chooses, smiles again and shares it, but not before mildly complaining that the question was too “deep.”
Her response was deep too: “Let me be honest with you, it would be nice to be in a stable relationship. It would be nice to know what that feels like. Sometimes maybe because of my job, it’s not like I don’t go on dates, but sometimes I get busy. And at a time where I don’t get busy I now want my space. So it would be nice to balance that side of my life. I think that would be nice.”
This article was written by Joey Akan; he tweets via JoeyAkan