Joey Akan: Journey in Nigerian music & Afrobeats Intelligence.

Toluwani Omotesho


With the current wave of “Afrobeats to the world,” we’re seeing Nigerian music take the world by storm.

In our recent Limitless podcast, we spoke with Joey Akan, an award-winning journalist, writer, member of the GRAMMY Recording Academy, and A&R and media consultant. He talks about how his passion for music shaped his career as a music journalist and shares fresh insights into the complexities of business in the Nigerian music industry.

Journey Before Journalism

You’re well known as a music person, but let’s talk about your journey before journalism and getting into music. What was it like?

It wasn’t a very great journey. It involved sleeping in markets, begging for food from restaurants, and foraging through refuse dumps to get books to read. But this flipped in 2013 when I moved to Lagos to build a life after graduating. Ten years down the road, and I’m way different from that person.

Before journalism, I was just a kid with a prayer, and journalism helped me understand the world a lot more. I was drawn to music because it was this beauty that sprayed my brain with the right chemicals. I’ve always been attracted to the mastery of sound and with journalism, I was able to   combine writing, which I enjoyed, and music.

What exactly is it about music that does it for you?

There’s something special about sound and what it does to you. I think of it in two ways. First, the intrinsic value in itself. The mastery of creativity and manipulating sound waves to create beauty. But, I also think about the utility of it, i.e., what it does for me.

There’s also the other part where I use music as a marker for time. So, different periods of my life have been soundtracked by different records and albums. The first time I backpacked out of the city for a West African tour, I listened to The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. During the #EndSars protests, Wizkid’s Made in Lagos soundtracked that period of my existence, and currently, it’s OdumoduBlvck. So, apart from storing time, it also holds memories for you; you hear a song, and you’re hit with a wave of nostalgia. When you combine all these things, the marvel creating music itself and the benefits that it gives, what’s there not to love? So, for me, it’s not a hustle. Falling into the deep end of sound has never been a hustle for me, and even writing is just beautiful, so I feel privileged.

How did you go from studying biochemistry to this?

Biochemistry? I needed a degree, and people were paying for it. But looking back, I also needed the structure, the learning, community, and friendships. In school, you can test yourself and follow the rules. Your brain learns many things, and along the way, you pick up things you fall in love with. You’re able to get so much knowledge that it makes you a richer person. I worked at a hospital for a while after graduating but didn’t like it; there was too much sadness there, so I followed my joy.

Have you considered doing more than you currently do in music?

I do more; I just don’t flaunt it. I’ve worked at Universal and consulted for multiple record labels, which I’m still doing. I’ll probably go in-house officially at some point; I also scout and work with artists. I do a lot of this currently. It’s my job and what I do for a living.

Do you have other interests?

Yes, I have multiple interests. My job is to intellectualize music or add literature to sound, but I also do other things like making visuals and hosting a podcast. This year, I’ll be doing events, and I’m also building an agency.

That’s great. What would you say are your top 5 Afrobeats songs from 2023?

Number one should be Omah Lay’s “Reason,” OdumoduBlvck’s “Commend,” Rema’s “DND,” and then BNXN’s “Pidgin & English.” You could also throw in Davido’s “Feel” because I think it’s the most complete song of 2023. Everything was perfect. Then lastly, Ayra Starr’s “Rhythm & Blues”.

Afrobeats Intelligence

Coming back to journalism, tell me about Afrobeats Intelligence.

So, Afrobeats Intelligence was something I created as a reaction to walls closing in on me in 2020. Editorial budgets were drying up around America, Europe, and the UK. I wasn’t getting as many commissions locally because I wasn’t the most loved person in the industry. I used to be a troublemaker, and those things come at a cost; they take their toll. People started retreating from me. At that point, I decided to create my own thing, and that’s how Afrobeats Intelligence started.

It started as a newsletter that has grown into tens of thousands of subscribers. We’ve expanded to multimedia, producing podcasts and videos; we also executed our first live event last year in partnership with Spotify. We did a live recording this year; we’ll do four, one every quarter. What makes me happy about this is that it’s a work of passion, and I’m grateful it’s working.

Did you envision how far you’d go, especially with Afrobeats Intelligence?

I just wanted to create my thing. I’ve never been one to make long-term plans. So, when I started, it was just a newsletter. But, I kept my eyes and ears open, observed everything, and was open to change despite fear. So I didn’t envisage anything. I just want to do the best work with all my resources, and I’m grateful that God continues to bless and support it.

That’s inspiring. Coming to the Grammys. How did you become a member of the recording academy, and how does it feel?

It started with me being in many meetings when the GRAMMY category for Africa was created. Then, earlier last year, they called and asked if I wanted to be a member and wrote a recommendation letter — you need two strong recommendations from people in the music industry. I applied and was accepted. These things are mostly nice to have; it’s an excellent opportunity to shape the narrative of global music, especially now that our music has such a significant impact on the world. It’s good to have someone in the room speaking for our artists and I’m happy I have the rare privilege of participating in this.

Love it. So, as an A&R, you’ve seen and worked with many artists. What do you think of the saying, “If you never reach Lagos, you never blow”?

I think it holds a lot of truth. I’m grateful now that we’re trying to be more decentralized, with a few artists trying to be exceptions. But at the crux of it, Nigeria doesn’t have a music infrastructure. And the tiny infrastructure that does exist is in Lagos; the machinery, companies, and execs are all here. The pipeline is here. Lagos has the most vibrant fans; you can see how they relate with the music. So why would you not want to give yourself a shot at greatness by moving to that spot? If you’re striving for excellence, you want to be at the top of your game at the highest levels of it, and Lagos affords you that opportunity.

What can you tell me about streaming farms?

So, for artists, music is about invention. You invent a new sound or a new style of sound. You create the visuals and aesthetics that come with this sound. You contrive events to promote it and call it marketing. However, the only thing you can’t event or could not previously event is feedback. But now, with technology, it’s getting easier to invent feedback, and that’s what stream farming does. It makes everyone think your music is good. It gives you great numbers and you use those numbers for marketing. But at the end of it all, it doesn’t help. It’s a crime against yourself; it ruins your metrics and numbers and is deceptive to the public.

Legacy in the Music Ecosystem.

Wow. Let’s talk about your legacy for a bit. What kind of impact do you think your work has on the music ecosystem in Africa?

On the journalistic side, people interested in being music journalists can see that creating value from something as inconsequential as writing or talking about music is possible. They can see that it’s possible to make a career out of it if you do it right. I don’t know how long this will last, but I’ve had a very good run and am grateful for it.

From the music aspect, it’s primarily teaching. I’m allowing a generation of artists and would-be artists to learn about the industry from the right sources. So, a kid in Uyo who dreams of being an artist can learn about the creative aspect and the business side of the music industry.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I’d like to be remembered for doing my own thing, and somehow, the world found value in it and got impacted positively. And if that impact is my legacy, I’m happy for it.

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