The life of Adedamola Adefolahan, professionally known as Fireboy DML, has been altered irreparably in the past two years. If we were back in 2018, Fireboy would be spending his summer days cooped up at a friend’s place, using their home-studio (a set-up that’s commonplace in Nigeria’s music scene, owing to a lack of accessible professional resources) recording embryonic versions of his sweet, melodic tracks, and nurturing dreams of becoming a star.
Now, Fireboy DML has millions of fans from across the world streaming his second album, Apollo, and a relentless schedule of international press duties. Ten nominations and two wins in local Nigerian awards, radio appearances from BBC 1Xtra to Apple Music’s Beats1, and two entries into the Billboard charts have all become his new reality.
It was his breakout single, Jealous, which introduced Fireboy DML to Nigerian listeners on a compilation from the label to which he’s signed, YBNL (Yahoo Boy No Laptop) Nation.YBNL is helmed by Nigerian music mogul and indigenous rapper, Olamide, and also represents DJ Enimoney and Temmi Ovwasa.
However, it wasn’t until Jealous’ theatrical music video dropped that the track infiltrated the wider public consciousness, dominating radio channels and generating ten million streams in just 18 months. Fireboy had a bona fide hit on his hands, the infectious, circular groove of the track heard everywhere from sweat-soaked nightclubs in Lagos’ affluent Victoria Island, to fashion parties in east London.
Now, just shy of two years since the career-defining single, Fireboy’s long list of accolades is backed up by a “classic” (his own estimation, but one with which we’d concur) debut album, Laughter, Tears and Goosebumps, and his latest, more ambitious release, Apollo.
Focused entirely on writing and recording, Fireboy describes the recent lockdown as something of a blessing. “Thank God! I can actually have my own personal space, and I can work,” was his reaction to the quarantine announcement that shut down Lagos State at the end of March. This preference for solitude is partly rooted in the way that he works creatively, but also a survival mechanism in the face of huge levels of fame and the pressures which come with it.
Ever since Wizkid’s Ojuelegba brought a newly international dimension to contemporary Nigerian music in the form of a Drake co-sign, attention on the country’s pop stars has been intense, with Davido, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy etc. all paving the way for emerging acts to blossom both at home and abroad. Thanks to the scrutiny that those artists brought to Nigeria, a new wave of artists including Fireboy, Rema, Lyta plus Cruel Santino, Tems and Odunsi of the Alté movement – are enjoying international acclaim right alongside their growth at home.
But this growth and success comes at a price. “Fame comes with a lot of things,” explains Fireboy. Romantic propositions, critical expectation, pressure to live up to fans’ impossible expectations, and, most disappointingly, a stream of homophobic remarks aimed at his sartorial style (his nails, which are currently painted a gothic black to match his black durag and plush velvet dress shirt, also black, are a particular target these days). Fireboy’s own response to these comments on Twitter was a six-second video of him showing off the nails with a single word caption: Misfit.
But all of this drama is outshone by the impact of his music. Having blended Afrobeats with R&B and pop balladry on his debut album, Apollo is a markedly more ambitious piece of work from Fireboy.
Favourite Song brings back echoes of disco, while New York City Girl’s production blends dancehall with folk-leaning guitar chords. On single Eli, he incorporates Han Chinese musical elements into Pheelz’s Afropop drum patterns, before the song climaxes with the kind of acidic, distorted guitar soloing that marked Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain in an earlier generation. “Not all my songs are about me,” he insists of the lyrical content. “I write about the experiences of other people. Sometimes I actually just imagine stuff. I mean, can a man be allowed to imagine for once?”
“I’ve always been that lonely kid in the corner of my room writing dark poems,” he says of his focus on words, recalling school days comfortably switching between the study of Greek mythology and the crafting of love letters to potential love interests, before fully studying English at Nigeria’s prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University. He clearly views this new record as a quantum leap forward from his previous work. “I want people to understand my growth as an artist and as a human being. Nothing more.”
Fireboy sees the unifying thread of the album as being his own style, one he calls “Afro-life”. “Afro-life is not a genre of music for the umpteenth time.” What Afro-life is, is the identity Fireboy gives to his own brand of music that focuses on lyricism (Airplane Mode) or soulful predilections (Dreamer). It’s the painstaking attention he pays to what each instrument – be it the drums, the keys, the trumpets or his signature acoustic guitar – is doing on the beat (“I admit, I [am] big trouble when it comes to that… I give a lot of producers hassle”). Afro-life is the sound that emerges from Fireboy’s personal bubble, the product of lockdown, obsessive focus and the creation of his own visual identity. Ultimately, Fireboy proclaims, pushing his hands into his chest in sincerity, “This is my shit”.