In June of 2015, MTV Base Africa nominated Jovi for a Best Francophone award. That made him, a Cameroonian, a contender in a category reserved for artists from places that had been colonized by French-speaking countries. It’s an arbitrary, almost frustrating criterion when you consider that his “Anglophone” African counterparts were selected according to their style of music. Each year, similar pan-African music award shows roll into town only to flag up the same shortcomings of this homogenous approach to covering a continent whose regions, dialects, and musical subcultures are dizzyingly varied and interconnected.
Jovi’s “Zélé,” the climactic mid-point of his 2015 KORA-nominated sophomore album Mboko God, is like a snapshot of his nuanced aesthetic. Rhyming in Pidgin, French and English, Jovi hat-tips fellow Cameroonian Zele Le Bombardier, an artist who makes an intense strand of regional dance music called Bikutsi. The song is a rallying cry for a positive national self-regard in the face of economic hardships. Per Jovi’s trademark, it combines trap bass and heavy snares with traditional Cameroonian sounds. Jovi also works behind the boards, producing for the diverse roster at his trailblazing New Bell Music. He’s also been collaborating with world-renowned artists like Akon, whose latest “Shine The Light” he co-wrote and produced.
On a recent Friday, I spoke with Ndukong Godlove Nfor, aka Jovi Le Monstre, while he was enjoying some rare downtime in his apartment in the capital city of Douala. Several times during the interview, the phone connection cut out. As we alternated between his two lines, Nfor told me this type of thing is not uncommon, and apparently the electricity is equally erratic. But it's clear obstacles like that do little to douse his primary ambition: to lead his country back to its former artistic glory.
What is like to be a working musician in Cameroon today?
For the microphone that any given recording artist is using, I know the cheaper version that will give you the same result. They will compare me directly with whoever is big in the U.S., so I had to learn how to create industry-standard mixes by figuring out which equipment I would have to use to achieve that. I’ve had to become a super tech geek by being in an environment where you gotta use stones to light the fire.
What drew you to hip-hop growing up?
I was born in 1983, so when I was coming up all the other genres were getting to their maturity. Usually the type of art that will attract an artist makes them want to be part of something where he feels like he can contribute something new to help it evolve. Growing up, I think what rock&roll was to my parents what hip-hop was to me. That was the voice of the the rebel artist.
When you look at publications that cover the African continent, do you feel well represented?
I look at stuff like their award shows. I look at all the [mostly Nigerian and South African] names, and it feels like mine only ever comes up for them to pretend to have diversity. That’s part of the reason why I don’t often collaborate. I don’t want someone to take something that’s mine and own it. I want people to give due credit like, okay, this is something from Cameroon. Let’s see what happens when it mixes-up with this,’ as opposed to ‘this is the Nigerian and this is the guy from some other African country singing with him.’ That’s how it feels.
I recorded a collaboration with Wizkid in 2011. He hopped on one of the songs I had produced for one of my artists, but we didn’t put it out. I could not see how it was gonna help me, especially because at the time I was trying to build a sound that is my own. All that would have done is accelerate the fame, not enhance the music.
Those kinds of collaborations have become increasingly popular. Do you think they work?
Yes, they do. Because you’re dealing people who have codes and reference points with which to attribute success. You have to hop out of a private jet to show that you have money. So now if I wanna do a good video I just gotta rent a private jet even though I’ve never been in one. In the same way it’s as easy as going ‘Who is the guy on TV? I’m gonna do a song with that guy so that when it comes out everyone’s gonna know I made it.’ But usually when you read between the lines, someone is fucking [someone else]. It’s not an artistic environment where there’s sharing. It’s just the bigger artist dictating how things are gonna go.
Do major labels have a presence in Cameroon?
Major labels have no presence. I can say I am the first artist that has spoken to majors while sitting here. In the ’80s they used to sign the big [Cameroonian] artists. They would look at you all the way from France, like, ‘There’s this guy that’s popping from Cameroon we should get him over here and record. Oh, they don’t have violins, we should get him an orchestra.’ But now with the internet, everything’s changed. I was in my bedroom when Akon called me.
How do you balance being an artist with being a label boss?
If I had to watch TV to get an idea of who the next Jay Z is I wouldn’t be doing this. You gotta spot him while he is right there in front of you wearing a bathrobe and slippers with a toothbrush in his hands talking about going to his next shift at a restaurant. I have that ability. And I can see soul music in Makossa and Makossa in soul. [Makossa is a popular, brass-heavy Cameroonian dance music]. There is always a landing spot where songs have a junction.
“For the microphone that any given recording artist is using, I know the cheaper version. I’ve had to become a super tech geek by being in an environment where you gotta use stones to light the fire.”
You spent some time studying in India. Why did you choose to go there?
I actually had wanted to study in the UK but I couldn’t afford it. It was that substitution thing again. It was like, Where can I get a cheaper England? And that’s how I found out about India and ended up going to get my degree there instead. While studying in India, I lost count of the number of people I met who were intellectually amazing—just these incredible minds with complex thoughts about the simplest things. But at the same time, they were broke. It was very humbling. I came to realize there is a place for everyone. We have to hold each other’s hands. I met my label partner Rachel Burks there. She was working in conflict resolution and when we met, we just clicked. We travelled together and started the label.
What made you start your own label?
I have always been clear that I don’t wanna sound like someone else. I want the music I make to have my perspective. When you heard West Coast rap back in the days, there was a certain funk to it. The south slowed it down, and we have trap today. All of it though, is already accepted universally as hip-hop, which means there are some codes that you have to have. A tint or a color that shows where you’re coming from.
One of the reasons I started the label was to regain the artistic pride that Cameroon has lost over the years. Cameroon is actually a superpower when it comes to music. I don’t think there’s a country that plays music like us. We have the best African Jazz artists—guys like Richard Bona who work with Quincy Jones and Japanese Jazz/Bossa Nova artist Sadao Watanabe. We have Mano Dibango. People here don’t think highly of Hip-hop. They think it’s childish. To gain credibility, I have had to demonstrate—using the art form, the engineering, and technology—that we are undeniable.