“Fela represents freedom and he represents a revolution for what music is in Africa and what music is in Nigeria or what could be actually,” Lady Donli says on a rainy afternoon in Lagos, where she’s sipping tea from a cup, after braving unending traffic to get to her favorite cafe in Lagos’ Victoria Island. “I have the flu” she confesses while pointing to her nose. “Something with the weather.”
With aged cowries in her locks, huge beads hanging around her neck, a phone that never stopped beeping from notifications (which she profusely apologizes for at intervals), the 22-year-old cuts the perfect figure of an intersectional Millenial, blending elements from her local culture with an edgy fashion sense. She’s here for the tea, which she occasionally pours out of a blue kettle. This was the calm before the storm. Donli’s scheduled to play a set in a few hours at Felabration — an annual festival in honor of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti—which meant more than just another chance to thrill an audience. “Fela is a pan-African icon. Pan-Africanism and the belief of African unity are very important to me,” she says. It’s the first of three scheduled performances in the next three days, and to ensure vocal health, she pairing her tea with lemon and honey. At some point during our conversation, she’s interrupted by a staff of the cafe, who takes pictures for social media, while excitedly gushing that “Lady Donli stopped by my place!”
Donli’s music comes from many places and takes a lot of forms. She was born in Ohio, raised in Abuja, and currently moves between London and Lagos for work and family. Her sound — drawn from cross-cultural influences and eras—harmonizes soulful vocals, with deep Pan-African themes, genre-hopping, and a desire to provide escapism. “When I looked at my writing style, I looked at some of the melodies I used and I was like lots of older Nigerian early-2000 music definitely. But now, more so I've noticed music out of the ‘90s, ‘80s, The Fugees, Mad Man Jaga, and others,” she explains.
Donli’s debut album, Enjoy Your Life, is a buffet of retro-inspired African sounds, drawn from various parts of the continent, and melted into a sunny arch. With credited appearances from Tomi Thomas, Tems, BenjiFlow, SOMADINA, Amaarae, Solis, the Cavemen and R&B/Pop sibling duo, Vanjess, there’s enough diversity of delivery, and dynamism of melody.
Donli is a proud member of Nigeria’s ‘Alte community—a group of creatives defined by the characteristic counterculture approach to art and aesthetics. But her approach aims for a more inclusive approach. She names influences that include heroines Brenda Fassie, Erykah Badu, Angelique Kidjo, Asa, as well as local luminaries from Nigeria’s pop music pioneers like Tony Tetuila, Six Foot Plus. She talks with passion, running across a spectrum of emotions, often lingering around controlled rage. During our sit down, Donli talks strongly about her life, her music journey, Pan-Africanism, and spiritualism as a driving force for the physical.
What was childhood like for you?
To be fair. I mean, lived in Lagos when I was one to two so I don't count that part of my life because it's like it's vague memories I can't remember. I remember the sounds I heard growing up, dramatic experiences but not much more after that. But my life started in Abuja. We moved to Abuja when I was like four. Stayed in Abuja, Christmas in Kaduna so the North is like a very important part of my life. Went to college, A levels after I finished secondary school in England for two years, then university for three years. Then a lot of moving around after that. I feel like I was really sheltered as a child. The more I grow older the more I realized I was really sheltered. And it's easy to be sheltered when you grow up in Abuja because it's like ain't nothing happening there. And I have quite a big family. I have four brothers and my sister. And everyone is significantly older than me. My eldest brother is older than me with 21 years. I grew up with a lot of things going on at several points but moving around mostly after university is just like music.
Did you enjoy schooling?
I attended the University of Surrey...close to London. It's an okay experience. I wouldn't say it was fun, I mean I studied Law and I don't quite enjoy it. I wasn't happy. I left because I liked the city, I liked the people that I had met there and everything. There's just this form of stability that university gives you that's like before the adulthood somewhat strikes fully. So I finished off there, and then came to Nigeria, again Abuja, ain't nothing happening there so I came to Lagos. Because even when I was making music in college, everyone always tells me to come to Lagos, something is happening there. As soon as I graduated, I packed up my things and came back to Abuja. I came to Lagos for the first time in a long time. I was seeing everything that's happening here.
Right now, what determines your nomadic lifestyle?
It's my work, not choice. Because right now I'm at the point where I really would like to settle somewhere but it's like because of all the traveling I've done, it's kinda hard for me to choose where I want to be in and I just have to weigh my options. But in the next year or two, I'd love to just carve a home. I want to come somewhere and feel like my furniture is here, my clothes, yeah it would feel nice not to live out of a suitcase. But I love traveling. If I'm here for too long, I'd start asking, “When are we going tour? When is something happening? How can we move?”
How did music start?
My siblings are significantly older than me. My second brother had a group in Kaduna. He was a writer and rapper. Him, Pherowshuz, Terry tha Rapman, Overdose, all those guys were a big part of my childhood because they record music and they'd bring the cassette and videotapes so I was hung on that. I used to watch. There was just something inspiring about watching your siblings doing all these things. but even before then I used to write poetry. My dad always saved all the poetry I wrote in school. I was in the press club in secondary school, I was always a vocal person, I used to rap because of my brothers, and I used to get a lot of rap CDs as gifts from my brothers and uncles. I was like, I want to be a rapper. And my pops never hindered my artistic growth. He was like “Yeah right, you keep it.” When I was younger, they thought I was going to write a book. A poetry book. You know all these dreams. I've always been that person that makes music in class. My dad always says when I was little they used to sing a song in the house and I'd always be moving to it.
Who were your core influences?
I think I've grown a lot in terms of influences but just starting off of the back of my hand, Erykah Badu is definitely an important part of my journey. There’s also Asa, and Brenda Fassie. The first time I watched Fassie, it just felt like I could connect to her, not just her music and I was really young. Recently I just realised how much people like Tony Tetuila. Six Foot Plus influenced me when I started writing. When I looked at my writing style, I looked at some of the melodies I used and I was like lots of older Nigerian early-2000 music definitely. But now, more so I've noticed music out of the '90s, '80s; The Funkees, Mad Man Jaga, Angelique Kidjo. I've been doing a whole bunch of listening. African music in general.
It shows in your Enjoy Your Life album...
That was what I was trying to do I think. I really wanted to create a Nigerian album. I wanted to create an album I felt was a Nigerian album. I also wanted to show people that there's so much more to Nigerian music. I went back and I listened to all this music and it's like coming from a time when you have Azadus singing whatever he was singing, you have them Styl-Plus singing their R&B, Tony Tetulia doing his hip-hop, P-Square, Danfo Drivers Zule Zoo, Daddy Showkey, and Lagbaja. There was so much versatility in what music could be. Going down to the earlier records where there were people making rock and funk, there was so much music coming from here and I hate that when people think about Nigerian music the only thing they think about is Afropop. It was so upsetting to me because just recently, in the early 2000s, we were dancing to Styl-Plus. I wanted to create an album that clearly influenced by African sounds, Nigerian sounds that did not fit into that Afropop box because there's so much more.
Let’s talk about your music journey from soul to African melodies.
Honestly, it's just a bunch of things. For me, I don't think I've ever said to anybody strictly that soul music or neo-soul is the only thing I want to make. I'm a multi-dimensional person. I'm not just Lady Donli, I exist as Zainab in other spheres and there's so many other parts of me. Making this sound started from within me. I started really holding on to the Pan-African movements, it was something I had learnt about in college. I did Government and Politics in College when I was in England. And even the way they had taught it to me was in a very dark way, in the sense that some people that I look up to now as Pan-Afrcan nationalists I thought they were delusional because it's coming from a white perspective where there's just an element of brainwashing happening.
I once had a show in Otto and I met this rastaman—a lot of people don't take what rasta people are saying as serious—he spoke some sense to me and I was in a bookstore so I got a book. It was a book about Marcus Garvey and I just started reading it. One of the quotes he said was like “a people without a knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots.” And it reminded me of Nigeria, Africa, Blackness, and my identity as a Black person. I'm an artist and my tool of spreading my message or just spreading this African agenda starts from understanding and acknowledging my music. It was an inward search, in the last two years where I want to listen to more music from across Africa. This is the music I already grew up on. Obviously I had the Europe music I was listening to, I had the American music I was listening to, but this is the easiest thing for me to create. Making Afrobeat, making Afropop. Whatever it is, is so easy for me to make, I didn't have to think too much. Also, I had created “Classic” featuring Kida Kudz. Once I created that song, I felt like I had created the song I had trying to create for a long time. As a neo-soul artist, in terms of my delivery of the song, everything about the song, I was like I've finally reached what I wanted to do so now let me do something else. It came at that moment when I had the clash with my identity as well, so it was perfect timing for me to just experiment. My first approach to the music was Afropop.
What's your approach to life?
I'm a take-everyday-as-it-comes person these days, because I got to a point where I had so much anxiety because I was constantly thinking about tomorrow. So these days, I'm just trying to be like: “today is a better day than yesterday was, so just keep it going.” The concept for Enjoy Your Life is simpler than people think because I listened to this song called “Enjoy Your Life” by an artist called Oby Onyioha. The record embodied everything I was feeling at that point and that's one of the times I started listening to older Nigerian music. There’s another song called “Enjoy Yourself” by Sahara All-Star Band, “Agolo” by Angelique Kidjo, and everybody was talking about what? It's enjoyment. With this album, I wanted to take people back to simpler times where you're just like: “You know what? Come on, I can't come and die.” That’s how I was feeling when I was creating it. I had left my pop’s house, I was done with school, I was in Lagos, getting unnoticed. That's what I just used to try and combat my anxiety. It was like one day at a time, I'm going to enjoy this moment while it lasts and I feel like everybody should enjoy this moment while it lasts. I just wanted to go back to simpler times because the more you grow, the more you're wrapped up in this world of confusion and destruction. I just want to breathe out and enjoy it.
How does your spirituality influence you?
I think I'm in tune with myself and that is why by default, it translates into some sort of spiritual energy. I'm in tune with myself, my existence, the powers that be that put me on this Earth, and I appreciate all those things. That's why it comes off as spiritual. I don't go to church but I give thanks. I'm thankful for the little things, the big things, whatever. And honestly, I can't think of myself as any other way but the way that I am now because I've grown. I know what I've been. But for the first time, I just feel like I've been able to be myself and not not feel any type of way about it.
You feel free?
Yeah. One of the reasons why I hate my secondary school is not because of bullying, but because that was a school that tried to suppress me so much. It allowed me to express myself — I did talent shows, I did Press Club and it's part of who I am today. But every step I went, there was a lot of emotional, psychological bullying by teachers and students just telling me to be something else. It got to me in my formative years, and going into college, I was trying to be someone else. Or it manifested in me still being myself in my private moments, but trying to portray different identities, even it’s like wearing clothes that didn't make me comfortable or going to places that I wasn't comfortable, just because it's something that has been fed in me since I was little. Right now, I'm just comfortable in my being. You can see me in Lagos wearing my Jalabiya. It's just how I feel, this is who I am.
What does Fela represent to you?
Fela represents freedom and a revolution for what music is in Africa and what music is in Nigeria or what could be. Not what it is, what music could be. Also, Fela is a pan-African icon. Pan-Africanism is very important to me, and the belief of African unity. Fela in that sense is a prime being. I was talking with someone the other day and they asked “Is it not crazy how shrine exists? Like Fela just had his own venue that he could just perform everyday if he wanted and now his children can do that too, his grandchildren too and it keeps on going to the extent that we have Felabration every year.” So yeah, Fela represents freedom, artistry, pan-Africanism and just a lot of things to a lot of people.
So beyond the present, what's the big picture for you?
The big picture is impact. I want to be able to make an impact on the world as a musician and as an individual. I know a lot of times I go to places and people talk to me about money all the time. I don't like talking about money. It's funny because I made a song called “Cash” but I don't like talking about money in the sense that when people are like “God, I want to be a billionaire,” “I want to buy a chopper,” all of those things don't really interest me. Because if I'm not making an impact, if I'm not doing things that can help my community, help the people around me, help my fellow Africans then I'm useless. That's what I believe. And I think that ties into my belief in pan-Africanism. If I don't eventually start to do things that can empower my people or change the position of a certain group of people then I'm useless. Like all the music, all the money that I'd eventually make, my legacy is useless for me. That's what I think. I just want to make a lasting impact where generations to come will listen to my music and can understand where it came from and what we're going through. I don't think I've started doing that so much yet, but I think with my first album I created something where people can see the diversity and the range of music and what music can be. And that to me, is already starting a conversation. That's some form of impact. But then, I feel like my next couple of projects are going to be very direct. Direct to my agenda. Things that I believe in more so.