For the past 10 years, Jude “MI” Abaga has been a force in the Nigerian music industry, a feat that can’t go unnoticed in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving at a very quick rate. Some could say that MI’s ability to remain a pillar against which many others are measured lies in his unwavering confidence in himself and his talents, but beyond that there is an intelligence that is required to continue to grow in value and quality such as he has. MI is an honest soul, this will become very apparent upon reading the interview. He is a savvy businessman and he is a willing collaborator. Having recently released his eighth studio album, Yxng Dxnzl: A Study On Self Worth, we sat down with the Chocolate City boss and the “most immaculate, mic inspector”, to talk about the business of music, mental health and the evolution of his career so far.
Interview by– Ebere-Lisa Iroegbu
Intro by: Sonia Irabor
You’ve been a force in the music industry for about a decade now but you’ve begun to expand your resume beyond the title of Rapper.
I still make music, but recently my biggest passion has been my record label and beinginvolved in other people’s stories. So I work with artists ranging from Dice [Ailes] and Coker to DJ Lambo, Street Billionaires, Black Bones and a whole lot more. I’m passionate about creating structures for these young artists who don’t have to go through what we went through during our own time.
I saw a couple of clips on your page that focused on self esteem and fear, and noticed you’ve joined the mental health conversation. Is this something your new album touches on?
The first part of the album Yxng Dxnzl (Young Denzel) is the study of self worth, where I look at myself and examine the struggles that I’ve been through. I think that mental health should be seen as a journey from one end to the other. Somebody might not be [mentally] healthy all the time, it does not mean that is who they are. Another part of the album deals with depression, which I haven’t been through [personally] but I’ve had my own journey with self esteem, self doubt, insecurities and stuff like that. All these are what we capture in a hip hop way.
Some studies have purported that most creatives suffer from mental health issues – more intensely, perhaps, than others. This stems from self criticism, always trying to put their best work out. What are your thoughts on this?
The reason I say I haven’t been through depression is because I don’t want to appropriate the situation more than those that have actually experienced it. I have been in moments where I have been intensely sad. There was a time during my career that I was in a hotel for four days with the drapes dropped and I was going through a dark period at that time. I was someone who grew up with very low self esteem. I never thought I was good enough until my early 20s. So I don’t believe any human being has it figured out. I think the point is to find balance and through your journey to finding balance, you might be able to be there for someone. I’m someone who is still struggling with discovering himself, being happy all the time, still struggling with insecurities and low self esteem. I think most people are still seeking validation and the more we are able to share, the freer and happier that our society will be.
We are in an age of instant gratification, the young people want it now, which has pushed a lot of Nigerian artistes to produce music on a more regular basis. Does that put you under any form of pressure?Do you deliver at your own pace and allow your fans to catch up with you?
As an artist, you want to be aware of the trends, music is changing a lot and people have to constantly produce more. But at the same time, every artist has to have a rhythm that works for them. As you know, my day job is running [Chocolate City Records] and I want to excel at doing that and also have my way of creating music. It’s finding balance, I will not tell you that I have found the right balance but I can assure you of this, that every song I put out there, I want to be sure that the best expression of that song. There is a quote I like so much: “The goal of the artist is to create a definitive work that cannot be surpassed.” This means that when I do something and others want to emulate, they will will have to agree that my work cannot be surpassed and I don’t believe that you can do so in a week or even in a month. That being said, the first part of your question speaks to artists that just put out music. As far as I know, most of the guys you see that put out music actually spend a lot of time in the studio to be able to create that music and it’s not like they just walk into the studio and release music easily. So the most successful guys like Wizkid I tell you are always working all the time, always refining their art, always creating. A moment of genius might come up but the bulk of their work comes from hard work.
On the business of music, being the CEO of Chocolate City and producing young artists .Does that affect your personal career, does it hinder you producing your music?
When I took the job as the CEO, I felt that it wouldn’t affect my output. Economics, like they say, is the satisfying of unlimited want with limited resources. As the CEO I cannot put my project in front of everyone else’s where we have limited resources. Like everyone knows, Nigeria has been undergoing an economic downturn. So as resources become more scarce, I see myself putting my projects on the back burner because I have to pay for other people’s projects first.
Secondly and mentally, it becomes that my new work involves working for other people and I don’t think any song about working for other artists would do well because as an artist, your songs are basically what you are living through. So a lot of my experiences today don’t really translate into songs because I like to be a realist to interpret what I’m doing with my art. But I do believe that it is a phase in my life that I’m proud to be a part of. Everyone knows you cannot be famous forever but I like to think that I have a good career. I’m still making music, but I also want to, on my own terms, define who I am.
Would you say the need to commercialise affects creativity? We see sponsors and all those involved in music production favouring singers more than conscious rappers.
This naivete we have in Nigeria where we copy, that’s how human beings operate. You want to share something with a million people, you need to simplify it. I think people give art a bad rap for doing just that. For instance, to share the Mona Lisa, it had to be simplified to be able to reach the people. If it had been locked up [somewhere], only a few would have access to it. It is the same thing with music, it doesn’t mean that commercial music can’t be good or creative. I can draw you a line from Asa to Brymo to Adekunle Gold, I can draw you another line from Tuface to PSquare to Davido, Wizkid to D’banj and I can draw you another line from Eldee, to Ruggedman, to Mode 9, Naeto C and MI. The creativity will remain the same.The art form will shift but creativity always remains. Think about it, in the last three years,how many different beats have you danced to? It’s amazing how creative we are but for it to be circulated, it has to be simplified. I think there should be a balance between simplification and the complexity of perfection.
Being in the music industry for over 10 years, what do you think has allowed you to maintain your relevance?
I love my job and I love the opportunity that God has given me to share music with people. All the names and titles is just for music, for people to buy into the brand and idea. I’m really humbled by my career so far, I never thought that I would be where I am and I still don’t think that I deserve it and because of that, I’m grateful to anyone that have played a role whether you are a fan or a critic. I’m very grateful.
What inspires you to create?
The motivation to create must come from inside. You want to share a story. For me, I think people shouldn’t focus so much on the story, just go ahead and be happy, have fun with friends and family, live your life and in all that process find your story and you will find the inspiration you need.
What does success mean to you?
It is a place of peace and contentment where you are not worried about your next meal and you know you are valuable and you are valued.