Within the new class of Afrobeats’ rising stars, no one breaks down love like Ckay. His music is an immersive, ultra-romantic experience of light and airy vocals, vulnerable lyrics, and intoxicating beats.
Ckay, born Chuwkuka Ekweani, grew up in the desolate northern Nigerian city of Kaduna during a tumultuous time rife with inter-religious conflicts, and his experiences continue to shape his music. “I grew up knowing fully the reality of life and death,” Ckay tells me when we meet at an upscale restaurant in Lagos. “When I came to Lagos, I saw that a lot of people’s trains of thoughts and ideas were sort of different from mine. For me, I just make the music how I like it, and people say it’s different.”
Ckay learned how to play the piano from his father and use the production software FruityLoops from a friend. His early music career involved production and singing hooks for a three-person group he formed in Kaduna with friends before leaving for Lagos in 2014. In Nigeria’s music capital, Ckay worked as a producer at underground studios to fund his music dreams, eventually signing—first as a producer, later as an artist—to Nigerian hip-hop label Chocolate City after the veteran rapper M.I. Abaga heard one of his beats.
Despite a global pandemic, 2020 was Ckay’s breakout year. The many remixes of his song “Love Nwantiti'' dominated local airwaves and charts before breaking through globally, scoring shout-outs from celebrities like Justine Skye, Winnie Harlow, and Diddy. In November, he featured on Afrobeats superstar Davido’s third studio album, A Better Time.
With a new record deal from Warner Music South Africa, Ckay is reveling in his experimental expression of Afrobeats. His latest offering, an EP named Boyfriend, released in February, is full of ambient and soulful Afro-fusion. Ckay understands the fickle nature of life; he’s focused on loving wholly and telling blunt stories of romance through his music.
How easy was it transitioning from producer to artist?
At first, a lot of people thought I was a producer who was trying to sing. So that was kind of a challenge at first, but it wasn’t a serious challenge I had to overcome.
Many people forget I was a producer. I was an artist before I started producing. I started producing because I was bored. Friends of mine were like, “Oh, this cool. Produce for me too.” That’s how I started producing, and then I discovered I could make some money from it, in Lagos.
What inspired your hit song, “Love Nwantiti”?
All my songs are inspired by toxic relationships. Everybody is toxic. Toxicity is interesting. It was also a toxic relationship that inspired my song “Container.” The girl’s voice was used at the beginning of the song.
When did you start making the Boyfriend EP?
I started making [the] Boyfriend EP in December 2019. Throughout the whole quarantine period, I was just locked up in the house working. I made a lot of special songs, songs that I feel like if I wasn’t locked up in the house working for months, I won’t have gotten into that zone. It’s a project I feel represents me. Everything about it is literally my experience. It’s like a diary.
Walk me through the making of “Felony,” the lead single off the EP.
It was during the quarantine. It was inspired by one girl I used to FaceTime a lot, and then we started to catch feelings. If you hear the song, you can tell I was in that space. I fall in love once every two years. I feel like I meet people like that once every two years.
You have a wide range of collaborations on the EP, from Bianca Costa to Amaarae and more. How did you select who you wanted to put on it?
Because it’s an EP about my story and my life, I couldn’t have a lot of people talking about it. A couple songs where I felt the narrative needed a different protagonist was where I called on other people. They are all artists I am personal fans of, and I think they make great music.
Not every story is in the EP, though. Some stories are in the album coming after. I don’t know the name of the album yet, but it’s coming soon.
“Jeje de Whine” sounds like sex in a beach house in some Northern African country, but there’s no light, and the weather is hot. It’s a special song. I knew I had to enter that zone to make that song, so I did.
“Kiss Me Like You Miss Me” sounds like you are at a camp festival, and the artists are performing, but you and your lover are catching your own cruise.
If you were to describe your aesthetic, your style, the music, everything, in one word, what would it be?
It would have to be two words: “full vibes.” What the vibes tell us, we do. We don’t overthink it.
Photos by Isabel Okoro (main) and Seye Kehinde.
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