Acclaimed Nigerian music maker, Cobhams Asuquo, trained as a lawyer, but veered into music full-time to fulfill a lifelong desire. One of Nigeria’s most accomplished music producers, the visually impaired music maestor has shared the stage with international acts such as Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Common, Cold Play and Pearl Jam.
The father-of-one let PREMIUM TIMES into his entertainment company in Lekki, Lagos where he opened up on his career and the Nigerian music industry.
PT: What’s the inspiration behind your newest single “Starlight”?
Cobhams: It is a tribute to lovers. I came down for breakfast one morning and was just drawn to my piano and I started to play what would become the intro to the song. I just had to hum the melody, it’s a pretty simple song, nothing earth changing or life shattering. It was a regular normal day and the song just came to me from the heavens.
PT: It appears that many Nigerian music producers are becoming artistes.
Cobhams: I think it probably comes from being comfortable enough to do it feeling like you don’t hate your voice. For example, I always hated my voice for years and still don’t know if I can call myself a fan of my voice but at least I am comfortable enough to use it.
I think part of it comes from that; I think it comes from the fact this is always what you always wanted to do and have been procrastinating and getting to appoint where you absolutely have to do it recognizing that you have a message to share and a voice to contribute to the world and you just do it. I think it’s all that
PT: Why did you hate your voice?
Cobhams: No particular reason maybe its because I was always used to it or wanted it to sound a certain way. I think it comes from knowing yourself too much and I have come to find out that a lot of musicians are not crazy about their voice, maybe that’s a good thing but I am also happy that I can take out time and put my voice to good use.
PT: How would you describe your sound?
Cobhams: I would say my sound is honest. I make music because I want to make music because I love it. It can be reggae today, tomorrow it can be country. I think its honest, I think it is always saying something, I think my voice is always present, its always sorrowful and moving.
PT: Do you think the Nigerian audience will embrace alternative music?
Cobhams: So far, I have tried different styles and they have been well received, for instance ordinary folks have some country nuances and you know people have received it quite well. ‘O the right thing’ has a pretty rock vibe and ‘Blue Six’ is something I did with Falz, straight up Hip-hop and Nigerian experience and was received pretty well ‘’Star light’’.
I am not really sure what that is. I guess I have just made good music and people have received it quite well. In terms of trying out other genres with other people ‘I go go’ is a pretty much straight up reggae song with Omawunmi and it was received quite well.
I was privileged to produce ‘’Lagos Music Salon’’ a jazz album for Somi an Ugandan-American Jazz artiste. We had the likes of ‘Common’ and Angélique Kidjo on that project. It was a jazz album that has been well received.
PT: Lets go back in time to how your love for music blossomed.
Cobhams: Music had always being a part of me. I had wanted to try other things. I always wanted to be a lawyer and work with the International Court of Justice and that was not to be. But I am thankful I am doing what I am doing now.
Music has always being a part of me. As a six year old I would play the blues and whistle. A piano and radio will always excite me so music has always being a part of me.
PT: So much appears to have changed?
Cobhams: I would say the music industry is growing and I can say it can potentially be Nigeria’s biggest export if we manage it properly. I think there are some areas we need to pay attention to; we need to be a little more intentional. I think some things are happening just like that.
I think a lot of things are talent-driven, culture-driven but I think a lot of things should be driven from a business and sustainability angle. I feel we had the opportunity with Fela and Afro-Beat, but don’t know if we really made the most of it and I feel the opportunity is really presenting itself, which is one area.
I feel another area is connecting the dots from a financial standpoint and how are we able to connect musicians with the finances to push their projects, to build infrastructures and get the projects to reach their audience.
We don’t have enough statistics to convince investors to invest in the music industry. I feel we need to build more data, I feel we need to place more value on our music. I feel we need to have more data on how many people consume our music and how potentially we can become an industry because these numbers can translate into dollars and cents.
I feel we need to have conversations, which engage the players, those who actually see the value of this music and how it can relate to dollars and cents and how we can build a sustainable industry
PT: There is this argument that a lot of budding musician are only crazy about being famous and not building a sustainable brand.
Cobhams: I think they really need to be as grounded as possible, the business of music is a business and they have the attributes of any form of business. Talent is great but talent is not enough, talent is only scratching the surface. Talent is what makes you live from hand to mouth understanding the methodology of sustaining a business is what helps you build a lasting legacy. Poverty has done a lot of damage in our space and a lot of people are concerned with the basic necessities of life. It goes beyond that because people are able to build cities and businesses based on proper business principles and managing and exploiting talents. I think that is a serious conversation that needs to be heard and I think we need to understand the value of proper talent management that is why I said people from the Legal and HR need to get more involved in music .We need to have a holistic view of the talent industry and sort of position people so that it can become a perfectly oiled machine so it can run smoothly, musician have their role to play in understanding the process and value of the process.
PT: Should fame be a motivation for any budding artiste?
Cobhams: When you talk about a lot of people being interested in fame, it is because fame is what you see and fame is what you want. There is a general assumption that fame will bring you money, that can be true for some and not for all; understanding the inner workings of the music industry is what pretty much helps everyone position themselves appropriately.
PT: How about the face-offs between artistes and their record labels?
Cobhams: I think this is partly because we haven’t instituted the right structures to manage the labels artistes and we are ignorant. There is bound to be error on the part of the artiste because there is a lot to understand on how the part of contractual agreement works.
There is desperation; there is poverty because what you see is what will help you get out of your financial condition. These artistes forget that someone’s money goes into making you what you are today and suddenly it doesn’t matter to you because you are now at par with your label. These artistes are not taking the necessary steps to protect themselves because they are ignorant of the clauses in the contract that bind them. This is because they do not have a lawyer look at the documents.
PT: Do the labels also share in the blame?
Cobhams: A label enters into a business without having the right prerequisites and the right financial muscle. In time, they notice you are running out of steam and their artiste is becoming frustrated and bad blood begins to build.
Some don’t have the manpower or the schedule to sort of manage the process the way an artiste will want to be managed. Many do not understand the process of managing talents because talents can be quite expressive and erratic sometimes.
All these issues just crop up and I mean these are varying components it takes to put a label or artiste to work with a label together. As a country, we need to have the infrastructure to support labels as a business because distribution is key and we don’t have distribution. We only have it in pockets and where there is distribution through digital outlets like iTunes and the likes, we don’t build the right strategy around it
PT: What are some of the lessons you learnt along the way as an artiste
Cobhams: I have learnt a lot of things, I have learnt that talent is not enough and that music is show business, the business is as important and the show side of things. I have learnt that I have to be intentional, that my voice is for me to say something strong at every given point in time.
I have learnt that you can’t build a legacy without building structure because I run a business without the requisite structure and we have also hemorrhaged money, that is, we have made a ton of money but we have also lost it and we have seen how that has gone.
I have learnt the importance of variety and how I fit in and I don’t necessarily have to conform because I have a space. I have learnt to do things on time because that is pretty much the best gift you can give to yourself; do things when you should because a lot of people lose opportunities when they don’t do things on time.
PT: Lets get a little personal. How have you managed to keep your private life private?
Cobhams: Number one, my wife is a very private person and I respect her privacy. You wont find me sharing my private life on social media; the latter is a tool for me to connect with people who I genuinely care about.
Social media is not a place for me to go and ‘tension’ people with how well my life is doing or how well my family is doing. I feel I have a real relationship on social media where I am either connecting with people on the latest thing I am working on.
I don’t feel the pressure to impress or create an impression on social media; that is not my focus or goal. I am a family person, a lover I have always being, my family allows me do this with ease and I don’t feel I have to necessarily share. I only share what is necessary.
The goal for me is to pass across a strong message. The fact that my wife being a private person also helps me control myself
PT: So you don’t get to face the challenges other artistes face with the opposite sex?
Cobhams: I don’t really consider this because the nature of my work means I am around the same set of people for a long period of time. And when I do have interaction with other people, the interaction is heavily limited and watched.
If I am at a show, I probably have people from my management team with me. So it is very difficult for a lady to show up unannounced in my hotel room or whatever because I have my people and they are going to ask questions. It’s their responsibility to protect me, keep me grounded and they do a good job.
PT: Are their times when you wished you could regain your sight?
Cobhams: Not as much, lately I have realized that having the gift of sight is a gift. But just because I don’t like to have a gift that is not mine, I don’t sit down feeling sad and wishing I had my sight. That wont just doesn’t happen with me but I know sight is a good gift and it will be an interesting feeling to know what sight looks like, I guess.
PT: What other music works or projects should we expect from you?
Cobhams: I have another song coming out in September or October. I am also having a concert later in the year and it is going to be headlined by a major international artiste and I.
PT: Finally, do you have any remarkable career moments?
Cobhams: When I met Chimamanda, I thought that was one of the major highlights of my career, I absolutely love her and have read all her works. Another highlight was meeting Wole Soyinka, it was like he came out of my dreams and into my reality.
I felt the same way when I met Marcus Miller, Nathan East; these are bass players. I felt the same way when I performed with Don Moen. I felt the same way when I met Common and when I met Bono. It’s just like meeting people like Richard Branson and having conversations with them.