Meet Michael O., the artist behind your favourite ‘Japa’ anthem

For our latest cover story, I spoke to Michael O., the Nigerian-American artist, actor and tech founder who’s been steadily building a name for himself as one of the most successful Afrobeats stars in the US.

Born Michael Odokara-okigbo, the 34-year-old has performed at the Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and for the Obamas at the White House.

Here he tells me why he thinks Afrobeats will continue to dominate global music conversations and opens up about connection with his Nigerian roots.

Hi Michael, how’re you?
I’m well, how you doing?

I’m fine, thank you. Happy New Year.What’ve you been up to lately?
I’ve mainly just been grinding.

You know, just hustling with music and tech for like the past five weeks.

We did a lot of music video shoots and recording in the first quarter of 2023.

So right now we’re just grinding on both fronts before releasing the new material.

I think it’s interesting that you’re such a talented artiste and also involved in the tech industry. What’s that like?

It’s busy.
Yeah, I can just imagine.
Yeah, but the hustle doesn’t stop. I mean, it’s really cool

to work with the people we work with. It feels more like a family, it doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes it feels like it, especially when it gets to the nitty gritty of tech but I still feel so blessed

Cool. Does your tech background ever influence your music? How does it help you as an artiste?

You know, it’s kinda really the other way around. I find that music is in someway related to tech.

I find that I’m able to use different sides of my brain in different capacities.

So with music it’s more of soulful feelings and emotions and not so analytical. But the tech part is very analytical because I’m in a leadership position, I have to manage teams so I’ve learnt a lot from being a musician, and putting in the work as an artiste and that has transitioned really well into the tech.

So my first introduction to you, not sure you remember but it was on Groover with your song “Japa” I love it by the way.

Thank you. We’re about to release the remix.

Really? With who?
Egar Boy, is an amazing artiste and I’m excited about the collaboration

Cool, so like I said, that was the first time I’d heard of you and I was like “this a really nice song” But then I realized that it was co-produced by Harvey Mason, CEO of the Recording Academy. That’s huge.


You’re welcome. So how did that happen? And what does it feel like to have such a big name on one of your songs?

It was actually per chance. You know, at the Grammys, either last year or the year before.

He heard my music and he liked it and really wanted to be a part of the project. And now he’s like an incredible advisor. I mean, he’s the man. He’s so dope.

So the song is so relatable because “Japa” is all the rage in Nigeria at the moment. So what does the song mean to you and what inspired you to tap into that whole culture of finding greater things and seeking greener pastures

Yeah, it means a lot different things to me. I wrote that song at a really interesting time in my life.

But you know, we all look for something better because we all want to provide a good life for ourselves and our families.

So like I said, there’s a lot diffrent meanings for me with that song but what I love is how people have interpreted it and what it means for them.

That’s kinda what we do as artistes, we write songs and give it to the world for them to interpret so whatever it means to you is what it means to me

Cool. So you were born in the US but you still manage to stay connected to your Nigerian roots and infuse that part of your identity into your music.

You know, it’s partly family ‘cuz even though I was born in the States, I’ve also been connected to Naija.

My family has really helped me stay grounded and connected to my roots. Also, it’s really cool where the world is going towards.

You know, there’s more understanding towards the power of Africa and in particular, Nigeria.

You know, there’s over 200 million of us, so it’s impossible to ignore us. And we’re doing so well.

For example, a lot of Nigeria expats in the States are the highest paid in the country so we’ve always been so competitive and the world is beginning to take notice.

You see a lot of people coming back here. For Detty December, for example and it’s only gonna get better and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Yeah, I’m glad that you mentioned all our achievements. The Grammys for example, which took place last week but didn’t exactly go the way we’d expected but we still think it was huge for us as a country. So many nominations. I think that was the highest ever for us.

What do you think of what happened last week at the Grammys

I mean, those things are subjective so you can’t really put a value to it. For me, the most important thing is that the world already know the value of Afrobeats and where it’s going.

It’s cool to get recognized but you win or lose, it doesn’t change our influence and how huge Afrobeats has become.

You see how big the movement has become and how everyone is listening to Afrobeats.

In the States, everybody is listening to Afrobeats, that’s the wave.

So I think the validation is unnecessary but it’s cool to see that it’s starting to come from entities like the Recording Academy/

So what do you think about the Nigerian music industry generally? Where we are right now?

I mean it’s growing and keeps going. There so many artists are just in their own vibe, who have created their own genre, and doing big things and that’s what inspires me.

It’s not just about singing about love which is great and awesome.

But a lot people are also singing about their personal pain.

The music is getting more cerebral and emotional and Afrobeats is going to continue to grow and create its own genres.

We’ll also see more people in the West continue to draw inspiration from us and vice versa

Speaking of genres, what’s yours? Do you define yours or are you like “I’d rather not box my music”

That’s a good question cuz you know, my base genre is Afrobeats but I’ve been inspired by so many kinds of music like Daddy Showkey, Otis Redding, Al Green, The Tempatations, African traditional music, Nigerian Igbo songs and Christian music. RnB, Hip Hop (Kanye’s one of my favourite artist.

So my music is a fusion of Afrobeats and RnB but hopefully, you can also see that I’m really inspired by lots of different stuff and you can hear that in my music.

So I love that you mentioned Igbo music . You’re Igbo right? Do you speak the language?

Actually, I’ve been learning from Nkenne. It’s actually one of the reasons why I created the app.

I wasn’t able to learn Igbo at home but I started the Nkenne app to teach African languages so I’ve been learning from it and we now have over 85,000 users doing the same

That’s amazing. So how does it work? Do I sign up and get Igbo lessons? Are there languages on there.

Yeah, we have nine other African languages and we’re adding our 10th in the coming weeks.

Great. So do you like Igbo food? I mean, I’m Igbo too and that’s why I’m so interested in the topic.

Where are you from?
I’m from Imo State. Where are you from?
I’m Anambra
Cool. Where in Anambra?

I don’t know the place but that’s amazing. So what’s your favourite Igbo food or Nigerian food?

I mean I like so many things but the first thing I get when I’m back home is either rice and stew or Egusi soup.

Then I go the fridge and eat meat pies. I eat lots of meat pies.

Any time I’m home, all I do is eat.

Great. That’s very important cuz we have lots of good food.
And speaking of coming back home, do you ever plan to move here permanently?

Yeah. We just got a place in Naija, in Lagos so you know, I don’t have a family yet but my goal is to spend seven to eight months of the year in Nigeria and four months in the States.

Great. So back to the music. What is your recording process like?

It depends and that’s a good quetion. For example, “Japa” took just two hours to write and record so that didn’t take very long.

But there are some songs that take two to three years to record.

So it depends on the process and what you’re going through. Sometimes it takes me a couple of years to write a song or a couple years.

Cuz a lot of times when I’m writing I like to hear different syllables, vibe on them and whatever feels right. I like to write lyrics too.

But then there’s times when lyrics come to you in a dream so you just have to find inspiration.

When it comes, it comes. You can’t really chase it. It’s like a relationship with a woman.

You can’t really chase… Well, you can chase a woman but the inspiration has to come and it has to be authentic.

You’re absolutely right. So speaking of relationships. Are you in one right now?

I am not but I’ve been looking.

That’s also kinda been my hustle. Not hustle but you know, it’s been a fun couple of months. I was in one last year but yeah, I have been looking.

Interesting. So, how do you relate with your female fans

I mean I like writing love songs…

Yeah, I noticed. That’s why I’m asking.

Yeah, and I love love so I think my female listeners can connect to that.

And I write from an honest place too and the songs I write are honest and they come from my life.

For example, there’s a track on this EP called “Attention” and it’s about my former former relationship. About two relationships ago.

Where I felt like I gave her so much attention and she wasn’t happy and it’s something that a lot guys go through but we just don’t talk about it.

And I feel like they can connect to my music because this is real life. Just like “Japa” is real life. People go through that.

So back to your music, when did it all start for you?
I’ve always been surrounded by music, ever since I was young.

You know, my mum never put me in sports and I always ask like “mum, why didn’t you put me in sports? I feel like I could have done football or something.

And she was like, “I don’t know sport but I know music and I know the arts…

Can I just say, you’re really lucky? Cuz most Nigerian parents wouldn’t do that. You’re so lucky to have had that.

Yeah, but sometimes I see how much these football players be making and I’m like, damn.

No, but my mum always put me in choirs. She surrounded me with music but I didn’t know I wanted to pursue music professionally until I did an acapella TV show called the Sing-Off which I did with my college acapella group and it made me see that I loved music so much and that was the genesis of it all.

And it’s interesting because I found my passion for technology in music.

Music has given me so much, it’s been such a good teacher so I don’t ever see myself not doing music cuz it’s been a way for me to elevate personally.

So let’s talk about your new EP. What’s it called?
It’s called Birds of Paradise
Interesting, where did the title come from?
So my spirit animal is an eagle so it’s the bird of Naija and it’s also the bird of the States. Eagles are very territorial.

They fly really high and they are aggressive. I really respect and connect to that animal.

And also, my favourite plant is called the birds of paradise.

I forget what the official name is but that’s what it’s called.

I feel like my music is a mixture of different sounds and vibes that make you feel good and we also have a track on the EP called “Paradise” so it all just connects

I mean, I get your point about the eagle, especially as an Igbo girl myself. Because it’s like the most important bird in Igbo culture. It just represents strength, majesty and glory. My surname is Ugo-Nwachukwu and Ugo is also the Igbo word for “eagle” so I feel like I’m going love this EP.

You will. And this is my best work.

Cool. When does it come out?
Second quarter of 2024.

We’ll be releasing some singles from it soon. First one will be the Japa remix, then a couple more.

We’ve shot some videos for the singles as well, So it’s coming and I’m excited.

So we’re going to play a game called “Top Three” so I’ll basically be asking about your top three favourite stuff.

So first, is your top three Nigerian artistes that you’d like to collaborate with?

Olamide, Rema and Wande Coal and Flavour too

Those are interesting choices. Top three venues you’d like to perform?
The 02, anybody’s backyard…

Wait, I was about to ask if that’s like a venue in the US? But what’s the third one?

I was going to say “in the shower” but let’s say, Wembley.

Top three favourite songs of all time?

That’s an impossible question, I can come up with something quick now and then… It’s tough, really tough.

Okay, just three songs that you really like?

That’s still really tough. I mean I don’t know the kind of answers you’ve been getting from musicians but that’s a tough question.

But I like Stevie Wonder’s music, he’s one of my favourite artists of all time

So, in one sentence, what would you like to achieve with your music

Yeah, so right now, how I’ve been using my music is working out with it and running with it, especially this new project that’s coming out.

You know, just get on a good vibe cuz it helps me work out and clears my mind/ So I want it to do the same for everyone who listens to it.

So if that means, the songs help them work out, step up to someone they’re afraid to talk to or stand up to someone that annoys them or tries to bring them down.
So we’re going to play a game called “Top Three” so I’ll basically be asking about your top three favourite stuff.

So finally, what’s your prediction for the AFCON final match between Nigeria and Côte d’voire?

I mean, there’s no question about it: victory for Naija.

But what’s funny is we have Ghanaians on our team and they’re not supporting Nigeria. And I’m like why? I supported Ghana last year. We have a lot haters…

Yes, people don’t like us much and I can see why. We can be annoying sometimes

Yes, that’s cuz we dominate. But yeah, of course I’ll be rooting for Nigeria. I predict 2-0 in our favour.

Alright. Good luck to Nigeria . And thank you so much for talking to me, Michael. This was amazing. Good luck with the new EP, I can’t wait to listen to it and I can’t wait to see you dominate.

Sure, thank you. And take care

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Afrobeats Head