The strategic partnership with Aristokrat Group includes a label deal with Universal Music France and a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing.
The African entertainment company that discovered and developed Nigerian star Burna Boy is joining forces with Universal Music Group.
The Aristokrat Group, based in Lagos, will form a strategic partnership with UMG, which will consist of a label deal, and a publishing deal through Universal Music Publishing Group, executives involved in the joint venture tell Billboard.
The partners plan to work together to develop new African talent and songwriters, and then launch them into the global market. Aristokrat Records artists will be signed and distributed in partnership with Caroline France, a Universal Music France label.
Despite a nascent streaming market that still severely lags most of the rest of the world in breadth and connectivity speed, major labels, including UMG and Warner Music Group, have been charting plans to mine Africa’s rich talent pool -- in particular in Nigeria, South Africa and French-speaking West Africa -- with an eye to discovering breakout global stars.
“Having this partnership with Aristokrat so far is the best way to have a real team there, that knows the country, knows the culture and is developing projects, but is not trying to imitate U.S.-[style] production,” says Olivier Nusse, the CEO of Universal Music France.
Also key to the mission of the joint venture, the partners say, is to better develop the local West African music market.
“What most of our competitors started to do is to sign some artists in this region and the first thing they promise is to have some international success in the U.S., the U.K. or France,” Nusse says. “That is totally different to the way that we are talking to the artists and developing our business there. We really want to develop first a market in Western Africa.”
Aristokrat’s initial signings include Kel P, the Nigerian producer who worked with Burna Boy on his Grammy-nominated album African Giant, and with Wizkid on his recent EP, “SoundMan Vol 1.” Also signing on are Jujuboy Star, a Nigerian songwriter and producer, and T’neeya, a singer and songwriter from Cameroon.
The first publishing signings are Kel P, Jujuboy Star and Saszy Afroshii, a producer from Lagos. Aristokrat also manages Kel P.
Aristokrat was founded in 2009 by Piriye Isokrari, the son of a Nigerian oilman. After attending the University of Oklahoma, where he studied economics while co-hosting parties fusing Caribbean and African sounds, Isokrari returned to Nigeria with dreams of getting into the entertainment business.
He initially worked with his father in the oil industry while he looked for seed capital and an artist to start a record label with. The day after his 26th birthday party a mutual friend and business partner introduced Isokrari to Burna Boy, who had just returned from London and was still being managed by his mother. “The music was just phenomenal,” the Aristokrat CEO says, “though still very raw.”
While Burna Boy has described his music as Afrofusion, he is part of a broad wave of West African pop music being produced in Nigeria, Ghana and the UK African diaspora under the Afrobeats umbrella.
At first Aristokrat focused solely on breaking Burna Boy. Then in 2013 Isokrari joined forces with a Dubai-based venture capital firm Rio Africa, which was starting an African-focused record label called 960 Music Group. The firm acquired a 40% interest in Aristokrat and brought Isokrari on board to head A&R and operations. With about a $1 million investment from 960 Music Group, he was able to develop four new artists, Isokrari says. (960 Music Group retains an equity stake which "is currently being reviewed," he says.)
Burna Boy left Aristokrat in May 2014 when his deal expired and formed his own label, Spaceship Entertainment. In 2015, he accused Aristokrat of trying to “sabotage” the launch of his single, “Rockstar,” by releasing a “weak skeleton” that had been previously recorded. "There was a leak and he blamed it on the label," says Isokrari. "It was an emotional outburst from him."
Isokrari says there is no bad blood between the artist and the label. He remains involved with Burna Boy as a paid consultant. In March, Burna Boy tweeted that without Isokrari “there would be no Burna Boy. That shit’s for life and that’s why I got the Aristokrat records tattoo on my left arm.” (In 2017, Burna Boy signed with Bad Habit/Atlantic Records for the U.S., and with Warner Music internationally. UMG has a publishing deal with the artist.)
Still, after losing Burna Boy and lacking resources to expand the label, Isokrari morphed Aristokrat into a full-service creative agency that generated revenues from everything from public relations to producing videos and podcasts, to organizing digital distribution and brand sponsorship campaigns.
"The African-Nigerian industry is very artist-focused, artist driven, and there are not enough proper business entities or institutions that as labels have succeeded or survived," Isokrari says. "We wanted to change that narrative and build a more sustainable long-term business out of the label business, which to date hasn't been achieved in my opinion."
Aristokrat's creative versatility appealed to the team from Universal France that flew to Lagos in January around the time of Grammy week. "They discovered a fantastic family, with their studios, not only publishing music but also making video content, a podcast, and a really young and talented beatmaker," Nusse says. "It really could be compared to what happened at the beginning of Motown or Island Records."
Isokrari says the first release from the joint venture, planned for August, will be a compilation project called, The Sound of New Africa. It will feature artists on the label and "showcase trends and emerging sounds on the continent."