This piece was created in partnership with Afro Nation. Billboard and Afro Nation recently launched the first-ever official Billboard Afrobeats U.S. Songs Chart, tracking the most popular rising new music in the rapidly growing genre. The 50-position Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart, which went live last month on Billboard.com, ranks the most popular Afrobeat songs in the country based on a weighted formula incorporating official-only streams on both subscription and ad-supported tiers of leading audio and video music services, plus download sales from top music retailers.
Don Jazzy — the Nigerian producer and CEO of Mavin Records, one of the biggest labels in Africa — started his music career the way many others did: in church. Born Michael Collins Ajereh, he began by playing the drums for his local church in the mid 90s and then eventually joined the choir as his repertoire grew to include other instruments.
“Music has always been in my life,” Don Jazzy tells Billboard. “I always had a good ear for sound, always willing to learn. I became really good at my church. Good enough that the church’s chapter in the United Kingdom paid to bring me from Nigeria to England.”
Don Jazzy got even better in the UK, and quickly developed an ear for music. In no time, he went from playing for the church to becoming a teacher for their instrumentalists. Between compliments he got while working at the church and requests to make beats, Don Jazzy further embraced his talent and started working as a freelance producer.
His talent quickly began to make way for him. By the early 2000s, Don Jazzy was popular in the UK music scene, making records for JJC and eventually getting signed to Kanye West’s Very G.O.O.D. Beats, West’s production wing of GOOD Music, as a producer. Along the way, he met Afrobeats legend and future business partner D’Banj. By 2004, Don Jazzy was a veteran — he had knowledge, experience, connections across the music industry and, more importantly, an ear for music. He returned to Nigeria at what he calls “the very dawn of the music industry in Africa” to set up the now-defunct music label, Mo’Hits, which he co-founded with D’Banj.
“Armed with our knowledge and exposure to the quality of equipment used in the UK already, and inspired by our home and our people, we started Mo’Hits in 2004,” Don Jazzy says. “The rest, they say, is history.”
Fast forward to today, Don Jazzy is seemingly omnipresent. He is a sensation on TikTok, where he has 1.5 million followers and dozens of viral videos, and with over 6.5 million followers on Twitter, he is one of the most followed Nigerians on the app. He’s also still Nigeria’s most respected producer, a certified hitmaker and the CEO of the country’s biggest record label, Mavin Records. Don Jazzy is in many ways more relevant today almost 20 years into his career than ever.
When we attempt to get on a call for this interview, Don Jazzy is in the middle of the release of artist Rema’s debut studio album, Raves and Roses, which was released via Mavin. For Don Jazzy, whose artist roster includes acts like Rema, Ayra Starr, Johnny Drille and more, that is just a regular workday.
“I won’t say I have a single particular recipe for relevance. However, the first thing you must recognize as a player in any industry is the fact that everything changes,” he shares. “This is a dynamic space. Everything is constantly evolving. As a person who wants to stay relevant, you must also learn to adapt and evolve. Your personality and role must be flexible and adaptable enough to thrive even as the scene shifts.”
Armed with decades of experience, the legendary producer still approaches every new project, every new evolution — even every new artist he signs — with the mind of a beginner: eager to learn, willing to adapt. On the wall of his office in the Mavin Records head office, Don Jazzy has the Zen phrase ‘Sho Shin‘ framed, which he says means “having a beginner’s mind.
“This is a philosophy I take seriously — the will to always learn, to never feel like you know everything and [are] beyond change,” he adds. “To stay relevant for a long time, you must cultivate a beginner’s mindset.”
Even as the music industry in Nigeria and across Africa evolves, thanks in part to the global explosion and interest in the Afrobeats genre, the business of African music is still lacking certain industry infrastructures that would let it fully thrive, a topic Don Jazzy is particularly passionate about. “You have to consider the fact that our music industry here is still going through a lot of development,” Jazzy begins. “On documentation and data monitoring, we cannot currently be on the same wavelength with more developed countries. Our people don’t have the same access to the resources other continents have. There is also the issue of investment. Though the scene is seeing more investments now as the sounds gain more visibility outside of Africa, still, there is a higher risk involved when you invest in a business here, than say in more developed and structured countries and industries.”
All of this makes working and investing in the music industry that much more difficult, requiring executives like Don Jazzy to work three times harder to get things done and build a foundation for the music industry. For people like Don Jazzy, streaming and the rise of the Internet might be the best thing to have happened to the African music industry.
“The digital revolution has had the most impact on the [African music] business,” Jazzy shares excitedly. “See, when we started, streaming wasn’t even a big deal in Africa. Social media? How many people even had the Internet! Now, everything is digital. Everyone is on social media. Then, I can remember how ring back tunes was one major way of promoting music to phone users. Then, radio and TV were the holy grail for visibility. Now just take a look at the scene. Afrobeats’ global expansion owes a lot to the digital revolution. The viral potential that social media has presented and the tour side of the business is aiding our bid to take over the world.”
Despite these changes, according to Don Jazzy, what it takes to be a hitmaker has remained the same. “Being a hitmaker requires talent, tons of hard work, constant learning, passion, a solid support system, strategy, and luck,” Don Jazzy says. “If you have a majority of these, chances are you can make music that becomes a hit. This is not fool-proof though but it definitely ups your chances.”
When it comes to identifying hitmakers, the rulebook is a little different: “You look out for talent and a willingness to work and learn. You also look at how commercially viable the person is. Do they have a unique selling point? What makes them different from the other guy, you know? You look at their story. Self-belief is also important. Most upcoming artists will build a community. No matter how small, how are you communicating with that community and how are they interacting with you?”
As Afrobeats becomes a fixture in the global music scene and evolves further, Don Jazzy’s experience as one of the pillars of the music industry — especially the business part of it — and his knack for finding talent is becoming even more essential to the ecosystem, especially when it comes to predicting what the future of Afrobeats can look like. He is excited and optimistic about the future of African music, both as a fan and as an executive who has been working in it for almost 20 years.
“I talked about the coming of the digital age right?” Don Jazzy begins when I ask what he thinks the future of African music looks like. “Well, I think here in Africa, we are still just scratching the surface. The internet will be more accessible and streams will keep going up. Afrobeats will become a staple at the world’s biggest music stages. The foreign labels will keep rolling in and social media. From Instagram to TikTok, the next five years will come with new innovation by these companies. The potential for virality will even increase. In the next five years, I expect that innovation will address a lot of the problems that the industry is battling with. Like you, I’m keeping my eyes peeled.”
Vincent Desmond is a Nigerian writer and researcher whose writing has appeared in American Vogue, British Vogue, Reuters, ELLE, British GQ, PAPER, VICE and many more. You can find him on Instagram and on Twitter @vincentdesmond_.