A decade ago, rising music producer Piriye Isokrari was looking for an act to launch his new label, Aristokrat Records. Soon enough, he met a then-unsigned artist at a recording studio in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, who went on to become Burna Boy.
Impressed by the 19-year-old’s Afrofusion music and raw charisma, Isokrari was quick to sign him to a recording contract in 2012, the same year Burna Boy broke out in Nigeria with his track “Like To Party,” included on his 2013 debut studio album, L.I.F.E, which was Aristokrat’s first full-length release. The label used the momentum — plus a $1 million investment from a venture capital firm — to develop four more artists. But by 2014, Burna Boy’s contract had expired, and Isokrari decided to transform the label into Aristokrat Group, a full-service creative agency. (He remains on Burna Boy’s team as a paid consultant.)
Now Aristokrat has formed a partnership with Universal Music Group that includes a publishing deal through Universal Music Publishing Group and a label deal through Universal Music France. (Aristokrat artists will be signed and distributed by Caroline France.) “Afrobeats is a global wave, and Burna’s the prototype,” says Isokrari. “There are thousands of artists here that deserve to be on that global stage. This partnership will allow us to discover them, develop them and get them to the right audience.”
Isokrari, 35, studied economics at the University of Oklahoma and had planned to work in politics. Instead, he started producing under the name Peedi Picasso and co-hosting parties in the United States that fused Caribbean and African sounds. Post-college, he returned to Nigeria with dreams of starting his own label that, thanks to Burna Boy, became a reality. In 2013, United Arab Emiratesbased VC firm Rio Africa acquired 40% of Aristokrat; in turn, Rio Africa tapped Isokrari to head A&R and operations for its new label, 960 Music Group.
Nigerian producer Leriq — who produced Burna Boy’s L.I.F.E (Leaving an Impact for Eternity) — became one of Aristokrat’s earliest signees. More recently, the label signed producer Kel P, who has worked with Burna Boy and Wizkid (his deal includes management); Jujuboy Star, a 24-year-old songwriterproducer of Afro R&B/soul; and T’neeya, a Ghanabased singer-songwriter from Cameroon. On the publishing front, AristokratUMG has signed Kel P, Jujuboy Star and Saszy Afroshii, a producer from Lagos, Nigeria.
After L.I.F.E peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s Reggae Albums chart in 2013, the label signed a distribution deal with movie marketer Uba Pacific. Six years later, Burna Boy brought on Kel P to write nine of the 19 tracks on his fourth album, the Grammy Award-nominated African Giant. Currently, Aristokrat does not plan to expand its 15-person staff in its Lagos office, though Isokrari says it hopes to eventually hire more A&R executives and managers.
With Aristokrat coordinating A&R efforts from Lagos, UMG France and Caroline France are eager to see whom the label discovers next. “Having this partnership with Aristokrat is the best way to have a real team [in Lagos] that knows the country, knows the culture and is developing projects — but is not trying to imitate U.S.-[style] production,” says Olivier Nusse, CEO of Universal Music France. The Sound of New Africa, a compilation of Aristokrat artists due in August, will be the partnership’s first new release.