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Chartbreaker: Inside CKay’s Global Success With a Years-Old Hit

In 2019, a then-rising Nigerian artist CKay sent the sultry, slow-tempo “Love Nwantiti (ah ah ah)” to his label Chocolate City Music. “To be honest… it was overlooked,” he says. “No one took it seriously because it wasn’t a fast song.”

Two years later — and thanks to a viral TikTok challenge, plus five more versions, including an acoustic rendition and sped-up offerings — the song became CKay’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit, climbing into the top 40 on that chart and also making it all the way to No. 2 on Billboard’s Global Excl. U.S. and Global 200 tallies. The 26-year-old CKay, born Chukwuka Ekweani, describes it as “my own spin on Afrobeats,” saying he finds particular joy in creating what he calls emo Afrobeats.

“Emo Afrobeats is a way to express myself, my emotions and my sound and still have a groove to it,” he explains. “Plus I’m a cancer, so my energy is basically emotions.”

CKay in Lagos Nigeria
CKay photographed on October, 24 2021 in Lagos, Nigeria. Manny Jefferson

CKay says he was in love while making the record — the title translated from his native Igbo language means “small love” — which came about while he was making beats and freestyling in his living room. “[The humming] was supposed to be backing vocals for the chorus,” he says, “but the record sounded perfect as it was.” He then sent it to a young producer from Lagos named Tempoe, who he says added extra details on the drums, completing the song seven months before it was released.

At first, nothing happened. But with the help of his manager Ogbolu Favour, who first heard CKay’s music in 2016, the artist was upstreamed in November 2020 to Warner Music South Africa, with Chocolate City Music licensing “Love Nwantiti” to the major (his U.S. contract is with Atlantic).  “It’s great to be in an environment working with people who understand your vision and are ready to make it happen,” CKay says of his new label homes. “My dream was always to make music [where] I wouldn’t have to change my sound and it would touch the whole world, so it’s amazing to be doing that right now.”

With the help of his manager Ogbolu Favour, who first heard CKay’s music in 2016, the artist signed a new label deal with Warner Music South Africa in November 2020 — his U.S. contract is with Atlantic. Chocolate City Music then licensed “Love Nwantiti” to Warner.

He released his major label debut EP Boyfriend this February, but this summer, it was “Love Nwantiti” — off his 2019 debut EP CKay the First — that was putting CKay on the map. By this September, the song had hit No. 1 on Shazam’s Global 200 chart. “Social media definitely played a role — and it wasn’t only TikTok. It was also Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The world discovered it one person at a time.” (“Love Nwantiti” has now collected 97.4 million on-demand streams in the U.S. alone, according to MRC Data.)

Meanwhile, that discovery was happening at the same time another Nigerian artist was making a major splash on the Hot 100. This summer, Wizkid’s “Essence” (featuring Tems) took off, followed by a remix that added Justin Bieber and helped the song peak at No. 9 on the chart last month, making it the first Hot 100 top 10 hit to include Nigeria’s Yoruba language.

CKay and Ogbolu Favour in Lagos Nigeria
Ogbolu Favour, left, and CKay photographed on October, 24 2021 in Lagos, Nigeria. Manny Jefferson

Favour says Warner Music South Africa in particular was instrumental in enforcing a global rollout plan for the revived “Love Nwantiti”: “When it was licensed from Chocolate City Music, the Warner team wanted to release different products of the song, so we had different remixes in different regions. We had the North African remix, East African remix, South African, Spanish and French [versions] featuring different people that speak different languages from different parts of the world. Afrobeats gave the song a wider reach and with that step, the song had wings.”

CKay — who says he would love to collaborate with R&B artists like SZA, Summer Walker and Chris Brown, as well as pop stars like Chris Martin and Billie Eilish — hopes to release his debut album next year, teasing much more music on the way. “My album is going to be my best work yet,” he asserts, “because I’m going to put my whole soul and essence into it.”

Favour also believes the international success of “Love Nwantiti” is just the beginning for CKay: “I see [him] as an African global star.”

CKay in Lagos Nigeria
CKay, center, photographed on October 24, 2021 in Lagos, Nigeria. Manny Jefferson

A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 20, 2021, issue of Billboard.