Armed with a deep-rooted sense of self, a unique understanding of sound, and the grit to thrive, the singer-producer is a bird that cannot be caged.
Across the full breadth of our lives, we are bound to come in contact with different people, each with a distinct flavour to their character. We have solid, dependable friends we have known for years; we have idols we look up to from a distance, observing and learning. Once in a while, we are made aware of a particular type of person whom everyday words fail to describe. For this unique individual, we turn to the thesaurus for adjectives to qualify them. "Powerful." "Magnetic." "Life of the Party."
When they walk in the room, the energy shifts to accommodate them; when they talk, you find yourself curious, wanting to know what is going on in that electric head of theirs. When producer and singer Oladunni Lawal, aka Dunnie, said hello over a crackly Zoom call on a warm August afternoon, my interest – which was already piqued – doubled. We shared pleasantries, and I made a joke about the universe guiding our paths to do the interview that very day because I had heard her song on the radio as I journeyed to work that morning. Though that might have been a coincidence, it is not far-fetched to think that a divine hand has been behind her steadily progressing career.
Kicking off her career as a student at The Sarz Academy, she worked alongside producers like P-Prime, Tempoe, and the maverick Sarz himself. Since then, she has attained cult status in the Nigerian music scene as one of the few talented individuals who is also a commercial recording artist and producer. In 2014, Dunnie became one of the beneficiaries of Mr Eazi's Empawa initiative because she released her first music video, Foolish, which she shot and released two years earlier. Alongside Seyi Shay, Tee Y Mix, and Kaffy, she was a prominent judge for the Access All-Stars competition in 2020. Additionally, she contributed her vocals to Busiswa's third studio album, which was released that same year.
As smooth as her trajectory seems, the journey has not been a bed of roses. Starting off in church, she quickly expanded her interest in music from just singing to instruments and production: "I started in the children's choir. After a while, I moved to the adult's choir. I stopped singing and began playing the drums; after a while, I got bored, then I learned how to play the guitar for a minute, then I got bored and figured I wanted to learn how to produce."
In 2011, while waiting for her university admission after finishing secondary school, she hung around a studio in Abuja, attempting to learn the basics of music production. This didn't work out immediately, so she switched her efforts to songwriting and making covers. In 2017, desperate to make some money, she attempted production again, downloading software on her laptop and experimenting with sounds. By September, she had sold her first beat. After that, everything took off. In January 2018, fresh out of university, she released her debut single "Wahala." In May, Sean Tizzle released "Pempe", her debut as a producer, and in July, her first body of work, an EP called Seven, was ushered into the world.
"It was very experimental, just vibes," she says as she reminisces on her mindset at the time she crafted the project. The EP's title signified a seven-year journey from studio rat to a producer and artiste working with Fiokee and Ric Hassani. The Jewish code and calendar, of which Dunnie is a huge follower, states that the number 7 signifies perfection. To her, the journey was a 'perfect imperfection': a testament to the progress she had made at that time, and a sign that she was there to stay. In the time between her first project and now, Dunnie has done more than stay; she has thrived. From working with Wande Coal, Niniola, Yemi Alade to South Africa's Focalistic, Gemini Major, Rowlene, her unique combination of determination and talent has led her to surpass expectations.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field is always a tricky challenge. The system can be challenging to navigate, with pushback from her older colleagues and peers. Dunnie brushes off this suggestion in her effortless, affable manner: "When I send beats to artistes, the oestrogen doesn't show", she jokes before answering in detail. "My mantra is always 'the music has to bang.' I want to be recognised for the quality of my work, that's all. If anything, I've been lucky, getting a steady stream of work from selling my first beat in 2017 and releasing a project less than a year later." This strong self-belief comes to the fore again as the topic of impostor syndrome comes up. For creatives, there's a tendency to belittle our work when we are in the presence of icons in the same field. For Dunnie, this is the opposite. When I ask her if she felt doubtful when producing for stars like Wande Coal, she simply responds that while she respects all the fantastic acts she has worked with, the only musician she believes will give her the jitters is Beyoncé. "When I first worked with Wande, I thought to myself, 'what beat do I want to play for him that hasn't jumped on before? But I quickly shook that off and reminded myself that he might have worked with Sarz and Masterkraft, but he hadn't worked with Dunnie."
To close the curtains on our conversation, we touch on the topic of her future. Although nothing is set in stone, Dunnie plans to stop commercial production and focus on producing for "who I like to work with." In a surprising twist, she also reveals that the music business is also part of her expansion plans, as it's a side of the industry that appeals to her. She credits her time in the Sarz Academy for polishing her knowledge on the legal and financial aspects of producing, such as taxes and negotiating with artists. For now, however, she is excited about her debut album slated for release later this year. While she is barred from releasing too many details, she admits that her Seven EP's "vibes" approach has taken a backseat and is more strategic and calculated with the project. This switch has nothing to do with her discarding her experimental nature; instead, she focuses on creating a cohesive album with a central theme. Despite its afrobeats core, her vision for the project is to create cinematic music that can be synchronised with visual media.
With Dunnie, nothing seems out of reach. Armed with a deep-rooted sense of self, a unique understanding of sound that stems from her instrumental and production roots, and the grit to thrive in the music industry 'jungle', she is a bird that cannot be caged. As you look at her perched on the highest tree branch, ready to soar, you can't shake the feeling that her moment is close, and in an instant, she will be gliding over all. In the meantime, take some time to enjoy the lead single from her upcoming album "Mosafejo", an amapiano-infused banger that speaks to our human tendency to seek love in the wildest places while ignoring it in the areas close to home.