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On The Fringe: PSIV Is More Than Drill

PSIV is often viewed as one of the de-facto poster boys for +234Drill, but he's got a few more tricks up his sleeve.

At age nine, PSIV wanted to be Usher. He would dream of music videos in which he wore leather jackets and leather pants, had braided hair, and sang to the love of his life while kneeling in the rain. Today, he is one of the forerunners of drill music in Nigeria, riding beats assuredly and menacingly, a far cry from that R&B dreamer.

For PSIV, real name Pius Bankong, music has always been a significant part of his life. “Music is how I identified certain emotions, and it’s how I also expressed others. At the risk of sounding too deep, music is like another language to me. It’s how I communicate, basically, a soundtrack to my life,” he says. His parents owned a music label early in his life and aside from the musicians they signed, his elder sister also began to sing, piquing his interest even further. As a kid, he would attempt to rap by mentioning every car he knew, and although he was just having fun with his rhymes, people began to notice that there was something about the kid. One day, a visitor turned to him and asked if he knew he was a good lyricist. This acknowledgement of his talent would be the first of many on his musical journey.

In high school, he continued rapping, performing at various gigs, and sharing stages with big acts like Iyanya, Davido, and Burna Boy. However, when he got into university, he paused to focus on academics. This will not strike many as unusual because, if there is a common thread in the lives of all Nigerian kids born in the 90s, especially those born in Nigeria, it is that school gets in the way of many things. In a country that had experienced various coups and the accompanying political and economic upheavals, the pervasive view is that stability is the holy grail and cannot be achieved through career paths considered flippant. The idea that a child would drop out of school to make music or play football was not even allowed, and everyone was expected to study the nobler professions of law, medicine, and engineering. PSIV got admitted to study law at the University of Lagos but maintains that shelving music for schoolwork was a personal decision as he chose to focus on why he was in school.

This was temporary anyway because, despite the amount of time and mental space schoolwork occupied in his head, the desire to pursue music was still alive, piercing through the mess in his mind all the time. This nagging thought, coupled with a random meeting with a high school friend, would change his life.

“I went to see my friend, Dotun and we had a couple of mutual friends from primary school there too, and he asked me why I wasn’t making music anymore,” he recalls. “I was like, I wanted to, but things weren’t just picking up at that point. I played him a couple of beats I had been messing around with, and he thought they were okay. Then he played me a beat called ‘Too Fly,’ and when I saw the title, I just started rapping to it, and those first few lines became the hook of the song.”

The other gift out of that session was the advice that his friend gave him, a substantial part of his ethos and vision now: “Dotun said that I had to meet music halfway. I could do afrobeats which was banging at the time, but I wasn’t connecting with it as much as rap. He held that I could rap and still make my stuff relatable to my listeners. At the end of the day, my sound is something close to what’s happening here (in Nigeria), but it’s still distinctive.”

“Too Fly”, the result of that encounter, would go on to be PSIV’s rebirth. At the time, he was really into the UK rap scene, listening to Skepta, Wiley, Giggs, and co. This evident influence can be heard on the soft but groovy “Too Fly”. His flow is majorly afroswing, a subset of UK rap that incorporates afrobeats elements in the instrumentals. His next offering was “Side Tings”, a lighthearted song about his love for ladies with a preference for little commitments in relationships. Despite the seemingly trivial topic, the song garnered buzz due to his flow and delivery, and this positive feedback inspired him to do more with his craft and expand to levels that he had not ventured into at that point.

“Dotun just getting me on that beat gave me the confidence to do any and everything,” he reflects. “I started to experiment with singing, because even though I don’t have the voice, I knew I had melodies, I knew I had the vibes. In my mind, I was going to keep doing it till I had bare hits, till I was dominating different genres, topping charts like Drake, maybe even more than Drake.”

This commitment to experimenting with new sounds is the underlying factor behind his current path: drill music. In a way, it was expected, his music ear was attuned to the UK scene, and with drill gaining prominence, it was no surprise he was one of the earliest in the Nigerian scene to pick up the sound. One of the leading lights of Nigerian drill – or 234 drill as its progenitors affectionately call it – his debut project Welcome To The 234 packs a punch, incorporating powerful expressive lyrics filled with survivalist themes associated with the genre while still giving it his unique Nigerian spin. Welcome To The 234 is many things. The project is an ode to the struggles of Nigerian youth, a diary of some sorts, and a personal statement of intent. Contrary to his meticulous nature, PSIV admits the EP came about randomly. Well, no, not randomly – he believes it was the hand of God behind it.

He originally recorded “Story”, the project’s third track first, and intended to release it as a single. This was April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns. The pent-up anger and frustration everyone felt during that period are evident on the track. However, he could not shoot a video and release the single as planned due to circumstances beyond his control. After that, he began to feel the need to drop a drill tape, so he began to scour his email for beats that had been sent to him by producers, and he began to create. The tape was ready in no time, but a conversation he had with his brand manager changed his trajectory, and he decided to make 2020 about afroswing and push all drill music to 2021. Then #EndSars happened.

In October 2020, Nigerian youths across the country came out en masse to protest the illegal activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a subset of the police force known for their extrajudicial practices, which included torture and killings. The protests continued for days, organically spreading and making an impact. The #EndSars hashtag began to make waves, getting to the ears of the international community, with several countries calling on the Nigerian government to listen to their people and take action against the killer squads. After a few half-assed efforts to listen and acquiesce to the protestor’s demands, the government decided to renege on their promises and quell the demonstrations with violence. On the 20th of October, 2020, men of the Nigerian military opened fire on protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate to the astonishment of people worldwide who were following the news in real-time. For PSIV, it was a critical moment as it put in perspective how bad the country he calls home was. As a law student, the blatant disrespect for human rights hit him hard. Less than a month later, he released “Gangland” featuring South African rapper Espiquet, officially kickstarting the journey to his project’s release.

He had written the song three months earlier, but it felt like the right time to release it. The commercial strategies and brand direction that had gone into the project’s release were discarded because he thought “telling the truth” was more important. On the A2R Beatz-produced track, contrary to initial reactions, he is not a voice for everyone; it is his anger at the state of the country that is bared. But certain things take on a life of their own after their creation. His frustrations became a general one, a soundtrack to the feelings of sadness at the ridiculousness of the nation – it became bigger than him.

“‘Gangland’ put me on a run for the project, you know? From that point onwards, championing 234 drill came as well, and everything was tied together so nicely. It was like the universe synchronizing everything, like a divine arrangement of events,” he says.

In the months after that, he featured on Pharoah and the Pyramid’s “War Chant” and released “234”, a short song further detailing his relationship with Nigeria, albeit with lighter content than “Gangland”, and in March 2021, Welcome to The 234 was released to acclaim by fans of Nigeria’s drill community. Being in tune with the community and having a feel for his environment has kept him on good terms with the other artistes in the drill space. Hip Hop has always been a hypermasculine, aggressive environment. Still, while a competitive space can spur creativity and produce even better work, PSIV maintains that having a good relationship with other drill artistes is vital for growth: “I feel like when you’re confident in what you do, you appreciate and support other people doing great stuff. You don’t bother about pulling people down just to stay relevant. Building community is key, it adds wealth to our experiences and identity. I’m inspiring people to embrace their craft, open new doors, and reach new heights. You’ll be amazed how far we‘ll go.”

Nevertheless, while he is basking in the current adulation and enjoying the love from fans and critics alike, he understands that he is just at the start of something with the potential to be massive. The mindset that made him want to top charts like Drake is not dead; the fire is forever burning. For the next stage in his career, PSIV is working on establishing roots in a volatile industry that can leave artistes behind and switch to a new sound or style without warning: “Firstly, it’s a mentality thing. Look at Ronaldo, he had two Ballon d’Ors when Messi had five, and he grinded so hard till he equalled him. That’s what you need to begin, that mentality to dominate.

That aside, I believe there’s a lot that sets me apart, most especially my desire to grow. I always tell my new listeners not to get attached to any side of me because I’m always trying to evolve and change. I have done afroswing, rap, and I’ve even got afrobeats tracks on my hard drive. One thing I can assure you is that whatever genre I switch to, it’s going to be a banger because I’m dedicated to it.”

Although he has come a long way from being the little kid who wanted to caress women with his smooth R&B melodies in the rain, he has never been known to stay with one thing for too long, so a return to childhood dreams might not be far-fetched. Hold your breath a bit longer; that little boy just might show up.

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