On The Fringe: Zilla Oaks Is Putting Abuja On The Map
Hailing from the country's capital city, Zilla Oaks is among a vanguard of artists fervently pushing the hip hop genre in Nigeria. With his city placed firmly on his back, this rapper is determined to make his mark – or die trying.
On the Fringe will attempt to tell stories of artistes who otherwise would not receive mainstream media’s attention due to the absence of representation or the necessary publicity. While some people are not as keen on discovery as some of us are, it is still essential to chronicle the rise of emerging talents that can create timeless records. Artistes covered in the series will be at differing stages in their journeys, but they will all be emerging acts somehow — either unto larger audiences or more niche ones.
Six years ago, Abuja’s budding music scene had only ever produced a handful of acts, many of which could not equally compete or hold a candle to their counterparts from the South-West. Today, some of the country’s most captivating artists hail from the capital, with a new crop constantly on the verge of breaking out. Six years ago, Zilla Oaks, born Rodnee Okafor, fit into this class perfectly: his debut album had just come out and at 22, the sky was the limit to what he could do. On the verge of his sophomore release, I caught up with him once again to see what was different.
Tucked away in one of Lagos’ developing neighborhoods, his Airbnb is packed out with friends and collaborators as he seeks to record new music and lay the finishing touches to his new project. Maintaining a similar demeanor as he did six years ago, the only things that are different are the city we are both in, his new hairdo and the advances he has made professionally. In the time since we first spoke, he has co-founded Nigeria’s most dominant rap/R&B crew, Apex Village, released the collective’s debut project and accrued over 100,000 streams on all platforms across a plethora of features and singles.
The Abuja native welcomes me with a lit joint currently in rotation. “No thanks, it’s Ramadan,” He seems genuinely sorry that he forgot my faith and apologizes with an earnest smile. We find a quiet room to do the interview and listen to his upcoming album, NO ZZZZ 2. Settling into the plush surroundings, we begin.
“It’s been a long time since we did this, what do you think has changed since?” I inquire. He details the inception of Apex Village and its individual members. Comprising Psycho YP, Marv OTM, KuddiisDead, Ayuu and himself as recording artists, the collective birthed from their connection through shared interests including their love for art and its creation.
Some of Zilla’s oldest music, essentially everything before NO ZZZZ, has been taken down from DSPs due to a conflict with the distribution company that uploaded it in the first place. While older listeners might be aware of some of his more classic records such as the timeless “Nnamdi Azikwe” and “Elders”, to new listeners and fans though, his catalogue remains as broad as ever. With at least 100 features between his second mixtape, NEG:RO and his recent releases, he has tapped into a broad range of genres and styles, expanding his appeal and potential fanbase and while his subject matter has remained largely the same, it is enveloped by a slick coat of polish that provides improved definition to his sound.
The lead-up singles to the project (“Ogini”, “Follow Me Reason”, “No Conversate” and most recently, ”Yuu”) perfectly encapsulate this approach. His hopes for the tape are modest but grand, to achieve nationwide notoriety and domination. Listening to the first three songs off the tape, it is clear to see why. Finding new ways to wax about his interests including but not limited to trapping, drugs, money, women and weapons, he sounds invigorated on the snippets he plays from the new offering. The new tape is essentially trap and hip-hop, fused with his latest experiments and flavored with a diverse range of talent.
With Yours Sincerely, NEG:RO, and NO ZZZZ all under his belt, being labelled a budding artist by Nigerian audiences could be considered regressive but that only serves as motivation for him as Zilla constantly feels like there’s more to do. “As far as impact, that has always been there from day one, it’s just a matter of time before audiences realize. When AV was being formed no one understood what we were trying to do but once they saw the chemistry on the project, they had an idea of what it was,” he shares.
"I’m repping Abuja right now because I’ve been a flagbearer; we’ve been pushing new era rap in the city for about five years now but at this point, we [Apex Village] just feel like it’s time to go.”
The conception of their infrastructure is also one of the most notable achievements that have set the crew apart from their inception. The dynamic duo of Cindy Ihua and Fiammari co-manage the majority of the collective and have been instrumental in securing multiple placements and performances for the members, simultaneously increasing their reach.
Discussing the absence of no major flagbearers in recent history for rap music versus more commercially acceptable genres reveals a lot. Artists like Buju have successfully penetrated the market with slim catalogues in comparison to their rapping counterparts and the credit goes to stalwarts such as Wizkid and Davido for enabling the rise of such artists by propagating the culture globally. Yet, it is hard to say Chocolate City, who possessed the strongest rap roster in Africa at some point, did the same for the new age of rappers. Blaqbonez’ rise is consistently emphasized for the self-sufficiency and DIY approach he heralded regardless of being signed to the legacy label, not to mention his multiple evolutions that saw him dabble into Afropop – another clear example of what it takes for a rapper to break through in this market today.
To the market, refusing to do the same simply means you are not prepared for the sort of domination Zilla seeks to achieve; this could not be further from the truth. This disconnect brings us to one of his most palpable fears. The Capital Hill label had Phenom, one of the most intense lyricists the country has seen in a long time, yet he is almost invisible today. “I know I’m one of the hardest rappers out, I know Denzel [my brother] is one of the hardest rappers in the U.S. from Nigeria, I know Marv is one of the hardest rappers I know but am I just going to rap my ass off with nothing to show for it?” he asks. “Take Dremo for example, when he just got signed, he dropped some hard-ass rap tracks and I love Dremo but he’s signed to the same label as Mayorkun and the attention he gets isn’t even nearly equal.” To Zilla, this is the importance of being a part of a rap-centric label in modern-day Nigeria. Psycho YP getting nominated for a Headies award points to the fact that they have begun permeating some of the barriers that have traditionally held rappers back.
Detailing his evolution from being a high school swag rapper to the next project where he had settled on his project having more direction, outlining his origins and ancestral background, being a young Igbo boy growing up in America and moving to Nigeria, discussing historic topics like the coup of 1966. On NO ZZZZ, he had found his feet artistically, studying the game and market as evidenced by him tapping into a variety of sounds and putting his own spin on Afrobeats, successfully positioning him as more than just a rapper.
Crediting Alhaji Popping (of Mainland Block Party) for organizing the Abuja variant, he describes one of his most validating experiences rapping as the moment Apex Village took the stage collectively for the first time and rocked the crowd. “I couldn’t believe they knew our lyrics word for word. The project had been out about four months prior and this was the first time we had all been in the country since we recorded and released the album.”
The lockdown was a transitional period for him, from moving out of his parent’s home to releasing his latest slew of singles leading up to “Yuu”, his appreciation for the opportunity to reflect and record more music for his impending tape. “It was boring but super productive, people were paying more attention and it felt like the perfect time to put music out for me,” Zilla reflects. Developing notable connections and chemistry with a host of artists outside his Apex Village collective such as Prettyboy DO and Mojo has helped cement his presence as one of Nigeria’s potentially most reliable feature artists. Constantly seeking reinvention through experimentation, three projects after his debut. “I make sure the features are calculated,” he explains, “Mojo and Prettyboy are close and once I connected with Mojo we all connected organically. All the features I ever had are based on love and admiration, never on some hit my manager up stuff, that’s why I form relationships with people first.”
Considering himself a people person, he believes this approach has informed his relationships with other artists within and outside his soundscape. He describes his features on his projects as the perfectly brewed fruit punch at a party, you might have no idea what’s in it, but it will be guaranteed to give you a great night. Preferring to build a connection rather than recording on all offers, his hands-on approach is a major reason why his work is so natural. “Management can hit me up with an offer from someone I never heard of and regardless of what they’re paying I won’t do it because we have no connection. EssKay and myself started making music a while back and so far, we have over one project together; that’s because we have a connection.”
Still an independent label, Apex Village’s achievements in business are notable considering they have no structured backing and they have no intentions of changing that any time soon. “If a deal comes through and provides the opportunity to expand then that’s okay, if not. that’s okay too; we got this far with no help and we can definitely go further.”
Scheduled for a mid-May release, NO ZZZZ 2 promises to achieve more than his three previous offerings combined or die trying. Packed with features and a full-blown rollout to achieve maximum visibility, this seems like the one to put him on the map. While that is a significant amount of pressure to place on one album, his trajectory suggests the affirmative and we couldn’t be more prepared.
Featured Image Credits: Joey Oputa