Earl Heights Apartment, Accra.
I DO NOT KNOW FROM WHICH DOOR SIMI EMERGES, but it’s most likely the one at the end of the hall. When I lift my head from my MacBook, she’s already by the couch on which I’ve been waiting. I wonder how I didn’t hear the sound of her high heels clacking on the tiled floor as I rise to shake her hand.
29, the petite singer looks saintly this afternoon – her plain attire barely reaching beyond her shoulders and knees. Jewelry glistens on her ears, left forefinger and on both wrists…her face, radiant with elegant makeup. As she settles in the corner of the couch, she looks like a prized artefact in an art museum. Indeed, the room itself looks like a gallery: spacious and alive with rich colors and compelling paintings.
Simi’s schedule is tight. Since yesterday (October 12), the Ghana leg of the media tour for her sophomore album Simisola, has seen her on quite a number of TV and radio stations in Kumasi and Accra. In half an-hour, she should be on GH One TV, and then on Live FM, and then Class FM. A similar timetable awaits her tomorrow, as well as the day after.
Like in her home country of Nigeria, Simisola is also well-received here. On September 8, when all of Ghana’s attention should have been focused on Sarkodie’s fifth album Highest, artwork for Simisola was just as prominent on our timelines. And why not? With a voice the texture of confectionery, and stories that touch, she’s as beloved here as she is on the streets of Lagos and Abuja, and is imaginary fiancée to many young Ghanaian men.
That last line sounds like the perfect icebreaker for our conversation – either that, or rapper Patapaa’s One Corner craze. I opt for the latter: would she do the dance, at least for the culture? “No, I don’t think I will”, followed by a giggle, which is also heard frequently throughout our intercourse. She has not tasted the famous Ghana Jollof yet, and the revelation bruises my heart, but does not make her any less cool.
When she speaks, Simi’s words flow rapidly and with teenage pitch – just like her laugh. She exudes a persona of effervescence and sincerity, and rich wisdom is apparent in her every sentence.
Signed to X3M Music, it has taken Simisola Bolatito Ogunleye four projects (two albums and two EPs) to truly establish herself in Nigeria’s mainstream music circles. Her sound is qualified by superior purity and street soul, which has seen her regarded also as an alternative to the mainstream instead of merely an alternative in it. This has often meant that her music has been largely a “well-kept secret” – only available to those who diligently search.
With Simisola, which was led with Joromi (a kind of homage to highlife great Sir Victor Uwaifo), Simi has finally found renown, and she didn’t have to conform to any norms to get here. If anything, she’s the exception, redefining whatever rules exist.
The world over, “commercial music” has often referred to one tailored strictly for dance –lacking wholesome content, and perishable after a few months. Simi’s songs are sacred and possess longevity. Due to this (and out of respect), the adjective is seldom used for her records.
But Simi finds this definition faulty. Concerned, she straightens up: “everybody does music to sell it. Commercial is something you sell, so unless I’m giving it out for free, it is commercial”. This definition is striking in its accuracy.
She submits a similar explanation when I inquire if she’s comfortable being “pigeonholed” into the category of “Afropop”, seeing that there’s more to her music than the sub-genre. She disagrees that it is a pigeonhole in the first place. Citing British chanteuse Adele, she reiterates a substitute variation of Pop music (of which Afropop is a limb) – that it simply refers to popular music. And as long as we agree that her music is popular, we are not wrong. If anything, she adds, the label gives her “more room to explore”. And why not? Afropop encompasses virtually all melody from the continent, and while many consider it a vague and often sluggish way to describe sounds from these parts, Simi embraces it – exploiting it to her advantage. No one is going to look at her suspiciously when she experiments with various rhythms, and as as artist, one needs all the freedom one can get.
Simi takes her poetic licence seriously: “at the the end of the day, music is supposed to be more expressive than organized”. At the same time, she admits to the obsession of wanting the music sound a specific way: “when I’m writing or recording, I’m very very precise. I’m a perfectionist. Do you understand?”, her eyes trained keenly upon mine as she inquires. She didn’t need to, because it is evident in how her melody is executed. She’s very hands-on with how her songs come out. Nuanced and thorough, Simi’s sound offers something fresh with every listen – charming sleights sprinkled throughout various compartments of her songs: in the placement of string/ horn interludes, her diction while ad-libbing, the stainless tone of backing vocals which deliver her choruses.
The flair she demonstrates mixing and mastering her songs have even earned her top clients, such rapper YCee of Omo Alhaji fame.
But how does she walk this tightrope of technical precision and the liberty expected of artistry?
“I don’t mix any two of my songs the same…It’s just about knowing how to keep a balance and not get carried away. Every song is different”, says MixBySimi (when she wears that hat). Only she knows how she delivers emotion and technical genius in equal doses. Maybe it is in the fact that her team is close-knit – mainly comprising producer Oscar, and friend/regular collaborator Adekunle Gold (providing guest verses and backing vocals).
A purist himself, Adekunle is very much part of the sound Simi has grown into over the course of her career. The “Urban Highlife”groove that he conceived continues to serve as a special ingredient for the Simi vibe.
When she talks about Adekunle, Simi smiles, and then breaks into her laugh. Same with when she discusses her creative bond with Falz, with whom she collaborated on the lovely Chemistry EP.
Simisola consists 12 deeply affective tunes which could easily be referred to as classics. Because it is self-titled, and due to her convincing delivery of stories about love and loss, self and faith, the work feels autobiographical, though she is quick to point out that while all the stories are true, they aren’t necessarily about her.
The conversation is too short for me…I need at least an hour with precious Simi. But there are other journalists waiting for their turn. Not forgetting the GH One interview.
When the interview is done and I make my way down the shiny elevator, I plug in my earphones and hum along these words from Original Baby, which she names as her favorite song off the project. Both verses from this powerful personal testimony of self-love end thus:
“You gotta take me as I am. I’ll be better, but I’ll never be somebody else”