Singing Love’s Praiz

An artist is constantly in the middle of something. One afternoon in late May, as I am ushered into the hotel suite that serves as lodging for Praiz during...
Nigerian R&B musician, Praiz (INSTAGRAM)

An artist is constantly in the middle of something.

One afternoon in late May, as I am ushered into the hotel suite that serves as lodging for Praiz during his last trip to Accra, the above quote visits my mind, for mid-tempo melody—bereft of verses—rings about tenderly in the space. It emanates from a makeshift studio near a wall. The man is feeling himself, humming spiritedly over the song he’s brewing, and crooning when he comes up to the hook: “Girl, I’ve been watching you…”

He’s also in the middle of dressing up, throwing on a slightly oversized velvet orange t-shirt. On the left side of the garment, the side that covers one’s heart, a lapel pin bearing the image of Malcolm X and the inscription “Fear No Man” is fastened. He ties a blue durag (also of velvety texture) around his head, and pulls at his beard; a full, shapely mass that has attended his look for years.

He sways into the bathroom for a brief second, either smiling contentedly at his look, or at the progress of the song.

Since appearing on Project Fame West Africa—the reality show that also discovered Iyanya, Chidinma, Kesse, Bisola among others—the singer-songwriter and producer has become a mainstay in African Pop, particularly via records like the visionary “Rich and Famous,” love anthems “Sisi,” and “I Love You,” as well as “That Stupid Song” (a lighthearted joint by colleague, Bez, on which he features).

Before he catches his flight back to Nigeria, Praiz has one more interview aside ours, I’m told—with a local TV station. Our conversation begins once he returns from the bathroom, his dance and good-natured beam intact. Thirty minutes tops—else he might miss the TV interview.

I find the lapel pin good place to start.

“We all know who Malcolm was and what he stood for,” he begins. Moreover, the Ghanaian designer who made the accessory for him is a “friend and brother.” It’s only right, therefore, that he throws his weight behind him. “It’s always important to support everyone who supports you,” preaches Praiz. “We’re a team!”

While he’s dabbled in a variety of sounds, Praise Ugbede Adejo cites R&B as the sonic base of his compositions. To my question about what led him, an African child, into the foreign invention that is R&B, he bristles, and then vocalizes a mild objection: R&B owes its origins to Blues, he argues, which in turn “originated from Africa.” Therefore, he’s not so much practising anything alien as he is merely connecting the dots.

His argument seems sound enough. I let it go.

Before music, he desired to be a soccer star: a striker who would be renowned for his incisive runs from the left flank. But plans change, as is characteristic of life. He stumbled into beat making, and the music “took over.” In 2008, following his performance at Project Fame (which saw him drive away a car and a million Naira), his family encouraged him to pursue music seriously as that side promised a bright light. He too weighed the options. He was passionate about the sport, but music held a future. He settled on the latter, and that has made all the difference.

“When I look back, I have achieved a lot of things that I never thought I would ever achieve. I have things in my life that I never thought I would ever have. I have impacted a lot of lives—and I am not sure I would be able to do that if I wasn’t doing music. So I never regret. I am glad I’m doing music.”

Naturally, Praiz still speaks highly of Project Fame, holding it up as “the only successful music reality TV show in Africa.” He does not expect dissenting opinion about this pronouncement, considering “its consistency over the years and the number of stars it has produced compared to other shows.

“I mean, it really did well in creating and shaping stars,” he goes on. “The show trains you and teaches you on how to be a proper musician. For those who do not eventually become stars, Praiz holds the following theory: “it’s not because you are no meant to be a star; it’s because probably you are not putting in enough energy, enough hustle spirit into what you do.” Ultimately though, the numbers don’t lie, he insists: “Project Fame has birthed more stars than any other show.”

I run through a number of talent shows across the sub-regions in my mind: Idols West Africa, The Voice, X-Factor. I recall Timi Dakolo and Omawumi from the first. No other names come readily to mind, thus, I have no comebacks. I segue into another question: how does he navigate the notion that highlife is the most trusted medium for the African love song?

A politically correct answer exits his mouth and sees another subtle case being made for R&B. “Anyone who says anything says that for a reason—they’re always coming from a particular perspective.”  He wouldn’t force anyone about their preferences: some like the dance groove of highlife, others, the mellow essence of R&B. His goal is to find common ground between R&B and Afrobeats, reggae, highlife and other pulses. “That’s what music is about,” he says. Fusion. Versatility.

“It’s good to give your fans different things, different approaches to music. I know you don’t eat fufu and light soup (a popular Ghanaian delicacy) morning, afternoon and night, and then tomorrow morning, afternoon, and night. So, I like to give my fans different meals; different sounds, but the foundation of my music is R&B.”

By itself, Praiz’s tenor is a cloying instrument that seduces emotion. An a capella rendering is, to my mind, his strongest claim to the identity of R&B performer.  Complemented by rhythm, though, the singer believes that it enhances its charm. “The African sound changes the emotion—even adds to it…When you make music and you have a certain groove, it adds soul to it, taking you to a different zone. Music has different zones.”

Particularly in these parts, rhythm and dance have provided a cultural vehicle for processing emotion, even in times of mourning. Praiz’s hypothesis is that this is an innate mechanism to deal with the endless challenges Africans face. “The thing is, we go through a lot, and most times, we don’t want to be reminded of our struggles,” he notes. “So, despite what we go through, we always find to have a good time; we just want to enjoy ourselves and feel good regardless of the fact that we feel bad.”

Now to the subject of his penmanship: love.

For him to compose a love tune, Praiz insists that they must be carved from an environment he’s familiar with and must have a personal resonance with him, even if it’s someone else’s story.  “I love to write real songs,” he says, “songs that you can relate to, wholly.” For reference, he points me to something from his last EP, 2 Minutes, on a record titled “I Don’t Want to Love You.” That number explores the dynamic of being momentarily smitten by someone, but also knowing that it’s not durable enough for a long-term partnership. “You don’t wanna let go, but you have to let go.” People typically shy away from such topics—but not him. Why? He knows that deep down, everybody deals with dilemmas like this.

The place of honesty too, cannot be overemphasized. An honest love song, he argues, touches places that that even the beat cannot easily access. Sure, he’s heard music and remarked “aah I love this beat. This beat is banging.” But the primacy of honesty must not be compromised, the reason being that love itself is “true and honest.”

He indicates the above as the reason women tend to make up the majority of the constituency that is his fandom. “As men, I think we lie to ourselves too much. A woman wouldn’t. [If] she likes it, she likes it. She likes to connect with her emotions” It’s not the same for men, Praiz observes, largely due to pride.  “We have an ego; we would rather just hide.” He further asserts that a man would typically take to a love on the condition that a woman loves it.  He doubles down on his thought, commencing with the following rhetorical question: “You can eventually love the song, but why do you need someone to love the song first before you do?

“We actually just lie ourselves, but with women, when they like something they like it.”

Although a trustworthy conveyer of love songs, Praiz concedes to having yet perfected the Ghanaian love story. He’s still understudying the phenomenon, mainly from his “Ghanaian brothers.” On the Ghanaian sound, however, he’s confident about his competences, having secured key collaborations from the likes of Sarkodie and Stonebwoy. Praiz observes a unique artistic simplicity about Ghanaian pop, a simplicity that still manages to inspire complicated emotions in the listener.

That he sings love songs does not immunize Praiz from relationship woes. “Everyone expects you who sings the love songs to have a perfect love story,” he laments. And when he informs people that he’s single, he always gets the following reaction: “How can you be single? You are the one who sings the love songs!”

To this, he responds: “sometimes, the carpenter doesn’t have the best chairs in his house.”

Everyone assumes that the crooner of love songs is a lover boy. Praiz dismisses this notion as inaccurate. I call up a statement fellow singer, Brymo had made in an interview I once read, that love could be scarce to a musician, but not sex, he chuckles a meaningful chuckle before he broaches that topic. He agrees, but it’s not restricted to the province of musicians, he opines. In this age, once one is good-looking enough, sex is accessible. Not love. “Nothing good comes easy.” Granted, being a musician means he would find himself in the company of girls. That doesn’t mean, however, that his discipline falls buy the wayside. “I mean it’s alright to protect your heart,” he stresses. His vocation and good looks may make him an easy target, but he holds a guard up.

Despite the impediments in navigating love as a famous musician, Praiz nurses optimism that a day will come when he’ll land his fairytale story. “But I am not desperate for it,” he hastens to add.  In time, it will all come together, he holds, smiling. On the subject of love, his parents are his model. “I see my parents happy, and that’s all I strive for in a relationship, I don’t want no drama…they would be drama but I want us to maturely handle it. All I want is to be happy—that’s my standard for a relationship.”

From here, we tackle the formula for making R&B for the African market. First of all, contrary to the popular perception, a market exists for R&B on the continent, even if it plays second fiddle to mainstream sounds, he declares. “Trust me, it has worked for me,” before adding an all-important caveat: “It takes a lot of patience. Not everyone is that patient.” And then, leaning forward, “I wouldn’t lie to you, sometimes I feel like giving up.” But patience is a virtue. Looking back, he’s glad he persevered.

In constructing a good R&B joint, techniques may vary, but groove is core, says Praiz. Repetition, too. “You need a line that is easy to grasp; a cliché that is simultaneously deep.” And then, there’s melody, and the right arrangement of that melody.

Again, it is important to be cognizant of the market one operates in as a musician. As a musician’s fanbase grows, both the requests and temptation to cater to a more commercial taste increase.  “We love your voice so much, but, you fit give us one wey go make us dance?” fans incessantly demand. Do you say “no” to such a fan?  Of course not. “So, you need to study your fanbase as they grow and try to create things for them, while still staying true to your core. Over time, I have dropped songs that are groovy, and, like you said, if you stripped the instrumental and you listen to the vocals alone, you would just hear soul.”

Aside Sarkodie and Stonebwoy, Praiz’s catalogue features collaborations with top names as Wizkid, Awilo Longomba, Seyi Shay, Cobhams, MI et al. I bring up Stonebwoy particularly, seeing that between them, at least three collaborations have been published.

Simple answer: he loves talent. And even before he makes a song, he can already “hear who is best for this song.” Secondly, he’s all about personal relationships, something he shares with the Ghanaian dancehall singer. “We connect both as brothers and on a musical level. That’s why we have a lot of records.”

 When I ask about his impressions are about Ghana’s R&B scene, he does not offer me a favourable answer.  Based on what he hears, they’re underrated. “I don’t think they are getting their due respect,” he says.

But isn’t that the case nearly everywhere on the planet?

“The thing is this:  R&B acts are not about the lifestyle—and everybody likes lifestyle. People want to see you pull out your chain, but we’re not about the lifestyle. We’re all about the heart,” he rubs a palm over his. “So, we don’t get as much hype as people who are dripping.” When he wears a Rolex watch, it’s not for the sole purpose of showing off, like is the practice of his colleagues in more flamboyant genres.  That modesty, he cautions, should not be interpreted to mean that the R&B musician does not enjoy a comfortable life or is deprived of gigs.

And then, he directs his focus to the media, a renewed passion rising in his throat. The Fourth Estate, he detects must accept some blame for focusing on other genres of music at the expense of R&B. There must be a place for variety, he insists. “If you turn on your radio or TV, it’s one sound—it’s just monotonous.” Wannabe musicians, even when they intend to venture into R&B, tend to sway to more commercial sounds because it’s all they hear on the airwaves, Praiz worries. “Therefore, the media has a part to play in encouraging people who want to play different genres than what pertains in mainstream circles.”

He lets out an explosive laugh at my final question; one pertaining to the perfection stereotype that invariably casts R&B singer as a sex symbol. He recalls amid hilarity that many years back, due to what he saw on television, that he too was taken in by the belief that practitioners of that genre are perpetually ferried about by a majestic breeze under their unbuttoned white shirts.

When the laughter finally dies down, he points out that every artiste must be presentable—not just the R&B artist.  He yields to the sex symbol stereotype, but stresses that the R&B act must “pull up clean.”

Praiz is readying the release of King, his sophomore album after Rich and Famous, under X3M Music.

Pop writer from Accra.