Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi blazes a new path: tech kingmaker

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Last month, Paisa, a Mexico-based lending fintech startup, closed a $600,000 seed round to help it on its mission to bridge the financial, gender, and digital gap left by traditional financial services. One name stood out on the roll call of international venture investors: Mr. Eazi, the Nigerian Afrobeat star who has racked up hundreds of millions of streams across music platforms, with hit songs like “Doyin,” “Skintight,” and “Leg Over.” Although it was his first investment in Latin America, Paisa is just one of a growing list of tech companies Mr. Eazi has backed over the last two years, as the hitmaker explores the potential of tech made for the creative industry.

Since bursting onto the music scene in 2013, Mr. Eazi, whose real name is Oluwatosin Ajibade, has emerged as one of Nigeria’s most popular global exports. The award-winning artist has spent the last five years on the global charts with international stars, including Nicki Minaj, Burna Boy, Major Lazer, Colombia’s J Balvin, and Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny — Spotify’s most-streamed artist for the last two years.

But in the last couple of years, Mr. Eazi has been spending much of his energy not just on making new music, but on solving problems for the African creative sector by building and investing in a range of vehicles inspired by the global tech sector.

“The way I look at music, I see artists as startups, and every song as a product, and record labels as VCs,” Mr. Eazi told Rest of World in an interview following the release of his latest single “Legalize” last month.

Mr. Eazi took the startup founder path himself before his music garnered widespread appeal. He launched Phonetrader.ng, an online marketplace where Nigerians could sell and trade used phones, in 2014. The digital business was selected for a startup incubator program by 440NG, a partnership between venture firms 88mph and L5Lab. “When I look back, that time was one of the most influential periods of my life and it prepared me for where I am now,” he said.

At the incubator, he met prominent Nigerian tech ecosystem players Chika Nwobi, the founder of developer training company Decagon, and Iyin Aboyeji, co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, who he said have helped shape his thinking about the potential of the tech industry ever since.

In 2019, the 31-year-old musician decided to repurpose his tech lessons for the creative industries. While contemporary African music, Afrobeat, has achieved global prominence today, early African music promoters who championed the genre struggled because “we didn’t have our own ticketing platform for African events,” Mr. Eazi said.

He launched EmPawa Africa, a talent incubator designed to accelerate the careers of young, up-and-coming musicians, including Joeboy, a fast-rising Nigerian artist. Today, EmPawa Africa has since been remodeled into a fully-fledged music services organization providing music publishing, distribution, and marketing services to independent artists and record labels. “We want to have as many creatives come and plug in, and we aggregate. By incubating talent, I want to prove the model and the business case,” he said.

Over the last two years, EmPawa has worked with regional record labels to promote hit music while helping African artists collaborate with other talent on the continent and abroad, such as on Bad Bunny’s single “Enséñame a Bailar,” which included vocals from Joeboy.

Mr. Eazi is at the forefront of a broader transformation of the modern African music industry, thanks to online tools and distribution platforms which digital technology has enabled over the past two decades. More African artists have been breaking through by building their own fan following on social media platforms like TikTok. “I don’t think there’s a talent or quality gap in Africa for the creative economy,” Mr. Eazi said. “[But] I think there’s only a funding gap.”

“If you look at the changes that have happened in music and art over the years, it’s a consistent democratization of infrastructure and global music IP [where multiple artists can now self publish],” Aboyeji told Rest of World. “Mr. Eazi is using technology not just to aggregate local music rights, but to optimize them for the global markets.”

EmPawa, which secured an undisclosed seed round early last year, is currently raising a seed extension of around $5 million to support more musicians and record labels.

But EmPawa is not Mr. Eazi’s primary vehicle for venture pursuits. In 2020, he launched a $20 million Africa Music Fund to invest in the continent’s musical newcomers. And in 2021, he made a number of tech investments through his investment syndicate Zagadat Capital. Through Zagadat, whose name references one of his musical catchphrases, Mr. Eazi backed several African-focused startups, including PawaPay, an African mobile payments company; Talent City, an urban development startup started by Aboyeji; and Eden Life, a Lagos-based food delivery and lifestyle startup. Since 2017, he has been an investor at BetPawa, an online betting company led by a former 440ng executive, and has been the face of the brand, frequently appearing in promotional materials.

“Every time I’ve engaged with Eazi, he’s been incredibly thoughtful and intelligent about the African music business and its trajectory with tech,” said Obi Asika, the Nigerian music business veteran and executive producer of the Afrobeats documentary, Journey of the Beats. “To be honest, he’s more of a tech-first artist.”

Mr. Eazi is not the only newly-minted Afrobeats global superstar to have backed local startups. Davido, one of Nigeria’s most prominent artists of the last decade, has invested in at least one startup — Bitsika, a cryptocurrency exchange. Two other singers, Ajebutter22 and Falz, invested in tech training startup TalentQL last year. Industry insiders privately say there are more deals involving pop stars, but that these are often done as advertising or marketing promotions in exchange for minority stakes.

But for Mr. Eazi, investing is about much more than opportunistic stakes or friendly deals. “I like to invest in stuff that I can bring some value to — whether knowledge, business development, marketing — and stuff that can scale and touch my community.”

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