Expanding the scope of street pop in today's climate, here's how Zinoleesky navigated his way to the front of the queue.

Words by Wale Oloworekende


Photography: Danielle Mbonu
Styling & Creative Direction: Daniel Obaweya
Production: Dawa Thompson
Make-Up: Ayopo Abiri
Styling Assistant: Jahn Affah
Production Assistant: Tega Akintola

Words by Wale Oloworekende

Zinoleesky wears

On a particularly cloudless Sunday in April, a group of excited teenagers are rushing towards a decaying single-story house on Broad Street, Lagos Island. Just behind them, a pack of younger children are heading eagerly towards the same building, trying to manoeuvre their way into a courtyard that is supposed to be strictly cast and crew but is swiftly being surrounded by many more. The unexpected crowd is here in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the spectacle that is The NATIVE’s production crew working furiously to get all the technical elements right for a late afternoon shoot.

In a spacious hall to the left of the shoot site, a long-limbed, statuesque young man is pulling off a jet black ski mask that was worn in an effort to grant him entry to Broad Street surreptitiously. In hindsight, it’s a plan that was doomed to fail from inception. With his slender frame and sprightly gait, Zinoleesky, the 20-something-year-old Crown Prince of Marlian Music – the Naira Marley-led imprint that’s the power base of Nigeria’s Street Pop music, with a long list of hits and a roll call of artists like MohBad, Emo Grae, and C Blvck – monopolises the attentions of neighbourhood locals as soon as he skips out of his Highlander truck, looking more like a model arriving at a casting call, than a music act for a magazine cover shoot.

High-pitched cries of Zinoleesky’s name ring out from across the neighbourhood and a few locals on the street corner close to our base for the day spot him as they enjoy a smoke break, calling out to the singer deferentially. Zino – as the singer is commonly referred to by his inner circle – warmly acknowledges them with a hand gesture and bob of his head before sauntering languidly into the abandoned printing press of a defunct publication, our studio for the day.

It’s the peak of the Ramadan season and, as a practising Muslim, Zinoleesky is partaking in the sunrise to sunset fasting that has come to define the religion’s holy month. But surprisingly, he’s still up and about, playing fetch with Zion, his stunning Siberian Husky, and exchanging banter with members of the production crew in between outfit changes. During one of those changes, in one of the rare moments I catch him alone on shoot day, I ask a question about faith and what it means to him. “My faith is what has brought me this far,” he begins, before pausing to choose his words carefully. “That’s what has allowed me to pass through all that has happened in my life, and it’s also why I’m here talking to you.”

It’s a little curious that Zinoleesky, one of Street Pop’s finest exponents, is having the shoot for a major cover story – the latest landmark in a career that has seen him feted as one of Afropop's next great hopes – all the way in Lagos Island. Both figuratively and literally, Zinoleesky has come miles away from the labyrinthine maze of Agge, the hood in Lagos’ north where he took his first steps as a music star. Last year, a planned shoot in Agege for his part in the Lagos edition of the Sounds From This Side editorial was cancelled due to social unrest in the neighbourhood. In conversation, Zino alludes to the fact that concerns about safety in Agege and preserving faint stability in the area might have played a role in the choice of Broad Street as the location for this shoot.

Regardless, there is still a palpable sense of manic euphoria when Zinoleesky steps out to take pictures in the courtyard of the bungalow on the cue of The NATIVE’s production crew. Fathers, mothers and children alike gravitate towards the shoot to take in the sight of the singer. To my left, two girls are mumbling the lyrics to his Niphkeys-produced smash hit, “Blessings”, under their breath. One of the girls, a high-schooler named Zainab, tells me that Zinoleesky is her favourite artist. “I listen to his songs every day before I go to school,” she adds for emphasis before ditching me, to get a better view of the star of the show.

In one of the more memorable frames from shoot day, Zinoleesky is perched on the top floor of the one-storied building, surrounded on all sides by a sea of people. It’s a befitting reminder of his status as an avatar of Street Pop – and all the original sounds that have mutated to form the core of the subgenre – who holds the hopes and admiration of an economic faction of wider Lagos and Nigeria firmly on his lithe shoulders.

Only a few days after, Zinoleesky is on stage at the Homecoming Festival, and he’s tearing through a spirited performance of “Gone Far”, with the audience parroting the lyrics of the “Mama, I Made It” anthem, right back at him. There’s something about the fluid way Zinoleesky’s music takes up space that allows him to win over even the most sceptical listeners. On a night where many of his peers had struggled to get any sort of reaction from the crowd, Zino had them hanging on to his every utterance. For anyone watching Zinoleesky that night, it would have been definitive confirmation that the singer had grown beyond the smartphone freestyles he first made his name with, and had quickly become a must-see attraction – a star draw ,no matter what stage he was on.

Two months after that electric performance, I meet Zinoleesky at the expansive Marlian Music residence in Lekki. Painted in a translucent shade of white, Zino’s side of the mansion is devoid of decor or personal effects, except for a pool table, fan sketches of him with a female friend, and a massive television mounted on the wall that looks like it has never been turned on. To our right, there’s a spiral staircase that leads to “just another part of the house,” and different people appear from said staircase sporadically, delivering messages from the opposite wing of the residence, presumably from other members of the Marlian crew. As his inner circle congregates around us, we settle down for a proper chat after weeks of being given the runaround. Reclined topless on a three-seater couch in a pair of shorts and a black gilet, Zino is talking about how the specifics of his life haven’t really changed in the three years since he went from an Instagram sensation to frontline Afropop star.

“Nothing changed in the sense that I didn't become somebody else,” he says. “I'm still myself. I’m still that guy without the air of fame or anything. I’m still just chilling with my homies and trying to have a good time.”

“But we’re here now, this isn’t Agege.”

“Okay, true, everything changed in the sense that this wasn't where I was, but apart from money, there's nothing different. I've always been with my friends, it's just a change of location and atmosphere,” he says with a casual shrug. “I don’t really pay attention to what’s happening because I know where I came from and there’s still so much to do.”

Whatever Zinoleesky might say about the landscape of his life, presently, he is legitimately one of the most critical Nigerian artists actively operating in the country. A generational Street Pop talent bringing fresh impetus to the body of Nigerian music, with emphatic tales of strife and hustle, inspired by his lived experience and intuitive understanding of compositional elements. Following the global success of stars like Burna Boy, Davido, and Wizkid, a new generation of music acts have sprung forth with their hands firmly on the pulse of the Nigerian zeitgeist, making music that distils their hedonistic thrills and solipsistic longings into effervescent bops with hints of social commentary. Zinoleesky’s music encompasses all these influences and more, with the singer narrowing the gap between core Street Pop and the heart of Nigerian Pop’s mainstream without losing his credibility in either place. More importantly, with every new milestone that he hits, he is shattering whatever ceiling has traditionally been associated with kids like him.

A recurring theme that comes up in discussion with Zino is his complete disregard for moving in any way other than utter faith in his ability. He doesn’t want to do long marketing calls. He doesn’t have a 5-year plan the way others his age in different walks of life may be encouraged to. He just wants to live. “I won't lie, I've never had a plan with this music thing,” he admits. “Never in my life have I had a plan. I’ve never said that I need to be here by this time and started putting it down, I just move and it works for me.”

To understand the origin of Zinoleesky’s unshakeable confidence in this approach, we have to take a break for a quick history lesson. The contemporary Nigerian music industry, primarily influenced by the golden age of R&B and Hip-Hop in the ‘90s, has always been apprehensive of Street Pop, a grittier iteration of Nigerian music that is primarily delivered in local dialects and inspired by traditional genres like Wéré music, Fuji, Apala, and Highlife. Street Pop’s tense position in the contemporary Nigerian music industry and the subtle sidelining of the sub-genre in the early 2000s led the sound to go underground and return with an abrasive sound and brash, larger-than-life stars like Lord Of Ajasa, Seriki, and DaGrin at the turn of the 2010s. These stars, mostly raised in slums in inner-city Lagos, wove stories about the day-to-day realities of life in their areas into honest, forthright missives that could double as anthropological studies of Lagos.

The success of DaGrin’s sophomore album, C.E.O. (Chief Executive Omoita), softened opinions on the sub-genre while his tragic death later in 2010 created a power vacuum that was mostly filled by Olamide. Olamide’s unprecedented seven-album run coincided with Street Pop’s most visible era, while his record label YBNL (Yahoo Boy No Laptop) helped to introduce fresh stars like Lil Kesh, Viktoh. Other stars like Reminisce and Igbo rapper, Phyno, emerged too. Still slighted by the purist inclination of Nigerian music gatekeepers, the trio of Olamide, Phyno, and Reminisce collaborated on “Local Rappers,” an acerbic Rap song that defiantly proclaimed their militaristic fusion of Street Pop-Rap as the sound of the moment. The front-lining of Street Pop, widely seen as one of the most significant developments in Nigerian music from the 2010s, had a significant impact on the Nigerian music industry with more focus being paid to the music being made in hoods across Lagos and beyond. The sub-genre’s stylistic elements were subsumed into Afropop, and, more importantly, eager young kids like Zinoleesky were able to legitimately dream of music superstardom.

In 2018, Street Pop, buoyed by the success of stars like Olamide, Reminisce, and Lil Kesh, made a fresh play for a position at the top table of Nigerian Pop with the Shaku Shaku dance popularised by upstarts like Mr Real, Idowest, and Obadice. Later that year, a fresh-faced Zlatan introduced himself to a larger audience via a scene-stealing feature on Chinko Ekun’s “Able God”, making the song a favourite in hoods across Lagos, with budding musicians lining up to record freestyle verses on its Rexxie-produced instrumental.

In Agege, a group of high school graduates with Zinoleesky and Lil Frosh amongst their numbers started making a series of off-the-cuff freestyles to the “Able God'' instrumental and any other Instagram beat they could lay their hands on, hoping to create a buzz for their music. “We were still struggling and going crazy but we knew we had to put music out to get attention for ourselves,” Ibradosky, a friend of Zinoleesky and close collaborator, tells me about those videos. “A lot of the people in the zanga that we knew were going astray and getting involved in many things but we just held on to our music. It’s not like we weren’t also getting involved in some of those things but we still wanted to do music and some older people in our areas kept encouraging us to keep going. When Lil Frosh started doing those videos and going viral, Zino said he’d do it even though he wasn’t really a rapper. He was really hungry for success and knew that it was a great way to get attention to himself.”

Born Oniyide Azeez, Zinoleesky essentially saw those videos as a gateway to bringing people into the liminal realities of life in the hood. “If you noticed the videos, I was always singing,” he explains. “I knew that was my calling and I just wanted people to know what I was going through and what my people were experiencing.” Zinoleesky grew up in a large nuclear family, before his parents’ separation led to him living with his mother from age six to twelve, at which point he moved to live with his father. “Our relationship is the kind every other mother-child and father-child have because I grew up with them,” he says matter-of-factly about his father and mother. “I have stayed with each of them at a point in time, even though they weren't together. So, it's still nice. We all love each other.”

Importantly, his parents, avid listeners of Fuji music, also imparted a deep love of the storied genre, introducing him to the expansive catalogue of icons like King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall, Alhaji Wasiu Alabi Pasuma, and King Saheed Osupa. “My dad was always listening to Wasiu Ayinde – he loves Wasiu Ayinde – while my mom was a big fan of Pasuma,” he says before breaking into a rendition of Pasuma’s “Sere”. Admittedly, moving in with his father at age 13 was a turning point in his life, having been sheltered, by his mother, from the harsher realities of life in Agege. As anyone who attended government-run public schools in the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s can attest, those institutions doubled as quasi-war zones where young people fatally fought each other for reasons as trivial as football matches or diss tracks.

“I've had experiences that made me scared for my life,” he casually offers about that period of his life. “At that time, everyone was just trying to be a tout because it was the only thing we knew how to do. Only fighting. We didn't have any other things to do, any sort of recreational activities, or movies to watch as kids.”

To buttress his point, Zino tells me a story about one time when his school, State High Secondary School, fought against another school. Unaware of the situation, Zinoleesky regrettably found himself on a street he shouldn’t be on just a day after the fight had started. “I saw some guys moving towards me and I just knew they were not coming to hail me or any of that,” he says. “I had to hide and get myself out of there because if not…Those are scary situations that make you scared for your life.”

Through all of this, music continued to be an anchor for Zino. His interest in making music was first piqued when a friend in primary school had mimed a popular nursery rhyme and claimed to have composed the song himself. “I just felt like, ‘If my friend can do this, I can too.’ So, we just used to vibe in the class, beat the biro on the table, and everybody would be dancing. We just tried to have fun and good times.” By secondary school, he was pretty much sure that he wanted to become a musician, becoming a studio rat and slacking off on school work to focus on his music.

“The first time I heard one of Zino’s songs, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing because it was so different,” Ibradosky says. “It was around the time when CDs were in vogue and he had just gotten the CDs from the studio. I told him that his sound was crazy and not the typical stuff you heard in our hood. He had been freestyling for me and I knew he had talent but hearing that CD just sealed it for me.”

As Zinoleesky’s interest in music deepened, his definition of sonics began to grow beyond the Fuji music that had such a heavy influence on his upbringing, leaning on music blogging sites like NotJustOK and TrendyBeats to discover the technical structure of Hip-Hop and the slick melodies of Afropop. He also began to invest heavily in studio time, working to create a style that he felt represented his essence enough. “At a point in secondary school, I started finding my sound and I discovered what my style of music would be,” he explains. “I worked on it and tried to become better at it and perfect that sound.” When I ask what he considers that sound to be, Zinoleesky can’t exactly place it, but he describes it as music to “motivate.”

By the time 2018 rolled around, Zinoleesky was prepared for superstardom, and those videos that flooded our phone screens from the end of 2018 to mid-2019 were intended to serve as notice that he was on his way. When “Who Knows”, a thumping collaboration with childhood friend, Lil Frosh, went viral in May 2019, he knew that it was time to move out of Agege due to the bright spotlight on him and to have proximity to the Island. “I couldn't be walking in the streets anymore; and you had to be mindful of how you looked,” he explains. “It was a really crazy period but [I] enjoyed it as fuck. It was really exciting for me.”

With “Who Knows” going hard on radio and in the streets, a bidding war involving over five labels was brewing for Zinoleesky’s services, behind the scenes. Keen to not get sucked into an unfavourable deal, Zinoleesky took his time to go over details and rely on spiritual guidance to select where he would be pitching his tent. After months of consideration, he’d officially sign with Marlian Music in December 2019, being unveiled at Naira Marley’s inaugural Marlian Fest. When I ask if making a similar brand of music with his label head had swayed his decision, he laughs off the question, insisting that he just felt comfortable with the label. “I just felt like if I got to my place, I'd know,” he tells me. “I prayed, and felt like after praying, it should be okay, and everything just felt right [with that decision.]”

Just as soon as he was being introduced as a star to watch out for, the world fell into its darkest moment this side of the millennium. The COVID-19 pandemic effectively halted the ebb and flow of life as we know it, grinding many industries, especially music, to a halt – but Zinoleesky wasn’t bothered about all of that. Surrounded by close friends and given a new lease of life by his new recording deal, Zino held onto his positive mindset during the downtime mandated by the pandemic, using the lockdown periods to make tweaks to his music and bring his best foot forward. “I spent that period just making music. There wasn’t anything else to do either way, so I just kept working and recording new music almost daily because I knew I had to deliver.”

Not many would have realised what was about to happen when Zinoleesky dropped “Ma Pariwo” in July 2020, but it was a personal landmark for the singer who regards the single as one of his most important. “For me, that song gave me the confidence to follow my style and do it my way,” he says. “People were vibing to the song and it’s one of the few times I’ve made a love song so it was just a really big song.” Encouraged by the success of “Ma Pariwo,” Zinoleesky would lean into riskier terrains in the coming months after a chance meeting with Niphkeys at the Marlian Records house.

“In the beginning, Niphkeys was in a production group with two other people and they came over to the house to produce a song for Naira,” he says of meeting his closest creative partner. “Somehow, we just clicked and started working together.” Concurrently, Zinoleesky was getting more into Amapiano, the South African-born house sub-genre popular for its airy synths, lush keys, and beguiling basslines. Rather than study the pattern of OG Amapiano vocalists to learn how they approached singing over the groovy instrumentals, Zino turned to Nigerian Afro-House powerhouse, Niniola – who, for what it’s worth, was well ahead of her time – for inspiration. “I love listening to Niniola on Amapiano songs,” he tells me. “She’s very hard with it.”

According to Zinoleesky, one day months after meeting Niphkeys, the duo are lounging in a house down the street from the Marlian House, when the producer plays him the beat for what would turn out to be his breakout song, “Kilofeshe”. As Zinoleesky remembers it, this was the song he had been looking for to complete his then-unnamed EP. “When we made that track, I knew immediately that it was the song,” he tells me. “I was sure it was going to be so big and I told Niphkeys.”

His prediction proved to be correct. “Kilofeshe”, a deft fusion of Amapiano and Fuji, was a runaway hit and the lynchpin for his debut project, Chrome, that’s now been streamed over 100 million times across platforms. If “Ma Pariwo” and “Kilofeshe” had hinted at his star potential, Chrome effectively saw him settle into his role as an emissary of Street Pop. Almost as impressively, his technical skills sharpened on the project: “Angeli” spins a Celestial Church ditty into a tale of overcoming hurdles, while “Won Wa Mi” is an examination of upward mobility from an out-of-body perspective, and “Nitori E” examines vulnerability.

“I really put a lot of work into that project,” Zinoleesy says about the six-track pack. “I wanted to introduce myself in the best possible way. There were a lot of sleepless nights and going back and forth with producers to ensure we had the right mixes, but I enjoyed putting it together. Seeing the success makes me feel fulfilled.”

The truth is that where peers like Mohbad, Sey Vibez, and Bella Shmurda are cinching the edge of Street Pop with their hard-nosed tales of beating the odds, Zinoleesky is a different breed of artist entirely. He’s perhaps the one most open to expanding the textural and sonic scope of Street Pop with music that recognises the utility of pain and in some regards pays homage to it. On “Gone Far”, a standout release from 2021, he touched on perceptions of him while drawing a parallel to his past with the line, “look at this niggas calling me rascal/where were you, when was on Insta causing disaster.” Another release from 2021, the titanic “Naira Marley'' is a dedication to his label head as much as it is an ode to making it out of the hood. Adekanye Steven Abiodun, Zinoleesky’s road manager, believes that most of what Zino sings about comes to him intuitively. “He’s just someone that loves sweet music and knows how to put it all together in a great way,” Steven says. “He doesn’t make music that has strong language or themes of violence while his upbringing is the direct opposite of that. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you he grew up in the streets and was very stubborn growing up.”

Niphkeys, Zinoleesky’s closest creative partner and arguably the hottest Street Pop producer at the moment, agrees that the singer’s amorphous lyrics have been critical to his success and, by extension, have changed the nature and scope of Street Pop. “The only way I can put it is that Zinoleesky changed the game,” he says. “What makes him special in my opinion is how he puts his lyrics together. It’s not one-dimensional or straightforward. He uses punchlines, plays around with words, and that’s what I love about him.”

Although his detached persona might suggest otherwise, Zinoleesky is very much plugged into the ebb and flow of the internet, understanding specific context about posts and events as I bring them up. When I mention his recent cameo on Naira Marley’s Tiny Desk Concert and the much-memeifed responses to it, Zino is already in stitches, playfully calling out Nigerian Twitter users for trolling his performance. “People are very crazy,” he says mid-laughter. “I thought it was funny because I was laughing. When they troll you, it’s so funny. But I already have a hang of it. If this happened to me two years ago, I'd not be able to function normally. But now, trust me, I've got the hang of it and it's just normal. There's no one that doesn't get criticism one way or the other, so it's nice. It's part of the game.”

He’s also similarly zen about comparisons to colleague, BNXN fka Buju, charging the regular online skirmishes between fans of both artists to overzealous stans. Both singers are members of Afropop’s new guard and BNXN, a regular Wizkid collaborator who was previously signed to Burna Boy’s Spaceship Collective, is widely viewed as one of the genre’s genuine superstars-in-waiting. While Zino does not entertain any further questions on his relationship with BNXN, his disposition hints at respect for his peer’s achievement, even politely refusing to play their much-anticipated remix of BNXN’s “Kilometre” when we first link up in April. A hardline for Zino, though, is the narrative that has played out over the last few months that his staying power is heavily dependent on his blistering fusion of Amapiano and Nigerian Pop elements. It’s an accusation that bemuses the singer. “I don’t think that point is true, there’s more to me than one style,” he says, picking his words carefully. “I have had several great songs that are not Amapiano. I think people just see whatever they want to see and all I can say to that point is that there’s so much more to come, like my recent song.”

The recent song he is talking about here is “Loving You”, a cheesy love song that pays homage to early 2010s Indie Pop by sampling Asa’s “Be My Man”. The song was originally never going to see sunlight until Zimoleesky previewed it on Instagram, leading to “extraordinary demand” for its release. “When Niphkeys made the beat, I just felt like it was really nice,” he explains “But I didn't even want to do the song. Trust me, I didn't want to drop the song. I was just on IG Live and wanted to play a song. And for me to even play a song on IG Live, it must be a song that I don't have plans for. So, I just play it out. And that's how people started using the video from the Live to make TikTok videos.” The juxtaposition of Zinoleesky of Marlian Records singing over warped vocals by Asa isn’t lost on anyone, but he’s clearly a fan of the iconic singer. “Everybody listens to Asa nau. I believe everybody listens to Asa,” he says confidently. “When she dropped “Jailer”, it was like the national anthem.”

Since its release in May, “Loving You” has been streamed more than 25 million times. Perhaps more significantly, by spinning such a fine line between the past and present of Afropop, Zinoleesky has placed himself at another frontier for Street Pop’s rise in popularity and widespread consumption. He doesn’t necessarily see it that way, insisting that he’s just doing things the only way he knows how to. “I’m just on my path, trying to make the best possible music that I can,” he begins. “Remember I told you I spent a long time working on my sound? Well, that’s the result.” When I ask him how important Niphkeys is to extending his current winning streak, the answer is short and simple: “It's probably chemistry and it just works for us. But there's no secret, it's just that Niphkeys is quite good at what he does, and he makes very crazy and nice beats and I just love working with him.”

The two times I talk with Zinoleesky over a couple of months, and in conversation with members of his team, there are allusions to a project that could be released by the tail-end of the year but he refuses to confirm if any such plans are in the pipeline. “I prefer to shock people,” he admits mischievously. “You might wake up tomorrow and see a pre-order link from me. I like to be unpredictable and that’s what has helped me get to where I am right.”

Where Zinoleesky is right now is a little hard to place. There are few artists as candid in their music as he is. He has the streets on lock, he has the numbers to back it up and he’s definitely on a pedestal right now, seen as the heir to the throne of icons like DaGrin and Olamide, if he wants that. To the singer, that’s just outside voices trying to direct his journey. His insouciant energy reminded me of an answer he had provided when I asked if he thought he was going to be number one anytime soon.

“It's not even about being No. 1,” he started. “It's about being someone that inspires a lot of people. I don't know how to put it, but it's about being in a place that is comfortable for you as a person, and I'm sure I'm going to be in that place definitely. The fact that you believe I’m going to be big is an acknowledgement of my talent. The fact that I’m going to be on this magazine cover is proof that I’m on the right path for me, and that I’m doing well. I’m not going to stop, I want to take it much farther than I am doing right now.”