How Maleek Berry has spent the last 15 months being the most consistent Afropop artist out there
Happy Birthday to an uncomplicated pop star who makes uncomplicated pop music
Happy Birthday to an uncomplicated pop star who makes uncomplicated pop music
For an artist who was virtually unknown six years ago, Maleek Berry has sung and produced his way right into the heart of the ‘New Age’ music movement. This is a guy who in addition to the rising success of his career as a producer, embraced artistry in 2015, continuously earning fans both home and abroad. We can finally deign to call Maleek a pop phenomenon. Maleek Berry has been particularly enthused about it all since a conversation with his teacher, he recalls in a recent Tedx talk, like a dojo moment with a Sensei, he learnt that 90% is the business and the other 10% is the music. This is the guide Maleek says he’ll forever be thankful for and influences his decisions to this day.
A product of that decision is Maleek Berry’s “For My People”, a song that marked his switch to become an artist after immersing himself behind the booth. He has been telling this story since his single “Kontrol”, released 15 months ago, became a monster hit. Until then, people couldn’t pin Maleek’s face to his voice and production. Even with the distinctive audio signature/tagline, ‘Berry Pon this’ Berry struggled to crawl out from the shadow of the artists he featured in his music. His single “The Matter” is a fitting case in point.
This is a man who, 4 years ago, had actually owned, produced and appeared in the video for “The Matter”, a song that found an audience here and abroad. Many had presumably considered “The Matter” a Wizkid song, because as it is for Starboy, he often bodies his contemporaries on their own tracks. Think, R2bees’ “Slow Down” and Jayru’s “Familiarity”. Now consider what he’d do with bare dynamite instrumentals with nothing but a producer tag.
But Maleek’s run in the game did not start there, on his understated successes till date is production on Sauce Kid’s 2011 chart-topper, “Carolina” featuring Davido. His chances to hit the high of ranks top-class Afropop acts may have been low through 2011 to 2015, but fairly enough the sound wasn’t as internationally saturated as it is now. Last year, Maleek Berry’s “Kontrol”, came at the recent prominence of Afropop in the global airwaves,
Maleek’s recurring popularity of the past 15 months has come as a result of “Kontrol” which was released in April last year. His new frontal approach to his artistry means Maleek is now a brand and an identity. Many can now allude him to “The Matter”. It’s sort of like an ‘aha moment’ for those who didn’t -don’t- know he produced the track.
Maleek’s sort of feels like a bitter sweet story because on one end you’ll wish to have gotten to hear of his brilliance since. However incidences and accounts of his non-recognition like these are what have accounted for his gradual ascension in the music industry. “Kontrol” went on to chart on Spotify and Apple music then he released his acclaimed Last Daze of Summer EP, performing at NativeLand Festival last year, and at South by Southwest this year.
Sit back, it’s only the beginning of Maleek Berry’s story.
Now, his consistent existence is beginning to feel like a solid strength. He’s running a relatively indie career without any industry politicking, establishing himself as the king of endless summers with colourful videos and nice themes. Maleek is the dream cool kid. Here, curiosity at what makes his sound and production so potent is further cleaved.
“Been Calling”, his fourth single this year, where he tells a loose narrative on heartbreak, is the kind of music you’d play at a club to party or atop the roof of the club to stay isolated and sink into gloom —but at the same time not really. Because with Maleek’s music, you can’t deeply indulge in melancholy. “Been Calling” wouldn’t haunt you with how vast heartbreak feels. It isn’t that deep. One of the reasons Maleek Berry’s music works here is cause it’s music you can dance to, chill to and also take as a love song. I could go on and come up with an interpretation and you come up with your own conclusion, however Maleek isn’t really here for that. At his core, he isn’t a tortured artist with a song in his heart dying to get out, he’s an uncomplicated pop star who makes uncomplicated pop music —not the kind that sells trite lyrics with every new release, but a person who weaves a loose story into what sounds good.
Fair enough. But despite this, you may feel cheated sometimes. You’re not really sure if you’re listening to someone who knows the best notes and harmonies that will work and tug at listeners ears and hearts (being primarily a producer), or one who actually gives a shit about what they’re saying and writes from the heart.
In a Pulse interview in December last year, he says
“[after “For my People”], I think it was when I dropped a remix of “Work” by Rihanna [popularity grew] and that scattered the internet.” he says enthusiastically. “So I looked at it like ahn ahn O boy! so this is what people want ehn, Ok ok. So I just went back to the drawing board and in April  I dropped two songs “Kontrol” and “On Fire”.”
It’s not that he doesn’t create sounds from the heart though. It’s just that Maleek Berry doesn’t necessarily operate within the core of storytelling. His immersive production often transcends his lyrics. Maleek finds angles with sounds. Though in his songs, he seems to be constantly going through emotions either from past relationships and inadequacies as an individual before the fame and power, ultimately producers’ critical values is usually very questionable. However, the typical penchant of African Music for feel good themes are not rendered on heavy subject matters anyway. Maleek Berry takes influences from a small range of ideas and then expands on it. The culture of Africans usually is we cling to different things to give us our identity. Right now, it’s part of what African popular music is: a fusion of outside influences and indigenous elements.
Maleek Berry however, has confirmed the position often held by a lot of music critics that good producers always make good artists. Every song of Maleek’s from the Last Daze of Summer EP to the four releases he has had this year already, “4 Me”, “Been Calling”, “On fire (video)”, and “Bend It” have been a Jam. You hear Maleek Berry’s song once and you can already tell that this is the type of song you want to hear on the radio —not to say they all have been played there though. Every single song he has done always seem like it could be bigger than wherever you found it. He plays such a significant role in Ycee’s 2017 summer hit single “Juice” that many even think it’s produced by him.
Even as his wealth and standing in Afropop continue to grow, Maleek Berry is mindful of his position in the larger African ecosystem: an influencer and merger of souls and sounds (bringing the African people in diaspora and at home closer through music). It’s been his aim from the start.
So while Tekno and Runtown are leading the new wave of Afropop using highlife and Ghanian sounds in Africa, British-Nigerian Producer-artist, Maleek ‘Berry’ Okunola Shoyebi has been leading the incursion of the whole Afro-Caribbean sound in the UK. He uses synths instead and infuses dancehall drums. As if to drive home the point that branding is so important, he ended his Ted Talk with his full name.
The next step for Maleek berry will be to drop an album and capitalize on the interest he has garnered in the Nigerian market, but still hasn’t maximised. Even a music video on the streets of Lagos (“On Fire”) didn’t quite do it for him. But it’s a step forward however for the working artist. It’s only the beginning till he becomes a legacy artist.
While he’s known that music is 10% and Business is 90%, maybe Maleek has had it right all the time, the proverbial tortoise to the fame hares of the world, slowly and methodically edging through the race, one foot in front of the other, until he snags a win.
Fisayo is a journalist who thinks writing is hard and reading too. But her journey somewhere reveals, words are like pawns on chessboard when writing. She wants to see, create and share with the world, experience & communicate these experiences. Tweet at her @fisvyo