NATIVE Exclusive: A-Q is moving from veteran rapper to leader of a renaissance

I. “Never call me no celebrity”

The first time I ever spoke with A-Q, we had an hour-long debate. Following the release of his 2018 joint album with Loose Kaynon, ‘Crown’, I had written an op-ed on enunciation and its importance in enjoying Nigerian rap music, using him and Loose as the major focus. The premise of the piece wasn’t remotely to discredit A-Q’s (or Loose’s) rap abilities, rather, I meant it as a way of highlighting how a factor we rarely think about plays a crucial role in determining our relationship to the music. A-Q understood my perspective, but he wanted me to understand his as well.

Shortly after the piece made its way to Twitter, A-Q hit my DM to ask for my phone number. Minutes later, we were in a slightly intense back-and-forth, but there was a palpable respect on both sides of the phone. By the end of that debate, he hadn’t necessarily changed mind as much as he’d given me context to why he raps the way he does, giving me a fuller appreciation for the strides he’s made in that aspect of skillset—something I’d acknowledged in the op-ed. What followed was another two hours of light-hearted discussions about any and everything, making for one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had.

Chances are, if you’ve met him or heard the story of someone else who has, everything about my first time encounter with the man is trademark A-Q. “He’s a relentless guy”, veteran music journalist Ehis Ohunyon tells me of the rapper. “He’s always been someone to leave you with a strong impression of what he’s about.” This outspoken attitude has played an integral role in A-Q earning his current clout as a respected, Nigerian rap music veteran, but not too many people may have expected him to be where he is at the moment.

In the earlier days of his career, A-Q had the reputation for being a rabble rouser. As a young and hot-headed rapper with everything to prove, A-Q used to dive head first into any situation that didn’t sit right with him; entering and finding beefs were a huge part of his brand. In fact, they still are, but he picks and chooses what to speak about these days. “The thing is, I would never call anyone’s name on record if I didn’t have an issue with them”, A-Q offers when I ask him about a Modenine-related line on his new album. To clarify, the line (“lyricist on the roll but I don’t want to end like Mode”) isn’t a diss, it’s just him using a reference to the legendary Nigerian lyricist as a means of publicly stating his goals.

To appreciate this A-Q—one who’s far more level-headed and hell-bent on leading the way for a growth in the struggling rap scene—is to understand that he’s never been too big to fail. You’d have to be a celebrity to be too big to fail or get mad at any form of scrutiny, and he’s never really been, or wanted to be, one. Celebrities won’t reach out to debate the opinion of some random journalist, they’d rather clap back. The fact that he’s been around for over fifteen years and doesn’t seem to be jaded by his fanbase and the industry is testament to an artist who understands and relishes playing according to his own stakes, at every point in time.

Sure, A-Q carries himself with the conviction of someone who is invincible, but his trajectory is made intriguing by his mistakes and how he’s managed to get better over time because of them. “I’ve learnt a bunch of things from my past, and they’ve helped me grow to where I am”, he tells me. It’s the assertion of a man who’s secure of his place and is constantly trying to figure out what’s best for him and his other endeavours.

II. “I’m a hustler with integrity”

If the Nigerian music industry can be an unforgiving terrain to its pop acts, it’s downright punishing to (a sect of) its rappers. Every so often, we get rising, talented pop acts who are vying to become the next big thing in Nigerian music, a dream that’s very much a long shot but still very attainable, because of their melodic sound being more likely to catch the ears of a wider audience. By comparison, rappers, especially the English speaking lyricists, in the same position already have to do more to get less; and even when they manage to break out, it’s as though there’s a ceiling to where they should aspire to. It’s far from a new situation.

“See, don’t let anyone lie to you, lyrical rap has never really been hugely profitable in Nigeria”, A-Q says, explaining how the dynamics of the industry has always been better suited to pop acts. Even though it was pioneered by legendary hip-hop group, the Trybesmen, the Alaba model of the early ‘00s to mid ‘10s—where artists would offer their music to distributors at a negotiated price—was known to favour fairly known pop stars over similarly situated rappers, and even more established ones in some cases. In today’s saturated but far more direct digital landscape, not much has changed for the better; tastes may very well have diversified, but English rap music in Nigeria still bears the perception of a struggle genre.

It’s in this treacherous conditions that A-Q came up in, has survived and continued to thrive, without compromising his sensibilities as a lyrical technician. When you add that he’s been mostly independent, A-Q personifies the rose that grew out of concrete. “Bro, I’ve only made money from this music thing all my life”, he tells me with a copious amount of self-pride in his voice. It’s a well-earned brag, considering that his inventiveness and tenacity have been his calling cards from day one.

In 2005, A-Q released his debut project, ‘Listen & Overstand’. With no distributors eager to press and sell his CDs, A-Q, in his late teens at the time, decided to self-distribute the album. He got a loan, pressed his CDs, and started selling in University campuses for N300 per copy. In a period where albums went for about N150, it was pretty audacious pricing that paid off. “I’d like to say we sold out, but we didn’t”, A-Q says. “There were a bunch of CDs that were taken on credit and I never got the money, but we did get enough money to pay the loan and the exorbitant interest, and there was still some profit left. That’s a win right there.”

He muddles a couple details concerning the marketing of his subsequent albums, but the important thing was that he was levelling up with each release. Ehis remembers buying merch linked to A-Q’s official sophomore album, 2010’s ‘Past, Present & Future’, and I remember A-Q being one of the first Nigerian rappers to properly utilise homemade streaming and sales platforms, MTN Music plus and Spinlet.

However, it wasn’t until 2016’s ‘Rose’ that things began to actually click into place for him. Following the early 2015 release of “International Rapper”, a reply to Reminisce’s “Local Rappers” that brought him increased notoriety, A-Q began to purposefully use his rebel image. That well-received, star-studded album, with features from M.I Abaga, Yemi Alade and more, displayed creative improvements and found A-Q conversing with the mainstream for the first time, on his own terms. He’s maintained that position and continued growth with his subsequent albums—2017’s ‘Blessed Forever’ and ‘Crown’—but he still feels like he’s yet to fully crack the code.

III. “What I’m selling is not a remedy, it’s a way out of uncertainty”

A-Q says ‘God’s Engineering’ might very well be his final studio album. I don’t believe him, not even remotely. On the 11-track project, A-Q spits with the intensity of a dragon’s projectile fire from its belly. He’s still telling family-related stories, angling his worldviews in captivating turns and swinging at foes, but the defining factor of the album is that A-Q is commanding his respect. It’s the work of a man who’s focused on being the best, rather than trying to prove that he’s best, which is basically the hallmark of an artist who has, and will always have, more to say.

“It’s not like I will cease recording and putting out music, it’s just that I won’t be putting out full projects anymore”, A-Q says. According to him, he’s making this decision so he can focus on helping to fix the current music landscape, so it starts to better suit Nigerian English rappers. This is where the aforementioned Modenine line comes in: A-Q believes the elders have a responsibility to make things better for those coming behind them. For him, Modenine represents a sect of the previous generation that could have done more for the coming generation, if not for egotism and a perennial need to remain at the top of the food chain.

I ask him why he can’t keep recording projects even with his new undertaking, and he tells me, “Because that’s my main source of livelihood at the moment.” Then, why stop? “As an artist, you’re always dealing with people who have an impact on how well your music does. Going against this system means I’ll be against these same people, and I don’t want anyone using me promoting my music against me. I’ve had issues with people who are supposed to plug my music, and some have even threatened me, over my source of livelihood. Now, you can imagine what they’re doing to the far less popular guys, and we need to change it.”

For A-Q, this change needs to be wholesome, creating an ecosystem that actually works. It means getting those who are deeply involved and interested to curate Nigerian and African hip-hop music, making sure the streaming platforms gives local rap music a higher level of support and precedence, and finding ways to connect artists and (potential) fans through well-curated experiences. On the latter front, 100 Crowns, the Chocolate City subsidiary he co-heads with Loose Kaynon, has already hosted five editions of the Coronation, a periodical hip-hop-centric show, and there’s plans to keep expanding and getting bigger.

With everything he’s trying to achieve, you’d be wrong to think A-Q has a messiah complex—he’s doing it for himself as much as it is for the wider scene. “If everything works better, I’ll definitely be eating way better from rap music”, he explains. “Also, imagine if I have a younger relative who wants to be a rapper, and I can’t encourage him because it’s not favourable out here.” The fact he’s not putting on an altruistic front already bodes well for his intentions, since he’s not peddling a noble dream to anyone or even himself.

A-Q may have retooled a huge amount of his brashness into nuanced rebelliousness, but the bluntness and firmness he’s retained since his earlier days is why he has a strong chance to achieve what he’s set his mind on. Regardless of individual opinions on his music and overall moves, we can respect his longevity and his future plans. Whether he drops a project in the future or not, it’s a blessing that A-Q will be here for a long time, building a formidable structure for a genre that has given him a lot, but can still give him much more.

[Featured Image Credits: Instagrm/thisisaq]

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Dennis is an advocate for drinking water and occasionally minding other people’s business. Tweet him your favourite Idowest songs @ayo_dennis.

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