The rapper who’s merging his Nigerian roots with Western influences from Skepta to Vampire Weekend.
With inspirations ranging from 50 Cent and Skepta to Blink 182 and Vampire Weekend, Nigerian rapper Santi’s music taste could be described as somewhat eclectic. But it’s this mixing of different genres and styles which remains a focal point of Santi’s work – merging his Nigerian roots, his current home in Dubai, and more Western influences. He calls his latest album, Mandy and the Jungle, “soundtrack to my universe”: firmly placing him within the Nigerian alté scene, a new wave of artists honouring individuality and freedom of expression through their work.
Growing up, Santi remembers hearing other Nigerian rappers releasing albums, and thinking “yeah, this is my path”. Now, collaborators on Mandy and the Jungle, with its slick, organic sounds, include distinctive DMV rapper GoldLink and the inimitable DRAM. He tells his stories not only through his lyrics, but through their accompanying visuals; he has self-directed every one of his evocative music videos. Here, we chat to Santi about genre-bending, escapism, and some solid advice from Skepta.
Read our interview below…
What’s your earliest memory of music? Were you always into music?
I think I’ve been kind of surrounded by music since I was a kid, ‘cause my dad had all the records and he used to play like a lot of it, so I guess I’ve always consumed it. And when he would go and buy CDs and stuff, he always bought one for me, like he would buy one for himself and one for me. And yeah, I didn’t… not like I didn’t have toys, but it’s what they give you, so one day you get a dog, the next day you get a CD. It’s the small things you get, what you cherish and stuff. He kept on buying me CDs, so I just felt like that was a good thing to do, to cherish it
What kind of CDs did he buy you? What did you listen to growing up?
Oh bruv, he bought me everything, from Ja Rule to 50 Cent to Filla. I’m sure he just bought stuff that he thought, this is what these kids are getting now, and he’d give it to me.
When did you realise you wanted to do this as a career as opposed to just a hobby?
When I was in high school. Before that I think I used to rap a lot, but rap was just one part of me. I was seeing more people come out and be themselves, and just be free to express themselves in music, without a genre per se. And hearing Drake for the first time. There was a guy who dropped a project – he’s a rapper called MI – he dropped a really crazy album, and just hearing it in high school, it was insane, it was too much for me. And I thought those two things, the fact that he came from [Nigeria], and it sounded so crazy… it made me feel like, yeah, this is my path.
You talk about artists from Nigeria being a new thing for you, and you’ve got Skepta with his Homecoming festival really spotlighting a lot of African artists. Do you think this is a positive thing? Do you think more people should try and do this?
Definitely, but I feel like it’s not something you should do – it wouldn’t work – if you’re not connected, I think. And there are not that many people out there who aren’t [in Nigeria] but are still very much connected. But I definitely feel like people should come and do that, because there’s a bunch of people who have crazy talent… not just music, but film and art and stuff. But at the same time, it wouldn’t make sense if you don’t have a connection, but then you can always build a connection.
Talking about your own music, how would you describe your own sound? Would you say you fit into a genre?
No, I don’t have a genre per se, I kind of dabble in all genres. But I have an alternative twist to it… I don’t have a specific genre that I address to.
Do you take inspiration from a certain genre?
Yeah, five or six main ones, or four or five main ones. Hip-hop, dance, indie, alternative and RnB.
Do you think it’s the way things are going, for musicians to genre-bend and not conform to one particular genre?
Yeah, I feel like if you grew up in this age, of consuming and trying to express yourself, I feel like it’s hard for you to stick to one thing. Because many things made you feel many ways, not just one thing, so if you’re trying to express yourself, and how you’re actually feeling, you can’t just stick to one thing.
You’ve just released your new album, Mandy and the Jungle; can you tell us a little bit about the themes that run through that album?
So I think the main themes for Mandy and the Jungle for me would be memories and feelings, because basically, that’s what we have in this world. I just feel like because of how life is, you grow up seeing people, and then you watch them on TV and before you know it they’re old, and then before you know it they’re gone, and it’s like a new cycle. And I feel like you know the best way to kind of like go on with life, because of memories and feelings, and then because of the fact that you can transfer how you feel to sound. So you kind of will never die… you can always feel what you’re saying, or what you want them to feel, and what you want them to get from your songs. So I feel like with Mandy that was what I was trying to do. I’m trying to make people have memories that you know one time when they hear the songs it just transports them so they can like just to be themselves in their head. I made it for memories, for feelings, and sort of as a place to escape.
Do you have a favourite song on the album, and if so why?
I think it’s “Diamonds”, because that’s one song where I think I spoke about how I feel the most. If you get the song then you get how I feel. You get how I feel, but you get what it does to you, and that’s what makes me happy. So I guess that’s my best song.
Who are you listening to at the moment, who’s killing it at the moment?
Skepta’s latest album is incredible. And Vampire Weekend, their latest album is fantastic.
Do you like performing live? If so, do you have a stand out performance?
Yeah, I do, I like performing live. I think it was actually this year, and last December, because basically all of the shows in Lagos take place in a week of shows. I think [my favourite performance was] probably during that, because of what was going on – because our songs were going far and kids felt very confident and happy. So because we were going well, because they push us to go on that level, it felt like that was their playground. So with each show, everybody used to like lose their heads, so it just felt very connected… Like, I’m here for you and you’re here for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received throughout the years of getting into music?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen… I saw a Skepta post saying ‘once you leave the house to do what you need to do, and once you’re done, pop back to the house. Do not leave the house when you do not have to. Never leave your house unless you have to’.
What’s your goal one year from now? Where do you want to be?
I want to be in a place where I can learn more.. to me that’s where I need to be. I need to meet new people, like the guys I studied and watched growing up, and I want to add to my own knowledge… and to make a better structure, not just for me but for the guys who will come after me. Because there are no rules, so it’s about starting to build the structure. The stuff we go through, and the stuff we went through, I don’t think we want the kids to go through that. It’s about trying to always make things structured, so one year from now I just think we should have more structure.
If today was your last day on earth what would you do?
I would probably go to Tokyo first; I’ve always wanted to go to Tokyo. Then I’d go to Spain, there’s this restaurant in Spain that my friend has always wanted to try. And then I’d probably see my family.
What are you motivated by in your art?
Just the fact that I’m giving you knowledge. And there are things I couldn’t do before, but I can do them now, and I can express myself better. I think once you can do that, all the rest will fall into place, like money and recognition. Once you know what you’re doing, you’re still getting better, and maintaining yourself and who you are.