By Ikenna Obioha
Nigeria’s emerging queen of Afro house music, Niniola Apata started her fame walk on the MTN Project Fame talent show as a finalist, placing third runner-up in 2013. From that point, the Ekiti State native kicked off on a quest to become a seasoned songstress to be revered across the continent. With a fiery stage presence she conjures a wild alter ego; she isn’t shy to take control, to morph from her usual quiet self to a wrecking ball whose presence and stage performance remains smashing yet leaves her audience with a sweet aftertaste on their palates and an insatiable urge to crave for an encore performance.
Recently, Entertainer caught up with the voluptuous beauty at the launch of her album ‘This Is Me’. She revealed the concept behind her album, the need to release an album and break the EP (Extended Play) rule followed by up and coming acts as a means to play safe or to test the (music) water before releasing a full body of work. Also, she touched on issues like her time at the MTN Project Fame, growing up in a large family, her chipped tooth and a need to remain original in an industry filled with musical clichés. Enjoy.
What was it like growing up?
It was fun growing up, I grew up in a large family. It was fun having so many people in the house. I mean relatives. I come from a polygamous house, so we are many and it was fun.
Is your mother the first wife?
I’m sorry. I am not going to tell you much (chuckles). I’m just from a big family.
When did your music career kick off?
It started professionally in 2014 when I dropped my debut single, ‘Ibadi’.
You were on the MTN Project Fame show, what was the experience like?
It was mind blowing. It taught me a lot, especially about being true to myself and loving Africa and projecting Africa through my music; that really helped. There are things that people can say and they don’t know that someone can pick it and it will stick. Being true to me was what I picked.
You didn’t actually win the contest.
I came third runner-up.
How did it feel coming third place?
For me, it felt good because I’ve been to a lot of competitions and didn’t even get to be a finalist. So, being a finalist on that show was a big deal for me. Yes, I wanted to win, but that felt more like winning. When you have been working hard and dying to get something and you just even have a taste, you’ll be excited. So, for me, it wasn’t just about winning, and also the platform, because it’s a huge platform and for me, it was just to be on the show and do whatever I could and get to whatever level I could on the stage and get to the real world.
So without Project Fame, would you confidently say that you’d be at this point in your career?
I don’t know because I am not God. It is only what has happened and what has materialised that we can speak about, so that’s why till today I am very thankful. I used the prize money to kickstart my career.
You read Biology Education at University of Lagos; did you always know that you were going to be a singer?
I’ve always been a singer but my mum just always told me ‘Nini, you know what? It’s a hobby, just focus on your studies’. But I always knew music was for me.
As an album, what is ‘This Is Me?’
‘This Is Me’ is honest as can be, vocally. On the album I don’t just have my root genre which is Afro house, but I also have R&B and traditional music. ‘This Is Me’ tell you that I can jump on any… So long as I feel good about the beat and I want to voice on the beat. This is just Niniola who just loves to sing and dance.
Most of the tracks are in local languages, is this a conscious effort?
I’m very comfortable in my own skin; I am comfortable speaking Yoruba. I sang in Yoruba, English, and Pidgin English on this album and Swahili too. I don’t sit down and choose the title first because I am a songwriter, I write all my songs, and so after writing the song, I pick the title of the song.
Picking traditional titles, don’t you think it limits your audience size?
I am proud of my language and it’s my language that has taken me this far. That is why now in South Africa ‘Maradona’ has blown up and it’s in Yoruba, so language is not a barrier. I am proud of my language and it’s also a way to sell myself by being very original and also to sell my country at the same time.
How long did it take to get this album done?
I started recording last year and I finished this year. Last year, I thought I was going to drop an album, but then I pulled it. I didn’t want the album to sound dated. There are songs that are just ‘there’ that didn’t make the album, so I had to keep them behind.
When you write your songs, what comes to mind? What is your writing process?
The beat, the voice only complements the beat. When I listen to a beat, I try to get as much vibe and story from the beat, if it’s a dark beat, if it’s a happy beat, I flow and this is what I do. I vibe and sometimes in my ‘vibing,’ most times some words are there – some phrases – and then I sit down afterwards; if I like the melody I write to the songs to make sure that it’s complete.
Going by the title ‘This Is Me,’ is this basically all of you or are there parts to you that you didn’t include in the album?
‘This Is Me’ is a snippet; bits of Niniola. There is more to come. But just so you have a general overview of what Nini can do. People just think because of the ‘turn up’ songs and feel like I can’t do R&B, and those ones that know I know the R&B think I’m going to forget them and not cater to their needs and face only the ‘turn up’ people. I just wanted people to know that this is me and this is what I can do.
You have a sister who sings, having her in the same industry as you are in, how does it feel?
It is fun; I’ve always known that she had the talent. Coming up now I am super excited for her because I don’t have to start looking over my shoulders, pulling her or pushing myself. I also have to look out for her, but she’s doing well looking for herself. She comes to me when she needs advice and I am super excited, I am happy for her.
People must compare the two of you, how do you deal with that?
I don’t know why you’d compare because, first of all, our sounds are different, so that’s a good thing. When she was coming up she didn’t want to be in my shadows so to speak. She wanted to come out as Teniola and not as Niniola’s sister.
Would you say you are playing the Beyonce to her Solange?
No. Our case is different. This is Niniola and that is Teniola and we’ll conquer the world!
How did you chip your tooth?
That was in JSS 2. I remember I was in the house, my older brother was playing with my cousin, he was pouring cold water on her and I was like ‘Ah no oh! Don’t pour it on me’ and I started running. I was running, slipped and fell and all I saw was powder on the floor, I had chipped my tooth. It was a Sunday and I had to go to school the following day, I wanted to kill myself. There happened to be a girl, one of my schoolmates at the time, and then the following day, I just thought to myself that I wasn’t going to say much, I’d just close my mouth when I get to school. But when I got to school, everyone was talking about my tooth because that girl in my house got to tell everyone. I was embarrassed; it took a while to get over it.
How supportive is your family?
My family is very supportive in everything that I am doing, I am thankful to them.
Who are the three persons in your family you would consider the pillars to your career?
I can’t narrow it down to three people because everybody has played an important role in my life, so it would be very unfair and particularly for the sake of this conversation. I can’t pick three.
You make it sound so cool and chic, there must be challenges, tell me about them.
When you hit milestones and you are thankful for each day you see, you do not talk about the challenges, you only think about the challenges when they are ongoing but when you pass it, you will be like ‘oh thank God,’ then you celebrate. Of course, challenges were truly there when I started; I had major challenges with funding my project but then God made a way, my mum was really supportive.
Who is Niniola on stage?
I would say that’s just Niniola because I can stand up and dance anywhere, not just on stage.
Naturally, you seem like a shy person.
Naturally I’m a quiet person but when it comes to work, I’m a different person.
Do you perform under any influence?
No, my head will scatter because I have a light head. Honestly, I don’t drink, before it used to be once in a blue moon, but now I don’t bother because I just drink small and I go ‘gaga’. So imagine if I drink before going on stage, I won’t be able to perform.
Are you in a relationship?
Yes, I am.
Is he anybody we know?
He’s not in the industry.