MBW’s World Leaders is a regular series in which we turn the spotlight towards some of the most influential industry figures outside the US and UK markets. In this feature, we speak to Don Jazzy, founder of Nigeria-based Mavin Records. World Leaders is supported by PPL.
Mavin Records is an independent powerhouse.
Founded by producer and music executive Michael Collins Ajereh (aka Don Jazzy) in 2012, the Lagos, Nigeria-based record company is one of the African continent’s best-known indie labels and one of the key drivers of the global Afrobeats explosion.
As the label approaches its tenth year in business, it already boasts 1.45 million YouTube subscribers and music by its artists has achieved over 2.3 billion streams across all platforms in over 120 countries.
Jazzy, the former co-owner of Mo’ Hits Records with Nigerian artist D’Banj, is responsible for signing some of Afrobeats’ biggest acts, including superstar Tiwa Savage, who left Mavin to sign an exclusive global recording deal with Universal Music Group in 2019.
Mavin also discovered Rema, who recently released a track called Dimension with British rap star Skepta and producer JAE5.
Rema’s label-mate Ayra Starr was also discovered by Jazzy on Instagram and was developed at the company’s in-house music academy ahead of the release of her debut album,19 and Dangerous this summer.
“After identifying these incredible talents, we have them in our academy for as long as it takes to prepare them for a debut,” Jazzy tells MBW.
“This helps us manage them better and get them ready for the future.”
“WE ARE ONLY JUST GETTING STARTED.”
In January 2019, Mavin secured a multi-million dollar investment from Kupanda Holdings, a JV between pan-Africa investment company Kupanda Capital and TPG Growth, which previously made significant investments in the likes of Spotify, CAA, Uber, AirBnB and STX Entertainment.
Commenting on the deal, Jazzy explains that “they did their due diligence and believed in the structure we had in place, our ability to develop talents and scale our roster for global consumption”.
He also notes that “the investment aided our expansion into the global music market”.
Looking to the future, Don Jazzy says that Mavin plans to “power on and consolidate on our wins till the sound from Africa is heard everywhere across the world, especially in the areas of Streaming and Touring”.
“We are only just getting started,” he adds, at a time when African, and specifically Nigerian music – from Tems to CKay, Burna Boy and the newly-Grammy-nominated Wizkid – is reaching new commercial heights around the world.
Here, Jazzy tells MBW about working with Kanye West on Lift Off, why he started Mavin Records and how he feels about overseas investment in Africa…
YOU CO-FOUNDED MO HITS RECORDS. TELL US ABOUT HOW THE FORMATION OF THAT COMPANY CAME ABOUT AND SOME OF YOUR HIGHLIGHTS FROM THAT TIME?
Mo’Hits was a great moment of time, at the dawn of the scene. D’Banj and I just came to Nigeria at the time. We had known each other from our time in the UK. When I was working with JJC, he was always dropping in.
He was a very familiar face. Seeing what I was doing at the time and the new names coming out of the Nigerian music scene, D’ Banj believed, as I did, that we could really shake up the industry.
“I THINK IN MANY WAYS, WHAT WE DID THEN WAS PHENOMENAL LOOKING BACK AT IT. WE SET THE TONE AND SHOWED THE POSSIBILITIES OF AFROBEATS GOING GLOBAL.”
To cut the long story short, we came here in 2004, during a budding music industry at the time and established Mo’Hits. Seeing as we were used to better production having worked with some of the best equipment and people in the UK, we were able to start strong when it comes to production.
We signed a few artists and I, as the sole producer, worked with them to create what became one of the most powerful groups of artists out of the continent at the time.
Some big highlights were getting to discover and work with artists like Wande Coal, D’Prince, K Switch, Dr Sid, and D’Banj at the time and creating classics with them. Our efforts led us to charting new territories; working with Snoop Dogg and Kanye West.
I think in many ways, what we did then was phenomenal looking back at it. We set the tone and showed the possibilities of Afrobeats going global.
WHAT WAS THE MUSIC SCENE/INDUSTRY LIKE IN NIGERIA AT THAT TIME FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE AND HOW MUCH HAS IT CHANGED?
To even say there was an ‘industry’ at the time would be flattering. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few people doing music. They had structures perhaps, but there was no coherent scene like London, where I was coming from. We had to figure things out as we went.
“THE FINANCIAL IMPLICATION OF BEING A LABEL OWNER, THE TASKS INVOLVED, THE PEOPLE – WE DIDN’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT THAT STUFF.”
The financial implication of being a label owner, the tasks involved, the people – we didn’t know much about that stuff. In fact, at one time, we almost sold Mo’Hits to one of the few big players in the industry for N1 Million Naira (approx $2,430 at current exchange rates). It was chaotic. All we had then was the music and we really had to work at it to build what we have now.
Now, there is a giant leap. There are structures. Labels with management. Even some of the world’s biggest music labels have opened shop here. It is nothing like what it was in 2004.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR ARTISTS AND LABELS IN NIGERIA SPECIFICALLY AT THE MOMENT?
The industry is still young and our artists have a lot to learn, but the future looks as promising as it ever has. There is no shortage of music talent across the country, instead, where we have the gap is executive and administrative skillsets.
In marketing, A&R, we are not having a matching repository of talents like we have in the singing aspect of the music business. We devised the novel Mavin Future Five (#MFF) idea to plug this gap in talent and create the next set of executives that would power the industry to even greater heights.
We have recognized that the music business is more than just the artist’s sound, #MavinFutureFive is a talent development model that will train young people with potential and equip them with the knowledge and experience needed to thrive in the administrative fact of the music business.
This is us betting on the future of Afrobeats and nurturing the next generation of music execs in Africa.
YOU FORMED MAVIN RECORDS IN 2012. TELL US ABOUT THE DECISION BEHIND THE LAUNCH OF THE COMPANY AT THAT TIME AND WHAT WAS YOUR VISION FOR IT?
Launching Mavin for me was a fresh start from the Mo’Hits era. After I split with D’Banj, I appraised the great work we did together. We had catalysed a new approach to music across the continent.
We laid the marker for contemporary Afrobeats. Mavin Records was how I consolidated on our past success while infusing a new perspective to ensure that we are here for the long haul.
“OUR PLAN IS TO CONTINUOUSLY SCOUT MUSICIANS FROM THE GRASSROOTS AND MAKE THEM INTO GLOBAL SUPERSTARS.”
Our plan is to continuously scout musicians from the grassroots and make them into global superstars. It is already our ninth year as Mavin Records which streams in 120 countries, with over 2.3 billion streams and we have proven that this vision can be realised. Our roster boasts an abundance of talented youngsters and industry veterans who are keeping African music in the global conversation.
Gearing towards our tenth year, we are looking towards even greater things for our business and the industry. You need to wait and see.
HOW DOES AN ARTIST GET SIGNED TO MAVIN RECORDS – WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN AN ARTIST?
There is no one single way we sign artists. We have a team of A&Rs who are constantly on the lookout for the next big stars out of Africa.
Also, there’s me. Our team is always on the streets, in the clubs, in events and spaces that appreciate good music. Even on social media, we get tagged on a lot of posts of people singing.
“WE HAVE A TEAM OF A&RS WHO ARE CONSTANTLY ON THE LOOKOUT FOR THE NEXT BIG STARS OUT OF AFRICA.”
This was how I discovered Ayra Starr, who released her debut album, 19 and Dangerous, in August. She tagged me on an original song she wrote with her brother.
I thought it was brilliant and I looked through her page on Instagram to find similar great musical covers. I invited her to the studio and the rest, they say, is history. Similar story with Rema too.
REMA IS ONE OF MAVIN’S BIGGEST STARS – HOW DID YOU DISCOVER AND END UP SIGNING HIM?
Rema’s story was simple but powerful. He made a cover of D’Prince’s song on Instagram. He uploaded it and tagged him, me, and a couple of others.
His talent was obvious even then, so we brought him down to Lagos from Benin where he was at the time. He was in our academy for about a year, learning and recording.
“REMA’S STORY WAS SIMPLE BUT POWERFUL.”
When we felt he was ready, we activated him. Since then, the impact he has had on the scene need no telling. He has emerged as one of the young artists of his generation and all this within his first year.
His potential is incredible and we are looking forward to his debut album that is due for global release this year. It is one of the most anticipated projects from any African artist and we cannot be more excited. We think the time is right.
YOU CONTRIBUTED TO THE PRODUCTION OF KANYE WEST’S LIFT OFF, FROM THE WATCH THE THRONE ALBUM. HOW DID THAT COLLABORATION COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING ON THAT PROJECT?
I met Kanye and Jay Z when I was working with D’Banj. They saw my work as I was really active within that scene at the time, as I said earlier.
“I GOT SIGNED TO KANYE’S VERY GOOD BEATS AT THE TIME AND I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN FROM AND WORK WITH HIM AND MANY OTHER GREAT MUSICIANS AT THE TIME.”
I got signed to Kanye’s Very Good Beats at the time and I had the opportunity to learn from and work with him and many other great musicians at the time.
Our collaborations culminated in and birthed Lift Off. It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about the music industry working in close proximity with legends like them and I will definitely do it again if an opportunity arrives.
IN JANUARY 2019, MAVIN RECORDS ANNOUNCED A MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR PARTNERSHIP DEAL WITH KUPANDA HOLDINGS; TELL US ABOUT HOW THE PARTNERSHIP CAME ABOUT, WHAT IT ENTAILS EXACTLY AND WHAT WERE YOUR HOPES FOR IT?
The deal with Kupanda Holdings was a conversation that went on for two years.
It is a huge one for our ambition as a company. Our plan is to expand both locally and globally. We also looked forward to a more diverse roster of talents. Since the investment, we have been putting these plans in motion and we are glad the results are starting to show.
“OUR PLAN IS TO EXPAND BOTH LOCALLY AND GLOBALLY.”
The work we’re doing has also led to a wider discovery of our talents globally. Rema has completed a club tour of the US this year, Ayra Starr had a virtual performance for UC Berkeley, the story is similar when you look at the listenership of Ladipoe, Crayon and our other artists.
Many more people are beginning to recognize our work outside the continent.
Our studios are world class and we have a space that is inspiring for our creatives and fitting to the global brand image we’re building. We are Mavin Global now and the name is a constant reminder of the vision.
We are taking Afrobeats to the world. Also, we were able to expand our teams and give more opportunities for people to learn about the music business here in Nigeria.
THE MAJOR LABELS HAVE BEEN VERY ACTIVE IN AFRICA IN RECENT YEARS – FOR EXAMPLE WARNER MUSIC GROUPPARTNERED WITH CHOCOLATE CITY, UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP HAS OPENED NEW OFFICES IN CÔTE D’IVOIRE AND NIGERIA AND ACQUIRED A MAJORITY STAKE IN HISTORIC KENYAN LABEL AI RECORDS – WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ONGOING MAJOR LABEL INVESTMENT IN AFRICA?
These are just a testimony to what we have known for years. The time for African music has come and it is obvious that the world can see the potential also. We expected this and we welcomed it.
“THE TIME FOR AFRICAN MUSIC HAS COME AND IT IS OBVIOUS THAT THE WORLD CAN SEE THE POTENTIAL.”
This is how the industry would grow as a whole. We are definitely going to be seeing more of these expansions in the coming years. Many mergers are bound to occur and the Afrobeats market share is definitely poised to increase.
This forecasts good things for the industry. Healthy competition and collaborations are needed if we are to attain the level of the world’s top music markets.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT US COMPANIES BUYING LABELS IN AFRICA – IS THIS A GOOD THING, IN TERMS OF THE IMPACT THIS COULD HAVE ON THE CULTURE OF THOSE LABELS?
Like every business, investments are expected when a profitable venture is discovered. Music is no different. Companies across the world would enter into different kinds of partnerships with labels, some would outrightly purchase like you noted.
“LIKE EVERY BUSINESS, INVESTMENTS ARE EXPECTED WHEN A PROFITABLE VENTURE IS DISCOVERED. MUSIC IS NO DIFFERENT.”
However, if we are to maintain the culture, then it is important that the management, operations, sound, and the most important moving parts remain potently African. This is non-negotiable.
WARNER, SONY, UNIVERSAL AND MAVIN HAVE ALL LICENSED BOOMPLAY AND UDUX – TELL US ABOUT THE POTENTIAL OF THESE STREAMING SERVICES FOR LABELS AND ARTISTS IN AFRICA AND WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS TO GROWTH, CURRENTLY?
Streaming services have completely changed how we work and sell music in Nigeria. Streaming numbers are one of the biggest metrics of success now as an artist and a label.
“THE BARRIERS TO ITS GROWTH STILL LARGELY REMAIN THE FACT THAT NOT MANY PEOPLE HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET IN THE COUNTRY, OR DATA TO STREAM SONGS. IF THIS IS ADDRESSED, THE POTENTIAL GROWTH IT WILL BRING IS MIND BLOWING.”
Also, it makes it increasingly easier to gain international audiences for the sounds coming out of Africa. This is a good thing.
The barriers to its growth still largely remain the fact that not many people have access to the internet in the country or data to stream songs. If this is addressed, the potential growth it will bring is mind-blowing.
IF THERE WAS ANYTHING YOU COULD CHANGE ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I wish more people would explore and play to their strength in the business. We have so many talented people in this business but almost everyone wants to be an artist. I think that view has to change.
“THE MORE PEOPLE RECOGNIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF THEIR ROLE, THE BETTER FOR THE BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE.”
Some people are superstar songwriters, genius producers, brilliant sound engineers, but instead of concentrating on their talents and skill, they want to sing.
The more people recognize the importance of their role, the better for the business and industry as a whole.