By Christopher A. DANIEL | GRAMMY.com
When Diamond Platnumz exploded onto the African music scene in 2010 with his debut LP, Kamwambie, his sole mission was to be able to buy food for his mother. He didn’t realize that his sound and vision would go on to transform both East African popular music and the heights its regional superstar talent could reach.
The massively successful Tanzanian performer behind songs like “Number One,” “Kamwambie,” “Kidogo,” “Sikomi,” “Inama,” “Baba Leo,” “Nana” and “Jeje” took bongo flava, his native country’s genre made up of hip-hop beats; Arabic; African styles like taarab and dansi; R&B and Caribbean influences, and gave its standard “slow, heartbroken songs” more uptempo production.
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Unlike his bongo flava predecessors Dully Sykes, Juma Nature, TID and Q Chief, Diamond Platnumz wanted more crossover appeal, so he incorporated more English translations into music that’s normally recorded in Swahili. The BET Award nominee’s breezy sound, celebratory vibes and catchy melodies eventually led him to cameo appearances alongside Stateside acts like Omarion (“African Beauty”), Rick Ross (“Waka”), Ne-Yo (“Marry You”) and most recently, Alicia Keys (“Wasted Energy”).
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Diamond Platnumz, a 31-year-old megastar heavily inspired by Usher, Michael Jackson and Ne-Yo, became the first sub-Saharan artist to reach one billion views on YouTube. “Back in the day, bongo flava was singing about what you went through, especially heartbreak, so that people would like you or writing in Swahili so the people could understand you,” he said. “We needed to do some happy love songs or some danceable songs.”
Coming from the slums of Tandale, Dar es Salaam, the MTV Europe Music Awards winner—born Naseeb Abdul Juma Issack—went from selling his mom’s ring to booking studio time to owning his own record label, Wasafi Classic Baby (WCB), with a roster featuring popular African artists Mbosso, Lava Lava, Rayvanny, Queen Darleen and Zuchu. Also a Pepsi and Uber ambassador, Diamond Platnumz broke more ground as the first African musician to own a radio station, Wasafi FM; a television station, Wasafi TV; and a production company, Zoom Extra.
To date, his businesses collectively employ more than 100 people, with investments in real estate, fragrances and even a tech company. Diamond even has his own Wasafi Festival, which covers more than 10 regions in the county yearly and features local and international artists (Wizkid, Innos B, Tiwa Savage). Now that Diamond Platnumz’s profile is continuing to rise outside of East Africa, he now wants to break into American popular music.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Diamond Platnumz via Google Meet to hear some of the stories behind his collaborations with various GRAMMY winners and nominees. Taking a break from a session at his WCB Studios, the recording artist, entrepreneur and media mogul also discusses Tanzania’s musical landscape, success, expanding his empire, performing at this year’s virtual Essence Music Festival and what GRAMMY winners he wants to collaborate with.
How would you describe bongo flava to someone who has never experienced it before?
Bongo flava is Afrobeat, but it originally comes from East Africa. It kinda has this Arabic vibe that can be a high or low tempo sound, but the beautiful, sweet melodies are what’s good about it.
How do you handle being considered the most successful artist of all time in Tanzania?
It’s a blessing, but it’s hard because I have to make sure to always maintain what I have, and I don’t want to let my people down. I make sure that I work so hard at mostly creating different sounds. When I get to the stage, I have to make sure to deliver the best. It’s tricky because there’s no way that I can rest completely, so I have to make sure to keep and maintain the love they’re giving me because they support me so much. It’s good and bad: a blessing and curse at the same time.
How did you connect with Alicia Keys for “Wasted Energy”?
That came from Swizz Beatz. He’s been supporting me since way back. When I came to L.A. this year [before the coronavirus] to perform, he called me and said come to the studio. When I got to the studio, I found Alicia Keys recording our song. Swizz was like, “You have to jump on this and do a verse.” I was shocked they preferred me to be on the song. Alicia was working on her album, so I said, “Right now? Where’s my part?” She said she wanted me to give her 100 percent bongo flava, so that’s where that came from. It was a good moment for me because it’s different working with an artist you’re used to seeing on TV or listening to her songs, I can’t even explain how grateful I am. I was nervous, but people love that song so much. I’m so happy because Alicia is an iconic album.
You also collaborated with GRAMMY winner Ne-Yo on the single “Marry You.” How did that come about?
Ne-Yo came to South Africa for the MTV Africa Music Awards. He was asked in an interview which African artists did he know, and Ne-Yo mentioned he knew me. I told my management that if Ne-Yo knows me, we gotta do something. Ne-Yo was among the artists I looked up to since I started doing music. Then, my manager told me Ne-Yo wanted to see me. When he came to Nairobi, our managers connected. I flew to Nairobi, and we recorded that song. When he got back to America, I flew to L.A., and we shot the video in L.A. That’s how the collabo came. I did not expect him to be that hardworking, do my song, and support me so much. He’s like a brother to me.
What about working with Rick Ross on the song “Waka”?
I used to be a Luc Belaire brand ambassador here in Africa, and we connected through that. The company reps asked if I wanted to do a song with Rozay. I was like, “Is that even a question?” So I sent him three different options of songs. I was at my hotel about to head out to my birthday party. Then, I got a message about Rick Ross putting the song out. I saw him on Instagram doing a verse; then, he sent me the song. It was the best birthday ever. I flew to Miami, and we shot the video there.
How did Omarion end up on your song “African Beauty”?
Omarion came to Namibia. My management had connections with his team. When I sent Rick Ross “Waka,” I also sent him “African Beauty” because I wanted that one to be with an American artist as well. Omarion liked the song, so he recorded his part and sent it to me. I listened to it and loved it. He came to South Africa; we shot the video, and that’s how we connected. Omarion can dance like crazy, so when we shot the video, I begged him to not dance that much because that was gon’ kill me [chuckles]. I didn’t want him to do with me what he did to Chris Brown [chuckles].
Could you talk about what it was like growing up in Tanzania?
I came from a slum area called Tandale. Even my family never expected that I would get to where I am right now. Penetrating the market and the game were very hard. I was coming up with ways I could get signed. My mom gave me a gold ring, and I had to sell that to get into the studio to pay for the first session. After recording my first song, I didn’t have enough experience. The song wasn’t that good, but it led me to my first manager, who paid for my first album. During the recording of the first album, the guy got into some finance problems. I started to hustle. It took me a couple of years, but in 2009, that’s when I had my first hit. It introduced me to the music industry here in Tanzania.
Now you have an empire. How do you evolve into a mogul?
One thing I’ve learned is, artists in Africa would shine for like five years, and then they’d get lost. I figured out that if there’s a backup plan, then it’s easier to sustain in the music industry. I never wanted to do music just to get money. You can do it because you have to express something or tell a story. I used to tell the music industry in Tanzania what I’m feeling and what I wanted the industry to be like. No one understood that; they thought I was crazy or something. I had to come out with my own record label because I knew what I wanted in the music, but no one would listen. I wanted to take artists from scratch and develop them, All of my artists are doing very good.
Sometimes in the industry, things can be crazy. Ninety percent of all of the media don’t want to play your music; a lot of propaganda can bring you down. We survived through YouTube and all digital platforms. That was the right time to start our own media with both the radio and TV stations. It was hard, but I’m so proud to say the radio and TV station are number one in Tanzania. I told the government the main point is to create jobs for different youth in the streets. When I came out, nobody used dancers. I started using dancers, and now everybody follows. Then, we needed bodyguards, security and photographers. Artists used to perform and leave, but I wanted to document my concerts. I started having videographers. When I got the license, critics started complaining. Things went well, and everybody saw my vision. I started investing in different apartments, I got perfume, and I’m launching my betting company.
When I first started, we never used to have Spotify, Apple Music or iTunes here, so I started my platform, wasafi.com, so that people could download music via mobile phones. Most people here don’t have bank accounts, so they put money on their phones. I don’t want to just depend on just music; I want to leave a legacy.
How did Tanzania respond when you became the spokesperson for Uber?
Tanzania never knew nothing about Uber, so when the company decided to introduce it to Tanzania, everyone said the only person they could partner with was me because I’m the only person that can tell people. Now, Uber is everything here.
What crossed your mind after your showstopping performance during this year’s virtual Essence Music Festival?
I was supposed to come to perform live [at Essence] in New Orleans and another one in Nigeria, but because of coronavirus, we couldn’t, so we had to record visuals. I just wanted to take America to the local market and show them what Africa is. I wanted to do something they’d never seen because there was no way I could compete with American acts.
What artists would you like to collaborate with?
This may sound so stupid, but I wanna work with Usher Raymond. That’s been my role model since I started music. Of course, I’d work with different artists, but Usher would be a dream come true to me.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that one of your dreams is to win a GRAMMY? How would you celebrate your win?
I would start by spending the whole week praying instead of celebrating. A lot of artists have never had that chance. After a week, that’s when I’d celebrate. I’d have a proper performance at the stadium for free because everyone would want to see the trophy. It wouldn’t just be my achievement, but Africa’s achievement. As long as you Black, it’s our achievement. Everybody can come, take a picture with it, post it to social media, and show the chance you had with it.
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