By Marcus K. Dowling | DJBOOTH
Mannywellz’ skill as a singer and songwriter connects African music to the thriving space where R&B, trap, and mainstream pop converge. The 26-year-old R&B artist, born in Nigeria and based in Laurel, Maryland, is a second-generation musical creative whose style, sound, and inspirations occupy a growing African-led space in American and global popular music.
Mannywellz’ music pulses with an unprecedented life. “It’s cool to watch the growth and fusion of African styles with trap, soul, R&B, and hip-hop,” he says. His upcoming project, Mirage, pays homage to a rich lineage dating back to the work of ‘70s icons like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé and places him amongst a group of contemporary artists crafting soulful pop music with elemental African connections to America and the world. “There’s a diverse set of songs here, but the songwriting is pure. I’m writing about love, toxic relationships—you know, human things,” Mannywellz explains of the album recorded mostly during 2018.
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With Mirage, Mannywellz inserts himself further into the growing American-interested and global Afrobeats conversation. He’s already carrying co-signs from GRAMMY’s Artist Grant Program and Washington, DC’s vaunted Wammie Awards, and has had musical collaborations with Wale and Jidenna, plus GRAMMY-winning jazz trumpeter John Daversa. As African music continues to grow its global spotlight, the musician born Emmanuel Ajomale appears to be on the cusp of even more significant acclaim.
As far as recording Mirage, what did you learn about yourself as an artist while recording it? What about it should give someone who’s listening to say, Burna Boy or Wizkid, or who is familiar with Nigerian music’s pop history via the likes of Fela Kuti and others, a desire to listen?
First, I’d like to say it’s an amazing time right now to be in the same conversation with those artists. I’m just trying to remain honest in what I’m personally trying to convey with my music because Wizkid, Burna Boy, and all of us are all making great music right now. Even down to African tones being played on R&B beats, I’m paying homage to those who came before me while paying attention to my present and future potential.
I was born in Nigeria and raised in America. I understand both Nigerian and American culture well, so I’ll do something like use an African harmonic take on an Americanized alt-soul track. I’m bringing something as intentional as it is unique to my music and the music scene, in general.
I recorded and produced the majority of Mirage in 2018, mainly by thuggin’ it out with the vibes in my aunt’s basement. There’s a diverse set of songs here, but the songwriting is pure. I’m writing about love, toxic relationships—you know, human things. I had assistance from guitarists like Ariel O’Neal, Kel, Nigerian vocalist Tems, and more. As well, I was inspired by Nigerian juju percussion, which is heavy. Blending the power and sound of those drums with, say, trap’s style makes the African influences in my sound more digestible for non-African aware listeners.
From the project, you’ve already released “A Million,” your collaboration with Wale. What’s it like working with him?
It’s always a vibe [working with Wale]. I did “Love and Loyalty” [on Wale’s 2019 album, Wow… That’s Crazy], and we’ve been locked in ever since. I asked him for a verse for “A Million” while he happened to be back in the DC area for a bit. He pulled up to the studio and knocked out the verse. It was that easy.
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“Afrobeats” feels like it’s the “wave” right now. What’s it like to be birthed and raised around music that then experiences a pop moment? What is it about this moment for African-inspired pop that has impressed you the most?
I grew up listening to and performing those songs. My father, Kunle Ajomale, is an artist himself, and a lot of his music is similar to that of King Sunny Adé. If anything, the surge in popularity of African sounds proves that great things take time to achieve popularity worldwide. It’s cool to watch the growth and fusion of African styles with trap, soul, R&B, and hip-hop. The alternative sound, “alte,” that’s even developing from this, like, an “alt-Afrobeat” style.
How do you feel about “Afrobeats” as an African stylistic “catch-all” of sorts, and what’s the best way to allow for your sound, and all of these diverse sounds, to retain some individuality?
Sometimes, it’s a little annoying, but you can’t blame the fans if they’re not receiving the correct information about what they’re hearing. Artists and our teams need to correctly name and position our music to inform people better about what it is. Also, the fans themselves can do a little bit of research to understand the fusion behind what they’re hearing. The sound in Ghana differs from the sound in Nigeria. South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda are all different, too. People can learn to appreciate that African music, in general, is a diverse group of sounds.
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Looking past Mirage, you’re a multi-hyphenated talent working at singing, songwriting, production, arranging, and more. How do you wish to grow your career’s potential arc of future success?
I want to keep an open mind. I’m also an artist who infuses any project I work on with the middle ground between hip-hop-style R&B, soul, and Afrobeats. I think my sound would work alongside someone like Snoh Aalegra, Lucky Daye, Billie Eilish, or Adam Levine from Maroon 5. They all have cool, dynamic voices. I’m always pushing to remain similar, but stay open to something different. As much as I’d love to work with the Beyoncés and Drakes of the world, I think my music can be so much larger than its expectations.
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