Matthew Ohio is the executive director of El Carnaval, an entertainment and media company dedicated to changing African narratives by promoting Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music by showcasing the talents in the creative sector. El Carnaval specialises in concert production, experiential marketing, production management, touring, and artist booking. Since its inception, the company has produced events and concerts for major brands like MTN Nigeria, Remy Martin, Glenfiddich, Diageo, Hennessy, and MTV Base. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, he speaks on challenges and opportunities inherent in promoting Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music and how El Carnaval is helping bridge the gaps.
As the Executive Director of El Carnaval, an entertainment and media company dedicated to changing African narratives by promoting Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music, how has El Carnaval helped in promoting Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music globally?
Since 2008, El Carnval has carved a niche for itself in Nigeria’s entertainment scene by staying at the forefront of talent discovery and grooming. It uses diverse platforms to give young people opportunities to display their art, skills, and talent to diverse audiences around the world. Utilizing our platforms like Industry Nite, Felabration, and our other concert series, El Carnaval continues to promote Afrocentric culture and Afrobeat music on the global scene by hosting conversations that tell the stories of local acts that have changed the world with their music. The platforms we built have also helped to lift a lot of young talented Nigerians out of poverty. Worldwide, African artists are known by name and we can boast that a good number of those names came from platforms we helped to build.
El Carnaval, as a point of duty, always ensures the showcasing of novel acts with promise. These acts are placed on stages they ordinarily would not have had the opportunity to perform on. Through Industry Nite, a breeding ground for budding artists, acts such as Burna Boy, Wizkid, Yemi Alade, and Davido, now share their musical gifts with the world. It is safe to say that El Carnaval continues to influence urban culture globally via its promotion of Afrobeats artists and their music.
Do you think Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music are gaining traction worldwide? If yes or no, why?
Yes, because artists of African descent are circling back to their origin. Ultimately, people want to feel connected to their roots. We desire a sense of belonging and what better way to connect across the globe than with music? African urban culture; music, art, and fashion is getting widespread recognition and acceptance. The beauty of our diversity and gifts is celebrated and exhibited. Sometimes, our ideas are stolen by others but they are unable to tell our stories authentically. That is what Afrobeat music does, they tell authentic African stories using Afro beats and rhythms.
The originality and diverse influences of Afrobeats also contribute to the rapid global traction. On the music scene, the world continues to witness Nigerian artists headline major festivals and concerts. From Glastonbury to Rolling Loud, Madison Square Garden to Citifield stadiums, Nigerian artists are selling tickets and packing out major arenas. This is a demonstration of the traction, influence and impact of Afrobeats, globally.
Do you think Nigeria has many talents currently promoting and doing well in Afrobeat music?
There is a good number of artists who are promoting and doing well in Afrobeat music out there but there is room for more. The numbers are not enough to service both the local and international markets. Like every other business venture, Nigeria’s music scene has opportunities. The value chain for Afrobeat music goes beyond the musical acts. From songwriters to producers, and other people who contribute to a good song, a good music video, or a good concert. The potential to do well exists but bottlenecks and sundry challenges make success a herculean task, on some occasions. Successful Nigerian artists are signed on by international record labels, thus making them too expensive, sometimes, for the Nigerian market.
Nigerian artists are in demand from venues in Lagos to venues in New York City. Locally, there is a market with a high demand to use some artists to promote Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and perform at nightclubs, weddings, concerts and other events but there is a dearth of top-tier artists to service these demands. In response to this question, while we have talents who are currently promoting Afrobeat music and doing well at it, there is room for massive improvement across the value chain. I have noticed these gaps and the team and I at El Carnaval, have begun to design new ways to plug these gaps by creating more opportunities.
What are the significant challenges involved in pushing Afro-centric cultures and Afrobeat music beyond Nigeria and Africa?
Having been in this space for close to two decades, the most significant challenge the industry faces is that the African business community has refused to take the time to understand the sector to invest in the sector. That is why most investments in talent are done by foreigners and sadly, “he who pays the pipers sets the tune”. We find that acts signed on by international labels may have their music diluted and in some cases, the essence of Afrobeat is lost in the process. I have sat in conversations with bankers and investors who state that they do not understand the investment opportunities and the potential gains the sector can provide. These excuses are lacking in substance, in my opinion, because they have refused to take the time to learn about the sector in the same way they would take their time to learn about other businesses when investing in them.
However, knowing how important this is to me and the work we do at El Carnaval, we are hosting conversations with the finance sector to educate them on the opportunities for gain available in the sector and the potential for exponential growth it provides. Sadly, there are investments in arenas, studios, and discovery platforms. El Carnaval has identified these challenges and we are hoping that our innovations within the space will provide the needed investments. Another challenge we face is the enforcement of intellectual property and copyright laws in Nigeria. The judiciary is not strengthened enough to deal with these issues, however, arbitration may provide the support required but that is to be interrogated.
You have supported over 1,000 creatives and engaged over 150,000 fans across the world. How are you able to achieve this?
A lot of my motivation to support young creatives comes from passion and a lot of resilience. Passion because I have always believed that African youth are the most creative notwithstanding the multiple obstacles that are consistently thrown their way. All the turmoil they go through socially and politically births a hunger in them and it is this hunger to succeed that drives me to see them do well in the creative space. I am of the firm belief that African urban culture has all the elements to take on the world if they are given the chance. No doubt, I have had moments when I wanted to give up on this Afrobeats-to-the-world journey but I am more inspired by the young people who pour their hearts into their work while trusting us to use our platforms to help them succeed.
Industry Nite has inadvertently become a way out for new and upcoming creatives, it is an opportunity to see and be seen, and it also presents them with a picture of the future they dream of. I cannot count the number of times when I got calls from random people asking me why an event did not happen. Whenever we did not host an event, I would get appeals from people asking me not to stop because they had no other way to showcase themselves. Please note that before Industry Nite, there were no platforms for musical talents to exhibit their gifts.
Tell us about Industry Nite and what success stories have you recorded from this.
Drawing from the fact that Industry Nite gave multiple opportunities to most of today’s trending artists, we take pride in that achievement. Another success story for us is getting the buy-in of corporate brands in the promotion of Nigerian music. Their sponsorship of music concerts also helped us to promote the genre by giving us the support we needed. Another success we take pride in is how we brought back the concert culture to Nigeria, we got people interested in buying tickets to enjoy Afrobeats music. By hosting Industry Nite regularly, people who initially looked upon Afrobeat music with condescension have been able to appreciate and enjoy the genre. To be honest, it has been a long journey but I look back with pride at the things we have achieved since we began in 2008.
Going forward, I want to do more for the entertainment industry by creating access and opportunities via our digital platform. An innovation we intend to utilise. Industry Nite is launching its digital platform. This is an AI-powered online platform designed to provide artists with various tools for success. Using artificial intelligence, we can now run through thousands of songs within a short time. The AI tool will rank the songs based on quality and commerciality. In the past, the volume of requests we received daily made it difficult to provide opportunities for as many people as we wanted to, however, with this new technology we can actively encourage artists from across the continent to share their music. This digital platform will host virtual concerts and micro concerts which will increase our showcasing capabilities. The platform will also provide digital distribution, management services and funding opportunities for artists who need those services.
Under your leadership, El Carnaval promotes the popular and widely loved Afrobeat Festival, Felabration. What is the impact of Felabration on youth in Nigeria and what are your plans for Felabration?
In the course of my work in Nigeria’s entertainment space, being on the Felabration Committee is work that I have done with honour and pride. Doing Felabration for 13 years has further opened my eyes to the power of Afrobeats and the potential it possesses. Felabration, an annual festival of the arts and music, is an event that celebrates the life, times and legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The Festival was founded by his daughter, Yeni Anikulapo Kuti, who is a significant custodian of the genre and the culture and believed that a celebration of Fela’s legacy would inspire the next generation to embrace their African roots as they celebrate our music and art.
Felabration’s impact on youth goes beyond Nigeria but extends to other parts of the world. The event showcases fashion and art competitions, music concerts, and conversations on the promotion and conservation of African culture through our music and other genres of creativity. Felabration also promotes advocacy for Nigerian artists, ensuring that they have a clear understanding of the powers they possess via their crafts and why they need to be socially conscious with their music. The future for Felabration, in my opinion, is very bright. This year the festival will be celebrated across the world in various cities like Accra, London, New York, Toronto, Abeokuta and Lagos.
Do you think Nigeria has adequate policies and laws that protect Nigerian artists, art, and talent? If there are, are they effective?
Honestly, there is no dearth of laws in Nigeria. However, our laws need to be reviewed to accommodate our current realities. A lot of those laws were written before a lot of new technologies emerged. Policy review and implementation are also gaps that we face. There are a lot of loose ends concerning our laws but I know that we can use what we have to protect artists and their art.
What advice would you give prospective talents or artists who have the needed talents in them but lack funds, platform or support to push their dreams?
Firstly, do not stop working.
Secondly, believe in your dreams. I remember the origin stories of Davido, Wizkid and Burna Boy before the world knew their names. A common denominator among them was the fact that they had an absolute belief in themselves and they knew they would be big stars.
Thirdly, talent is a very important quality. However, alone, it cannot take you far. Discipline and hard work will take you further.
How do you in your own way help these prospective talents mentioned above to reach their goals?
I always tell them the truth. I think that’s the best thing you can do for talented people because they usually surround themselves with sycophants and people who are unable to tell them the truth. Most importantly, I provide mentorship and networking opportunities for them. I introduce them to vital contacts that can help them improve their skills.