Different designs: TeeZee interviewed | Features

With its flamboyant sound and transgender approach, TeeZee builds diasporic bonds that straddle the world. Part of a new wave of Nigerian artists who are breaking the glass ceiling, his ambitions are coming to fruition before his eyes.

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TeeZee is the flamboyant, confident and ultra-creative face of Nigeria’s revolutionary new generation. A key figure in the evolution of alté – the powerful mix of afrobeats, hip-hop and R&B that defines the Lagos underground – he has forged something totally individual, escaping the competition by speaking with his heart.

Take his fantastic new solo EP ‘ARRESTED BY LOVE’. A dynamic and moving journey, TeeZee invites you to walk in his footsteps, creating an incredible sonic journey that takes you from Lagos to the world. If his ambitions are global, that simply matches his story to date – Teezee is the connecting line between Lagos and London, spending time in both cities when he was growing up.

“For me it was super important to represent both sides,” he recalls. Sitting down to chat with Clash during a rare break in his schedule, our conversation shifts from politics to the deep cuts of OutKast, with TeeZee applying the same passion to both – for him, it’s either 100% or nothing, no matter the subject.

“Whenever I create art,” he notes, “I always want a 360-degree feeling, so I need the visuals to match the music, I need the creativity to translate what we are trying to say. It’s as abstract as possible – I want people to feel a strong connection to the creation as well as to the music.

“It’s a more visual world now, you know,” he reflects. “Now you are your own platform.”

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These are lessons that TeeZee had to learn firsthand. Along with close friends Fresh L and Boj, the trio formed the highly influential band DRB, a trio of larger-than-life forces that helped define alté as a sound, but also as an attitude. “DRB has always been a collective,” he says. “It was always individuals who came together to make music as a collective as opposed to a group or band. DRB – to me – we’re more like BBK or Odd Future.

“In terms of solo material, it was always something that happened throughout the process,” he continues. “It wasn’t as hard as it would have been to get out of a boy band, like Zayn Malik or something.”

Operating completely on its own terms, TeeZee’s solo statement “ARRESTED BY LOVE” is a fantastically broad achievement. Purring with club energy, he’s able to mix rolling traps with heavenly R&B, but it’s all seen through a Nigerian lens – the deep love he has for his heritage stains every note with that green flag and White.

“It’s loosely based on a Nollywood movie, so I wanted to create a storyline where people felt like they were in a movie,” he says. “Each song is like a character in Teezee’s world. I wanted to start a storytelling project, but over time it felt more like curating than storytelling.

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This narrative sensibility is how TeeZee can move from the neck-opener ‘FREE ME’ to the soulful exploration of its Deto Black collab ‘NOK’D’; this is how he can go from the beautiful affirmation ‘DRK SKN’ to the diasporic discussion ‘ANCESTORS’ before closing on the political – with a small ‘p’ – ‘NEW GOVERNMENT’. “This song is what I feel like I represent,” he says of the project’s final track. “For me, it was very important for people to see and connect with these things from the start. If you look between the lines, there is a clear message behind it.

Citing Fela Kuti’s anti-authoritarian stance and Andre 3000’s free-thinking as massive influences, TeeZee argues that the societal viewpoints in his work are as natural as the more personal and thoughtful elements. “A lot of people focus on this story of being nothing to becoming something – the story of being a zero to being a hero. But sometimes it’s cool to be vulnerable and say yo, there was a time of absolute nothing and now it’s turning the door and there’s an opportunity for me to make some changes.All of these messages are just super important to me.

These ties to the UK are part of what defines TeeZee. His new project is dotted with British artists, such as BackRoad Gee, Knucks and Pa Salieu. “Pa is one of my closest friends now,” TeeZee notes. “He’s a very deep character. It’s more than music for him – it’s culture, it’s branding, it’s representation of Africa and the African diaspora. These things are so essential to us.

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Indeed, one of TeeZee’s breakout moments came from a true grime legend. Last year, a report on Skepta’s “Peace Of Mind” threw fuel into the sparks of online hype that surrounded the TeeZee name – everything since has been blazing hell. “Skepta is one of my idols,” he says. “He broke grime globally. And that’s also my mission, for alte.

“I used to watch all of his interviews, all of his freestyles, all of his thoughts, and being in the studio watching him create was a really special time. Even calling me to put me on a song with him and Kid Cudi …it was truly a blessing!

Still, one of the reasons TeeZee feels so essential right now is that it’s not genre-bound – no one would listen to ‘ARRESTED BY LOVE’ for example, and mistake it for filth. He adopts the methodologies of his London peers, not the sound itself. “Attention to detail, for me, and the methodology behind it, is totally key. Working with someone like that, I saw the true meticulousness of everything. How many times a song is finished, and how many times do you think it’s done before you go back to it and make sure it’s wrapped up, making sure everything is at the highest level possible… that’s something I definitely picked up on of him, and something that I continue to implement in my work from all angles.

Pushing yourself to perfection, however, is not easy. When Clash sits down with TeeZee, he takes a 20-minute break from the studio, slowly stepping away from the mic. “My next project should be out before the summer,” he agrees. “I have already started the skeleton of my next EP but… I also need a break. People always forget that the process of creating and releasing music is actually physically and mentally exhausting.

We end by reflecting on Nigeria, and its growing importance in world music. With Davido and WizKid setting viewership records on every continent, there is a lingering feeling that the next truly international icon may not come from London or Paris or New York or Los Angeles, it will come from Lagos. “I just think it’s a really special place,” he says of his native country. “There’s so much going on there culturally, politically, everything that’s going on there right now, results in the production of superstars on a daily basis. It’s super exciting. There is a new Nigeria I promise! There’s so much talent, it’s kind of crazy. I’m so proud of where I come from.

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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Jack Brigland

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