Pan-African Rockstar: An interview with Lady Donli

Music — 23.02.21

Photography, Words & Styling: Patricia Ellah
Makeup: Tamar Ellah

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Lady Donli is a rockstar, and it’s not just the title of one of her recent singles, but it is her aura personified. She is someone I wanted to sit down and talk to about the last few years of her music career, her last album Enjoy Your Life, the pandemonium, and what she’s doing in preparation for her new album. I wanted to know where her head has been at, what she has been working through, and what has been the driving force behind her energy. With over two million streams and half a million listeners last year on Spotify alone, Donli is ready for her next adventure.

In this interview, Donli touches on subjects concerning Africa and how our history once discovered is our most powerful inspiration. She is a Nigerian woman working in an industry that is notoriously sexist and homophobic. Her success to put it simply is hardwon. It is an independent success, one that has relied mainly on her belief in her vision, her financial investments, and her true love of music. 

Patricia: How are you? How have you been feeling?

Donli: I feel like I am in a transformative period in my life. I was in Toronto at the beginning of the pandemic and I’ve had the time to focus on who I want to be and where I want my music to be. The beginning of quarantine gave me time to think and for the first time in the last three years, I was able to stay in one place for over four months. When I was making my record Enjoy Your Life it was a personal project for me, in the sense that it was about just being in a dark place and trying to transform darkness into light. I know my next chapter will be even more introspective, I am trying to show people who I am, the me that my friends know.

Recently, I was reading The Art of Creative Thinking. The writer speaks about how honesty in art will always be thought-provoking to people who care and who listen. That made me think about my favourite bodies of work where the artist is pouring everything within themselves out, this is how I want to approach my music, this is me and this is what I am going through. I’m excited about my next album. I started working out properly for the first time and it has made my vocals so much better, it was a test for me to see how consistent and dedicated I can be with something, a reminder that I can do what I wasn’t doing before. I’ve started writing songs that I am happier with, songs that I feel a lot of women will listen to and connect to. 

Patricia: How has this transformation period affected you?

Donli: It has been liberating, I’ve started making sexier songs, I’m able to let myself feel that way. I just like myself a bit better. It’s a hard conversation to have because no one wants to ever say at any point that they didn’t like themselves sometimes. Especially as a musician, I feel so much pressure to be a walking self-love poster but a lot of days I wake up I don’t feel like that, I don’t feel like myself. Lately, I’ve taken the time to feel so much better about myself, I just started feeling physically stronger and through that, I realised that I didn’t have any particular limits, only the ones I had set for myself. I’ve been taking the time to recognise my insecurities head-on, asking myself why do I feel this way, and is it valid? Most times it’s not.

I’ve also been learning to have more fun. I’m usually a more calculated person, I plan everything. Before I started making Enjoy Your Life before I knew what I wanted it to sound like, I knew what song I wanted to hear certain instruments on, I knew the energy I was going for, so when I finished the album I knew it was done because I had achieved the different sounds I was looking for. When I first started out, I used to be a rapper. I don’t rap as much now, I used to say that I don’t prescribe to any genre but I found that over the last few years I had been restricting myself. I want to be able to make rock songs and psychedelic music. I am trying to enjoy music at its foundation. I fell in love with music for the fun of it, I want to be able to still have fun with the music and how I convey myself as an artist. I want to actively challenge myself to do stuff that I thought I couldn’t do and people have said I couldn’t do. 


Patricia: What are you hoping that music will give you in the next decade? 

Donli: In the next five years I don’t want to be making music, I’m thinking of having somewhere between five to six albums in total. I want to eventually start a record label, I want to be able to train female artists in Africa, most specifically sound engineers and producers because this is where we are lacking. The lack of women in these spaces makes it harder for female artists to break-through because they are constantly being exploited by male artists.

When I started recording I would go to studio spaces and not feel comfortable. I would make my brother go with me, he had a recording label growing up in Kaduna, so he had a lot of favours to cash-in, being his little sister made the people I was working with at that time respectful. The studio spaces I have been in, still document men being men, talking inappropriately, and just doing things that make you not feel as comfortable as they do. Even when I used to co-write for artists, I would be the only woman in a room full of ten to fifteen men, at that time I’d think to myself; this can’t be real life. My niece plays the keyboard, she’s learning the guitar and has her mind set on the drums next, those are great foundations for a great producer if she has the right guidance and the right tools to succeed. I would love to facilitate getting the tools to the right people, so that when a female artist comes to the studio, you know they’re not getting harassed but instead will be able to get their money’s worth and go home. 

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Patricia: What is something that’s changed since you started making music? 

Donli: I respect my value much more than I did when I started and I believe that this is going to change my day-to-day dealings with everyone. Many people will try to take you for granted, it doesn’t matter how many dues you’ve paid. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not considered an internationally successful artist, but no matter how many dues I’ve paid, people want to be so disrespectful. You enter into this space of having to remind yourself that you have worked hard. It’s not today that I started creating, and I cannot let anyone, no matter what gate they are keeping, try to disrespect or disregard my work, because my work ethic is good. I am constantly moving to improve myself and I am constantly investing in myself and the people around me. I’m not going to let anyone take me for granted and this is something I did in the past, I realised that I am going to have to be more selective with my time and who gets to have my time because If you do not deserve my time I will no longer participate in wasting it. 


Patricia: What are the obstacles you’ve had to deal with coming up now as a Nigerian woman artist?

Donli: I have felt copied by bigger African stars and it discourages me. Sometimes, I don’t want to work anymore, I don’t want to take my ideas and pour them out if I don’t have the resources to make this a machine. If I don’t have the resources for my projects to be heard then I’m not going to do this so another man can copy me. It’s exhausting to work and be copied, I felt the peak of my frustration after I dropped Cash. Cash was a big record, especially in Nigeria. It brought me “fame” but I still felt that nothing substantial came from it. There is a perception of me that I have it all, that I am doing good, but I am still broke, I still feel like I am in the trenches.

Everything I did for the Enjoy Your Life release was out of my own pocket, and even after it dropped, the shows, every single stage of that album had no sponsorship. I spent the whole of that year getting money and spending money out of my pocket and I wasn’t enjoying it. It was such an emotionally and mentally draining time for me. I was in debt paying people off, booking shows even into December so I could make sure that bills were paid. Around that time I was also being asked for a lot of favours and it’s hard to tell people I can’t because there is a perception that I should be able to. If you are not able to, if you are not living it up as you should, then there is this disrespect that comes with doing all these things and not making enough money. In Nigeria, everything is about respect, they will respect you because of your money and undervalue you if you don’t have it. 

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Patricia: What is your relationship with Toronto?

Donli: Toronto is the first city I’ve been to that I feel like a successful artist. When I first came three years ago I was on tour, people cared about my art then and they let me know that they did. I finished my last album here, my music streams have grown the most here, and I started working on my new album here. I love this city, and I get good energy when I’m here. Every time I visit, I make a new connection with someone. I’ve lost friends and I’ve made new friends. I can be obscure in Toronto, I can be in places no one knows me, scenes where people might not know my face but the music is playing. I don’t second guess myself when I am here as opposed to Lagos where it is easy to second guess certain things about myself. 


Patricia: Where did Pan-African Rockstar come from? 

Donli: It came from introspection, when I was in Ottawa on my tour, I was rehearsing in a bookstore that also had a recording room. It was a beautiful place, the Rasta bookkeeper started handing out Marcus Garvey books. He gave me a better insight into who I was as an African. I was born in the States, and as a Nigerian, you are taught to have more pride in foreign citizenship than your own. I started reading more books on the continent, deep diving, reading, and researching to get a better understanding of our hidden histories. In college, when Marcus Garvey was brought up he was labelled as an extremist, now, I get his perspective and it resonates with me. This stemmed into the music, I was so tired of being told what is and isn’t Nigerian, I went back to research and Nigeria is so vast, it’s even more than our perception of it. I have a Hausa song on my last album and some of the reviews called it local, it was a sample from a traditional Hausa women’s Christian fellowship, saying something is local is meant to be an insult but I love local. I want to reconstruct my ideas of Pan-Africanism through my work. For me, a rockstar is what I want to embody when I’m on stage, it’s about self-proclamation. 

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Patricia: Who is Cash Mum, Space Whore and Lady Donli to you?

Donli: My family has called me Lady since I was born, I identify it as a name that is my own. Lady Donli is me, Zainab and Donli is my last name. Cash Mum is my exuberant side, Cash Mum is inspired by Nollywood and Nollywood culture, obviously dropping Cash had a life of its own and I needed to immortalise that, Cash Mum will do what she wants, she is the final boss, the Madame. Space Whore is a new thing for me, it is about taking back the language. I am getting more in tune with my body, with my sexiness, and with my feminine energy. I am going to do my shit and I don’t care about the perceptions of me. I’ve come online and I’ve seen polls where people ask “Name a female artist that gets by without showing their body?” and my name comes up, those are conversations I want my name to be left out of. There are so many parts of myself that I cut off from growing because I felt I couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to be seen as something else. One thing I’m realising is that there’s nothing more important than growing at your own rate. If I want to take sexier pictures it’s because that’s where I am at, I’m trying to walk and not run through different phases of my life, I want to know what I like and what I do not like, and I do not want anyone to push anything on me. 


Patricia: What makes Lady Donli so efficient and independent?

Donli: When there is no order it brings out the worst in me, I feel physically sick and uncomfortable. What is worth doing, is worth doing well. If it can be better why are we not making it better? If I’m not doing things efficiently then why am I doing it in the first place? I want to be in a space with people who push me to be better, I’m always thinking of a solution, I am not a sit around and bask in your pain kind of person, I want to move, I want to try, life is too short. 

Follow Lady Donli through her website and stay up-to-date with her releases via SoundCloud.