Yemi Alade is Topping the Charts and Fighting Inequality: “Every Day is an Opportunity to Either be Stronger or to Let the Negatives Weigh you Down”

Meet the Nigerian musician, UNDP Goodwill Ambassador and Beyonce-collaborator who became the first female Afro-pop artist to reach over 100 million views on YouTube.

Yemi Alade
Yemi Alade

More than 450 million streams and views worldwide, over 12 million followers on Instagram, a video that has become the most viewed video from an African female artist ever and a feature on Beyoncé’s ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ and ‘BLACK IS KING’. These are just a few of the accomplishments that Nigerian Afro-pop star Yemi Alade has achieved over the past years, and with the release of her fifth studio album Empress, she’s geared up for another career peak.

But Yemi Alade is much more than one of the absolute biggest artists on the African continent right now. Since September 2020, she’s also been a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – a position in which she uses her voice and influence to empower women and raise awareness about poverty, inequality and the impact of climate changes.

Needless to say, we’re huge fans of Yemi Alade, and couldn’t be more honored that she let us ask her a few questions. Get to know her better below the video.

It feels a little weird to be sitting in my Copenhagen flat calling up one of the biggest artists in the world on Google Hangouts. I’m about to live out a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and somehow from the couch where I’ve found myself a shocking number of times eating too many cinnamon buns while re-binging New Girl for the fourth time over the past few months. Naturally, I’m a bit more nervous than I normally am on this couch, but I’m mostly just excited to virtually meet the icon and role model to so many people around the world: Yemi Alade.

It’s a warm and welcoming Yemi Alade who greets me from the other side of the screen when our call connects. She’s in her home in Lagos, Nigeria – far from the reality she was looking towards before the pandemic hit, when ticket sales for her Northern American and European tour were running: “It was supposed to be a very, very busy year,” she says and continues: “Very ironic now.”

For the first three months, she says, quarantine was alright. She finally had time for herself, practicing slow mornings with yoga, workouts and Bible studies. And by staying inside like the rest of the world, she slowly started transforming her house in Lagos into an actual home. It may sound intuitive, but for an international pop star who’s spent more time flying in the air than resting in her house, this was actually a big thing: “This time I used to start living in my home and really enjoy being… I’d say like a regular human being,” she tells me. “I was just enjoying the little things in life that make me happy.

It all sounds pretty nice right? Well, it sounds like the spell was broken after those first few months… “It’s been six months now and I can’t take it anymore! I want some activity!” she says with equal parts frustration and heart-felt laughter.

Yemi Alade

I always tell people that I might fail sometimes, but that’s what makes me human. So I’m a human role model.”

As a UN Goodwill Ambassador and public figure, Yemi Alade is using her voice to shred light on the big issues of increasing poverty, inequality, and the climate crisis – all exacerbated by the pandemic.

Knowing it’s a huge responsibility, Yemi Alade has come to terms with the fact that millions of people see her as a role model and inspiration in their lives. But it required a lot of thought and reflection for her to get to the place where she could assign the word “role model” to her own person.

“Do I look at myself in the mirror and feel ‘yes, you’re a role model’?” she asks rhetorically and laughs, before her voice turns serious again: “I think that’s a very huge responsibility. I get a lot of messages from people around the world telling me how much they feel that I’m a role model to them. Some people believe that my music has helped them get through certain stages in their lives. I do appreciate the thought and I think, yes… The older I get, I realize that I am a role model. But I always tell people that I might fail sometimes, but that’s what makes me human. So I’m a human role model,” she continues as I start to feel goosebumps sneaking in on my end of the virtual room. The screen normally adds a sense of hopeless distance to a conversation, but in this moment, Yemi Alade feels very near.

When asked who some of her own role models are, or have been in the past, she takes a deep breath and says: “Wow, I have several.” There’s another second of silence, before she continues: “My mom is definitely quite the role model. I’ve seen her go through a lot as a woman, as a wife, and as a mother. I’ve seen her pull through everything and I’ve seen how much of a rock she became for herself and for us. So I pull from that strength everyday knowing that I can be more tomorrow than I am today.”

When it comes to Yemi Alade’s creative inspiration, there’s no doubt either:

“I cannot say that Beyonce isn’t a role model to me, because I grew up listening to her. I wanted to dance like her, sing like her. I would wear my high heels in my nighties and hold onto the remote control and be singing her songs and belting the keys,” she says as her whole face lights up.

Yemi Alade features on “DON’T JEALOUS ME” and “MY POWER” from Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift

Life Lessons and Putting Yourself First

I feel pretty confident claiming that becoming a role model doesn’t happen overnight. Even labelling herself as one has, as we’ve learned, been a longer process of getting to know the impact she’s had on others. I ask Yemi Alade if she can pick out some events in her life that have shaped her into who she is today, and given her the strength she’s needed to continue pushing forward.

“I think that every day is an opportunity to either be stronger, or to let the negatives weigh you down,” she says, and continues: “As an entertainer you are in a position where a lot of people have a lot of expectations of you. And sometimes, because the expectations are so many and sometimes not very realistic, it tends to put so much pressure on me as a human being. Then I had to come to a point in my life where I needed to remind myself everyday that the reason I decided to be an artist was because of me, first of all. So my needs in terms of who I want to be need to come first every time.”

Putting herself first also taught her an important lesson, when she suddenly found herself in a big dilemma during her Geography studies at the University of Lagos.

When I was in my final year of university, I had the opportunity to participate in a talent show and I had very high prospects because I was already in the top 20. I had the opportunity to go ahead and participate in the talent show, or sit for my final exams. After spending 4 years in university, everybody definitely wanted to write their exams, but the dates clashed, and then I was in a dilemma,” she says. 

Yemi remembers praying (and even writing a letter to the school!) about the conflict, when she suddenly received an email from the talent show saying that they had moved the date, meaning she’d be able to continue with both her final exams and the show. However, at that point she’d already realized something very important about herself; something that, if she said it out loud, would have been pretty controversial. 

In Africa and Nigeria, parents do not take education lightly. You must go to school – it’s either that or that! There’s no other option. So I was at the risk of probably being disowned or something horrible, but I had already made the choice to choose music. And I do not regret that ever.

Yemi Alade seems right in not ever regretting that. She turned out to win the whole thing in 2009, which marked the beginning of her enduring, eventful career.

F*ck ‘The Biological Clock’

Time flies in Yemi Alade’s company, but I’ve got something scribbled in my notebook that I want to make sure to ask her before we both go back to the reality of our living rooms. She’s already briefly mentioned the endless expectations that are put upon her as a public figure, and I’m curious to hear more about what kind of expectations that Yemi Alade has experienced, particularly in terms of being a woman in society, as well as being a woman in the music industry.

When it comes to the first one, Yemi Alade speaks pretty strongly about a certain tendency that she’s experiencing on the African continent. Pulling from my own experience in Northern Europe, I think this is recognizable all over the world.

There’s this strange thing that keeps happening in Africa where they keep telling you that ‘your biological clock is ticking’ and it seems like people have literally abandoned their day jobs and have decided to become ‘womb watchers’. It’s a crazy trend that I do NOT understand. The pressure definitely gets immense sometimes, and some people that you least expect to utter such garbage decide to deliver that to your door every now and then. I think that it’s very inhumane. I think that it’s focusing on the wrong things and that things like that should not be imposed on anybody!

To Yemi Adale, this issue is all about shaping good futures – both for the women and their children.

It’s not about just getting pregnant, getting knocked up. You must enjoy the process so that you become a good mother. We need to focus on trying to raise good mothers, to protect good mothers – but not to force people into prematurely becoming what they aren’t ready to be.

Yemi Alade

“I believe that we can earn what is ours. I believe that we can go for what is ours and I believe that we should just keep putting our right foot forward, keep going and not stop.

Tapping into the expectations of being a woman in the music industry, Yemi Adale says that there’s definitely a game of catch-up being played right now, because guys have been in it for so long: “They are way ahead and it seems like they’ve almost occupied everything. It’s very male-dominant, so the opportunities for women aren’t as frequent as they would be for guys,” she reflects.

With that being said, Yemi Adale has followed her own advice and found a way to pull strength from the imbalance of the music industry, instead of letting it weigh her down. 

I am no longer in the team that cries, ‘Wuh wuh the guys are taking up all the spots!I believe that we can earn what is ours. I believe that we can go for what is ours and I believe that we should just keep putting our right foot forward, keep going and not stop. I think with all that energy we definitely will get to where we want to go!

Celebrating Womanhood Through Music

Focusing on the positive and believing in what’s possible is at the core of Yemi Alade’s new album Empress. It’s a message also echoed by her recent single “True Love”; 3 minutes and 55 seconds of pure happiness, optimism and good energy to lift you up, regardless of where you are in your day. And that was exactly the purpose of the song: “I believe that everybody deserves happiness right now,” she says.

“True Love” was the sonic manifestation of seeking opportunities to become a stronger version of yourself, and despite being tired of quarantine and facing inequality everyday, Yemi Adale’s optimism about the world serves as a good reason why she’s the perfect fit for a Goodwill Ambassador. You have to believe in change in order to make it happen, and right now she’s full of hope for her home country. 

I’m hopeful for the mental liberation that’s happening in Nigeria and Africa. If you follow the news, you’ll find that there’s been a lot of protests here in Nigeria. We are the youths, we are the generation that they call millennials and say are not very balanced upstairs and that we don’t have a lot of culture. But guess what; we’re the youths that want to liberate ourselves from bad governance and there’s nothing that says ‘we are awake’ than that! So that is so much hope for me and in my heart.

Empress follows the line of empowering album titles like Mama Africa [The Diary of an African Woman] and Woman of Steel, to name a few.

For all my life, I’ve always championed and channeled the girl child to be a force to reckon with,” she says. And in her own words, Empress definitely celebrates “womanhood, being a female, being a foreigner, and winning, winning, winning and winning!

Listen to Empress here:

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