“Just a quick disclaimer, I do not want to be a singer, I’m not trying to be a singer,” smiles Florence Otedola, aka Cuppy. She’s in the Pulse Nigeria studio to talk about her new record, ‘Green light’, a mellow Highlife record which features Tekno, who jointly wrote and produced it with her.
It’s the type of melodic record that sits comfortably on the playlist of DJs in the Lagos dance circuit. It has been crafted from the ‘Pon pon’ sound trend that dominated Nigerian pop music in 2017, which of course makes it very easy to talk about. “Everyone says the sound comes and goes,” Cuppy shares, “But I feel like it’s a subgenre of its own. When we talk about sounds, it’s the West African Universal sound. You can hear it in Ghana and Nigeria. Tekno is very familiar with that formation, and it’s a great song.”
At 24, Cuppy is still discovering her powers as a talented creative who wants to commercialise her passion and talent in music. She’s exploring a new part of her desire to generate value and refers to owning original music now as “me saying to myself that I am finally ready to go for it. I have been on this road for a while, and going steady, and obeying the traffic lights.”
Cuppy has been DJ-ing in different cities across the world from 18 years old. The daughter of Nigerian oil tycoon and billionaire, Femi Otedola, she has experienced sound cultures around the world and recently concluded an internship at JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. This shows in her understanding of music, as underneath all of that celebrity lifestyle and charm, there’s a young woman who understands the science behind the music. She comes across as smart, and academic when she talks about records. “When I was working with Tekno who is very musical, we were talking about how certain songs work and others don’t.” She teaches, looking into the camera with eyes bright with excitement and passion. “When you create a record, there are certain frequencies that match up with each other and create a harmony.”
Cuppy first announced her African mainstream aspiration in 2014, when she launched her company, Red Velvet Music Group. Through the firm, she released her first compilation mix, called “House of Cuppy” in Lagos and London. “House was a genre I was in love with mainly because I lived abroad for so long. I left Nigeria when I was 13 years old, and I got influenced by a lot of music outside.” She has since followed with another mix and toured selected African countries to spread the music and her brand. But at the moment, she is chasing ‘Neo Afrobeats’ her new sound. “I’m still working on my genre of Neo-Afrobeats, still trying to figure what the heck that is,” she shrugs. “I still feel like there’s this sound I’m going to find; this fusion of Afrobeats and Tropical House. I did a few remixes trying to find that Sound. I’m almost there, but I’m still figuring that out.”
In January 2015, Cuppy was featured on the cover of the Guardian Life to celebrate a new generation of African women. In March 2015, Cuppy was named the official DJ for the 2015 Oil Barons Charity in Dubai and became the first African act to have ever performed at the event. She was featured in the 2015 April/May issue of Forbes Woman Africa. Later that year she interned at Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. In interviews, DJ Cuppy describes her sound as “Neo-Afrobeats” which is a fusion of Electro house and Afrobeats.
But that has changed. At the moment, she prefers to make broaden her skills and take risks with the music. “I needed to switch things up,” she says, with honest. “I’m turning 25 soon, and I’m in a place where I am really comfortable in my skin, I’m not apologetic for who I am. I think I’m good at what I do, and I love what I do, so I’m willing to take more risks.” She says she is growing with a renewed sense of purpose for her craft. “Being my father’s daughter, and entering this market at around 18 and 19, I was very careful, and I didn’t take risks,” She says. “I had fun, but there was a lot of cushioning around me. As I’m becoming more of an adult, I’m willing to take my own decisions. ‘Green light’ was a huge risk but I could not be more proud.”
One of the criticism of Cuppy’s craft over the years has been her inability to find the sweet spot between with her local fans and foreign influences. Although she heavily brands herself and makes the right moves, there was no real connection in her artistry. She felt that lack of potency too. “For a long time I couldn’t find my sound,” she confesses. “I was DJing but people weren’t understanding my narrative, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with fans. It was just like Cuppy was just Cuppy, but there was no music behind her. I’m so excited I’m in a place where I can actually express myself, and I feel like my artistry is just literally about to come out. Whether through singing or changing my set, I’m really coming outside my shell.”
Making her new song with Tekno was tasking. The Nigerian superstar is a personal favourite of Cuppy, and she regards him highly. After connecting in Lagos, they set out to create organic music that reflected her desires for more inclusion. “We didn’t really go planning to make a particular song. The whole time, it was just me and Tekno, and we literally wrote, recorded and produced the whole record together. It was the most organic thing I have ever done. There was no pen and paper, just vibes.” Cuppy and Tekno recorded for over three months, having creative sessions in three different countries, to create the single, and for the first time, she contributed vocals to the song, although sparingly. “I was so scared and frightened. I told Tekno that I don’t want my voice on the song. Tekno was like ‘Cuppy, your voice sounds like Okra’. I’m not saying he forced me, but when you have someone like Tekno telling you that you are talented, how are you not gonna have confidence?”
A singing Cuppy took the industry by surprise. No one expected this DJ to make the switch so fast. Across social media platforms, there are conversations about her artistry, with questions about where she is taking her music, her brand and her talents. “Maybe my next song I will sing more, I don’t know,” she teases and breaks into a small laugh. “People have said my voice isn’t that bad. Just a quick disclaimer; I do not want to be a singer, I’m not trying to be a singer. I don’t think I have a good voice. I just love what I do and I love music. I happen to vocalise on ‘Green light’. I’m glad people like it, but I’m not trying to go from being a DJ to a singer. DJing is a priority for me.
Look at people like Calvin Harris who sings a lot of his songs. You would never catch him on a stage with a mic. He is still behind the decks. DJing is still my first love.”
Cuppy is promoting the single ‘Green light’. She already has several records with Tekno and is speculating about planned collaborations. Nothing is clear to her yet, but she understands where her brand needs to be, and what she wants to gain in the process. I urge her to work with more artists, mentioning some names. But she didn’t budge. “A lot of artists send us DJ songs. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be part of the process. I wanted to influence it and see the whole process. I would say most songs that you hear from DJs are probably artist songs, and they just hand it over. I vowed that I would never do that. I wanted to be part of the whole process.”