D'banj: How tragedy shaped the career of selfless star of Afrobeats

Story highlights

  • D'banj has released three albums and is a previous winner of Artist of the Year at the MTV Africa Awards.
  • A noted philanthropist, he's consulted with Bill Gates and U2's Bono in the past

(CNN)D'banj is in a philosophical mood as he sits down to chat with CNN."You got to love the hustle, you got to love the fame, you got to love the shows. You just got to love the ups and downs," the Nigerian Afrobeats star exclaims.

A singer, harmonica-player, businessman and philanthropist, the 35-year-old is best known for his infectious 2012 hit "Oliver Twist" -- the award-winning video for the which featured a cameo from Kanye West and has been viewed 37 million times on YouTube.
    But long before fame and friendships with some of the world's biggest stars were formed, tragedy conspired to push the man born Dapo Daniel Oyebanjo towards stardom.
    D'banj was born into a military family in Kaduna State, northwest Nigeria. Seldom in one place, he moved around from one barrack to the next, idolizing the soldier's life he saw around him.
    "I grew up living in every part of Nigeria," he explains, "loving the military... I wanted to be a superhero, I'm telling you, the first black superhero.
    "Now I'm still doing the same thing. Instead of carrying the gun to save the world, I carry a microphone."
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    Dbanj originally wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and enroll in military school, but the tragic loss of his elder brother "changed my perspective," he says.
    "He was going to be a pilot," D'banj recalls, the irony not lost on him that it was a plane crash that killed his brother.
    In the aftermath of his brother's death, D'banj was going through his siblings' possessions when he came across a harmonica, his go-to instrument today.
    "I picked up the harmonica and went to school with it," he says. "Everywhere I went, anything I had, I tried to play it. That's how the love of music came."

    Don't knock the hustle

    After a stint living in London and working as a security guard, D'banj returned to Lagos in 2004. He released his debut album, "No Long Thing," a year later. Completed in two weeks, it kick-started D'banj's success.
    He won the Artist of the Year at the MTV Africa Awards in 2009 and went on to sign a major deal with Sony Music in 2012.
    "I wake up in the morning and I know that ten years ago we had no industry," he reflects.
    D'banj has three albums and an MTV Africa Artist of the Year award under his belt.
    "Ten years ago if you told your mom after school that you wanted to be a musician, she would probably report you to your pastor or your Imam, your uncles or your aunties. Then, of course, your father would beat you.
    "Today every household wants an entertainer. Every household wants a musician, a comedian."
    No stranger to an artist's need to build a brand, D'banj cites Beyonce and Jay-Z as influences, but he's aware that with such a high profile comes the responsibility to give back.
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    "I met uncle Bill Gates," he recalls. "Listening to him speaking, I just realized he is worth so much and then just helping us. I'm like 'We have to help ourselves right now.'"
    Talking to Bono on the same subject, he told the Irish artist as much, arguing that "it's time for us to help ourselves. We have what it takes."
    In 2014 Dbanj partnered with Bono's One Campaign to launch "Do Agric," calling for African governments to invest in agriculture. More than two million Africans signed the petition.
    "We can help end hunger in Africa," he argues, "without the help of any foreign bodies."
    Yet although humanitarian work is close to his heart, D'banj holds ambitions across a wide area of interests.
    The multi-award winning artist has already topped the charts and scored endorsements from Ciroc and Beats By Dre. But what he really covets, he tells CNN, is 13-and-a-half inches high, weighs eight-and-a-half pounds and is covered in gold.
    "I'm going for [an] Oscar!" he explains. The speech is already in place, and -- he hopes -- coming to a TV screen near you one day.
    "I love you all, I love you all... I want to thank my mother, I want to thank my father, and my granny... I want to tell my mother, I want to tell my father, I want to tell you, all of Africa... I want to thank you for having my back! Thank you all!"
    If there was an Oscar for ambition, D'banj would certainly be worthy of a nomination.