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There’s No One Like Nonso

Nigerian-Canadian crooner Nonso Amadi is smelling the roses on his debut album, When It Blooms. 

by Daniel McIntosh

For some musicians, the act of creating is a gift in and of itself. But others find more joy in the simple act of sharing something beautiful with the world. Nonso Amadi is firmly in the latter camp. His first recordings were in high school classrooms over 50 Cent and Lil Wayne instrumentals, just blowing off steam on a friend’s laptop using a torrented version of FruityLoops.

Sitting poised in a listening room at Universal Music Canada’s headquarters in Toronto’s Liberty Village, Amadi tells me he was shy back then. There’s remnants of it in his soft-spoken, intentional way of speaking. 

Amadi’s recent life has been a revolving door of destinationssomething true to his nature, it seems. Even as he paced his output carefully in his early career, Amadi has been fulfilling the transient nature of Black, diasporic music. He was born and raised in Lagos, tinkered with his sound during his schooling in London, and crystallized his success with his debut album in Toronto. 

Similarly, his debut, When it Blooms, is a collection of shards of genres he picked up in his childhood freestyling sessions and throughout his life. There’s glimpses of buoyant hip-hop, R&B and dancehall detours (courtesy of features Majid Jordan and BEAM, respectively), and it’s all anchored by an alté backbone. The alté genre puts a dynamic, experimental spin on Afrobeats, and When it Blooms is a considerable entry into the burgeoning movement.

Photo: Wade Hudson

The opener, “Here for It,” is a testament to Amadi’s ability to keep himself open to all of life’s joys, triumphantly disarming all haters and naysayers. Nearly every track is a memory of a new studio, a new city, a new being in a new place. On “Night in Maryland,” he draws listeners into his vision of Lagos, floating over a Fela Kuti-inflected beat. Amadi’s voice carries soul, even when he’s simply reciting spoken-word affirmations. There are additional dispatches from Donisha Prendergast, granddaughter of Bob Marley. She advises him, “Your very existence is a rebellion. Discover the earth beneath the concrete, plant the seed, then watch it bloom.” Nonso in bloom resulted in an enriching record.

Nonso sat down with RANGE ahead of his debut album, When it Blooms, to chat about growth, facing existential questions from the Marleys, and his dream collaborations.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nonso, thanks for sitting down with RANGE and congratulations on the debut album! How does it feel approaching this landmark after nearly a decade creating music?

Has it been that long? Oh my God… I can’t believe it’s been that long! It’s an amazing first album ever. The support from the team, the label, has been amazing. And the album itself is a true representation of who I am and the type of music I believe in, so it just feels good. I’m excited for people to hear it!

I know you were born and raised in Nigeria… how did you get into making music?

I got introduced by my sisters, just them having fun in the living room at night, and I’m trying to rest and enjoy myself. I’d be trying to watch cartoons or whatever, and they’re listening to Brandy and Usher. I didn’t know subconsciously that it was entering my mind, and I was enjoying it subconsciously. One day, I remember a friend brought his laptop to school, and he had a recording software called Audacity.

He had all these illegally downloaded beats, like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne. We would freestyle them. And that was like the first early contact I had with making music. So those moments shaped me into the artist that I am right now.

Were you immediately hooked after that?

It was more like a certain feeling. There was a thrill of people hearing the songs, and reacting. That made me want to do that again. It wasn’t like I was necessarily enjoying it because of music—making music at the time was a bit hectic. You had to figure out how to make a sound and figure out where to download the next illegal beats. But yeah, it was interesting those times to just like, make music at an early age.

Between that time, you took a pretty pivotal break, and stopped releasing music for a while. What was behind that decision and what did you get out of that?

It was a two-year break, and it was during COVID. That was inspired by wanting to re-strategize. As an independent musician that I was at the time, it was pretty tough having to figure out a lot of things by myself. I thought it would be nice to just take a step back, and figure out how we’re going to move forward in a way that’s healthy. During that time, I was able to find a team that I’m working with right now. And we got the deal with Universal Music Canada. I knew I had the right backing with me.

We also took a trip to Jamaica during that break, during which I met with a lady called Donisha, who’s Bob Marley’s eldest granddaughter. We spoke about the importance of music, and the power of music. She spoke about why Bob Marley made music. It wasn’t just for vibes, he was making it to be a voice for his people and represent what he believed in. 

She’s like, ‘Yo, what do you believe in?’ I realized I’m very passionate about kids, like young kids that need opportunities like I had growing up in Lagos, going to a good school or going to the UK. So I wanted to make sure that with music I’m able to give back to those young kids who need an opportunity. So we started a foundation called The Hills Foundation. We’ve been able to start building the groundwork to be able to give back to the community.

So we were doing activations in different cities—little events where we bring out the fans and community; we have fun together and then whatever proceeds we get, we give back to the same people.

I’m curious about the different cities. You came from Nigeria to the U.K. to Canada. Do you think about your music being borderless or transient, or do you have to condition your sound differently for different locales?

It’s moreso about why you’re making music. So if you’re making music to be able to get some kind of commercial success, you’re gonna need to conform in some sort of way to what’s trending in these regions you’re talking about. But if you’re making music that you believe in, this is a representation of who you are. 

So I want to live in that world of music. That’s the music that Nonso is about. No matter where I’m at, if I’m on Mars, and something is trending on Mars, I’m always gonna be making that type of music, right? I might experiment a little bit, I love to, to touch on different genres and see how I can implement certain things in my craft, but at the core of it it’s still R&B and African music together.

Listening through When it Blooms, collaboration seems to be particularly enriching for you. We see that a lot in terms of the production and the features on the album. Who are your dream collabs that you haven’t been able to tap in with yet?

This one’s easy. Wizkid, Drake, Tems, and Burna Boy. I have that list that I’m looking at every day.

For me, it’s more like, different artists pull different things out of you. The type of song that I would make with Burna Boy, I couldn’t make by myself. Burna Boy brings certain elements, certain rawness, a feeling that I can’t bring. I have certain things that are also unique to me. So it’s like there’s an excitement when you think about, well, what would that sound like? 

Even for the fans—I’m sure they must be excited to see where that will take them to. With collaborations as well. I tried to experiment, so the song we have with Majid Jordan, as much as it is R&B, I’m guessing Majid fans would have been surprised to hear something Afro-inspired. So there’s an excitement to collaborations that make you want to work towards it.

WHEN IN BLOOM (Avant Garden, 2023)

There’s also a lot of spoken word and affirmations throughout the album. You mentioned Donisha Prendergast, Bob Marley’s granddaughter, earlier. Can you walk me through how you linked up with the Marley family?

That was through my management. They’ve done a good job of just linking me with the right people that have similar visions and ecosystems to myself. We were in Jamaica, mainly for the Bob Marley Earth Day celebration, which is like a yearly celebration they do for his life. We were invited to perform. So I met Donisha and we had a great conversation. We had a tour of the Hope Road Home, which is where Bob Marley lived. She was asking me some really deep questions…I couldn’t even answer them. It was like, ‘How did that make you feel being able to see that? What do you think about Bob Marley?’ Those questions were meant to make me self-reflect and just think about, as musicians, why are we here? This music thing is cool and it comes with a lot of responsibilities. It comes with money, fame, but what is the point of it at the end of the day? I think that was what she was trying to get to. It was important and very tough. So I think that was the moment where I began to think about my why.

Do you have an answer to the “why” now?

I don’t have a full answer to the questions as of yet, but regardless of anything, we do have responsibilities as musicians. I always like to think of it like a stage. Let’s say, Spotify says you have 1.4 million listeners this month. So you’re on a stage and you have 1.4 million people listening to you right now. What are you going to do with that? Are you going to be like, ‘Everyone right here, donate one dollar each?’ It’s just doing as much as you can do while you’re in that stage in front of those many people. You know, the better for everyone, not just yourself, right?

One song that stood out immediately on When it Blooms is “Night in Maryland.” You paint such an interesting picture of life and culture in Lagos. If you could describe your perfect day in Lagos, what does that look like?

The funny thing is I’m still exploring Lagos because I grew up in a strict home, so I didn’t really get to see much of it while I was out there. But right now, you want to start with the right breakfast. You want to have your bread and akara, which is like a bean cake. So you want to start with that. And then you want to first go on your knees and pray there’s no traffic this morning, because there most likely is traffic.You’re going to head to Danfo Bistro or something like that. They serve the best early morning meal—this is after you’ve already eaten so you’re having a second breakfast right now. And then you want to link up with your guys. There’s a place called Alara, which is a really cool hangout location in Lagos, and it’s very fashionable. With the Lagos heat, you probably want to sleep it off in a cool space, so you get a nice hotel. Towards the end of the day, you could go to a nice music spot, which is the Fela Shrine. It’s a pretty cool place—Fela Kuti’s home, and they have shows every single night that people come out for. That would be a cool way to end your day.

Let’s touch on the title: What does it mean to you to bloom?

When I started making music, I was a little bit more closed off. And that just came from, like I said, my background, my upbringing in Lagos, it was pretty strict. So I grew up into this person that was closed off and shy. I tried to liken that to a seed that has to go into the ground, break apart, and go through everything it has to go through. 

But there comes a moment where with enough nutrients, this seed bursts out of the soil, and it becomes this beautiful plant. It looks beautiful, its petals are opening, and all these really cool things are happening. And I feel like we want to liken that to the stage in my career where I’m being more open, I’m learning, I’m receiving, I’m thankful. That’s a good representation of my journey in the industry. With enough light, with enough water, we were able to get to this point. And I think that’s where we got the title, because as much as we are blooming, there is still an anticipation for it, more to come. I feel like a lot of people can resonate with that feeling of…I might be going through something right now, but I’m gonna still bloom into this thing I’m looking forward to. A lot of people are in that stage in their lives.