Asake leans back in his chair, phone glowing in the darkened studio, as Olamide hunches over his right shoulder. Suddenly, the engineer signals, and the backbone of a song swirls through the speakers while Asake begins teasing out melodies and lyrics in Yoruba, a language of his native Nigeria. The engineer cuts, rewinds and plays, and the loop once again floods the vacuum-like silence that envelops a recording studio.
Outside the room, the building is bubbling with activity and energy as artists, songwriters and engineers mill about, playing unreleased records and eating from a buffet of Nigerian food — smoked mackerel, okra soup, goat, garlic shrimp and crab — prepared by local chefs. But this is not West Africa; it’s San Francisco, at the new studio headquarters of Bay Area-based music company EMPIRE. In early March, EMPIRE was in the midst of a two-week writing camp for three of its biggest Nigerian talents: budding Afrobeats superstar Asake, his YBNL Nation label boss and Nigerian music legend/mogul Olamide and Fireboy DML, another emerging YBNL/EMPIRE artist, whose 2021 single, “Peru,” was remixed with Ed Sheeran and exploded into a global hit. “Peru” was the first song Fireboy created at EMPIRE’s studios near San Francisco’s Mission District, which the company just expanded and overhauled into a first-class, multipurpose creative hub.
The studio is now the epicenter for all that EMPIRE intends to be: a fully operational label group that can sit at the top table alongside the majors and compete at the highest levels of the global music business and beyond — TV, film, podcasts, gaming, social media, nightlife and more. And it’s currently the platform for one of EMPIRE’s biggest achievements: The company is among the foremost global distributors of Afrobeats, the umbrella term for a variety of musical genres emerging from sub-Saharan Africa, where recorded-music revenue has ballooned 34.7% year over year, according to IFPI, the fastest pace in the world.
“The music that they’re making here is, honestly, the most culturally important thing I’ve done in my entire career, and I’ve been in the music business since I was 14,” says EMPIRE founder/CEO Ghazi while walking through the space. “These guys are the kings of where they come from, and they’re about to be the kings of everywhere if we keep doing what we’re doing. It’s phenomenal to see what’s happening.”
EMPIRE’s dominance in Nigeria, in particular, is immense. On the country’s TurnTable Charts, EMPIRE ended 2022 with the top three artists (Asake, Burna Boy and BNXN), the top two songs (Kizz Daniel’s “Buga,” and Asake and Fireboy’s “Bandana”) and the top album (Asake’s Mr. Money With the Vibe), while also earning the distinctions of top label and top distributor for the year. At one point, EMPIRE artists held the top slot on the Nigeria 100 for 26 consecutive weeks, and an EMPIRE song was No. 1 for 35 weeks over the course of the year. (The song Asake recorded in San Francisco was released in April as “2:30” and became his ninth No. 1 on the Nigeria 100.) EMPIRE’s relationship with Olamide and YBNL, which began in 2016 before being formalized as a partnership in early 2020, has given it both credibility and a draw to attract artists, and has become a significant success story in the region.
“They are a major organization in Nigerian music,” says Ayomide Oriowo, co-founder/head of operations of TurnTable Charts. “After 2019, when they did the deal with Olamide, they capitalized on that and became a bigger deal. It was also at the moment when the ‘Afrobeats to the world’ [movement] was really taking off. So the timing worked for them, and it was just perfect. Word travels fast when you’re an artist — this idea of, ‘They have the power to get us here.’ ”
Now the challenge is to replicate that success elsewhere — in the Middle East/North Africa region, in the Asia-Pacific, in South America and beyond — without losing the drive and identity that Ghazi and his company have cultivated over the past 13 years.
The evening runs late — it’s past 10 p.m. — but suddenly, the room is buzzing with energy, and everyone moves into the building’s marble-floored lobby. After a beat, Ghazi brings Fireboy in to surprise him with an RIAA platinum plaque for “Peru” as the staff gather around, taking photos and popping champagne. “This is the first platinum plaque we hang on the wall here for a song that was created here — the first of many,” Ghazi says amid the jubilation.
Later, he takes a more reflective tone. “It’s like a zenith point in my life,” he says. “It brought me all the way back to my beginning: in a studio, making a record, and then taking that record and putting it into a company that was a culmination of many years; to be able to put out that record and market it, promote it, distribute it, manufacture it and create accolades and international nominations. And then that record became the record that made a bunch of other African artists say, ‘I want to go to the studio where this was made. I want to have that same experience and that same magic.’ ”
Two days later, Ghazi is sitting at a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown San Francisco near the EMPIRE offices, explaining how he built a company that credibly grew into its name.
EMPIRE’s realm is not limited to West Africa — over the past decade-plus, it has also become one of the Bay Area’s biggest and most successful homegrown music companies. Half of its nearly 200 employees are based in the city (a distinction Ghazi is particularly proud of), and it’s a significant player in the independent hip-hop scene across the United States, which provided the fertile ground from which the company was born. Having its headquarters in Ghazi’s hometown has given EMPIRE a domain of its own, along with access to the best minds in technology and media that flock to Silicon Valley.
Ghazi launched EMPIRE in 2010 as a tech-first digital distributor amid the fervor of Digital Music Industry 2.0 zeal then sweeping through the Bay. He had started working at Ingrooves in 2006, which had an office down the street; IODA, which eventually merged with The Orchard, was in the same building; farther down the hallway, two guys were building Twitter. Additionally, SoundCloud, Pandora, Rdio and Mog (which, after several iterations, morphed into what became Apple Music) all had offices in San Francisco.
Ghazi had essentially come up within the cultures of two of his home city’s best exports: first as a recording engineer turned studio owner, working with some of the legends of Bay Area hip-hop, and then building servers for computer companies in Silicon Valley.
“I’d be at my Silicon Valley job from 9 to 6, and then I would jump in the car and drive an hour through traffic straight to the studio, order pizza to the studio, then work there until three, four in the morning,” he says. “Then I would go home, take a shower, sleep like four hours and go right back to my Silicon Valley job. I would sleep in my car on lunch breaks and put my pager on vibrate so it would wake me up. Then I’d go right back to work.”
That background — a base in tech, plus deep connections to the Bay’s hip-hop scene — led him to Ingrooves, which was trying to break into the rap market. But after three years navigating the company’s bureaucracy while continuing to run a studio, Universal Music Group (UMG) bought half of Ingrooves (it now owns the company outright), and Ghazi left to form EMPIRE. Early on, he relied on his connections to make not just new releases available, but also offer rappers’ catalogs digitally, sometimes for the first time — and to get them paid monthly, rather than quarterly or not at all. The ability to move quickly, with one-off nonexclusive deals and a client-friendly front end, helped the company expand rapidly through word-of-mouth, first through the Bay, then down to Los Angeles — where EMPIRE put out indie albums by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Anderson .Paak — then to Houston and beyond.
EMPIRE truly began making its mark in 2016, when it distributed D.R.A.M.’s hit “Broccoli,” which was picked up by Atlantic Records, and the Fat Joe and Remy Ma record “All the Way Up”; both songs earned Grammy nominations. The following year, it released XXXTentacion’s debut album, 17, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has racked up 3.5 million equivalent album units in the United States, according to Luminate. Without much fanfare, the company had become a hip-hop heavyweight, filling in the gaps that the traditional industry couldn’t, or wouldn’t, serve: the up-and-coming artists who hadn’t yet caught the majors’ eyes and veteran acts who had phased out of the hit-driven system.
At the same time, the industry was shifting. Apple Music had debuted in 2015, streaming had finally begun to return the music business to growth, and EMPIRE’s flexible offering forced rival music companies, including the major-label groups, to offer deals with similar terms and services as they competed for talent. Suddenly, the label pipeline burst into a fire hose, and everyone wanted in on the nimble, flexible and global distribution model that EMPIRE had made its bread and butter. New companies like UnitedMasters, Stem and Create popped up with seed money to buy into the distribution market; labels launched distribution-first imprints (Capitol’s Priority, Republic’s Imperial); and streaming services and social media companies like SoundCloud and, briefly, Spotify began offering independent artists the ability to distribute their music through them. Before long, it seemed that almost every label had a distribution-first option, while the label groups beefed up their own offerings, flooding the zone that EMPIRE helped establish.
“Now every major has an EMPIRE quote-unquote system, where they try to implement that,” says CSH Management’s Kenny Hamilton, who has had several clients work with EMPIRE over the years. “But it’s not the same relationships; it kind of sounds like they’re just trying to find the next quick thing that they can upstream to a major system, but you’re really not doing artist development. At EMPIRE, that’s what they do. They’re patient with the artists, and if they see promise and they believe in it, then they put their all into it as well. It’s often imitated but never duplicated.”
As the industry started to shift toward the EMPIRE model, EMPIRE itself was moving toward the one used by major-label groups, incorporating A&R, marketing, PR, promotions and social media into its offerings on top of pure distribution and starting to provide label deals and joint ventures. In 2018, EMPIRE struck a nonexclusive deal with UMG to distribute select UMG artist projects; in 2019, it added a vertical to handle original content, which now includes several high-traffic Instagram accounts and a music video department, and expanded into Nashville, the United Kingdom and Europe. By 2020, EMPIRE had started a merch operation by acquiring a majority stake in Top Drawer Merch/Electric Family, then officially announced a publishing division, which had already been informally part of the company for several years. The studio technically opened in 2019, but because of the pandemic and continued expansion and renovations, it is only now becoming the one-stop content shop that Ghazi had envisioned.
“I’m a practice-makes-perfect type of person,” he says. “I always knew the intention was to be a label, but I knew I couldn’t be a label without taking a lot of shots. If you want to be a great free-throw shooter, you’ve got to take a lot of shots, find your technique and the right approach.”
The right approach, at this point, is there; the goal — a full suite of music and cultural offerings — within sight. All of which has brought the kind of attention Ghazi has instinctively shied away from over the years. The offers to sell, to divest, to assume the final form of what it means to be a Major Label in the Traditional Sense is not something he’s interested in. He owns the company outright, has it rooted in his home city and has no investors or board of directors to answer to — only his staff of 200 around the world and, most importantly, his artists. Still, the questions and offers persist.
“I would call it a tug of war,” he says. “I’ve always been a firm believer that attracting too much attention sometimes gets you off your A-game. But, I also understand the balance of, every once in a while, you’ve got to shine a spotlight on something for people to see the magic.
“It was always about autonomy; if you go to my office right now, behind my desk there’s a sign on my floor, written in Arabic. It says, ‘Freedom.’ I just always wanted the freedom to just be my own man.”
The summer of 2016 was dominated by Drake’s single “One Dance,” featuring Wizkid and Kyla, which held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for the entirety of June and July, making Wizkid the first Nigerian artist to chart on, let alone top, the tally. At the same time, EMPIRE made another subtle move, one that would pay off years later: getting into business with one of Nigeria’s biggest talents, Olamide.
Today, the 34-year-old rapper, singer, songwriter, producer and YBNL Nation founder has cemented his legacy on his native continent. For nearly 15 years, he has been a prolific artist and executive, helping shape the sounds of hip-hop and Afrobeats, and growing into one of the pillars of modern West African music while championing and boosting a number of young artists along the way, through features or label deals.
“Olamide is almost like a street hero,” says Phiona Okumu, Spotify’s head of music, sub-Saharan Africa. “It’s him understanding the best of American, Western hip-hop culture, but also understanding the grace and vibrancy of where he is from and bringing it together and making it so palatable that’s been his main influence. He’s able to spark a star, he’s able to hear a sound, and he’s able to make it go.”
By 2016, streaming services began to slowly open on the continent. IFPI didn’t even begin tracking revenue in Africa until the last few years. In 2019, South Africa ranked No. 31 among countries tracked by IFPI in recorded-music revenue, at $59.9 million; the entirety of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, lumped together, came in at No. 59, at $4.3 million. (IFPI has not released hard figures since.)
“While we were growing up in Africa, all an artist depended on was shows,” says Mobolaji Kareem, EMPIRE’s regional head of West Africa, as he stands in Studio C with YBNL Nation head of brand and talent management Alex Okeke and DJ Enimoney, Olamide’s DJ and brother. “From 2010, 2011, until 2016, all of it was free music on SoundCloud, Audiomack. We dropped things on Twitter. Streaming money started coming around maybe 2016; if Apple Music was around in 2010, we’d be doing like a billion streams right now.”
Olamide broke onto the scene in 2010, primarily as a rapper, mixing English and Yoruba, and signed to a label called Coded Tunes, through which he distributed music and made songs available as ringtones. In 2012, he left that label and launched YBNL Nation, distributing his own music through telcos, as was standard in Africa at the time, and YBNL artists through Bolaji’s Ingle Mind distribution company, which also handled music by the likes of Wizkid, Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage. Olamide signed rising artists such as Lil Kesh, Adekunle Gold and Viktoh while steadily putting out his own music and being a hands-on label executive. By 2016, Olamide was out of his telco deal and began working with Bolaji, who had started using EMPIRE’s distribution framework to expand his artists’ reach beyond Africa.
At the time, the two sides didn’t know each other. EMPIRE was distributing around 500 projects a month, and Ghazi was more focused on building its label structure than dealing with distribution; Bolaji was working through an intermediary to release his artists’ projects through the EMPIRE system. That was the state of affairs for several years until 2018 or 2019, when the numbers began to change. “The money kept getting so much every year. At some point, Ghazi just said, ‘F–k it, who is this boy from Africa? This artist that is making up to like $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a month out of Africa with no marketing, no pitch, nothing?’ ” Bolaji says. “They had to fly down.”
Ghazi remembers it a little differently. “One day, Tina [Davis, EMPIRE’s vp of A&R] runs in my office and is like, ‘Yo, there’s this dude from Africa on the phone right now, and I don’t know what he wants because he’s screaming at me. You need to help me deal with this,’ ” he recalls. “So I get on the phone, and if I remember correctly, it was like a payment issue — something went wrong with their account, we didn’t respond fast enough or whatever. We fixed it. And then right around that same time, Nima [Etminan, EMPIRE’s COO] came into my office and was like, ‘Man, I think we should go meet these people.’ ”
It was a fortuitous meeting — and a well-timed one. Ghazi and Etminan flew to Lagos, Nigeria, and met with Olamide, Bolaji and Okeke, who introduced them to the Nigerian music scene and some of its leading figures, including then-Universal Music Nigeria GM Ezegozie Eze. “Us being personally there was a big deal,” Ghazi says. “Because most people were just sending out reps or just hiring somebody locally to deal with it. We were running around all week, concert to concert, festival to festival, visiting other people’s houses; we went to Fela [Kuti]’s shrine; we were all over the place. We were learning about the country and the music infrastructure. And it was very gratifying that we were received the way we were received, like we’re family. That made me go 10 times harder.”
“Olamide didn’t come to meet EMPIRE. EMPIRE came to meet Olamide,” Bolaji stresses. “And that was how we started EMPIRE Africa, through YBNL. So one of the things I tell people is, ‘The catalog for EMPIRE Africa sits on YBNL.’ Because if YBNL wasn’t making that much money, [EMPIRE] wasn’t going to see Africa that early.”
Within months, EMPIRE had hired Bolaji and Eze to run EMPIRE Africa, an informal entity that was officially incorporated and announced in 2022, with YBNL as its centerpiece. The timing, once again, was fortuitous: After the first seeds of a breakthrough with “One Dance,” momentum had gradually built for a global Afrobeats movement, with artists like Burna Boy, Davido, Mr Eazi, Savage and Nasty C making gains on the Billboard charts year by year. But it was during the pandemic, just as EMPIRE was putting down roots in Lagos, that Afrobeats truly crossed over into the United States, with Wizkid’s “Essence,” featuring Tems, which ultimately peaked at No. 9 on the Hot 100 and ruled the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart for 27 weeks.
“When things like this happen, it’s almost like a domino effect — that sets off the labels, and they get interested and curious about who can be next in terms of what the sound is like,” says Spotify’s Okumu. “All of the major labels were in the space before EMPIRE, and all of them had the same interests, the same pursuits — they all wanted the next big African star. But EMPIRE focused on A&R, and that is incredibly important when you have an emerging genre. I feel like that was the win in the joint venture between EMPIRE and YBNL.”
It has also been reflected in the numbers. In 2021, recorded-music revenue in sub-Saharan Africa grew 9.6%, according to IFPI, with ad-supported streaming revenue up 56.4%. That number exploded in 2022, with overall revenue up 34.7% — the only region globally with growth north of 30% — taking over as the fastest-growing region for recorded-music revenue in the world. IFPI opened its first African office in mid-2020, reflecting the continent’s growing importance and potential, and all three major labels now have presences in West Africa and South Africa. In the United States, seven of the top 10 on-demand streaming songs Luminate classified under “world music” — which encompasses several African genres, as well as genres like K-pop — were by West African artists in 2022.
IFPI regional director of sub-Saharan Africa Angela Ndambuki says she expects that massive growth to continue at the same rate this year. “With the digital growth and the advances in technology and new platforms coming in, we’re able to see the labels investing even more, and their presence in the region helps drive the development of those scenes,” she says. “And that then creates a healthy music market.”
In the summer of 2021, Fireboy came to San Francisco for the first time to record in the EMPIRE studio. The young Nigerian singer had signed to YBNL in late 2018 and released his debut album, Laughter, Tears and Goosebumps, in November 2019 through YBNL/EMPIRE, then a second, Apollo, the following year. “He came to just record for a few days or a week, and we brought in three or four different producers and writers, and he wasn’t very used to having writers. He’s used to doing all his own stuff,” Davis recalls, sitting in the expansive Studio A. “So it was new for us because he hadn’t recorded here, and it was new for him because he had never been to San Francisco.”
“Peru” emerged from that session the following summer, with its lyric “I’m in San Francisco jammin’,” and almost immediately took off in Nigeria and the United Kingdom. The remix with Sheeran was released on Christmas Eve 2021, which propelled it even further. “That record was a way for us to show people that we could break a record outside of Africa and make it larger than just a record for the club and for the diaspora,” Davis says. “But what it taught the African team is that you don’t give up on a hit. I think it just opened it up for people to recognize how much we care about it, and it also gave us a bar to reach.”
EMPIRE has grown beyond its YBNL foundations in West Africa. Acts like Daniel, Wande Coal, BNXN, L.A.X., Navy Kenzo and Black Sherif on its roster are expanding the limits of the Afrobeats, amapiano, highlife, fuji and Afropop genres, among others, while the company also distributes Burna Boy in Africa. (Atlantic is Burna’s label stateside, and Warner distributes his music outside of Africa.) And Asake, who officially signed to YBNL/EMPIRE in mid-2022, lit the Afrobeats world on fire with his debut album, Mr. Money With the Vibe. Released last October, it immediately topped the Spotify and Apple Music charts, and has accrued 197.5 million streams in the United States, according to Luminate. Meanwhile, streams for Asake, Fireboy and Olamide have grown more than 500% outside of Africa on Apple Music, according to the company, which greatly over-indexes in African music streams compared with competitors.
That doesn’t mean EMPIRE has cornered the market. Wizkid, Davido, Tems and rising star Libianca are all signed to RCA in the United States; CKay is distributed by Warner in partnership with local indie label Chocolate City, while Omah Lay goes through Sire; UMG’s Virgin distributes Rema’s “Calm Down,” while Larry Jackson’s new venture, gamma, has its African distribution rights, and Def Jam just signed Gold. As the industry’s attention has shifted to opportunities on the continent, the competition has gotten fierce — but EMPIRE’s reputation has allowed it to keep building organically in the region. “EMPIRE’s a family, and all the other labels are labels,” says Okeke. “That’s the difference.”
Now EMPIRE’s task is to build upon that success and keep expanding its dominion — not an easy task in a globalized climate sagging under the weight of an increasing amount of new music every day. The company has already established an operation covering the Middle East/North Africa, bringing on Spotify’s Suhel Nafar to oversee it. It is also making inroads in South Africa and recently hired people in Tokyo to oversee efforts in the Asia-Pacific region and Brazil to begin developing a foothold in South America. In each new region, EMPIRE is looking to build on the model that worked so well in West Africa, making strategic hires based on partnerships with well-connected industry players in local markets rather than signing artists to fit a sound. And even as that old Digital Music Industry 2.0 has long since drifted away from the Bay, relocating to the likes of L.A. and New York, EMPIRE has remained in San Francisco. “We’ve plotted a lot of dots on the map, and I want to plot more dots and create more connectivity, more brainpower,” says Ghazi.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-April, Ghazi pulls over to the side of the road to explain, over the phone, the next iteration of the vision. He’s about to fly to Johannesburg, then drive to Botswana, then return to the Bay for a few days with his family before another trip down to Rio de Janeiro — around the world and back again. “When you watch those movies from 15, 20 years ago and they put a globe up on the screen and then they push a button, and all the lines fly around the globe and connect to all the different epicenters? It’s kind of like that,” he says.
Which is to say, the journey may have hit one zenith, but that has only established a new jumping-off point, a new foundation on which to build. “You’re always trying to go to greater heights, right? Man makes it to the moon, now you want to make it to Mars,” he says. “As long as we live limitless and we continue to chase ourselves rather than other people, I think that we’ll be OK. We’re already successful; this already looks like success. It’s just, how do you breed more success?”
The answer? In the studio. After the plaque presentation in March, a half-dozen A&Rs and engineers piled back into Studio C to gush over the record that Fireboy made the night before, which has a first verse; an epic, soaring hook; and a second verse left open — maybe for a stateside collaborator, or a fellow Afrobeats star, or maybe for Fireboy himself to finish off. Pop star names are tossed around, and a particular alt-R&B singer is mentioned. But one A&R stands up indignantly, voice rising above the others: “Hang on, hang on, hang on,” he says to quiet the crew before adding nearly incredulously: “Did Bob Marley get someone else to put a second verse on ‘I Shot the Sheriff’? This is all you!” The feeling is euphoric, the room is filled with laughter, the possibilities endless. The beat comes back in: rewind, cut, play, forget about the time. The vibe is here; the night is far from over.
This story will appear in the May 13, 2023, issue of Billboard.