Oladunni Lawal understands her relevance in the Nigerian music industry, so her parting shot as we ended the interview was: “I want this story to inspire young girls to be whatever they want to be”.
For the most part of our discussion, Oladunni, popularly known by her stage name ‘Dunnie’ sounded more like an excited superhero than the talented producer, songwriter and singer that she is.
As a JSS 3 student over a decade ago, she used to walk around, humming beats and drumming on surfaces to express sounds ringing in her head.
But when she got much older and wanted to make beats professionally, she discovered that music production in Nigeria appeared to be a gendered-profession. And chasing her passion means she would most likely be trailblazing as the first female producer in the country.
“When I wanted to be a producer, I could not find any woman to look up to,” Dunnie recalls. “So I thought it was impossible at some point but I took it upon myself to teach myself.”
“For a guy who wants to be a producer; you have a Sarz, Masterkraft to look up to but for the women, they do not have many women to look up to.”
Despite being an outlier, Dunnie took the bull by the horns. Today, she has already bagged production credits with some of the big names in the industry: Sean Tizzle, Yemi Alade, Wande Coal, Busiswa from South Africa, Focalistic, Becca from Ghana, Niniola, Sarz, Oxlade, Buju to name a few.
To add to her success, Dunnie has also found credibility as an artist. She has two Extended Plays (EP) – Seven in 2018 and Four in 2020. She recently released her 2021 lead single – Mosafejo, currently making waves.
In this profile interview, Dunnie talks about getting into production, her music philosophy, and why you should call her a unicorn.
I am very unusual with everything I do. Right now, you cannot categorise me because there is no human in the industry doing what I am doing now.
I am producing commercially, writing and making music. I feel like I am a unicorn in the industry, the first of my type.
Tell me about your background and your growing up moments
My childhood was boring because I was the last child of the family. My immediate elder sister is like 13 years older than I am so by the time I was in primary school, she was already in the university and I was alone at home.
My childhood was bittersweet. Bitter in the sense that I was alone for a long time and sweet in the sense that when you spend time alone, you will have a strong sense of being early in life. You are more retrospective; you think a lot. You understand yourself better and discover things that make you happy.
One of the things that made me happy was listening to music, watching the tv and just getting lost in the idea that even though I do not have people to play with at home, I can just be myself in different ways.
Along the line, I picked up the drum as a form of distraction. My mother went to dump me in the children’s choir so that I would stop crying that I was lonely.
Also, we moved a lot. I went to about 4 different secondary schools. It also helped me adapt early in life because you know when you go to a new school, you are like an outcast for a while before you start making friends. So it made it easy to relate with people because, by the time I got to my fourth school, I became a master at making friends easily.
What state were you born in?
I was born in Ibadan, hence the song – Mosafejo.
So I can call you an Ibadan babe
Not really because Ibadan did not really form my character. I was in primary school for most parts in Ibadan; I was less than 10-year-old then. We then moved to Lagos state, and I did my secondary school in Lagos at about 19 years. So I can say Lagos state shaped my mindset.
After Lagos, I moved to Abuja and I think Abuja had more impact on me, especially music-wise.
You said you were dumped at the choir as a form of boredom filler, what did you think you would be while growing up?
I had different phases. I think I started out wanting to become a pastor because my mum really loved pastors. Eventually, I realised that was not going to work for me so at some point I changed and said I wanted to become a banker.
Then I tried to aim for medicine because that was the coolest thing to say. Then after a while, I realised that was unrealistic. All these are primary school dreams.
It was when I got to secondary school that my love for entertainment reared its head. I wanted to become a disc jockey so bad that DJ was my nickname. Unfortunately, I could not achieve the dream as the person I saw said I would follow him to night parties, but I was young then.
I also wanted to become a footballer, but that did not happen too because after a while I realised it was unrealistic, as I was a dead footballer.
What position did you play?
I was a striker, number 10. Initially, I used to think I had skills until my school played against another team. Those girls were so good that they made me rethink my footballing dream.
But music has always been there because of my presence in the church. I only never thought I could choose it as a career until I got an opportunity in Abuja.
I would always hang around with my friends in the studio. I had friends who were producing back then. So one day in the studio, an artist said he needed a song, and I told him I would write a song for him if he could buy me a phone. He agreed and I wrote the song for him. He liked the song and then bought the phone.
That was the first time it clicked that there is money in this music thing. That songwriting led me to the music industry. I had just finished secondary school, and I was even yet to collect my WASSCE result when we did that deal.
The phone was a Blackberry
Where did you learn songwriting?
It was self-taught. We changed churches across Lagos and Abuja. When we moved to Lagos, I became a drummer out of necessity because there was no drummer in our church.
We changed church again, then I learnt how to play the keyboard and guitar. There is something about the guitar that makes you learn songwriting naturally. When you play the guitar, you are playing chords, and you want to sing to the chords you are playing. So I gave myself an assignment that I would write one song per day.
I have been writing songs before I even recorded songs.
What specific moment made you think you want to start producing songs?
I think it was when I was in JSS 3. I would just be walking around and making sounds and beats in my head. But I was not in the right environment to explore the intuition so I did not know how to start it.
There was no specific moment, it was just a series of events of me making beats in my head and looking for how to express and not finding it. All these moments led into one and I finally got a laptop and started making beats.
How did starting out in the church shape your musical career?
What it does is make me versatile. Apart from the instruments I learnt to play in church, I was also in a choir. So for the most part of my life, I have always been a chorister at different choirs and they were doing different things.
In some, they were doing the tungba gospel-style while some others were doing the contemporary style. So it opened my musical palette and now, there is nothing I cannot write as a songwriter and there is no music that I cannot produce.
There are some producers who cannot produce from scratch with artists because they are just beat makers. But because of this background, I will make a fire if you dump me with an artist and we have no material to work with initially.
You alternate between singing and producing, what are the skills required in both?
First of all, it is a function of mindset. There are some singers who cannot produce because production is beyond sitting down in front of a computer and putting sounds together. It requires putting together different elements to make a song (that is, production).
Production is a combination of you having the talent to put sound together and having the skills to bring out those sounds in your head and make it a reality.
You have an interesting musical career as an artist, songwriter and producer, tell me about this mix
It has been an interesting rollercoaster because I started as a producer; it did not work out. I then ventured into songwriting but it had minimal success. Then I became an artist and later started producing again.
It has been an interesting dabble into different things but I see that it is a function of me evolving as a human being. Before completing my education at the University of Abuja, we were not really pushing the artist side. I was just in Abuja doing covers and performing at different shows. My team and I did not really put out a single that we would promote until I moved to Lagos in 2018.
2018 was when I produced Pempe for Sean Tizzle. But up until that, it has been a lot of trial and error as combining education with music was difficult. School had to come in first.
I am an unusual human being.
Almost everyone says they are unusual
My own is different. I am very unusual with everything I do. Right now, you cannot categorise me because there is no human in the industry doing what I am doing now.
I am producing commercially, writing and making music. I feel like I am a unicorn in the industry, the first of my type.
Everyone is unique in their way like you rightly said but I feel unusual is the best way to describe me.
A roll call of your projects
So far, I dropped an EP called Seven in 2018 and then I dropped another EP called Four last year. That makes it 2 projects so far. Then there is Overdose with Oxlade in 2020 and now, Mosafejo in 2021.
Sean Tizzle’s Pempe was the first song I produced in Lagos. I have worked with Yemi Alade, Wande Coal, Busiswa from South Africa, Focalistic, Becca from Ghana, Niniola, Sarz, Oxlade, Buju and many others.
What should we expect from you?
More music, I feel I have not been dropping a lot of music as I should but we have fixed that. So a project is coming very soon. Between now and next year, two projects and a lot of projects I have written and produced are coming.
Many top artists today did not complete their university education. And looking at their career trajectory, university rightly looked like a distraction. If you rewind time, would you have completed your sociology degree?
To be honest, if I had the opportunity to be signed before I got into the university, I would choose to be signed. It would not have been easy but I would have chosen to be signed and figure out the education later,
But from the very first day in my class, I learnt things from school that shaped my life. And this is partly thanks to the course I studied – sociology. The lessons learnt in school reflect the way I handle my business and the way I relate with people in the industry.
I do not regret going to school but I feel maybe if I had started in the industry earlier, things would have worked faster for me. However, I know I am destined to go to school because music is just a part of me. It is just an expression of the human being that I am.
So for me, there are so many things that I would achieve generally as a human being such that if I do not go to school, I would not have had a great foundation. I know that is why God did not give me the opportunity to be signed before going to school.
Who are the top three female producers in Nigeria?
There is me, Saszy and Milakeyz.
We have a number of female producers but the problem is that they are not getting placements. So you would not know them. But I feel the more placements they get, the more opportunities they get to produce for bigger artists, the more people will pay attention to women doing that.
Nigeria’s music industry is huge, yet there is a dearth of female music producers. Do you find this worrying?
I don’t think we have an issue. It is just a numbers game. It is the same way they say we have more blown male artists than female artists. It is just the fundamental numbers game. I was a judge at a reality show some time ago, and 80 percent of the contestants were guys.
So the question is, how many women are actually interested in production.
So if you have about 100 people interested in music production, 90-95 of them will be guys while the remaining are women. Even if 100 per cent of the women succeed and just 10 per cent of the men succeed, the men would still outnumber the women. So that is why I feel to empower women in the music industry, you have to be intentional because the numbers don’t match.
You have to say, I want a woman to do something here and you put a woman on. You do this for at least inclusion sake. That is why I partner with an NGO called Audio Girl Africa because I noticed this as a fundamental issue.
In a book I once read, they asked students in the university if they thought they would ever be the President of America. Only the men raised their hands. The women did not think it was possible for a woman to become President because they have never seen a woman become president in their life.
So what I do with the NGO is that we go to secondary schools, meet with young girls within the age of 13 to 19 and we tell them that it is possible to be music producers, DJ or whatever they want to be. We tell them not to fret because they can’t find any woman doing what they want to do.
I remember I had that problem too when I wanted to be a producer, I couldn’t find any woman to look up to so I thought it was impossible at some point but I took it upon myself to teach myself.
We have a fundamental issue because for a guy who wants to be a producer; you have a Sarz, Masterkraft to look up to but for the women, they do not have many women to look up to.
So that is what we want to do with the Audio Girl Africa. We want to correct the mindset of women so hopefully in the next five years, we would have way more female producers than we have now.
Artists that inspire you?
Beyonce is my mummy. She inspires me beyond the music and I am in awe of the way she does her things on her terms.
She charts her own course and has an eye for excellence. I really love her business acumen.
For production, I feel like Kanye West was the one who made me say I want to produce. He is a genius.
I am a fan of any Nigerian artist or producer that succeeds because I know it is not easy to succeed. I respect Yemi Alade a lot; I love Tiwa Savage a lot. I love Kemi Adetiba. I am inspired by their work ethic.
Most embarrassing moment ever since I have been in the industry
I don’t really have an embarrassing moment, probably because I am shameless. The only embarrassing moment I can remember was probably my first time performing in JSS 2.
I was playing the drums on our prize-giving day. I did not know that they did not set the seat of the drums well. So I just fell on the stage and my skirt tore. Everyone laughed at me and it was very embarrassing.
You say you are the first of your kind, what is that status you want to achieve?
I just want to express myself through my music both locally and internationally. But, am I looking for a Justin Bieber feature? No.
Because as much as I am excited about Afrobeats going global, I feel like it is another form of colonisation. But that is music because even in Nigeria, we borrowed every music genre except indigenous Fuji and Apala. The High Life is borrowed, Afrobeats is not our own.
So it is inevitable that they might take Afrobeats from us and change it from us. I just want my music to find expression.
One thing about creatives is that you live beyond your years. Fela died years ago, I did not meet him or Michael Jackson when they were popping but their legacy still lives on. So anytime I think about music, I think of the future when I am gone. So it is essential that I put in my best because it is about the legacy I leave behind.
Message to fans and supporters
Special love and appreciation because I feel I am one of those artists who is made through word of mouth of their fan base so I am grateful for the love.
I know people complain about the low music output but plenty more music is coming from now on.