Last year, the Nigerian star Tekno heard an instrumental that reminded him of his breakout hit, “Duro.” Though the producer, Krizbeatz, was planning to send the beat elsewhere, Tekno asked to take a crack at it. “Then I went upstairs and ate the beat up,” the singer tells Billboard. “The feeling I had when I recorded that? I fell in love with my own song like it wasn’t mine.”
That single, titled “Pana,” has gone on to entrap other listeners the same way it conquered its creator, accumulating 30 million streams between YouTube and Spotify. Veterans like Trey Songz and Ludacris have posted clips of themselves listening to the song on Instagram, and “Pana” also caught the attention of Imran Majid, senior vice president of A&R at Columbia, who signed the track and re-released it in December.
Tekno’s connection with Columbia is the latest step forward in an inch-by-inch acknowledgement of the commercial viability of Nigerian pop in the U.S. Most of those steps have come via collaborations sprinkled over the last five years — P-Square and Rick Ross, D’banj and Kanye West, Davido and Meek Mill, Wizkid and Major Lazer, Wizkid and R. Kelly. Nigerian-born Ayo Jay had a minor hit with “Your Number” last year, which got some attention when Fetty Wap appeared on one remix, and Chris Brown and Kid Ink on another. The best-known recent example of a Nigerian-Western team-up is Drake‘s “One Dance,” which included Wizkid. Wizkid is now signed to RCA — also the home of Davido and Ayo Jay — with an album due out on the label this summer.
Tekno credits Davido with helping him earn recognition in Nigeria by contributing a verse to “Holiday,” which came out in 2013. (Tekno returned the favor by producing Davido’s most recent single, “If.”) After Davido hopped on the track — the producer, GospelOnDeBeatz, was a mutual acquaintance — Tekno released a few more singles aimed at club play before making “Duro.” “That was the song that got me a breakthrough,” he says. “I found my sound: connecting with the ladies. It’s more love songs now than anything else.”
A stuttering, melodic throb flows through “Duro,” carrying Tekno’s promises of eternal affection. The producer, DJ Coublon, also added walls of synthetic brass and keenly articulated, liquid guitar lines. “The whole of Africa danced to [‘Duro’],” Tekno declares. “I started traveling heavy, my fee went up, more girls, more attention. That was: he’s bad and he’s here to stay.”
With “Pana,” a few singles later, Tekno condensed “Duro”: the instrumental isn’t much more than a shivering guitar and a background riff reminiscent of the primary melody in Mobb Deep‘s “Shook Ones Pt. 2.” The drums here chatter rowdily at the end of each line, recalling the light speed hi-hats popular in American rap.
Imran Majid, who has spent four years in A&R at Columbia following stints at Republic Records and Universal Motown Record Group, first noticed the song last August. “‘Pana’ popped on to my radar through a viral video on Facebook of a couple dancing to the song on the beach,” he remembers. “I heard it, loved the song, flagged it.”
“It’s a bonus when an artist is coming out of a scene,” Majid adds. “There’s a network of great artists coming out of West Africa, and this music travels very quickly in the U.S., in Canada, in the U.K., throughout Europe.”
“Pana” has slowly but surely crept into American listeners’ consciousness. “You have an audience here that already know the record through the club scene — mixers, DJs,” Majid explains. “Streaming helps because you don’t have to dig, it’s much easier to access. You already have a base, and that helps spread the word of mouth until the mainstream gets it.”
At that point, there’s the possibility of trying to boost the single with a feature or a remix by an artist more familiar to American audiences. “But we have to lead with the song as is,” Majid says. “That’s what you want the people to discover.”
The end of winter is a positive sign for “Pana,” too. “Warm weather favors records like this,” Majid continues. “It’s good timing to start it in the mix-show scenes in the cooler months and then take it to the next level come spring and into the summer.”
As Columbia works to raise the profile of Tekno stateside, the singer continues to release hits back home. “The luxury that we have is his team is so strong in the African market that they can start other records there,” Majid says. “For them, ‘Pana’ is an old record; they go onto the next one. We can focus on ‘Pana.'”
This suits Tekno, who has subsequently enjoyed success in Nigeria with “Diana” and “Rara.” “I’m currently shooting the video for ‘Yawa,'” he says. [That clip came out last week.] “It’s gonna be the No. 1 song — until I put out another song.”