In September, Ayo Animashaun found himself halfway around the world facing a pivotal moment in his career. The Nigerian entrepreneur and music executive was bringing his country’s biggest music awards show, The Headies, to the United States for the first time — and failure wasn’t an option.
The show celebrates the best of Afrobeats and African music, and after 14 successful years in the west African country, Animashaun believed it was time to go global: “(It’s) as big as it gets where we are from,” he said, explaining audiences overseas deserve to see major artists perform. “I’m scared that some of the most talented guys we have will probably never hit (the) limelight. It’s just a tip of the iceberg.”
To pull off this feat, he brought in US-based entertainment executive Ava Hall to be his co-executive producer. “This for me is history,” Animashaun said, “at every opportunity we have, we want to show some of (the artists) to the world.”
Born in Kwara State, Animashaun first discovered his passion for entertainment when he was 10 years old. Now 52, he’s spent decades working to elevate Nigeria’s music industry and empower African artists across the continent, and has become one of the most influential entertainment executives in the country.
As a teen, Animashaun remembers spending his days at the local record store. Growing up in the 1970s, his taste in music was influenced by the budding US rap scene.
“I had this big music tape recorder that I blasted. I just stopped the entire neighborhood, and they knew me as ‘that music boy,’” he said.
Animashaun soaked up everything he could learn about artists, their music, and the industry at large. What he lacked in funding he made up for in ambition and creativity: For example, he used his allowance to create a lyric book which he handed out to friends.
By the time he was 25, Animashaun turned that booklet into Hip Hop World Magazine — a weekly publication that included artist profiles, song information, and the latest music trends. “We turned it to something else that everybody wanted to see,” he said.
In 2007, the magazine expanded to television with the launch of HipTV. The cable channel grew to become a 24-hour entertainment hub broadcast in more than 40 African countries.
By this time, Afrobeats music was quickly gaining popularity and Animashaun says he felt he wanted to do more to help emerging artists. While there were other music award shows in Nigeria, Animashaun believes “they didn’t even understand how to categorize these songs.” So, he launched his own.
“We can borrow technicalities, like lights, camera angles and all, but (we) can’t borrow our culture. We can’t borrow who we truly are… It has to represent our own music, our own categories and the way we want to express ourselves to the world,” he said.
“Integrity is everything”
In 2006, Hip Hop World Magazine debuted the Hip Hop World Awards, which were later rebranded as The Headies.
A “Headie” is a 21-karat gold plated, face-shaped statuette. Animashaun conceptualized the award to be “the face of someone who wants to succeed.”
Over the years, the show expanded to include more than 35 award categories. “As music changes and evolves The Headies evolve with it,” Animashaun said.
Certain categories — including rookie of the year, best rap single and best music video — are voted on by the public, while others are picked by The Headies Academy, a jury made up of DJs, music veterans, entertainment journalists and other music executives.
“Integrity is everything,” Animashaun said. “Once you ask people to vote, you better keep your integrity intact and you have to respect the vote.”
This year, he faced a new set of challenges bringing the show to the US for the first time. From additional funding, to permits and working with different on-site crews, Animashaun said it felt like he was “relearning some of the things I thought I knew.”
Reflecting on the evening, the music executive says he was proud of the show.
“You can come from nowhere and be a global superstar with your music, and we want people to see that more,” Animashaun said. Without missing a beat, he says he’s already starting to plan next year’s show, which he hopes will be in the US again.
Watch the full African Voices episode featuring Animashaun here.