Since bursting onto the scene as a video director and subsequently helping to mastermind Skepta’s Konnichiwa campaign, Grace Ladoja has become one of the most respected music execs in the modern game. As her Homecoming festival returns, Music Week joins her in Lagos, Nigeria to talk global expansion, Africa and the future of Black music…
WORDS: ANNA FIELDING
PHOTOS: DOM SESTO
“I can be a bridge between Nigeria and Britain, because when I look at myself, that’s who I am,” says Grace Ladoja. “It’s a personal thing, but also literally who I am as a person.”
Ladoja begins her latest interview with Music Week with a statement of ambition befitting one of the most exciting execs working in the industry today.
She is speaking to Music Week from Lagos. It’s Friday night and she should be watching the World Cup qualifier match between Nigeria and Ghana, but this isn’t a time for easy weekends. There are just weeks to go before the 2022 edition of her Homecoming festival and she’s in full prep mode. Ladoja has run the festival since its inception in 2018. Taking place in Lagos over Easter weekend, Homecoming is billed as “a cultural exchange between Africa and the world” with “three days of music, fashion, art and sports”. The first year had Wizkid, Skepta and J Hus play, among many others, with Naomi Campbell, John Boyega and Ozwald Boateng all in attendance. Homecoming’s live show operates with a playlist format: you have to be there to find out who’s playing, and the biggest acts could appear on stage at any point.
“I am always really excited and really energised by it,” she says. “But I am also only one person and there are a lot of questions, a lot of people involved and a lot of moving parts. It’s a huge undertaking.”
Ladoja, who’s based between London, LA and Lagos, has been in the Nigerian city with her baby son, Zacai, for the past few months.
“As much as I’m a London girl, I’m going to be spending a lot more time here,” she says. “And partly that’s for work, and I am loving work, but also for my son. I think it’s good for him to be here for longer stretches of time. We have such a big extended family and he’s really thriving.”
Ladoja was born in London after her mother had moved from Nigeria to Britain whilst pregnant. She grew up diving into various North London scenes, and was always creating. At just 18, she directed an advert for Nike, but her biggest successes have been in the last 10 years. In 2014 she started managing grime pioneer Skepta, and ran the campaign that saw his independently released fourth studio album Konnichiwa (223,318 sales, according to the Official Charts Company) hit No.2 in the UK charts and win the 2016 Mercury Music Prize. In 2017, Ladoja was named Rising Star at the Music Week Women In Music Awards, and in 2018 she received an MBE for services to music. More recently, in 2021, she was presented with the Entrepreneur Award at the Artist & Manager Awards. These days, she manages Nigerian producer and musician Sarz, the fashion brand Mowalola and, of course, Skepta.
“My relationship with Skepta is more of a friendship right now,” she says. “I became a parent, but he’d done that before me, so we speak a lot about our children.”
This does not, however, mean that last year’s rumours of Skepta’s retirement are true.
“He’s having a bit of a break right now,” says Ladoja. “But he’ll be back and working around the time this article comes out. He needs to do some travelling, make some music, reconnect, make things he loves.”
She won’t be drawn any further on the topic, the sense is that the announcement is for Skepta to make at the right time.
There’s also Metallic Inc, the agency she co-founded with Alex Sossah, a creative director who had previously worked in special projects for Nike. The brand became a Metallic client, as did Amazon Music, Havana Club, Fenty, and others. For Ladoja, the agency is a place to forge connections between creatives and brands, while also helping develop strategies and financial plans. Following Black Lives Matter, Ladoja and Sossah launched the Metallic Fund, issuing grants to support “promising talent of colour in the creative industries”. There’s also the Metallic Fund Fashion Design Programme, an accelerator scheme for six young designers. And there’s international expansion on the cards too: Ladoja mentions Accra, Atlanta, Paris and Miami as places that are being considered for projects.
“It’s about connecting with people who are like-minded around the world,” she says.
At the moment, in Lagos, Ladoja is busy reconnecting with people and rekindling pre-pandemic connections. It’s hard to take the measure of a scene, she says, when you’re doing it remotely.
“I feel really absorbed in everything again,” Ladoja explains. “And I feel like I know what’s happening on every level in music, art and fashion. Nigeria is, demographically, a very young country. It’s a place where things can happen, where anyone connected with youth culture can get a solid fanbase behind them. My goal is to help people see themselves as global creatives. Let’s connect, let’s amplify.”
Homecoming is playing a big part in that, a tangible connection between musicians and audiences in Nigeria and those in the diaspora.
“I used to post about everything I discovered,” says Ladoja. “But then people would start to get others messaging and they wouldn’t be at all ready to talk to a record label or whatever. So I stopped doing that. I want to do things in a much more intentional way. If you are an A&R, you come to the festival, you see first-hand and know that there are some of the best eyes and ears on the continent behind it.”
With that, we begin a lengthy dive into Ladoja’s grand plans, and her mission to forge global connections across the music business…
To begin with, tell us what motivated you to start the Homecoming event?
“I’m going to start with the educational side, which to most people seems the most boring [thing] but to me feels the most exciting and relevant. If I look at why I am doing this, it’s to give the next generation of artists or designers all the tools they need to be great and to know what they’re doing. We have amazing panels about contracts, lawyers, deals, dissecting tracks, telling people about the numbers and the sales, and how much of that goes into an artist’s pocket. I want people to be able to make informed decisions. But, for most people, the most obvious and exciting part is the live show. I love it because it’s done like a playlist. There’s no headliner, no hierarchy, anyone could be playing at any time. Our DJ, Obi, runs it, it lasts three to four hours and the artists come on and off and do their songs. There are no breaks and it’s everyone’s top songs. It’s so energising. It’s more exciting like that.”
How did you come up with the unique playlist format for the live element?
“It was about doing a show that feels surprising. I hate headline shows, where everyone just comes to see one person at the end. You miss all the magic and all the other people who have worked so hard to be part of that festival, that show. I want it to be so you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to watch the whole thing. There’s also the sonics, moving the show along, having highs and lows and everyone being on a bit of a journey. When Skepta had first been booked for some shows in Lagos, we were going out to see other people too. And something might start at 6pm, but you wouldn’t see the headliner until 3am. Then there would be VIP tables, actual tables, right at the front. I think Homecoming has been part of changing that culture.”
In the first year, you had Skepta and Wizkid involved. That’s not a bad place to start…
“We did a test where Wizkid and Skepta played a tiny show. We announced it on the day and there were queues around the block. So, four months later, we said, ‘OK, let’s do this, let’s do a real one.’ And, to be honest with you, I was really, really naive. We were just running off inspiration and wanting to bring it to life. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it and I’m not sure I could do it again now. We were literally just calling people and asking them if they wanted to do the show.”
Talking of difficult situations, how did you cope with the pandemic?
“It was crazy. I’d been travelling so much, around 17 flights in the first two months of 2020. Then everything went crazy. I felt, in many ways, that the festival was the least of my priorities. It was immediately obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. And there were such huge tragedies unfolding, bigger than anything we could have imagined. So, personally, I used that time to reset and to address some questions. Like, ‘Grace, you’ve done some great things, but what’s your retirement plan? How are you building your own economic wealth and how do you sustain things?’ We spent a lot of time going through what we were doing with Metallic and seeing what actually worked, what was fun, and so on.”
You co-founded Metallic nearly six years ago. How has the company evolved in that time?
“Metallic began as an extension of the management we were doing, having an agency supported the projects that our clients wanted to do. Now Metallic is a separate, full-blown agency. We have a studio, a GM and a set of global clients. But the agency also services Homecoming: the creative direction, brand direction, art direction and production, as well as all the people on our roster. And we’re also launching a new wing called Muse. The Muse arm of Metallic will be more about managing people in terms of strategy or for brand partnerships, less hands-on with the day-to-day.”
Skepta has been your longest managerial client. How has your relationship changed since the Konnichiwa days?
“He was actually the person who told me to take a year off for maternity leave. He was the only person [who did]. He said we would speak, but not about work. It was so refreshing for someone you work with to say that they’re prioritising you and your experience of having a child. He gave me that freedom and I really respect that. Our friendship hasn’t changed. When I first met him it felt like he was someone I already knew. We were like magnets in a completely platonic way. We have the same energy now.”
How long ago did you spot how much influence Nigeria, and Africa more widely, would have on the current music scene in the UK?
“It’s always been there. People in the diaspora were still listening to music from these places, whether that was Sunny Adé or whoever. It just wasn’t as easily available without DSPs, and it was club culture, a bit more underground. But now I’ll say that Black music in general is very much the sound of London.”
Where do you see the scene going next?
“I hope it will expand beyond trends, you know, now it’s grime, now it’s drill… I hope that all genres can co-exist without being lumped together under the umbrella of Black music. You wouldn’t say white music. You wouldn’t say that country and pop had to be together in the same space. So maybe an Afrobeats song, a drill song and an R&B song could be Nos 1, 2 and 3 in the charts.”
On the business side, is there cause for optimism in terms of the industry becoming more diverse?
“I am happy that there’s more of a mix of executives. That’s a great step one. But the industry needs an overhaul. The industry does not help and support Black artists, it exploits them. You’ve got Black executives trying to sign Black artists for peanuts, give them shitty deals, because the artists are not really educated enough to know the ins and outs of the industry, or how to even approach a lawyer. And any money might sound good at the beginning. When everything happened after George Floyd, I expected we’d start talking about making it a better industry for Black musicians, not just start to think about promoting some workers. We need to talk about ownership. That’s what the Black executives need to push them to do. How do these artists build generational wealth for their families, not get paid and then get dropped when they’re not hot anymore? But look, I’m happy some of my friends were promoted and have great jobs.”
Who are the executives out there that you really admire?
“There are a lot of people in the industry I admire. Wizkid’s manager Jada [Pollock]. Everyone said he would always be big, but that girl did everything in her power for him. To me, that’s what a music executive does. There’s Sheniece [Charway] at YouTube. Her strategy is always flawless and she’s one of the most likeable people in the industry because she’s straightforward. She’ll tell you straight up what she can and can’t do. She remembers what you’ve said to her in the past – whether that’s about Skepta or an unknown artist – and she really cares. Radha Medar is one of the most graceful executives in the industry, and one of the most talented.”
How have you found it being in the music industry as a new mother?
“I had a baby because I thought I’m not not going to do it because of work. But I’ve seen so many people wait and not do it, and who may be regretting it. We have to be the change. People need to see me with a baby, and see that it’s totally normal. I love working, a lot of women do. I work with my son until about 7pm when he goes to bed and then my day starts and I work until about 2am sometimes. But I’m not a big sleeper anyway and I do love my work, so it’s not a chore. But you cannot have an industry where people can’t have real lives. A job is a job. It might be a career, but is it your father’s business? Is it worth sacrificing your own family for? It’s slightly different for me because I’m building my own business, but this is an industry where women are not allowed to take time off for a natural life progression. And that is absolute bullshit. This wouldn’t have even been a question if I was a man, but even there you still get men who are ashamed to take paternity.”
And, finally, what do you think of the wider picture for women in the business right now?
“If we just talk about what I do and what I’m trying to achieve then it makes no difference if I’m a woman or a man, I’m Grace. Now, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t harder for women, but if I wake up every day and think about that then I’ll get nowhere. And I don’t want to get nowhere.”