Phnom Penh’s nascent African music scene is undergoing an expansion, insiders say. Behind and in front of the curtains, Nigerians are leading the rise
The music video opens with a posse of flamboyantly dressed Africans on crotch-rockets, riding two to a motorcycle down a narrow alley. A waggish, bouncy groove sets the tone.
The sun is shining, the walls are covered in bright graffiti, and the crowds bopping along with the performers are almost all black. This could be a hip backstreet in Lagos, Nigeria’s cultural hub, but it’s not – it’s Boeung Kak, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
For Nigerian dancehall group RFM Nation (“Rich Forever Music”), the video released on Halloween is a landmark. Made for their single Attenshun, they say it is the first music video by an African music group to be shot in the Kingdom.
They are proud to be ahead of the game. RFM Nation – made up of performers Lil Krum, Arranged and their producer-cum-manager, Trapp Godzilla – is one of about eight African music acts based in Cambodia, according to Harry Spice, a Nigerian entertainer and blogger.
Spice, who has been in the Kingdom since 2013, said the scene of DJs and vocalists was still small compared to those in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, but it was growing.
“I want to put Cambodia on the map,” he announced enthusiastically last week at a Phnom Penh cafe.
In the past two years, Spice said, the scene had moved from house parties to glitzy, multi-performer shows at some of Phnom Penh’s biggest venues, with audiences sometimes in the hundreds.
It is a growth that has paralleled the rising popularity of Nigerian music worldwide, which has resulted in – as any Nigerian performer here is quick to tell you – Nigerian collaborations with such international megastars as Drake, Snoop Dogg and T-Pain.
Here in Cambodia, Spice’s blog Alascospice.com is a guide to African entertainment in Phnom Penh, with profiles and behind-the-scenes photos of local acts such as DJ Proff, Blazeal, Nnarico and the aforementioned Lil Krum and Arranged.
One way to boost the local African scene, Spice said, was by bringing big names from the motherland to the Kingdom. Musicians who have already made the 11,000-kilometre trek to perform here include Kiss Daniel, a 21-year-old chart-topping Afropop singer, and RuffCoin, another Nigerian grandee.
Ask Spice, or anyone else in the Phnom Penh scene, who is making things happen for African musicians in Cambodia and there’s one name that crops up repeatedly: Mohammed Alfa, a Nigerian promoter. Described by one local DJ as a “big baller in the game”, he calls himself “one of the renowned Nigerian promoters in the diaspora”.
A lumbering man with a booming voice, Alfa is music manager for Rock Entertainment Centre, the multi-million dollar Monivong Boulevard entertainment complex run by oknha Kith Thieng and owned by the omnipresent Royal Group.
With its long, mirrored hallways, giant dancehall and expensive KTV (some rooms cost nearly $1,000), Rock is described by many Nigerian performers as the premier venue for African music in Cambodia.
Before relocating here in 2014, Alfa promoted African acts across Africa, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia.
“I was a pioneer of African entertainment in Southeast Asia,” he said. The last show he promoted in Malaysia, a performance by Nigerian songwriter Wizkid, had more than 6,000 attendees, he said. Another, the last he put together before coming to Cambodia, was on a beach in Liberia. It had 45,000 in the audience, he said.
Alfa said that he sensed potential in the Cambodian market and came to take the Kingdom’s African entertainment “to the next level”. But to do that required getting the word out about Cambodia – a place most Africans knew little about.
“I want Africans to see that there are Africans living in Cambodia,” said the promoter last week in his flamboyantly patterned office at the Rock club. “We have Africans married to Cambodians. We have African-Cambodian kids. For those people who live here, it’s home.”
One way of doing that, he said, was to bring big-status artists from back home to Phnom Penh – it was Alfa who lured in Kiss Daniel and RuffCoin to play at Rock.
While those involved prefer to label the scene “African”, almost all come from Nigeria. Nigerians make up the vast majority of Africans in Cambodia, according to Austin Koledoye, president of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization (NIDO).
Koledoye said there were “between 100 and 200” registered with NIDO, though the real number of Nigerians living in Cambodia was likely far larger as registration in the organisation was not obligatory.
Nigerian singer Blazeal (“blaze” plus “zeal”) – his first name is Christsaintus; his last name he wouldn’t reveal – moved to Cambodia, like many Nigerian musicians here, for a money-making opportunity unrelated to music.
The 31-year-old grew up in a “ghetto” in Lagos where “in any building ... if you didn’t see a football player, you saw a musician”. He worked as a machine operator at a factory that turned recyclables into bags. Money was always tight.
Five years ago, his brother-in-law, who lived in Phnom Penh exporting clothes back to Nigeria, invited Blazeal to join him, but Blazeal was left to fend for himself when the brother-in-law took his business to Thailand. “It was very, very difficult, very hard,” said the performer last week, fashionably dressed, hard-muscled and bearded.
Blazeal turned to music, a lifelong passion. He had already recorded a single back in Lagos in 2009 called Party Along, and after some initial difficulty he managed to land a few gigs. Gradually, more came.
He performed sporadically, once at Score Bar, then Rock, then Loby, bringing the backing track for Party Along on a USB stick, along with other grooves that he danced and ad-libbed over. Other Nigerians helped him out financially when he needed it, he said.
On top of the financial struggles to make a living faced by all musicians, Africans in the Kingdom say they have to deal with racism, too. Often labelled as drug dealers or troublemakers, some report difficulty in finding employment and acquiring work permits.
Blazeal said that about a year ago a neighbour refused to let her child play with his daughter, whose mother is Khmer.
“Don’t talk with her,” the neighbour said. “She’s Nigerian.”
Eventually, outside support for his entertainment career came in the form of a few sponsorships from local Nigerian businesses and a social media marketing specialist from Australia named Tara Rose, who manages his image, she said, “without charge”.
The softly spoken Blazeal is perhaps the most energetic of all the local Nigerian performers. On stage, he is a fireball. A live recording shot at Rock shows him in full force, darting back and forth across the stage, whooping into the mic while jigging intermittently with girls pulled from the audience. “I bring out myself full-time for music,” he said.
According to many African musicians here, theatrics are particularly important when performing in front of Phnom Penh’s multicultural audiences, which are generally a mix of Africans and other foreigners and Cambodians.
“Most of the audience out here don’t really hear what we’re saying because they don’t really understand our Nigerian pidgin, so I think we also put in extra work on stage to help them feel what we’re doing,” said RFM Nation’s Lil Krum.
All of the musicians interviewed said that their target audience was not just Africans, but Cambodians. Future collaborations with Cambodian artists were frequently mentioned, though no groups had anything concrete in the works.
Last week, over cups of boba tea at Aeon Mall, RFM Nation spoke of why they came to the Kingdom.
Arranged wore a tie-dyed bucket hat, with two teardrop tattoos and a small cross inked between his eyebrows.
Beside him sat the rest of the Rich Forever crew: Lil Krum (also his cousin) and Godzilla, whose flat-brim hat read “Multi-Millionaire”. Though Trapp Godzilla has been here since 2013, the cousins arrived less than a year ago.
In contrast to Blazeal, the performers said they came to Cambodia strictly for the music scene and the opportunities it afforded. Phnom Penh was a place where they knew they could find gigs.
“We get good audiences here,” said Lil Krum.
Their time here, they said, was merely an extended stop on their “world tour”, which would eventually include trips to Vietnam, India, Europe and the US, though they did not know when they would leave.
It didn’t seem like it would be soon – the group is currently in the process of shooting another music video as well as recording an album. The record was a gesture of gratitude, they said.
“Before we leave Cambodia, we’re gonna drop an album for them,” said Arranged, before sipping his boba. Lil Krum reached over and adjusted his ruffled collar.
“We’re gonna call it ‘Kingdom of Wonder’.”