Bside sits with producer extraordinaire Sarz to discuss his foundation The Sarz Academy.
I’ll start by stating the simple fact that we cannot live forever. But that does not mean the work we do and the structures we create cannot outlive us. On everyone we come across, we leave an impression — an imprint of us that lingers in their subconscious. Our existence transcends our physical bodies.
If we’re lucky enough to get influential, that imprint is spread within and across societies. It is for this reason that you associate every Kuti with activism and musical acumen. Or why Marlian culture is closely related to freedom from societal shackles. Even the name Otedola floods your mind with thoughts of abundant wealth. In every case, distinct characters create deeper imprints, but no distinct character is formed by trying to be someone they are not.
Much like durable structures, values are not built overnight. It comes from the intentional cultivation of habits and lessons learned through experience. Adhering devoutly to these values creates an opportunity to build a sustained legacy, one which several people will (un)consciously use as a blueprint for how they live their own lives. You become a vessel they can live through, a dream to which they aspire, and several personalities across different walks of life can attest to this reality. Our focus for today, Sarz, understands this wholeheartedly.
This isn’t a piece that tells you where Sarz grew up or what made him get into music. At this stage of his career, we’re past the need for origin stories. Several years after earning his first full production credits for Lord of Ajasa’s “See Drama” in 2007, he continues to train the next generation of talent through his self-titled initiative The Sarz Academy: a non-profit organization focused on teaching upcoming music composers and execs valuable lessons about the artistry and business aspects of the music industry.
Founded in 2015, The Sarz Academy held its 3rd edition in 2022, which proved to be its biggest yet.
Several key figures in Nigeria’s music and entertainment spaces came by the camp over the month; from the legendary Sunday Are to the mercurial Teni The Entertainer. When you step into the main room, creativity is the fragrance in the air, the atmosphere being more akin to a musical showcase than a scholarly boot camp. At its core, it was a celebration of talent; one that everyone who graced the room was eager and happy to participate in.
The participants were hurled into the main room for the morning session on a warm Tuesday in September. Forming a semi-circle in front of the visitors of the day, they sat relaxed but attentive to the words of insight provided by the two representatives from the British licensing company, PRS For Music. President of the PRS, Michelle Escoffery was joined by the Relationship Manager for Black Music, Jacqueline “JPL” Pelham-Leigh. Together, they gave insight into the importance of registering intellectual property to properly protect the rights of composers. They also moderated a listening session with the participants, lending a helping hand with little tips on track arrangement, vocal execution, and songwriting.
Every song played displayed the hunger and excitement welling up from the participants’ hearts. Fueled by the muse of creativity, their music proved to be an extension of themselves. 21-year-old producer, Dartz, opened up about the circumstances surrounding his admission to the Academy. He started his journey in 2020 by making beats on a version of FL Studio he downloaded on his phone, on which he’s made over 50 beats. In 2021, he gained the attention of Grammy-nominated producer TMXO, and they soon became acquainted. “Even being here, there’s a story behind it,” he tells me. “I missed my interview because my phone was bad. I went to get my phone repaired and get a laptop so I could make the step up from making beats on my phone. I texted them back about everything, but they said it was over.” The connection with TMXO proved vital, as Dartz eventually got through the door with his help.
This hunger and creativity, although refreshing, can be preyed upon. It is easy for a creative to want to do everything necessary to feed themselves, but this can lead to improper handling of documentation and signing of “death contracts”. Every jungle has its predators, and the music business houses several wolves clad in sheep skin.
Michelle Escoffery has all the experience in this area. A singer/songwriter herself, her career spans 3 decades from 1991, becoming President at PRS For Music in January 2021. Coming to Nigeria, she says, is “a fact-finding mission. It’s to figure out what is happening with the creatives. How are they living? How are their rights being protected? As a songwriter, and as President of the PRS, it’s important for me that other creatives learn about protecting their rights and sustaining their career.”
Especially at a time when Afrobeats has taken on new strides, the globalization of African music has led creatives to be more attentive to the intricacies of their trade. “I think that Afrobeats is already world music. It’s not just a genre, it’s a way of life,” she tells me. “I’m excited about the purity of the genre coming to the masses, and the music makers being able to influence world culture, and that’s already happening with the Burna Boys, Davidos, and Wizkids. The sustainability and longevity are going come through understanding what translates into different markets.”
Sustainability only comes through a devout dedication to a growth process. Trading realness for virality is a bad deal that only leaves one with the short end of the stick. Judging by the way she styled her black Balmain top, camo-green skirt, and nails of different colors, one would be convinced that Jacqueline Pelham-Leigh knows a thing or two about keeping it real. “I think being honest in your art and telling your story, that’s what gives you a sustainable career,” she says.
“Drake does it very well: he gives you a nursery rhyme while talking his smack. He doesn’t talk about being from the hood because he’s not from there. Be real about who you are for yourself because we all live in solitude in this business, and we can get inside our heads. If you’re doing stuff you don’t love, you’re like a manufactured act.”
A combination of these factors is almost certain to build a sustainable career as a music composer. The Sarz Academy represents an opportunity to change the perspective of creative work right from Nigeria’s grassroots. As an initiative, it takes the concept of “blowing up” from the realm of a game of chance to something that feels more attainable; something that could be reached by taking certain calculated steps. Sarz, through his Academy, serves as a light that the ones after him will use to illuminate their way.
He poked his head through the kitchen door while the morning session went on. There was uncertainty as to whether he would come to the camp that day, but his appearance immediately sent a wave of relief through the people who came there to see him. An easy-going character, he’d much rather stay out of the limelight, where he can be himself without being overanalyzed. Clad in a navy-blue sleeveless cardigan without an undershirt, grey leather pants, and black sneakers, he made his way around the room catching up with visitors and participants alike. In the conversation that follows, he opens up about his motivations for the Academy, his creative process, and everything in between.
This interview is lightly edited for clarity.
Bside: The Sarz Academy, at its core, represents mentorship. What does mentorship mean to you?
Sarz: In my career so far, I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. I know how important it is to have a mentor, it makes your journey to where you desire faster. They have the experience of what needs to be done to get you there. That’s one of the reasons I started this Academy, so I can help the people after me to achieve what I have and even more, faster than I have.
It makes a lot of sense because aside from creativity and production, as we grow, having someone ahead of you who could give you valuable tips goes a long way. What are your criteria for selecting candidates for the Academy?
The selection process is personal for me. Even though it takes a lot of time, I listen to all the entries personally. I don’t know if I’m going to do that again [laughs]. It’s a lot of hard work but that’s how passionate I am about educating and mentoring. I listen to uniqueness; I listen to creativity. We also have interviews with these people to know who they are and how they think. How hungry they are and how bad they want it.
How long does it take to set up a session? These guys are here for a month but obviously, a lot of planning goes into this…
Just bring money, we’d do it [laughs].
What do you want the Sarz Academy to represent in the Nigerian music space? I was tempted to say Afrobeats but that limits your scope as you make other types of records.
This question brought a lot of answers to my head. Creativity, professionalism, and I also want it to represent growth. That’s very important for me.
What does it represent to you, then? Not even as Sarz [the producer] but as a person.
This is beyond me. It represents everything that I wish I had in the industry coming up. Everything that has been challenging for me in this region — the Afrobeats space — are things I make sure are addressed in the Academy.
The sentence, “Sarz Is Not Your Mate”, is provocative. In your career, have you felt that you compete with anyone? Or that you have to prove yourself to anyone?
To be fair, even before I started producing and I was just in love with music, especially beats; I always felt I could do it better than anyone else. I’ve always been that confident, even if at the time I probably wasn’t better than anyone else. And over the years, I’ve been able to prove that Sarz is not your mate. That’s the easiest way to put it; if you know, you know [laughs].
After counting the things God/the universe has given you, does the concept of giving back mean anything to you?
For me, it’s not a concept. It’s a way of life. Being a vessel, being a river that flows… I don’t believe in holding on to anything. It’s not even about the Academy because I’ve been doing this informally before I started the Academy. I’ve always wanted to help anyone that needs anything. If you ask any of my colleagues, I don’t hide anything. You can come to see my sessions, ask me for this and that, I’ll do anything I can.
Afrobeats is on a different plane right now, and you’re more or less one of the central figures as to why that is. But you still exist in the shadows as well. How do you find a balance with that?
I think I’m myself mostly, which isn’t camera-friendly. I don’t think I like cameras, but I also understand their importance because to certain people, you’re their everything. And this is the only avenue they have to get to know you or see you. I don’t think there’s anything special I do, I’m myself every time.
How do you experience music, and turn your feelings into sound? Because in an interview you said you’re able to mentally deconstruct beats and memorize them…
Sometimes it’s instant, sometimes it takes forever. There are beats I was only able to complete 2 years after, because there are certain feelings I was trying to interpret that proved difficult or I didn’t have the skillset for. How I do that is not something I can explain, it’s just something I do. It’s something I am.
What’s an ideal work environment for you?
An ideal work environment is being in my house and making music on my bed.
You know what? I hear you.
I hate being in the studio.
Are you serious?
I swear. I’m in the studio because I have to be in the studio. Left to me, I’d rather be in my house.
I want to talk about your style. I see the way you’re styled in videos, and you look soft. Are there other art forms, down to fashion, that you invest in other than music?
I would say I’m somewhat fashionable. I think that’s being very modest though [laughs]. But I just know how to put things together, I guess that’s part of my talent. I’m also very forward-thinking. Anything that involves putting things together, I’m great at it.
Of your three projects: I Love Girls with Trobul, LV N ATTN, and Sweetness, which was your favorite to make? And why?
I’ll say my favorite to make was I Love Girls with Trobul, and that’s because it was a bit more collaborative. We made songs from experiences and conversations. I and WurlD can just be in the room, chilling, and he’d tell me about this girl ruining his life [laughs]…
One would even realize that from the “Nobody Wins Interlude”.
Yeah. I’d be listening to him while he talks then I’d stand up and play some chords, and he’d start to sing. It feels like most of those songs on the project were made from scratch and that’s why it’s my favorite.