There’s an air of excitement gradually circling around Lady Donli’s name – it’s not yet springtime in her career, far from it, but the young singer is well on course to complete her floral musical cycle.

Industry heads are buzzing around her like bees in a flower garden, while more and more fans are spreading her music around the internet like pollen. Lady Donli season is coming, it’s only a matter of when and not if. The singer’s music will unfurl like a petal, she’ll be in full bloom and the world will be able to behold her precious talent.

Lady Donli is a Nigerian neo soul artist currently studying law in the UK, but still managing to gain recognition back home. Combining the rigors of schoolwork with the long hours she puts into developing her craft hasn’t been easy but ever since she made the decision to go into music 5 years ago, the singer hasn’t looked back.

Donli recently released her newest EP Wallflower, about a year after her first official EP What is Perfect?. She released the 7-track project toward the end of 2016. A wallflower is a shy, socially awkward person who keeps to themselves at a party or a social gathering, this EP signified the blooming of that wallflower in many ways.

Donli has become one of the more prominent artists of the “SoundCloud” generation but she was putting out music long before the free streaming service became ‘cool’. Donli recalls uploading her music to file sharing sites like HulkShare several years ago and sharing the links with family and friends. One of those songs “Mr. Creeper” ended up on Abuja radio and gave the singer a buzz around the city where she spent a significant part of her childhood.

Donli was just 15 when she wrote “Mr. Creeper”, a song about a serial philanderer, she was exposed to music very early. The precocious talent tells me about how her elder brother, Dolla Sign of the legendary hip-hop crew KD World Records, was an influence and just by having him and veterans like Terry tha Rapman and Pherowshuz around the house at an early age, she initially wanted to become a rapper too!

But thankfully, the soft-spoken singer found her singing voice when she got into secondary school. Even before that, she discovered an artist in the inimitable Erykah Badu who she could draw inspiration from. Donli talks about Erykah with great reverence, gleaming about how much her debut album Baduizm meant and still means to her – even though the project is almost as old as she is – and that’s how our conversation began:

How important was Erykah Badu’s music to you?

The first time I listened to an Erykah Badu song I was probably like 5 or 6 or something. I was just fascinated by the sound of her voice, because it was nothing like I’d ever heard before. She makes me know the kinds of things I can do with my voice because I have a strange voice. I have various ranges to my voice but the predominant one, I think is an unconventional voice and she just shows how to use my unconventional voice. I used to listen to Jill Scott, Macy Gray and Lauryn Hill but Erykah’s voice – there’s just something about it. She’s my greatest inspiration musically, I have a lot of respect for her and her style, and her identity as well because she’s a very weird person. I’d like to think that I’m not weird but not conventional in the way I do things.

You first started out as a rapper, would you say you’ve found your voice and your style as a neo soul artist?

Definitely not! Music is one big experiment [for me]. Wallflower was also a big experiment because I put out a song called “Free?” before I released the project and it was different from what I was doing before because I was doing more slow/mid-tempo music – but it worked. It inspired me to want to make music that was a bit uptempo but is still ‘me’. I have a single coming out next month, it’s a departure from what I was doing on Wallflower but still stays true to me. I’ve been listening to rock music, more Afrocentric music – like jazz. I like Nina Simone. I’m just trying to dabble about and maybe someday I will find my sound.

Speaking of Nina Simone, is that reason why you called your guitar Nina?

Yes, actually.

I’m actually just learning to play the guitar but I’m very musical, in the sense that if I’m making a song with a producer, I can say this is what I want, this is the sound I want but I feel like learning an instrument will make a lot of sense, so I’ve been practising.

Being that Nina Simone is one of your inspirations, did you get your inspiration for feminism and being an ‘unrepentant’ feminist from her?

My feminism is from growing up and seeing so many strong women around me – my mom is a very strong woman and I’ve seen her achieve a lot. *Sighs* She’s a successful strong woman, I’d like to think that she is a feminist. So, just seeing her. And I’m a law student, so I’m very aware of my rights and the things going on around me. I’m a leader in my Student Union also, I think it’s very important. It [feminism] is just about wanting to empower myself and wanting to empower all the women around me who I see being subjected to less because… that’s going to enter into a whole new conversation. *Laughs*

In your music you have songs about your father and coming from a large family and things like that. You talk about real people, do the people you sing about in your music give you feedback?

My family listens to my music, it’s mostly a positive reception. I don’t think they listen deeply to what I’m saying, specifically, as opposed to just listening to the quality of the music and enjoying it. A lot of people listen to the music and they are just vibing to the song and then one day they listen or read the lyrics and are like wow, this song is really sad. Maybe people that are close to me are like, oh Zainab, you’re exaggerating the story. *Laughs* And they’re laughing because they know me.

You do share a lot about your life. Does it ever bother you that you might be too open or that you’re being too honest?

People think I say a lot – I don’t. I share some parts of my life and then look at someone else and share a part of their life or something else and just put it all together. But because people want to think that I’m expressing myself to the fullest, like I’m being 100% honest, they think what they think. Wallflower, to be honest, is my most personal project. That was intentional because I’m a wallflower in the the sense of I like to be alone, I like to observe things. I’m always the fly on the wall. When I go to a party, most times I’m always in the corner watching other people and just observing everything that is taking place.

So Wallflower was a personal project, definitely. I used my creative license on some songs but a lot of the things I said on this project were related to me, but it will probably be my first and last [time doing so]. I just thought I needed to get this personal on this one. Because “Free?” was a very personal song for me and after that, I said to myself – people are going through the same types of struggles I’m going through and are feeling the same way I’m feeling, it would be nice for them to know that it’s normal.

There was a question mark at the end of “Free?”, was that symbolic?

The question is – are you truly free? That was like, instead of asking the question, we made it ‘Free’ with a question mark. It’s an unending question, for people to ask themselves – even after all this, are you still free?

And on “Alice” you said something to the effect that you still aren’t free, so does “Alice” answer the question you posed on “Free?”

I’m glad you noticed that, thank you! Yea, that’s a dominant theme for me – the expression of freedom, the quest for freedom.

The definition of what freedom actually is. So in “Alice”, i’m reemphasizing the fact that I really don’t know if I’m free, I really don’t feel like I’m free.

You’re just starting out, “Wallflower” is your third project but second ‘official’ one, what challenges have you experienced in your career so far?

I don’t even want to start counting this as my career, because I’m still a student, I still do so many other things. So music isn’t my primary focus even though it’s something I focus heavily on. The financial burden is a challenge, making music is not a cheap process. There’s obviously people not listening which comes with the finances because if I cannot finance my song to a specific level, I’m not really expecting that many people to listen, especially coming from a Nigerian background where everything is money-oriented as opposed to here (UK) where the sounds grow organically. 

I hope my songs grow organically too, I never really send out my music. I just release stuff and pray that people listen and people have been listening and people have been sharing it, so I’m just lucky. Even just being a woman is a challenge, I remember when I started, someone made a comment on one of my songs and said I’m a woman and female artists don’t go far in Africa and I should stop singing.

Oh wow! So what has the response to “Wallflower” been like?

The response to Wallflower has been good.

Some days I wake up and I see myself on a new list or I wake up and I have an email about someone wanting to do something [with me]. So I guess it has been good but I would always want it to be better because this is my life, music is my life, I want it to always be better. But it’s been good, I can’t complain. I just want to get better and get better and be more consistent, so I keep on giving people good music to listen to.

What’s the plan for Lady Donli going forward?

Going forward, every single is going to be an experiment now, until I release my next body of work. Experimenting with new sounds I’ve heard, old sounds that I want to revisit. I might still make personal music but the next couple of singles aren’t really personal. At this point in time, there’s a lot of negativity and I’m just going to spread good vibes to people.

I want to win a Grammy! I want to make music and I want millions and millions of people to listen to it. I want to be able to influence people with my music, influence lives, influence the country. Just like Erykah Badu influenced me. Because what I’m making is just the surface of the music I want to make. I want to make music that empowers the country, like [inspires] critical social changes.

I have not gotten to that level yet because I’ve not found the sound that I want to use to convey that message but I deeply want to change the world, I think I can change it with my sound.