It wasn’t hard to find Maduabuchi Okpor. I walked into the opulent Africa-inspired eatery, Kiza, in Dubai’s DIFC, to find the burgeoning Afro-pop talent slouched on the corner couch. A serene glare from a life-sized photo of soul singer and fellow Nigerian Sade Adu hovers above him.
Okpor, who is wearing a white Ghanaian football jersey, is tired and hungry. This is what you get when you are revelling until the early hours. However, the night before was a party with a purpose. It was the moment Okpor, who performs under the moniker MKO, launched his debut album, the fittingly titled Diverse. And true to his personality and brand – more on that later – he assembled a sizeable constellation of local and international artists to celebrate the occasion.
The event was held at the new and swanky resort, W Dubai – The Palm. It featured appearances from Emirati soul man Hamdan Al Abri, Dubai resident and RnB singer Laura Lopez and Ghanaian radio personality Antoine Mensah, plus a panel session focusing on the UAE music scene.
Of course, there was a live set by Okpor, too. “This wasn’t the usual type of event or venue and there is a reason for that,” he says, as we tuck into lunch. “I wanted to send a message, without sounding braggy, in that all artists in the UAE can achieve. They can also go above and beyond. That’s why I did this album launch party at an exceptional event that most people think we, as local artists, can’t get.”
The venue also perfectly complements the sound of Diverse. It is a slick and, in some cases, lushly produced collection of songs full of Afro-pop's signature gumbo of styles, ranging from R&B, hip-hop and pop mixed with modern African genres such as HiLife. A good example is the breezy single Good Lovin', the video for which was shot around Dubai, that has Okpor crooning a series of smooth lyrics over jutting beats and sensual keyboard melodies.
That inclusive approach to his work is also found in the long list of album collaborators. On Diverse, MKO partners up with a range of regional talents for 10 of the 15 tracks. Dubai soul singer Pimms Brooke brings her powerhouse vocals to Let Me Know, while on the bilingual Salam Alaykum, Okpor teams up with Emirati rapper The Real SQ for a buoyant hip-hop track that celebrates our differences. As well as being one of his favourite cuts from Diverse, the track's name also holds a particular resonance for Okpor, as it was one of the first phrases he learnt upon his arrival in Dubai 11 years ago.
By now we are sitting in Kiza's dining area digging into what the singer promises is authentic Nigerian grub. This is a handsy affair. He orders for me the efo riro, a spicy spinach and goat stew served with a side of tangy pounded yam. The latter ingredient functions as a bread; you dip it into the stew before taking a bite. He's right – it's delicious.
Meanwhile, Okpor is relishing the egusi, a stew made of grounded melon seeds with more chunks of goat meat. He expertly shapes the curry-soaked yam bits into a ball before dropping it into his mouth. "This is all that I need to make me feel at home," he says with a wide grin. This brings me to ask him why he left Nigeria in the first place. He puts it down to his appetite to learn more about the region.
“I was prepared, man,” he says. “I had all these books with me full of Arabic phrases. I really wanted to come here and experience this new culture.” Another reason for the change of scenery, Okpor says, was the personal challenge. Born into a family of nine children – “when you come from such a large family, you don’t really need friends”, he adds – he wanted to see if he could build a new life and personal networks on his own.
It took him less than a month to find work at a Dubai investment company, the first in a series of jobs that also included being a web engineer and a stint at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), before he focused on his creative pursuits full time. The music bug followed him to the Gulf.
In Lagos, Okpor had been part of a band playing covers in small venues across the city. “We were really just doing that for fun,” he says. “We would play songs by Bobby Brown or even Milli Vanilli.” Those hits were a useful teaching aid, as Okpor eventually began crafting tunes for himself and other aspiring artists in Nigeria.
By 2013, Okpor had settled into his new Dubai home well and was keen to reach out to and collaborate with talented local artists. “The issue I had was there was no real scene,” he says. “It was very individualistic at the time – and, to be honest, it can still be that way now. So I needed to find a way to bring people together.”
Okpor eventually found the ideal vehicle with his Art Fusion nights. He launched this series of quarterly meet-ups in 2016 and they're still going on, presently running in Capital Club Dubai. It offers a platform for local artists – from fashion and art to music – to display and sell their work, while making and exchanging contacts. "We have done 10 events so far and it resulted in great partnerships and collaborations with some big brands," he says. "But success is also measured in people coming along and experiencing the great talent that we have here in the UAE."
This is a notion that Okpor believes in strongly. It also comes with its own frustrations, none of which cause greater rancour than tackling the major misconception, shared by members of the public and some fellow artists, that being a creative in the UAE is a hobby at best.
“Listen, this can be a full-time job,” he says with emphasis. “And, as a musician, that doesn’t have to mean that you are just playing cover songs. The UAE is full of great singers who are doing just that. The money is good, but, trust me, they are not happy, because they know they can do more.
“What I am trying to do with my work is to try and change that narrative. You can express yourself and make a good living if you approach it the right way.”