When Brian Soko stepped onto the main stage at the Grammy Awards to receive the Grammy for Best R&B Song – awarded for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s hit song “Drunk In Love”, which he produced – he became the first Zimbabwean, and one of a handful of African artists, to have received the most prestigious award in music.
Even though this was an award to acknowledge his individual achievement, Soko had one thing in mind: to inspire his people.
“When I went on stage, I said, ‘I just hope Zimbabweans are proud of me’” he says, “In the biggest moment of my life, I shouted out my country. That’s something very important to me because I feel like everyone should have something to motivate them.”
The Grammy winner is low-key
Brian Soko isn’t used to being recognised in public. And unless you’ve read through the credits on some of your favourite hip hop and R&B songs, chances are you’re not familiar with the name.
Soko is one-third of the production collective, The Order. Their exceptional production catalogue includes hit songs for the likes of Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Tinashe and Kendrick Lamar.
As we take our seats at a restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Soko quickly orders pasta.
It’s midday and this is his first meal of the day. He’s been busy. The previous night he’d been in the studio with DJ Maphorisa and DJ Buckz of Uhuru adding some Shona flavour to a song. “The Uhuru guys love different languages,” he explains, before reciting the catchy hook.
As is the case with many hip hop producers, Soko’s first dream was to be a rapper. But at age 16 his mom offered a sobering view. 50 Cent and Eminem, who were the biggest hip hop acts at the time, had compelling stories – one is a white rapper and the other has been shot several times. “Now what’s interesting about you?” she asked. And in that moment, Soko traded in the microphone for kicks and snares.
Void of the self-assured bravado typical of a hip hop super-producer, Soko presents himself as a regular guy. Based in Miami, Florida he regularly visits South Africa to extend his reach in what he describes as “the biggest hip hop market in Africa”.
Soko is one of us
“I’m a third-world guy,” he explains – something he made a point of highlighting in the recently released music video for “EFT” with South African rapper, Chad. Draped in the luminous green vest synonymous with construction workers, Soko interchanges cleverly between Ndebele and English in his delivery of the chorus.
Despite his conscious effort to connect with the African market, there’s a general sense of denial among Zimbabweans that he is one of them. He’s also been accused of being too big to work with Zim artists.
“Sometimes I read through the comments on Facebook and I see people going, ‘This guy isn’t Zimbabwean, he’s an American boy’ and I don’t understand that.”
He explains: “I was born in Tshovani, a small town in Chiredzi, Bulawayo and I only moved to the States when I was 14. Then at 16, I came to SA and did grade 10 at Newcastle High in KZN before graduating in the States.”
“So it’s not that I don’t work with Zim artists, I do. But I work more with Zim producers like Mr. Kamera, Simba Tagz, Thai and The Gobbla. It’s just that the work we’ve done isn’t for the Zimbabwean market, and I’m sorry for that.”
Together with his brothers Arnold and Prince Soko, they recently founded Anashe Media Group, which is a marketing and management group specifically focused on advancing African music. And having already produced hit songs “Phumakim” and “Mission Statement” for Cassper Nyovest and K.O, respectively, there’s a growing African influence.
A Grammy for “Drunk In Love” in the bag, what’s next?
When I ask him whether he fears that the success of “Drunk In Love” will define his career and put pressure on him in the future, he breaks from his bowl of pasta and considers his response, “It does put pressure, but I’m not afraid of that because my whole life I’ve had pressure. At the time I was in Miami, at Hit Factory [studio] every day, we had to make a hit for Lil Wayne (“No Worries”). We did it. We had to make a hit for Birdman (“Tap Out”). We did it. So I thrive on it,” he explains. “And I’m still getting better. If I wasn’t then I’d be worried.”As he grinds a bit of pepper onto his pasta, he muses over future prospects in film-scoring and his desire to someday work with Kanye West.
Still just 24 years old, I suspect he will reach these heights, and more. For now though, Soko is relaxed and excited about a recording studio he recently acquired with his partners in Hollywood.
There’s a strange moment at the conclusion of our interview.
As we head out towards the Gautrain station, some guy walks up to Soko and yells, “Brian Soko, Mr. Drunk In Love!” before reciting the hook off his new single, “EFT”. After taking a few pictures with the fan, Soko, clearly flabbergasted by the attention, says, “That was weird. I was thinking, ‘Who’s this guy, is he someone I know from high-school?’”
We exchange looks and burst out laughing. And just then it dawns on me that this celebrated Grammy award-winner really is just a regular guy.
Images courtesy of Anashe Media Group
Follow Brian Soko on Twitter: @beatsbysoko