“Music is a love business”
Speaking from a place of child-like purity and unfiltered passion, Akanbi is the DJ (or, in his own words, simply “a shepherd to let the music play”) bringing his crowd back to what raving is all about: enjoyment, release, connection, and lots of sweat. The Lagos-born, New York-based artist refuses to confine himself to one style or genre – encompassing everything from meditation-inducing to hip-turning, his curation hits strong and burns slow. So, with the excitement in his voice transcending the patchy Zoom connection and the glow of an artist in love with their craft illuminating my screen, Akanbi tells us about music as a tool to process emotions, founding his iconic event series Groovy Groovy, and his aspirations to change the principles of the money-driven music industry for the better.
Hey, great to speak to you! How are you today?
I’m feeling great. I spent the day at Lake Como yesterday, which was beautiful. I’m on my Europe tour, and I played in Milan the other day. After the show, someone came up to me to tell me how great my set was. We instantly connected, and long story short, that’s who took me on that day trip!
Ooo, sounds like the tour is going well! 😉
Ha-ha, yeah, it’s wonderful. I set my intentions to come here and share my energy and music I’ve been cooking up in New York, and people here are receiving it graciously. I feel like I’m the happiest man in Europe right now. The tour has been a full-on love mission. I want to share tunes that I love that I know will help people relax, enjoy and get back to their child-like spirit.
What’s your secret?
I think one of the secrets why the tour is going so well, is because I’m putting all the emphasis on the music. It’s bigger than just DJing, and also simpler than DJing. I’m just a shepherd to let the music play – everyone who wants to eat is invited to eat. I’m not trying to take myself seriously – I’m not the type to do all these super technical mixes or transitions. There is already so much magic in music, and I just want to be fully present and have fun together with the crowd. I need to have a mic every time I play, I love communicating with my audience verbally. Everyone wants to be included and invited to the cookout, so I always try to guide everyone to let go and share this experience with me.
This meditation-like aspect is very captivating, which I could also feel sonically in your mixes. However, your sound oscillates so much – between darker, slower tones to very upbeat and playful energy. What draws you to this contrast, and how do you find your balance?
A way I think about music is seeing it as a bouquet of flowers – would you rather have a bouquet of just one type of flower, or a full selection of different bits that all complement each other? Why limit ourselves to one vibe when we can experience it all? The more you embrace the full spectrum, the more connected and present you are. When you’re low, it’s about letting yourself feel the sadness and learn from it. I refer to this as planet-hopping – I might be crying non-stop today, but I know that soon I will be smiling again. Music-wise, I think I translate that. We might be in this deep meditative zone right now, but we know there is some kind of release or an energy exchange incoming. I want to keep it spontaneous, because this is just how life is. Everything is so random, and I want to encourage planet-hopping because it keeps the mind active and prepared for anything.
It takes courage to give into that rollercoaster. Staying in one lane, musically and mentally, gives you a false sense control and security.
Exactly. I hope listening to my mixes encourages people to go through a full range of emotions in their daily life, too. I think it’s always good to think about your childlike self – it’s the purest form of you. Kids always want everything – no kid only has one toy! I want the best of everything, I want to choose my own adventure.
Do you have an idea of the journey you want to take your listeners on before the set, or is it something that comes from reading the room?
I definitely do a lot of preparation. I’m very sensitive, and I like to have my fingers on the pulse and know how people are feeling in my community and in the city. Musically, I feel like I can see the future – especially after years of rave research. When it comes to playing a set, I’ve developed this ability to really gauge the vibe in the moment and fuel it. Also, everything on my USB stick is simply good music. I’m just stupidly passionate about it, and I have finetuned my music collection for ultimate enjoyment. Confidence is a big thing as well. I want to share things I’m personally excited about – and the person next to me will most likely get excited, too. And what I get back from the audience is beautiful. After I played at Primavera Barcelona, a friend texted me this: “It was such a good vibe during your set. It felt fresh. It felt like being transported to a different place, energy, and time”. This is exactly how I want my music to make people feel.
Planet-hopping right there.
Ha-ha, exactly. This is the power of music – it can take you to a completely different state.
Tell me about Groovy Groovy!
I moved from Lagos in 2010, and I went to college in New Jersey to study engineering. I started going to New York a lot, but it quickly got quite tiring, so I had to look into what I could do in college. I had a lot of artsy friends who would put on these punk nights, which were super fun, but I was still missing those crazy parties like they had in New York. So, one day, I asked my friend who lived on campus if I could throw a party in his basement. I posted a few flyers around, came up with a name that clearly described how I wanted people to feel at our parties, Groovy Groovy, and got a basic-ass soundsystem sorted. And people actually showed up and had a great time. For the next one, I arrived to the venue late (as usual), and realised that there is a line around the block! That was one of the first moments I felt that there was a vibe people are connecting to.
When did you move it to New York?
Shortly after. In New York, I already had the reputation of this crazy party-goer – I was the guy with his head in the speaker. I threw my first party there at this club, Palisades, that I’d go to all time, so it felt very natural. In 2016, I met Declan, who is my rave wife. We met on the dancefloor and we both knew it was going to be for life. We’ve been running Groovy Groovy since then, and we’re the perfect synchronisation of energies – I’m loud, erratic and extraverted, and he’s the introverted, techy, calm kind. In our parties, we always want to keep a DIY feel, because we want to keep on planet-hopping. You can easily do that when you’re in a setting that is more raw, which is why we love building up our spaces from the ground up. For example, there is this photography studio in Bushwick, which is just a white box – we bring lights, DJs, decorations, plants, and we set up a relaxation area. There are a million parties happening in the same space all the time , but people come there for our parties and it feels like somewhere they’ve never been before. It’s just so much more refreshing.
…And allows for so much more fluidity.
Yes, fluidity. My vision is usually very strong and clear, but Declan is really good at balancing it out as he helps me step out of my perfectionism. We aim to set an ethos at the party where it’s not a perfect setup – it’s going to be a little wonky, but it’s also going to be open, sexy, intellectual… I’m responsible for the DJ curation, and I’ve developed a sense of what is going to hit you in the chest, whether you want it or not. Whenever I hear something that hits, I want to translate that energy of my mind being blown to 300 people’s minds being blown. We’re not trying to climb any social ladders or get famous – our mission is to create a universal space with none of that capitalistic bullshit. Music is such a love business. Once, a friend visited from Berlin to come to one of our parties. She said she was so surprised to see everyone there – the cool kids, the nerds, the sexy people, the not-so-sexy people, the fashion people and the weirdos. We want to provide a space where therapeutic connection with music is nurtured for everyone.
Luis Nieto Dickens
People will always be drawn to the authenticity and the liberating space you hold, which is something you carry with you everywhere you go. Apart from the cheeky Lake Como gateway, how has Europe been treating you so far?
Not going to lie, it’s a loaded one… For the most part, it’s been a beautiful experience, but there was a festival I played, and it was the first time I really felt that I was in a white man’s land. I played at a cool stage with mostly Black African musicians and DJs – insane talents. But just looking at the festival’s structure already didn’t feel right. I went to check out the main stage – it was a lovely tent with an opening in the middle, so you can see the sky; the soundsystem was amazing, and it was clear that it was the best designed stage out of the five on site. I was there with my Black friend, and it was just a sea of white people. Of course, I tried to hold no judgements – I just wanted to see what I feel. We went in the middle, and the energy was just so hostile. It was full-on Instagram Olympics: everyone was in their best outfits, taking their cool techno content. It felt incredibly uncomfortable to just enjoy. There was no soul, and none of it was about music.
Ugh, just surrounded by influencer robots…
Exactly, robots! So, I went back to my stage, traditional African core roots music by Ndagga Rhythm Force was playing. I realised that the stage is just like a shack that reminded me of the poverty in Africa. It was a half pipe made of sheets of corrugated metal with sun rays shooting through its holes – it felt like being in a doghouse. I was looking at all the facilities that were put on for the stage with the sea of white people, and it felt so wrong. When I played my set, for a whole hour of it I was having technical issues. I felt so abandoned – I went to the main stage and all the staff were there, tending this this massive-ass camera pointing at the DJ, as if it they were guarding the president of America giving a speech. All energy was put to the bit that looked good on Instagram. Eventually, everyone just moved to our stage – no matter who you are, you still want to feel something, and there was no soul at the main stage. Due to the poor design of the stage with mostly Black acts, it was fucking tight, because everyone and their auntie were trying to fit in there towards the end of the festival. It was clear that the Black stage was where the most fun was felt. Now, we – the Black kids – who were holding this stage down to start with, couldn’t even enjoy the party anymore.
It’s such a typical narrative driven by hypocrisy when these festivals promote themselves as ‘inclusive’ and ‘alternative’, but are too scared to live up to their word in fears of losing Instagram engagement.
You think it’s good that they recognise and include so much Black talent in the line-up, but then they just put them in the shack. In 2023 we can’t be moving this way. I hope people see these things when they go to festivals, instead of living in their removed fantasy world. There are big conversations to be had, and they come from a good place – I’m not trying to cancel anyone. I simply want to encourage productive change for their own good, as their way clearly is not working. And it’s not like this requires a hypercomplex solution – if you put someone in a shack, then give everyone a shack, just retain equality.
It clearly reflects how systemic these issues are, and it’s so sad to see how they bleed into the elements of art and music that are supposed to be a refuge from those very mechanisms.
This is why I like having my own platform. It can get tiring to try get people out of their comfort zones, but I want to lead by example. I didn’t quit my engineering job just to be DJ, there is so much to be done here. I don’t want the next Black DJ to feel what I felt. I have the vision and I have the passion, I just need others around me to help me flex that muscle – because I’m flexing it from a place of humility, love and enjoyment.