Producer, songwriter, and performer Nonso Amadi found himself in Jamaica a few years ago, following a newly minted record deal with Universal Music Canada. While there, he connected with Donisha Prendergast, one of Bob Marley’s granddaughters, to discuss music and life while filming at the historic Tuff Gong Studios and around the island. The Nigerian-born, Canadian-based artist was in the midst of a two-year music hiatus, and he had no idea where to take his debut album.

“We had an honest conversation. I told her exactly where I was at,” says Amadi, who admits that at the time all he had written were love songs, a theme he wanted to expand from, and move beyond. “She told me about Bob Marley, his own reasons for making music. How he was trying to stand up and represent the people, the Rastafarians who were living in Trenchtown. He was trying to revolutionize those people’s lives. Trying to help them have a voice against the oppression they were experiencing at the time, and that’s why he woke up every morning. And it got me thinking about how there are other things you can talk about that will resonate with people, and help them through very hard times. That’s the power of music.”

And the power of his music. With more than 100 million cumulative streams across all platforms, and a songwriting and video collaboration with Majid Jordan in his credits, Amadi is a constantly evolving lyricist, able to fuse afrobeat, hip-hop, and R&B in his storytelling songs. His gently lilting opening performance of “Foreigner” at the 2022 SOCAN Awards was a highlight of the evening.

Amadi grew up on hip-hop: Young Money, 50 Cent, and others. But it was Nigerian singer-songwriter Wizkid’s album Superstar that gave the aspiring artist an entry point into another artist’s journey. It was a process he found inspiring, because it sidestepped the typical aspirational themes around money, power, and the good life that often dominate the genre.

“He [told] us exactly where he was in his life,” says Amadi. “The things he’d been through, and who he hoped to be one day, which was a superstar. And we’re all seeing that happening now. There’s an opening for music that’s more vulnerable, more ‘take your time and listen to each word,’ and it’s something I really want to delve into.”

Amadi started off as a producer, playing around with music software to try and re-imagine his favourite songs at the time. “I was trying to create that fresh vibe that got the young people, really, really hyped,” he says. Freestyling with friends over self-made beats, the teens soon realized that they were onto something good.  “We started to try and figure out how to record these songs, and eventually it became an actual thing,” says Amadi. “Then we wanted [vocals] on it. ‘Who’s going to sing the chorus? Oh, Nonso, how about you give it a try?’ he recalls, followed by a bashful chuckle. “I ended up singing. I just fell into it, but I really did have the love and the passion for it from an early stage.”

Though music runs deeply in the Amadi family, Nonso is its only professional musician. It wasn’t an easy passion to follow when he was coming from a family and culture built around academia and stable career success.

“When I first started music, I was really unsure about what I was meant to do”

“It wasn’t met with a lot of excitement when I said I was going to do music full-time, Amadi admits. “I’d just graduated from McMaster [University] with a Master’s degree in Engineering Design, and the song that launched my career – ‘Tonight’ – had taken off. My parents were hearing my music on the radio in Nigeria, and my sisters were seeing me on TV. They didn’t quite understand it because they sent me to school in Canada, and I was meant to be studying. I was, like, ‘OK, I think it’ll be good to go back home and do a show, and I can really see where this music thing takes me.’ They were so upset, and that was a long, long conversation that we had, for years to come, until they eventually saw that I was fine with this.”

The working title for his debut album, coming in 2023, is When it Blooms. Amadi calls the project “vulnerable and heavy,” but happily shares that there are some afrobeat tracks that will get listeners up on their feet. His favourites include the opening song, “Here For It” (“It’s the vulnerable stage,” he says) and the final song, “Thankful,” which chronicles his growth from a budding producer and freestyling teen to a young man bringing his well-earned sound to the people.

“It comes from my story as a creator, as a Nigerian,” says Amadi. “When I first started music, I was really unsure about what I was meant to do. Insecurities and doubts – as a person, and also as an artist – fed into my relationships. [I was] not trusting people to jump on songs with me, or even how I would navigate my music career.

“I liken that to a seed that’s in the ground, and it has to kind of break and go through this germination process. But where I am right now, is that I’ve accepted myself as a creative person who’s learning, and my relationships with everyone are in a much better place.

“There’s a voice note [in ‘Thankful’] from my mom, and she’s saying, ‘Wow, look at how far you’ve come.’ She shares little memories from the past and how the flower has really bloomed.”

The result is the most collaborative project he’s ever allowed. It’s both freeing and terrifying at times, and Amadi is learning to stay grounded, as he reaches higher and digs deeper.

“I song-write 95 percent of my music,” he says. “For many, many years, I would mix my songs, master it myself, and put it out. It was really stressful, but that was the only way I knew how to properly and comfortably make music. I had my own groove and [way that] I made music.

“But over the pandemic, it really slowed things down for everyone, so I got into rooms with people like Majid Jordan, who are on the project. I figured out, ‘Oh wow, I had a nice conversation with this person about what I’m trying to do with this song, or this project, and it actually just makes it way easier. Because now they’re actually doing it how I imagined they would do it, or they’re doing something new to me, but it still works.’ These are things that I’m still learning, but at this point the project consists of 13 collaborators, which is a huge thing for me.”

Asked how he hopes to reach the listener through his first LP, Amadi says that he simply wants to start a conversation from artist and listener, and back again. “I want them to feel, like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that happened to you, but that also happened to me,’” he says.