On screen, she’s a seamless extension of her musical sweetheart status, with her baby-faced diminutive build that matches the baby-soft voice that has given us some of our best highlife-infused Afropop tunes. But off-screen and on social media, which most celebrities tend to employ in letting their hair down as they enjoy the majorly uncensored vastness thereof, Simi or Simisola Ogunleye Kosoko has decided to use her voice in a different way and channels it into discussing social ills and advocating gender equality. As expected, her against-the-tides stance on issues ranging from internet fraud to women empowerment has made her an antithetical sensation in some planes of the internet and one might wonder where she finds the grit to champion such discourses. However, just one conversation with Simi was enough for me to see that she indeed embodies the popular ‘small but mighty’ idiom.
This conversation with Simi is the last of a four-part series by Notjustok in honour of women’s history month. With this series, we speak to four women in the male-dominated Nigerian music industry to spotlight the issues women face in the industry and also empower women with knowledge on how to navigate in such a scene.
I speak to Simi to find out where she finds the temerity to take on the battles she does on online spaces by being vocal with her opinions on sexism and equality in other spheres of life, what motherhood means to her, and look through her eyes at the current state of the homegrown music scene and how it affects women.
Happy women’s history month, Simi, you’re a leading female voice in the male-dominated Nigerian music industry, how does that feel?
It feels good to have your hard work turn out good. Everyone wants their labour to not be in vain and I feel the same too and that all the works I’ve been doing counts for something. It feels great.
You’re not only a leading voice but a vocal one as well and you never fail to say things as is, what motivates this stance and would you call yourself a feminist?
Yes, I am a feminist, I believe that women should have equal rights and should be treated fairly and right and have the same opportunities to succeed and fail.
Then, I’m a very passionate person and they’re certain things that matter to me very much, the likes of women, and I’ve always been vocal even before I became a mainstream artiste, my friends have always teased me about it so this is not like a new version of me. What really triggers me most of the time is if I see something that’s important to me, it doesn’t have to be directed to me, as long as it's of importance to me and not just about women, but kids as well, female children, anything really, as long as I’m triggered.
You’ve been married for two years now, would you say it’s been easier to navigate sexism especially since you married an entertainer as well?
I think it’s a different brand of sexism sometimes because people do things and they don’t even realise it. Being a woman, first of all, is already a problem and then there are instances of restaurants where they say you can’t come inside without a man because they assume you’re a prostitute. (That has never happened to me but I have friends who have experienced it.) Or when they ask unmarried women what they are doing with their lives while viewing marriage as this achievement. And then they expect people to respect you because you’re somebody’s wife, not because you deserve it or your value is enough by itself. I’ve seen people defend me by saying things like “How can you talk to somebody’s wife like that?” Like if I wasn’t somebody’s wife, it’d be okay to talk to me like that. So I think it’s a different brand or a mutated version of sexism. But I don’t think it ever really goes, you just have to keep fighting the fight, they’re not going to like you.
One thing I’ve noticed is that many people are not going to like you if you’re the kind of person that speaks up even when you anticipate a backlash, but at the end of the day, I don’t do things because I want people to like me but because they’re important to do.
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I’m sure your life has gone through several changes since birthing Adejare, what is it like being a young mother and a superstar and how has it affected you and your career as well?
I think being a mom is the best thing that has happened to me but it’s also probably been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The thing is, I’m a very hands-on person, even with my music, so the things that really matter to me, I don’t know how to delegate, I want to do it by myself else the person helping me won’t like me because I’ll always micro-manage. Now having to be a mom with that personality and also working as a musician is not easy to juggle. I don’t have as much time in the studio or for myself. I think for me what has made it easier, I had a kid when I wanted to have one, cause you hear people say these things and it prepares you. Some people say that nobody really tells you but they do, you just hope that your case will be somehow different. So I knew that it was going to be this tough especially the first few years when the child is dependent on you so I kind of readied my mind and it didn’t shock me too much. So while it's tasking, for me, it’s rewarding and I love her so much so every sacrifice that I make, I make joyfully.
As an individual, outside of work when I’m just with her-- maybe she’s with her toys and I’m also watching a movie, we find a way to balance it out.
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Let’s take it back to you before the stardom and how you did so many things from mixing to mastering and sound engineering. Would you say you felt any need to use yourself as a statement on gender constructs?
I’m the only girl and last of four kids from my mom but I wasn’t raised in a house the way most parents did where gender was a thing, my mom got separated when I was 9 and one thing I’m most grateful for is that she never told me what I couldn’t be or what I could do or not do, even the things that she didn’t understand, she’d just support me and ask me questions. She showed worry about some of my choices and would ask if I was sure I wanted to do music in Nigeria or perhaps as a side job. And whenever I told her no, she respected that. She supported me and let me stay up at night cause she used to run this daycare and one time I had a room in there to record. She just allowed me as long as I was putting the work in and I didn’t fight that battle as much as the next girl.
But I don’t know where exactly it came from that I refused to be boxed into the constructs and all the roles expected of me as a woman but I knew there was something wrong with the world. Funny thing is that I was one of the people in the beginning that didn’t get feminism because I thought everyone was talking about it like it was a war. So I didn’t reconcile feminism with fighting for women’s rights, I thought feminists were women that were going somewhere to go and fight.
And that’s the beauty of education and deliberating learning and growing to expand your knowledge base and being conscious about these things because they helped me.
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What would you say is the biggest problem women face in the industry?
I think it’s of disrespect and a lack of a value system. Not too long ago, I heard someone say they don’t like to work with women because they’re problematic, also saying that when they want to settle down, it would also be a problem. So there’s already this stereotype that they place on women then imagine being a woman as a singer.
Sometimes you’re trying to get your break and you have the talent, but the person you’re working with wants to sleep with you first or get a sexual favour. Or when you say you want to do music, they tell you if you don’t open your breast or yansh, it cannot work.
And it’s one thing for people to criticise you or try to stop you or be in your way because you’re not good enough as a musician, or songwriter than for people to be a problem because you have the features of a woman or are a woman and they want to use that to somehow manipulate your process, it’s really sad. And the more you make it, the easier it gets for you because people have to listen to you at some point but at the beginning stages when no one knows you as much, it’s harder because who is fighting your battles for you?
You had Duduke last year and it was one of the biggest songs, so do you agree that female musicians get less hype and are generally less appreciated by virtue of being women?
Yes definitely, when it’s time to have a concert, you see the bill you see 15 guys, one woman. To use myself as a classic example, I don’t do too many features but when I do, I like to make sure that it’s a good one, there are some features I’m not very proud of but that was earlier in my career and I don’t even have too many of those but these same songs, if I put it out, they wouldn’t have the same reach and success they did. It might be hard for people to listen, but there’s a reason for that. There are songs that I write sometimes that I decide not to put out, not because I don’t like them but because coming from me, people are not going to take them the same way.
I said it one time that I’ve never seen a mediocre female artiste make it and it’s not because I’m trying to insult anybody, you just have to be extra good and on top of this, there’s still no space for you so you have to keep fighting for space. So sometimes, because we have to advocate for ourselves, they say we seem aggressive, they say we seem like we just want to fight, meanwhile we just want what we deserve.
You said you don’t do a lot of features and there are less collaborations with women, is this deliberate, should we be expecting more songs from you with other women in the future?
For me, it’s definitely not deliberate. I work more with guys and this is because there are more guys in the industry to start with. On my EP, Restless II, I did a song with Ms Banks and I know that Yemi (Alade) and I have been talking for a while about doing a song together but we’ve just not gotten to the studio or exchanged ideas yet. Even Tiwa (Savage) and I as well, there are conversations that are happening, it’s not like I don’t want to do a collaboration with a female artiste, I would love to do that because they’re all so dope.
Do you also have any plans concerning helping women in music, up-and-coming artistes or female sound engineers?
Yes, I have my own record company now, Studio Brat but you know how we have all these fights that artistes and record labels have, it’s because sometimes, either the label or the artiste, they enter this relationship prematurely and I’m not going to find someone and take their career just to prove a point but to the best of my ability when I hear a woman that I think sounds amazing, I always say something, I push some traffic to the content they’re making. I feel like there’s space for everybody as long as you put in the work and you’re talented and I want women to win so I like to speak about them as much as possible.
We've spoken about the ugly, do you know any stories or experiences of girls supporting girls in the industry you’ll like to share?
I can’t really say because there are things that go behind the scenes that people might not know. People always assume that when you do something and it’s loud, that’s when it’s done but there are things people do behind the scenes which you may not know. And I see women hyping up other women in the industry all the time, but you know bad news spreads faster and you don’t hear about positive things as much but I see it on social media. I have a lot of women that support me, hype me up, post my stuff, some times leave a nice comment but you don’t really see that. But the moment somebody says something that sounds shitty, it’s already on all the blogs, they’re talking about, ‘this person must be shading this person, in this industry, women hate women’ and it’s exhausting. At times I feel like complaining in this industry is like blowing a balloon because you’re just wasting your breath. So just do the best you can and face your front.
I recently spoke to Director Pink, the female cinematographer you worked with for the video of Chike’s Running with you in it, can you tell us more about that?
I loved it so much cause I remember I was on set and someone said she’s the director and I was like 'oh, she’s female really?'
I was so excited because I’ve never worked with a female director in Nigeria, I have abroad, so I was so happy to see that and she did an amazing job and she came highly recommended as well by Chike and his team.
I was so happy to see her in a role that’s usually assumed to be for guys and I was so glad to see her that day and I hope she’s winning.
Your Restless II EP, do you have any plans to release visuals for that?
I think I’m done with that EP for now, I’m working on my album, it’s supposed to be out later this year. I haven’t been having as much studio time as before as I said but I’m trying to make it work. Like, I recently cleared out a particular section of the house to work out of cause usually, I don’t like to take Deja around the studio, there’s too many wires but now she can also play and see her mommy at the same time and we’re not both freaking out. And when she’s two years old she can start dropping those platinum records.
Do you think things are getting better for women in the industry?
I think they’re getting more visible. The fight is getting louder. I don’t know if it’s getting better for everyone, for those that are already in the limelight and have gotten their break, probably. There are people like me who have fans in the international committee because of how far I’ve come but there are still a lot of women that are very talented and nobody knows them yet. I don’t know that it’s gotten better yet but I know voices are getting louder for them, so I hope that very soon they’ll have opportunities to shine.
You’ve come a long way in the industry, do you have any tips for women out there on how to navigate sexism in the industry and the music industry at large?
One thing that I’ve learned is to speak up for yourself and put your foot down, say no if you don’t want (to do something), and work hard. I feel like another thing that makes it easier for people to listen is when you’re putting in the work so no one can label you as someone who simply complains. Improve on your skills and make sure you’re always keeping up with yourself, don’t put the public and its opinion before your happiness because people will always have opinions regardless.
So always take care of yourself, of your spirit, be true to yourself, build a very thick skin where you understand that your value is outside of people’s opinions about you, and you’ll be okay.
Sidenote: This interview was originally published on 31st March, 2021 for International Women's Day.