Tim Westwood: A British DJ’s Passion for Nigerian Music

Feeling The Music: Tim Westwood

Feeling The Music: Tim Westwood

Tim Westwood has such a big and influential programme on radio that in 2006, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and leader of the opposition, who is now British Prime Minister, expressed concern about the kind of influence that the popular On-Air Personality may have on the youths. But Westwood was recently received with so much warmth by big players in the Nigerian entertainment industry who place a premium on what he is doing to create a viable platform for the new generation of African artistes trying to make an in-road to the European market. On his first visit to Nigeria, Nseobong Okon-Ekong caught up with him

The new generation of African artistes hungry to play on the international stage have a one trendy radio personality they all admire and would do anything to get on his programme. He is Tim Westwood who recently moved on from BBC 1 where he had served for close to 20 years. Westwood has been derogatorily described as a ‘black man in white skin’ for his open love for music associated with blacks. Unapologetic about his musical preferences, he explained the foundation of this desire.

People need to understand that Westwood honed his craft as a radio DJ at a time when Hip-hop and Reggae were the dominant force of music in the UK. With that scenario, it is doubtful if he had many choices. Add to this the fact that he started out as a Warm-up DJ for Sound System owned by David Rodigan, the epic Reggae DJ and one of the strongest proponents of black culture. A background like this means it was natural for him to love these forms of music. In recent years, the trend in the UK scene as revealed by Westwood is that all the clubs play Hip-hop, Reggae and now Afrobeat. Caribbean music like Soca and Calypsofrom Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Reggae, especially, Dancehall from Jamaica have been big in the UK for so many years.

His recent visit to Nigeria on the auspices of Mathew Ohio who promotes Industry Night was a pilgrimage of sorts. Having dedicated so much of his energy and professional space to the promotion of Afrobeat, coming to Nigeria was a lifetime ambition that became real. To say that he was happy to be in Nigeria was beside the question. It was a very emotional time when he experienced a level of party that was unknown to him. “In the VIP, it is crazy. You guys are out of control I had a lot of fun,” he quipped. Afrobeat may be enormous in the UK, but coming to Nigeria has made him understand the music far better. As one of the biggest forms of new music, it has tremendous support influencers like Westwood. African youths in the UK are the driving force for Afrobeat and they form a synergy with local UK artistes contributing to the Afrobeat scene. While all that may be good, it is not the same thing as seeing the music in the clubs in its own environment. For Westwood, the Nigerian experience was tremendous, even as he took that vibe and energy back home with him.

Stepping on the soil of the home country of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the man who coined the phrase, Afrobeat was a major high for Westwood. The way the British born DJ sees Fela is that he has a legacy that is being perpetrated by the younger generation of musicians. He thinks Afrobeat has been saved from the different labels and genres that makes some type of music divisive and which reduces it to small conflicting parts. According to Westwood, Afrobeat is the powerful music of the younger generation, blowing across the world. “You can’t take away from Fela as the founding father of the music. The influence of that man is untold. I couldn’t find someone to compare him with in other forms of music. You can’t talk of him being the Notorious BIG or the Tupac of Hip-hop. You can’t talk of him being the Elvis Presley of Rock music. I think his role is so significant both culturally and in the community. I think it is important that his music lives on. As it resonates with today’s youths, a lot of his slangs are still used today.”

Westwood was asked to judge the impact of the plethora of remixes of Fela’s music by new generation musicians. He argued that remixes reconnect and reintroduce an artiste to a new and younger audience. He also opined that the classics live on and that following from that, there should be a lot of respect for the original.

In shaping his career, Westwood invented a set of vocabulary that belongs to him. Some of the phrases that are identified with him are so personal and border on the irreverent that many consevatives may not have the courage to repeat after him. Listening to a typical Westwood presentation, it is hard to believe that he is the son of a respected clergyman. His father was in the church as a humble priest. He achieved great heights, met the Queen and stayed in Buckingham Palace. He came from humble beginnings and achieved enormously well in the Church of England. The rave DJ grew up in a good family and had a good childhood. Looking back to his own upbringing, he advised parents to provide children with all the love and support they need so that they can have the confidence to do their own thing. Even though he charted his own course in life and considers himself a self-made man, Westwood believes his father was very proud of him. “He didn’t understand it, but he respected the fact that I was self-made. I believe he gave me the confidence and the swagger to go and do my own thing in my own world and my world was not part of his own world and he did not understand that, but it was not a rejection of his world and I love him dearly.’

At over 50 years of age, it is amazing to see that Westwood has not outgrown certain types of music and he is still in touch as music transforms through the years. It is not uncommon to find teenagers at a Westwood gig having a good time. He explained that Hip-hop, Bashment and Afrobeat as music genres that he is particularly interested in have the ability to re-invent and are very creative. “It is through keeping in touch with the music that I connect with the new generation audience and that is how I keep relevant. By staying in touch with the music and staying in touch with the scene, that is what keeps me relevant and connected. It is very easy to do that within Hip-Hop and within Afrobeat now and within Bashment. I have known many DJs of my generation who kept faith with the old school, which is fine. They play for an Old School crowd. The people they are DJing to now are 40 plus.”

To Westwood, music can transport anyone to the realms of another existence where one can connect with his God, whether it is church music, Afrobeat or Hip-hop. Giving a hint on why he stopped going to church, he said the girls in the choir didn’t look hot. “To me, it was a wrong connection.” But he went on to explain what a powerful tool music can be in helping to establish and define the surreal. “I think that music from Fela to the new generation of Afrobeat is emotional, spiritual music. I think you can find that in a good church. I think you can enter a church, a temple or mosque, whatever your religion is and you can be in a different world, a world where if you let your mind go blank, it will take you elsewhere and you can connect with your God. I believe that. I think church music at its best can be emotional and take you elsewhere and I think Hip-hop and Afrobeat can do that to you, man-put you in a different world.”

For close to 20 years Westwood plied his trade on BBC 1 and to the disappointment of many, he had to take a walk from the station that made him a household name in London. But since he has not moved too far away and still advertises the same musical menu that he is known for, perhaps there is nothing to worry about. This is what actually happened. “It was a case of them not renewing my contract. I had been up there for 19 years. We had achieved great things with Hip-hop on the station. When a new management came, they wanted to do their own thing with their own presenters and I fully respect it. I then joined Choice FM, which was the first legal black station in the UK and I was very happy to join Choice. After that, another station bought them. We rebranded. The station is Capital Xtra, so that is where I am now. We are doing the same show on Saturday night, Nine to Eleven in the evening and absolutely smashing it down. We are very proud of the show we are doing there. I am still as connected to the audience as ever.”

Owners and workers on Nigerian radio stations should be proud to know that Westwood is envious of them. According to him, radio in the UK is not what it used to be. A lot of the FM radios are like soundtracks to help you live your life. “Radio here is still incredibly powerful. Back home, it is like a soundtrack you have in your car. It is not where you go for new music. It is not where you go for an authoritative guide on what is going on, like the old days when I started out. What we really pay attention to is our YouTube channel. It is called Tim Westwood TV, through that we have managed to support a lot of African artistes who come through trying to do freestyle. Obviously we do the mix-tapes and the downloads that we put out. I have also connected a lot with people who came to the UK to live and work and they are back home now. My support of African artistes are primarily through the radio, but also through my YouTube as well.” If offered a job in Nigeria, Westwood said he will be glad to take up the challenge. His trip to Nigeria made him so incredibly surprised to discover that people know him so much here. “That shows how small the world is and how online Nigeria is. When you look at the statistics of where we get our support from on YouTube, after the UK, Nigeria is big.”

With a huge followership, Westwood has many things to worry about other than the musical fare that he presents to his audience. For instance, the British Prime Minister took Westwood to task, saying the DJ was culpable for the wave of violence on the streets of London. For describing his influence on British youths as negative, Westwood thinks the Prime Minister was “talking crazy”. Here is his side to what happened at the time. “There was a time in the UK when there was a lot of gun crime and there still is gun crime and there still are more gangs out there than ever. But there was a time when it was very traumatic. At the time of the elections, a lot of crazy stuff was always getting said and because I am high profile, I just caught in the firing line. When the Prime Minster is talking crazy to you, you fall back a little bit.”

Westwood was in the firing line literarily and practically. He had a close shave with death. He was a victim of a drive-by shooting. “There was a time in the UK when it was so mad out there in the streets, too many guns with the gangs and I was a victim myself. I believe what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger and it just gave me more determination to keep doing what I do because it is my life, it is who I am and it is my passion. It is what I believe in. If it wasn’t going to kill me, it was not going to slow me down. It was so crazy in London at that time. It was definitely a sad time. A lot of parents lost their children in that era. It was me who made the headlines. Really it should have been a tragic story of all those young ones who couldn’t go home to their mothers that should be in the headline, not me. I was resentful of that because the real story was about what was happening on the streets. Now, it is very much more settled down.”

Westwood continues to be a major force for the penetration of African music into the UK and European scene. For good reasons he is championing respect for African music in Europe. He believes that African music is the next big thing in the international market. For him the future has been fast forward for African music. “That is happening right now in the UK, artistes like Wizkid, Dbanj, Fuse ODG are registering a huge impact. They have crossover pop hits in the UK market and they have got an enormous fan base with their local African market which is in the UK, but also with the Afro Caribbean Students who are like a driving force for their music. It is very popular music out there and it is only going to get bigger and better. They have really shut down local UK artistes who are making Afrobeat. Their music isn’t selling and they are not doing shows.”

Westwood must be one of the few DJs who has shied away from making beats and turning themselves into a producer and/or artiste. The gathering of his hosts and his production team erupted in laughter when he proffered his reason for abstaining from making beats. “I did make beats but I realised early in the game that my beats were whack so I stopped. I am a DJ, I like talents.”

Source: ThisDayLive.com

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