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Davido Played SXSW and Reminded Us How Beautiful It Can Be to Turn Up

SXSW may seem like an arms race to make it to the one coolest thing, but the coolest thing of all is that huge international artists like Davido can play tiny stages to crowds that care.
March 20, 2016, 5:00pm

Davido / Photos by Brittany Sowacke

Davido swept over the tiny stage like a whirlwind, a storm front demolishing what had been a tranquil space and turning it into a chaotic, roaring one. His hypeman, bearded and giving off a bit of a Rick Ross vibe (handy for the Meek Mill collaboration “Fans Mi” later), arrived, a harbinger thunderclap, and then Davido himself sprinted in, hood up, sunglasses wrapped around his face, gold watch prominent, looking like he'd just come from an F1 race in space with some grime MCs. To reiterate, the tiny stage didn't stand a chance: Davido is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and here he was in a small club in Austin, playing to maybe two hundred people with an arena's worth of energy pouring out of his compact body.

The Nigerian pop star was headlining a SXSW showcase put on by Music Moves Africa. At a festival increasingly marked by brand partners' blockbuster efforts to book obvious draws like Young Thug or Jamie xx to their stages to capture a laser beam of attention in a noisy and crowded field, the curatorial focus of SXSW can get a bit blurred. But booking acts like Davido is what continues to make a draw out of SXSW, the festival itself, the part that coordinates with artists from around the world to bring them to Austin but gets drowned out by the surrounding hoopla and marketing money tossed around. A bill headlined by Davido is fucking awesome! We were all so lucky! An event handled solely by companies looking to market to a specific demographic might never have brought this to Austin, Texas, but one focused on the music could, and that felt special.

The South African rapper K.O., who performed a fun, hypeworthy set wearing a blanket poncho earlier in the night, paused onstage for a moment to say “this is actually my first time performing in the States, and this is pretty much a dream come true for me.” It may not have been what many festivalgoers had come to Austin for, but it should have been: It was the type of one-of-a-kind moment that reinforced this festival's value, particularly as the music festival economic apparatus increasingly becomes condensed around the same “experiences” and buzz-friendly acts. Not that it was lost on people—there was a general admission line around the block of fans who enjoyed the shit out of the show, dancing and singing along to songs from artists like Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, and Iyanya (who was advertised to play but never came) all night long. Just getting the chance to hear this music—standards in certain parts of the world, but more elusive at American clubs—was exciting. Davido's show was one of the only ones I went to all week where almost everyone knew almost all the words. Entire portions of songs like “Dami Duro” became group a cappella shout-alongs.

Nigerian pop music, and Davido's in particular, tends toward the sweetly smooth and beautifully upbeat, capable of turning any setting into a party with just a few drumbeats and some cooed, often Auto-Tuned singing. Davido's energy and presence is every bit as sharp as the wildest American rappers, but it also came with the unselfconscious enthusiasm of any great pop music. The show was punctuated with yells of “it's lit up in this mother—” and “turn up turn up turn up,” but, as wild as it was, the music was also gorgeous. My heart just about stopped as Davido hit the notes on “Gobe” singing “girl I love the way you look tonight.” Davido's music and performance may have energy, but it also never ignores feelings, the sensations of love and magic in the air that truly make parties special. Making that come across in music isn't as easy as tapping into the impulse to just make people jump and shout, but songs that can do both are the ones that are truly special.

There was no denying Davido's star power as he was swarmed coming off the stage or his energy as he took off his chains to allow himself to hurl toward the edge of the stage more emphatically. But Davido, arms up like a conductor, also whipped a whole room into a sing-along of the wonderfully tender “Aye,” making a celebration out of lines like “nobody can love you like I do!” The show may have been a chance to “turn up turn up turn up,” sure, but also a reminder of why we turn up: to feel connected to each other and to something more powerful than ourselves. The whole festival might have been trying to figure out what street corner to meet on or what show to try to get into next (maybe Drake will show up?!?!?), but, for a few moments, it felt like the whole world was in that room.

Brittany Sowacke is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.