May 11, 2022 6:33 PM EDT

Chukwuka Ekweani ran away from his small hometown in the north of Nigeria at age 19 to chase his music dreams in Lagos. Sitting alone on the flight south with his parents’ disapproving words ringing in his ears, Ekweani fretted about his choice: “I was thinking, did I just make the biggest mistake of my life?” Ekweani recalls.

Eight years later, Ekweani’s gamble has paid off and then some: now known as CKay, the singer-songwriter-producer is already one of the most successful African recording artists ever on a global scale. That’s largely because of the success of his 2019 song “Love Nwantiti,” which broke out at the start of the pandemic as a social media hit and has taken several victory laps around the world, thanks to viral dances and remixes. The irrepressible song has garnered almost 2 billion views on TikTok and 500 million more on YouTube, and has charted in six continents, hitting No. 1 in India, Norway, and Switzerland.

The 26-year-old created “Love Nwantiti” while freestyling late one night in his living room in Lagos. Its wordless chorus of ahs was initially just a placeholder, but he soon realized its universal potential. While the song was dismissed by some at his label as too slow and lightweight compared to the club-oriented pop center of Nigeria at the time, it caught fire first on Instagram and then on TikTok, soundtracking joyful dances from supermodels like Winnie Harlow, K-pop stars like G-Dragon, and suburban middle-schoolers alike. “If an artist makes something from his soul, people can tell, regardless of how fast or slow it is, or whether or not it fits trends,” he says from a music studio in Los Angeles. “Maybe I just have TikTok ears, I don’t know.”

Roderick Ejuetami

But CKay has much bigger ambitions than one hit, and he admires the way that artists like Lil Nas X and Doja Cat have turned virality into sustainable careers. By the looks of it, he’s well on his way: on his first global tour this year, he was greeted with sold-out screaming fans from London to New York to Los Angeles, where they yelled every word of his recent single “Emiliana.” (He also performed to raucous applause at Coachella in April.) Women, particularly, seem taken with the man who calls himself “Africa’s boyfriend.” When asked about this particularly large slice of his fandom, he demurs, saying, “I think they just feel my vibe, my music, the way I dress.”

While “Love Nwantiti” continues to soar—it still tops the Billboard’s U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart—CKay has turned his focus to his debut album, which is slated to arrive this year. (During his U.S. tour, he met with stars like Diplo and Fat Joe, but wouldn’t reveal any details about collaborations.) If his current music repertoire is any guide, he’ll be using influence from Nigeria, the Middle East, and American hip-hop to push Afrobeats—a genre that was pioneered by Fela Kuti and more recently popularized by stars like Davido and Burna Boy—to new musical and cultural heights. As always, he’s doing things his way. “I represent the 21st century of an African experience,” he says. “If I’m going to make Afrobeats exactly the way my predecessors made it, then there’s literally no point.”

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