Between Homelands: Nigerian Pop Star Sings Her Way Home

CY Dieyi performs a cover of Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds” on stage at an event in Inglewood, CA.  (Myah Williams))

In her native country of Nigeria, CY Dieyi is a pop star. But she’s not well known in Los Angeles, where she currently lives. It’s a place where there are many talented musicians, but fame is often elusive. However, for CY, music isn’t necessarily about fame. It’s an expression of her identity, a connection to her roots.

To many of her friends from back home, CY’s music sounds “a bit too Western.” To counteract that claim, she has made choices in her songwriting to infuse the music with instrumental nuances that will connect to Nigerian culture.

In two of her popular songs that have played on Nigerian radio, “Puzzle Pieces” and “One Day,” we can hear elaborate background vocals that evoke a tribal chorus and indigenous drums with ethnic cadences.

However, since coming to America, CY has struggled to hold onto that musical connection to home.

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“My music is supposed to be me," CY says. "It’s supposed to be my thing, and part of who I am is a Nigerian. And if I’m not able to do that in my music then, you know, it’s like, ‘What’s the point?' ”

Singer CY is trying to crossover into the United States, while keeping what she calls her "Nigerian sound."
Singer CY is trying to cross over into the United States, while keeping what she calls her "Nigerian sound." (Cynthia Dieyi)

At a conference of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), CY says, she met a Chicago producer who was eager to work with her on a five-song EP. She flew to Chicago, and the first song they worked on together was called “Lazy Girl.” It’s an upbeat pop tune that turned out sounding more like something we might hear on the radio from Rihanna or Beyonce. CY says this particular producer wouldn’t take any of her creativity into account.

“He wouldn’t leave room for those things that I identify myself with," CY explains. So the end result was a version of “Lazy Girl” that was completely stripped of “her.”

“I’m on the outside looking in,” she says of her reaction to the finished product.

After that unsuccessful trip, CY came back to Los Angeles to regroup. Since then, she’s been performing at open mic nights around town and on campus at the University of Southern California, where she’s studying to earn a master’s degree in public relations. She’s continuing to write songs for her EP. Despite initial struggles to maintain her authentic Nigerian sound, she herself has noticed a shift in inspiration.

“I’m afraid I might be transitioning away from sounds that are that ethnic, and that bothers me,” CY admits. The song she’s currently working on, “Falling Into You,” explores a universal theme about unrequited love between friends.

“Falling Into You” is noticeably different from her other self-proclaimed “ethnic-sounding” songs, which signals a stylistic departure.

As her musicality evolves, CY says she never wants to stop creating. Her next major goal is to complete that EP, regardless of whether she finds a producer who understands her style or has to do it alone. After that, she hopes to partner with a nonprofit in the arts to promote the benefits of music for children and young adults by leading songwriting and performance workshops.

Ultimately, CY wants to hold onto her love of music without compromising herself.

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