A Conversation with Kacii Eleven
Understanding how a Nigerian artist embraced NFTs.
We have been working hard on understanding the African crypto-landscape for the past few weeks. The report should be in your inbox on Monday. There are two ways to understand an ecosystem. First through the lens of a user that builds within it, and the second would be a top-down approach where you have an ecosystem map. In today’s issue, I wanted to publish a brief interview with an artist from the region as a pre-cursor to the ecosystem report itself.
Why? Because the people and their stories often matter more than the numbers. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to profile power users from a region and understand how they discovered, engaged with and started using crypto. Hopefully, this should help some founders build tools and applications for this user subset. Some of this may seem similar to many of your journeys in crypto.
How It Began
I first reached out to Kacii Eleven after noticing a tweet from Missan Harriman - the chair of South Bank Centre. An arts centre in London. He mentioned how she was on the front page of OpenSea and wanted a journalist to cover her work. So naturally, I reached out and explained what we do in this publication. She was kind enough to give me an hour to discuss her journey in crypto and how she perceives the NFT ecosystem. This article is what came from that conversation.
Kacii is an artist and musician from Abuja in Nigeria. She has been doing some exciting work at the intersection of music, art and NFTs . She has released two sets of NFTs released on OpenSea and is currently pursuing a master's in music technology in Helsinki. She first came across crypto in 2011. However, it was not until 2017 that the industry caught her attention again.
Crypto was in her mind for a while. But misconceptions about the industry kept her from being a participant in it. Kacii used to think the only way to acquire cryptocurrency was through mining them. The amount of misinformation on Nigerian media surrounding the industry and regional scams did not help either.
All of that changed around 2018 when a friend of her’s set up a group. This was to teach how to set up an exchange account and store crypto. It gave the initial nudge she needed to start getting involved. She set up a Trust wallet and opened accounts on FTX and Binance. Her early trades involved sums as small as $50. But there’s only so much one can trade through the depths of the bear market.
In late 2019, she saw the NFT ecosystem pick up steam on Twitter. The natural question was, how do you make use of this nascent technology in the context of music. She began using Rarible and noticed they gave away coins in exchange for trading there. Kacii had an idea of how coins worked by now, thanks to her friend, but she was also somebody studying the intersection of music and NFTs. In her mind - the dots that connected were between licensing and music. NFTs as instruments could enable anybody to license their music. At a fraction of the speed and cost from anywhere in the world.
Entering The Realm of NFTs
It wasn’t long before she issued her own set of NFTs. In August of 2021, she released her first set of NFTs. Each of the NFTs was hand-drawn and unique. Typically, when a set of NFTs is released - you automate the art creation to a certain extent. These are called a “generative” projects. In Kacii’s case, all artwork was made from scratch by hand. This was in addition to the fact that each NFT had proprietary tracks linked to them. So when a user purchased an NFT, they were not just getting an image. But also a piece of music alongside its rights.
In some sense, this shows how the future of stock images and music could evolve to be. A collective of creators could come together to form a DAO. This DAO could function as a cooperative where everyone adding art to the DAO owns a part of the collective. Every time a third party buys art - or as in most cases, streams or re-uses the artwork, the DAO could receive revenue. Members of the DAO could then redistribute the proceeds based on how much work they have put in. We will explore how some of those models emerge in another piece soon.
Some observations from me. Kacii got involved with crypto because someone proactively took the time to explain how to go about setting up a wallet and learning the basics. As with most people - speculation is what got her interested. But once she was in, the question became, “how do I use this”. And that is where NFTs came to play. Instead of waiting around to speculate on Jpegs, she released her own NFT set. For most new entrants, it may be far more profitable in the long run to use web3 to build and deploy cool things instead of speculating.
Kacii quickly realised that issuing NFTs on Ethereum may be highly costly. The price of releasing a single NFT could come to around $200 on a day with high on-chain activity. Not something you want to bear if you are testing an emergent technology. That is when she realised OpenSea also supports Polygon. This was back when Polygon had barely 180k users on the platform. Today close to 1.2 million users are relying on Polygon for NFT transactions. Once the NFTs were live, the next work was to find buyers for the NFTs.
I was thinking of a good way to put what Kacii said into perspective. So I took the average daily wages in India and Nigeria. Then compared it with what it costs to deploy an NFT on Ethereum and Polygon. Crude, I know. On Ethereum, it takes roughly three days of an average person’s wage in Nigeria to deploy an NFT, assuming low on-chain traffic. On Polygon, the cost is approximately ±1% of the amount and is far more affordable.
This is not a fair comparison and should not be used as a benchmark on its own. Ethereum costs markedly more for obvious reasons, but it puts into perspective why people from emerging nations (like India) flock toward lower-cost networks like Tron, Solana and Polygon.
As with all forms of art - releasing NFTs alone does not support artists. They need to have a large enough audience willing to buy the NFT. Kacii quickly realised that the key reason why most of the users buying NFTs were doing so was for a quick flip. Speculation is still the biggest draw among NFT enthusiasts. Back in Q3 2021, most of the marketing for NFTs used to happen through Clubhouse - an exclusive app for iPhone users.
As someone with an android device - Kacii barely had a platform to explain what her NFTs do. Technology can exclude sections of society in weird ways. Luckily for her, Twitter launched Spaces, and it became an avenue for emerging artists to speak of her work. In some sense, it shows one of the biggest challenges for new artists entering the space today. Discovery as a process is broken and largely reliant on the artist's hustle.
The first time she sold an NFT was when she spoke about her work to an anonymous handle on her Twitter. She reached out with a link to her work and asked if he would be interested in buying it. The person liked it for the art but did not have capital on Polygon (where Kacii’s NFTs were). So to avoid the hassle, he just sent her the ETH directly as payment, and Kacii manually sent him the NFT. The person then spoke about it on Twitter, and before she knew more of her NFTs were being sold.
I was curious to know if Kacii ever faced racism in the realm of NFTs and crypto-twitter. She said “Nobody has ever called me a monkey to my face, but I know what racism is”. When anonymous handles release speculative projects with generative art, the industry quickly adopts them because the expectation of making a quick buck is relatively high. When artists focus on making real art or music release it - we tend to be slower to adopt it.
Part of what makes it hard for non-speculative NFT projects to see adoption is that no platform focuses exclusively on them. We speak of Loot, Moonbirds and Azuki as they are released and distributed through well-known Twitter circles. Where does a new artist go? It makes me think there will likely be a marketplace exclusively for artists to create, distribute and engage with their audience in the years to come.
There is a particular asset Kacii did fall back on: cultural capital. I had been fascinated by the concept ever since I observed how Jay Z built his brand using Hip Hop to advocate for the black community in America through his work. Cultural capital is what you own through your understanding of a community’s ways of being. The inside jokes, food, music, and shared memories unite people. We see a variation of this in the token markets. For example, polygon usually finds its core community in India, although it is now a global brand. Similarly, NEO was a token embraced by the Chinese community for a while.
In Kacii’s words - she could arrange for the numbers, even when the money wasn’t there. The retweets and likes she got from the Nigerian community helped her be discovered. How? After a few months of putting in the effort, she was on the front page of OpenSea. She felt like she was finally being acknowledged for months of her work. When Kacii started working on NFTs, less than 20 Nigerian artists worked with NFTs. She says that there are likely over 200 working with NFTs now. Small nudges like featuring artists from different regions on the front page could have massive consequences in enabling new markets for NFTs.
Parting Notes and Concerns
According to Kacii, new ways of expressing art like NFTs create opportunities for artists in ways that did not exist earlier. Creators in the region had to rely on local demand for their work. With the arrival of NFTs, it has become possible to find buyers from any corner of the world. ( Part of what makes trends like NFTs and P2E interesting is that we have a permissionless payments settlement system enabling them. If you want to understand why that matters - think of when’s the last time you paid someone in Nigeria through traditional banking rails)
Nigeria’s regulators have had a bit of back and forth around crypto as an asset class. Until recently, there was an outright ban. That is now slowly shifting, with rumours of regulations emerging in corners of the market. Unfortunately, the lack of certainty does not help locals use the technology to make a living. Exchange rates often shift violently depending on local sentiment.
When I first reached out to Kacii, it was out of curiosity. I wanted to know how a musician went from learning about crypto to being on the front page of OpenSea. I also wanted to understand how and where we fail the new crop of users entering the space. Kacii’s one key ask for the industry was for us to work on security. The number of hacks and the extent of losses doesn’t inspire confidence when one’s livelihood relies on digital assets. That is a fair ask, given what transpired with Luna and UST last week. There is much to be worked on.
I’ll see you guys next with a report on the African ecosystem. In the meantime, come hang out with us at Telegram if you enjoyed reading this.
Note: This article was an Indian dude living in Dubai working with a hedge fund based out of New York. I am by no means an expert on Nigeria or art. Do write to me if I have erred on my coverage. I am looking to cover stories of more people working at the intersection of technology and social change. Ping me if you are building cool things.
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