Uchenna van Capelleveen works as a warehouseman. Everyday he unloads thousands of packages from large containers, with some weighing almost 50 kilograms (110 lbs).
It’s monotonous work, but today is a bit different. Today a familiar face is glued to the side of one of the packages. It’s his own.
When Uchenna van Capelleveen isn’t unloading packages, he’s making music under the pseudonym Megaloh. Megaloh is an MC, or, to put it simply, a rapper, and the package with his face on contains posters for his upcoming tour around Germany.
Megaloh’s encounter with his own image is a telling coincidence. It says a lot about the current state of the German music industry, where, in recent years, economic rules have changed dramatically. How can it be that one of the most highly acclaimed rappers in Germany still needs to work in a warehouse? Especially as a part of the rap scene continues to trigger images of half-naked models, big cars, liquor and gold chains.
The reality for Megaloh, however, is quite the opposite.
“The kids may know you, but you can’t live off that.”
He released his first album “Endlich Unendlich” (Ending Unending) in 2013 and made it into the German hip-hop top ten. Ever since, critics have celebrated Megaloh as an “über-MC.” German hip-hop stars such as Samy Deluxe, Jan Delay, Afrob, and Max Herre praised and emulated his work. Mr. Herre even called Megaloh “one of the best lyricists in Germany.”
Last week, Megaloh released his new album “Regenmacher” (Rainmaker). The album’s first lyric already debunks the assumption that good reviews and praise lead to monetary success: They ask me if I can live from my music. / You can still see me on the bus at 4 a.m.
Megaloh rides the Berlin subway to his job across town at 4.15 a.m. Before leaving, he does 70 pushups in his bathroom – he wants to be in shape for his upcoming tour. He keeps to himself. His hood reaches his eyebrows and his backpack rests on his lap.
Megaloh rarely sleeps in transit and spends at least ten stops tending to his musical career. He answers e-mails about his new album. Journalists request interviews, fans would like an autograph. When his previous commute passed through Berlin’s central party districts, partygoers heading home after a night out would recognize him.
The digitization of music has produced a new type of artist. Nowadays, many artists are famous on YouTube and their songs often have more than a million listeners on Spotify. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into hard cash.
“In the end there is hardly anything left for musicians,” says Benni Dernhoff. The producer and songwriter has worked for prominent German artists such as Nico Suave and Revolverheld’s singer and guitarist Kris. “The kids may know you, but you can’t live off that.”
Peter Tschmuck is a professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He explains that as the physical space has become digital, streaming services have replaced downloading platforms. As a result, people are buying far less music both on and offline. Instead, people have turned to streaming services such as Spotify, where users pay a small monthly fee to have access to close to every record-producing band.
Each stream, however, only leads to an average “per stream” payout between $0.006 and $0.0084, and the majority ends up going to the record label. As a result, rights holders have begun to suffer losses, as can be seen with rising artists such as Megaloh. “Streaming is only worth it for record labels and top recording artists,” says Mr. Tschmuck, “the musical middle-class, on the other hand, has very little to gain.”
Megaloh has worked at supermarkets, in stage crews and tutored students to fund his music career. He worked as a warehouse clerk for five years, earning €14 ($15.40) an hour. When he first started he worked double shifts.
Now, following his modest success, he only needs to take the morning shift from 5-9 a.m. After work, he sits down at his computer and puts his life into lyrics. Megaloh doesn’t go on vacation. Instead, he uses his 28 vacation days to go on tour. He rarely sleeps more than four hours per night.
Megaloh got into hip-hop at age 13. He started off by making his own rhymes. “Of course my first lyrics were sh***y and I only copied what I knew,” he says, referring to classic American rap. He soon came up with the pseudonym “Megaloh,” a spin-off on the word “megalomania,” the delusion of grandeur.
His parents wanted their son to get a university degree. Instead, he founded the record label Level Eight with a French producer. Each record cost €1 to produce and so the duo decided to order 5,000. They never broke even.
“When we listened to Uchenna’s demo tape, we immediately agreed that we had to do something to advance his career.”
In order to understand how a company works, Megaloh began studying business administration. He finished the first two foundational years but then stopped attending classes. In a life of up and downs, his devotion to music was his only constant. He rapped in accordance with hip-hop clichés. Anyone who looks at his old music videos will see half-naked women, sun-glassed and liquor bottles. Back then, his lyrics revolved around sex, money, and, yes, b*tches.
When the rapper needed money in 2009, he signed a record deal that came with an advance. As part of the deal, he agreed to transfer his song rights to the producer. His advance was based on speculated GEMA-fees, German performance rights royalties.
Unfortunately, Megaloh’s dream to kick off a big career didn’t come true. Not even after joining forces with the well-known German singer Xavier Naidoo and making an appearance in Mr. Naidoo’s music video.
As a final attempt in 2010, Megaloh released his album “Monster.” From day one, he lived and breathed by the mantra “get back up after you fall.” Fifteen years later, he can’t do it anymore. Megaloh no longer believes that it’s possible to make money with music and put his album online for free.
Monster served as an outlet for the anger that built up in Megaloh over the years. His frustration with regard to his lack of success is further compounded by the racism he continues to experience.
Although Megaloh was born in Frankfurt, people still ask him, “No, I mean, where are you really from?” Megaloh’s mother is from Nigeria. Many cannot deal with the fact that Megaloh enjoys reading Goethe and can play Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusic” on the piano, while wearing baggy pants and having arms covered in tattoos.
As a teenager, Megaloh was almost part of the German national track and field team but decided to give up before making it. When he studied business administration, he stopped after four semesters. Will music be the next thing he calls off? When asked about his toughest opponent in life, Megaloh knows. “It’s me,” he says.
Max Herre’s band Freundeskreis greatly shaped German hip-hop. The artist also works as a producer and has known Megaloh for a few years. In 2011, he gave the rapper a record deal with his label Nesola. “When we listened to Uchenna’s demo tape, we immediately agreed that we had to do something to advance his career,” Mr. Herre said. Shortly afterwards, a suited up Megaloh appeared beside Max Herre in the German celebrity magazine Gala. Megaloh’s mother was one of the first to buy a copy.
Megaloh doesn’t talk to Max Herre and his wife Joy Denalane about his warehouse job. “I think they’ll have pity, I can see it in their eyes. And I don’t want to be pitied.” The rapper would like to quit his job by the end of this year. He longs to live not only for his music, but also from it.
His new album Regenmacher is meant to thread what Mr. Herre calls “the pop-needle.” But good sales figures alone are not enough. While artists used to earn money by selling CDs, artists like Megaloh earn most of their money with live performances. “Concerts account for up to 80 percent of a musician’s income,” producer Benni Dernhoff explains. In order to have more time to perform, Megaloh transferred seven of his vacation days from last year to 2016.
Last Friday evening, Megaloh commuted home from work to go to rehearsal. A few years ago, he imagined success in the form of a Maybach Exelero. But not anymore: Megaloh doesn’t even own a car. Instead, he has a year pass to Berlin’s public transport system.
Megaloh’s rehearsal space is fellow artists’ Musa and Ghanaian Stallion’s flatshare in Berlin’s Moabit district. They have known each since childhood. Today, they make music together. Musa and Ghanaian Stallion cooked a birthday dinner for “Uche’s” 35th birthday. They prepared fried plantains and peanut sauce, along with chicken and spinach.
“My patience paid off,” says Megaloh. He looks up from his plate. Next to the door, a younger version of Megaloh peers back at him from a tour poster from 2005. Off to its side, a sign reminds him: “Never ever give up.”
This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. You can contact the author via her Twitter account.