Dressed in what appears to be a very expensive designer track top, from the neck down the man in front of me certainly looks the part of professional footballer on a day off. Box-fresh white Nikes, baggy shorts over sports tights and gloves complete the look – along with the studded black rose mask concealing his identity.
This is Dide, an incognito rapper who started releasing music online earlier in 2023. Why the mystery? Because, he claims, he is also a current Premier League player.
Strolling across a small city pitch usually reserved for five-a-side games near London’s Waterloo Station, a far cry from the multimillion-pound stadiums he says he is used to, he says hello and shakes hands with the Sky News crew before settling down on the astroturf to give his first on-camera interview, his manager and also his own cameraman in tow.
Word spreads quickly and a small crowd of young footballers grows behind us, eager to watch the man in the strange mask, potentially a British footballing hero, in action.
Dide’s appearance gives little away; he’s about 5ft 10in and slender-ish, though the top is loose, pretty much every inch of his body is covered. The voice that has clocked up millions of YouTube views and Spotify plays, now speaking in person – the accent suggests London – is not distorted or changed in any way, he assures.
There has been frenzied speculation and numerous headlines written since the release of his first track, Thrill, in April. The song has racked up more than 5m plays on Spotify and Dide has more than 200,000 monthly listeners; on YouTube, the track has 2.3m views and the artist almost 80,000 subscribers.
Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah seems to be the favourite among internet sleuths, but other names in the mix include Nketiah’s teammates Bukayo Saka and Reiss Nelson, Chelsea’s Noni Madueke, Fulham’s Alex Iwobi – already known for his rapping skills – and West Ham’s Michail Antonio.
Plus, Wilfried Zaha and Sheyi Ojo, although Zaha moved from Crystal Palace to Turkey’s Galatasaray earlier this year, and Ojo is on loan in Belgium from Championship club Cardiff City – but did play for Liverpool until 2022. Everything from video locations – Bermondsey has been spotted – to possible tattoos has been poured over for a potential giveaway.
Image: Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah is among the names in mix Or, could this all be a clever marketing ploy? There is no doubt the anonymity has helped create a wave of interest. His lyrics feed the hype, with references to a team that “stays winning” and players including Neymar and Harry Kane, as well as him “seeing seven figures”.
Sky News asked to verify Dide’s identity not for publication, but he politely declined. However, rather than requesting to meet at perhaps the safer option of a music studio, he did agree to a football pitch, prepared to show off his skills – more on this later.
He also doesn’t dodge questions about the stadiums he’s played at or the players he’s faced during his career. Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium has the best changing rooms, apparently; interestingly, considering they were only promoted this season, Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road the worst. “No disrespect”.
Image: Luton’s Kenilworth Road Stadium. Pic: AP/Frank Augstein A quick look at the fixtures confirms only four Premier League teams have played Luton Town at Kenilworth Road this season: West Ham, Wolves, Burnley, Spurs. Then there’s the date of our interview, the afternoon of Sunday 22 October. If Dide plays for West Ham, he has just half an hour afterwards to kick off against Aston Villa, at Villa Park. Even Kylian Mbappe isn’t that quick.
Would he really narrow it down by this much? Could he be a more recent Premier League signing who played Luton previously in the Championship? Or could his Luton answer be a slip-up?
‘I see things from afar’
Image: Pic: BLVCKROSE Ltd Dide insists he’s the real deal. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he says. “Obviously we made the decision [to be anonymous] and we ran with it. It kind of organically happened. Nothing was really thought out to trick people… The main thing for me is the music rather than the football player. I guess fans and the public ran with all these different opinions, which is cool. But it was definitely not a marketing trick.”
He says his favourite player of all time is Arsenal hero Thierry Henry – a clue to his team, maybe? – and the greatest player he has come up against is recently retired former Chelsea and Real Madrid star Eden Hazard. The most annoying thing about being a Premier League footballer is “not being able to go to Tesco or something like that… you don’t really have a life outside of football, there’s always eyes on you”. It’s a fairly standard answer on the worst aspects of celebrity – but if true, suggests he could be at the more high-profile end of the fame scale.
Giving a fact most wouldn’t know about the league, he offers a fairly detailed answer about how referees explain changes and new regulations to teams at the start of each season. And his take on VAR? “Obviously it’s good because it makes it fair, but it kind of takes out the emotion.”
He speaks slowly, pausing often and considering his responses. He refers to “we”, which is Dide and his manager, Shola Akins, one of apparently very few people to know his real identity. The music is released through their label BLVCKROSE Ltd and Akins, who has previously worked as a music editor, says they have known each other for a few years.
The anonymity “protects myself, protects other football players as well”, Dide says, because his lyrics don’t just tell his own stories. “It might be about my teammate, for example.” They also take in politics, with Thrill tackling knife crime and poverty: “F*** being rich, I’d rather help the poor/ Government’s got no remorse/ And Rishi Sunak couldn’t help the cause/ So here’s Dide spitting peace tryna wipe the floor.”
“I see things from afar and I feel like, especially at the moment, there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of people need support,” he says. “A lot of the communities and the young people, some people don’t have places to live. The economy at the moment ain’t great, prices are rising. And I feel like Rishi Sunak and the government, obviously they’re responsible for that. I think that specific lyric was more of a cry out for help for our community.”
‘Footballers are human beings – we do have feelings’
Image: Pic: BLVCKROSE Ltd Players can often face criticism on and off the pitch, he says, giving another reason for his mask. “Every game we get criticised, when we win, when we draw, whether you play bad, whether you play good. Adding something outside of football is just adding more [potential for] criticism. So it was easy for me to make that decision to try and keep the music separate. And, you know, they’re two different things. My effort and my concentration towards football is 100%.”
Dide says he has come to see making music as a form of therapy, a way to “let it all out”. Is mental health an issue in the sport? “I don’t want to seem like we don’t get support because we do,” he says. “Obviously the PFA are big on mental health and supporting the players… but definitely mental health is a big thing in football.
“A lot of people don’t really get to see what goes on behind the scenes… whether you’re playing one minute and you’re dropped, whether you’re injured for however many weeks. People don’t really see how that can affect you as a human being. That’s definitely one of the main topics I want to touch on in the music, because people need to understand that footballers are human beings as well… we do have feelings, we do have things we’re going through outside of football as well.”
Dide says he hopes to motivate younger footballers and fans, “spread a positive vibe”, as well as detail “the highs and lows”. Following the release of his first mixtape, Who Is Dide?, featuring tracks including Derby Day and Tactical Foul, in September, how does he answer the titular question? “I feel like Dide is a voice for football players, for the sport.”
He has apparently been playing football, his “first love”, since he was six, says it is all he has ever considered as a career. Music, he reveals, is a passion for a lot of players behind the scenes but was never something he always planned to pursue seriously. “One day we had training, we had the day off the next day, me and my teammates thought: why not? Let’s go studio… It kind of just progressed into what it is. It wasn’t really something I planned to do, but it’s just another way of expressing myself.”
Clarifying, he says his teammates remain in the dark. “A lot of us go into the studio just for fun, but no one really knows how far it’s gone.” But some of them have their suspicions. “They ask me, like, ‘Oh, is it you?’… But just the same way that it can be me, it could be someone else. So there’s no real one thing that would make it be, you know, one football player.”
The mask features roses because his favourite colour is rose gold, he says, which certainly sounds like a credible answer for someone who could afford rose gold jewellery. Both the mask and the name Dide contain clues to who he is, he adds. “As the music comes out, it will kind of make sense… Maybe I might reveal myself in the future. Who knows?”
Some have questioned how a professional footballer could dedicate so much time to another venture. Dide admits he has just one day off a week, sometimes two, “depending on if we win or get a good result”. His free time comes in the evening “when you’re at home chilling by yourself, or with your family, whatever. That’s when I start writing music… or playing FIFA with my teammates. It’s not something I have to go out my way to do because I’m at home anyway”.
What do the experts say?
Image: Could Dide be England and Arsenal star Bukayo Saka? Pic: Europa Press via AP Trying to get to the bottom of it all, we spoke to a football writer, a music expert and an accent coach to get their thoughts.
British grime DJ and hip-hop expert Alex de Lacey, an assistant professor of popular music at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, says the interesting thing about Dide is the crossover between football and entertainment. David Beckham set the precedent for this back in the 1990s with his moves into fashion, and John Barnes is almost as famous now for his rap on New Order’s World In Motion, England’s 1990 World Cup song, as he is for his football. Believe it or not, Eric Cantona is currently on tour after releasing his first single, and recently there has been a political crossover, too, most notably through Marcus Rashford’s social campaigning.
“You saw it in the ’90s, some kind of engagement between Britpop and football and this kind of conflation in culture. But UK rap and drill and football is much more tied together… there was the grime clash between Bradley Wright-Phillips and Yannick Bolasie. And now what we’re seeing is musicians and footballers hanging out, socialising, and this sense of proximity is much more pronounced than it was before.”
Alex says “a lot of work” has gone into Dide’s music, with a considered approach taken and “super high production values”. The mystery surrounding the claimed Premier League player identity is “very clever”, but “the music itself backs it up,” he says. “It would be harder to succeed in this way if he wasn’t a good rapper.”
He says Dide’s real identity actually doesn’t matter as much as what he represents – “a reflection of this increasing overlap between football, music, entertainment” – and the point at which people find out “means it’s no longer as interesting”. As an Arsenal fan, however, he says it would be exciting to discover the rapper is a Gunner. “They’re also very hot on their music partnerships, they had Pusha T in the third kit recently. But it’s all just conjecture – which I guess is the point of it.”
He continues: “A lot of young men and women growing up in London, in the inner city… they have a proximity to this culture in a way that means they probably did rap when they were kids. So they kind of grew up rapping, listening to the same tunes, playing football… they say the main way to succeed is through football or through rap. I think that’s something which has been cultivated over the past 20 years with young people in their everyday social life. So the likelihood of this happening more and more just seems pretty apparent.”
Voice and accent coach Ashley Howard had a listen to Dide’s tracks and speaking voice to see if he could shed any light on his identity, analysing his music and speech against the speech of some of the frontrunners. The rapper’s accent falls into the category of “multicultural London English”, he says, which is influenced by east London as well as the Caribbean, Africa and India, and now heard mainly in south London but also further afield around the capital and other parts of the UK.
Image: Alex Iwobi moved from Everton to Fulham in September. Pic: AP Photo/Jon Super There are occasional intonations in Dide’s rapping that would suggest Jamaican influence or heritage, which might suggest Michail Antonio or even Raheem Sterling, he says. However, this could also be down to the difference between Dide’s speaking voice and rapping voice, he adds, as there can be a difference.
But you also have to listen to the placement and rhythm of someone’s accent as well, which he says makes him rule out Antonio. Iwobi and Ojo are possibles, he says, but Saka is most similar. “I think it could be his voice… Dide’s voice is quite far forward, there’s a very light and open quality to his rapping. And I think Bukayo’s voice lends itself a bit more towards that.”
So what do football experts think? Mark White, a writer for the FourFourTwo magazine and website, is sceptical. “Given how much fans study players these days, given how nothing is secret in football, I think it would be very, very unlikely to be a Premier League footballer,” he says. “I might be wrong, but if Dide is actually a Premier League footballer, I’ve got the feeling he’s had to throw people off the scent with his lyrics a little bit.”
White has met Nketiah and doesn’t believe he is the man behind the mask. Of all the theories, like our voice coach he thinks England star Saka’s speaking voice is the closest match. “But it feels like that would be too good to be true, if one of the best players in the world at the moment was also moonlighting as a rapper. I think that would just be too exciting.”
So… can Dide take a penalty?
After we chat, Dide swaps his trainers for football boots and puts the ball on the spot – pointing out the difficulties in doing this while wearing his mask. The first couple of shots are saved by one of the young boys from the crowd who has happily offered to play goalie, but he soon gets into his stride.
Is he convincing? I definitely want to believe it – and there’s no reason why a professional footballer couldn’t also be a talented rapper. Based on his skills? He definitely plays football and knows what he’s doing, controlling the ball easily, but it’s hard to say whether that means Premier League, especially based on the short time we see him in action. It’s worth noting the mask once again, the small five-a-side goal, and also that he doesn’t appear to be treating his shots with the gravitas of, say, a cup final. Plus, he wouldn’t be the first English player to miss a penalty – though I don’t imagine the pressure of scoring in front of a Sky News crew is quite the same as a game watched by millions.
As for what’s next for Dide, there are apparently plans to play live shows at some point, working around his schedule. And there is nothing in his contract that would stop him from releasing music, he says, whether he ever reveals his identity or not.
“If anything [the music is] a positive. I’m trying to inspire other people, inspire other football players to come out and speak their truth… and just express themselves. Obviously, football is the main priority and if I was coming in late to training or whatever, then obviously that would be a problem. But I like doing music in my spare time. To me, it’s better than going out clubbing or whatever.”
On the speculation, he says the strangest theory he has come across is that Dide is Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire. “To me, that’s funny. Obviously I know Harry Maguire quite well… but I don’t really look at social media too much.”
Instead, his “main happiness” comes from the positive reaction and “what people are saying about the actual music itself”, he says. “Long may that continue.”
Are we any closer to answering the question: who is Dide? Maybe a little. But it looks like the mystery will stay alive for a while yet.