For the last half a decade, Afrobeats has been the ubiquitous sound to emerge from Africa. No other style of music from the continent has garnered this level of popularity and global penetration in recent years. The Afrobeats sound is everywhere, and it is being driven by a largely African diaspora audience. But where did it start?
In the summer of 2016, Nigerian businessman and impresario Paul Okoye organised one of the most impressive and ambitious concerts in recent memory. It was the inaugural One Africa Music Fest at the Barclays Center Arena in Brooklyn, New York City. With a formidable lineup that included talents like Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Don Jazzy, Flavour, Jidenna, Timaya, Banky W and more, this concert did not involve the usual Western interlopers running the show behind the scenes or granting their approval. This was all Paul Okoye and his team. A decade ago it would have been unthinkable to sell out a concert featuring African artists and African promoters at an arena the size of Barclays Centre. A crowd of 15 000 showing up at a major sporting arena to see nothing but millennial African musicians is a big deal. It signalled that Africans had arrived, and that they were doing so on their own terms.
Following the success of the inaugural One Africa Music Fest, Paul Okoye’s concert series has now become a brand. Mega shows have followed at the Toyota Center in Houston and the SSE Arena in Wembley, London. More shows are slated for 2017 in Coney Island, New York, and in Dubai. The One Africa Music Fest series stands as an affirmation of all things Afrobeats.
Prior to Paul Okoye’s One Africa Music Fest series, Ghanaian concert promoter Terry Masson sold out the legendary Apollo Theatre in the summer of 2015. The concert was aptly titled “History in the Making” and the Ghanaian community in New York showed up for it. The headliner was hiplife star Sarkodie. The rest of the line-up featured primarily Ghanaian talent and included Shatta Wale, Bisa Kdei, Samini, E.L., The Compozers, Kwaw Kese and others. Also there was Banky W, who is the host of the One Africa Music series. Masson’s History in the Making concert with Sarkodie proved that an African show put on by African promoter can be a huge success. After all, if you can succeed in New York, you can succeed anywhere.
The music of the youth
The term “Afrobeats”, not to be confused with the Afrobeat style pioneered by Fela Kuti, was coined by DJ Abrantee in the United Kingdom circa 2011. It is the music of the youth. Afrobeats eschews the jazzy, political inflections of Fela’s Afrobeat – much to the dismay of musical purists who often do not agree with the terminology used to describe the new sound. They feel the name is too similar to Afrobeat, only for the message to be so dissimilar.
Afrobeats draws from everything – hip-hop, reggae, soca, dancehall, highlife and everything in between. It is no surprise that the music largely speaks to the African diaspora, as it clearly draws from the various Afro music styles scattered across the diaspora.
Despite the international influences, however, Abrantee noted that this sound was still largely Nigerian and Ghanaian. “This is specifically the western African sound: there are a lot of shared ideas between these two neighbouring countries. I see Afrobeats as music which makes the heartbeat. And it’s funky, and hyped, and energetic and young,” Abrantee told The Guardian back in 2012. “I’ve been playing this music to 3 000 or 4 000 people at African events in the UK for years.”
For the past seven years, there have been lots of Afrobeats hits from artists like P-Square, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Flavour, Don Jazzy and others. However, the wider world began to pay attention in 2011, when D’Banj signed to Kanye West’s label, G.O.O.D. Music. His song Oliver Twist became a huge success in 2012, and it became ubiquitous. D’Banj was the biggest Nigerian artist at the time, but he never seemed to follow up the success of Oliver Twist. Nevertheless, he brought the music to a much wider audience.
The cultural shift that brought us here
The perception of African music that exists outside of the African diaspora audience is not exactly sophisticated. Typically, the tropes of exoticism apply. African music fits neatly into the Western cultural lens of ‘world music’. Essentially, the music is either something from the past, or something that evokes tribal exoticism in the Western mindset and their understanding of what African representation should be, not what Africa is today. Africa is viewed as being in a time capsule, and not as a dynamic continent that is changing with the times. This is the reason that the audiences at Afrobeats concerts are primarily young Africans, as opposed to the largely white audiences that go to see the African artists who are firmly ensconced in the ‘world music’ category.
The days prior to the Internet meant that the representation of African music and Africans, in general, was at the behest of Western tastemakers and gatekeepers. They had firm control. The Internet democratised the process of hearing hitherto unheard voices by removing the barriers to entry. Now voices could be heard by those who wanted to listen. Gone were the days when you needed to reach out to a Western outlet for exposure or promotion. Africans are doing it themselves. In turn, the breadth and diversity of music from the continent now reaches the diaspora scattered across the globe. The result is that young people can see and hear music from artists that truly represent them, and not some idea of what an African artist is supposed to be.
Gone were the days when you needed to reach out to a Western outlet for exposure or promotion.
Today, Wizkid is an icon. He could not have been one 20 years ago without the sheer growth of the African diaspora forcing a cultural shift and wresting away Western domination of African narratives and art. Without this shift, many African artists would have been relegated to the ghettos of world music, a place from which many African artists of yore could not escape, despite their attempts at crossover appeal.
Wizkid leads the way There is no shortage of Afrobeats artists, but Wizkid is the artist making the biggest splash internationally. The mantle vacated by D’Banj a few years ago now rests squarely on Wizkid. He became the first Nigerian artist to make the American charts with his appearance on Drake’s “One Dance”. Wizkid had been high profile for years, but that profile reached unprecedented heights when he collaborated with Drake and the UK grime artist Skepta for the remix of his song “Ojuelegba”. Since then, he has signed a multi-album record deal with RCA/Sony Music and recently released the album Sounds from the Other Side.. The album features the heavy-hitters Drake, Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Ty Dolla Sign and Major Lazer. This fall, Wizkid will embark on a tour with the rapper Future.
Afrobeats is here to stay
With more festivals and tours taking place, and with artists like Wizkid at the helm, Afrobeats certainly looks like it is here to stay; at least for a few more years. Given that the large (and very young) African diaspora continues to grow, the built-in fan base will always be there to support the movement until young, creative Africans bring us the next new genre of music. Until then, the Afrobeats train continues to chug along – and this time the conductor is an African. All aboard!
This is part of a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa. The other articles can be found below: