Spotlight on… Afrobeats ascendant – into 2023

AiW Guest: Sanya Osha.

Afrobeats is arguably a musical genre that initially evolved tied to the apron strings, albeit tenuously, of the magnificent legacy of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti – but one that has nonetheless managed to find its own direction and raison d’etre in its developments over the last couple of decades.

Take 2022. Afrobeats had another scorching year filled with bangers from a wide spectrum of artists. Largely more of the same as before in dishing out feel good vibes and stacking up dance crazes, just as you may be forgiven for thinking that Afrobeats artists have struck bottom in terms of inspiration, they surprise us yet again. 2023 seems set to build on these trends, extending transnational reach and crossover popularity as its hitmakers dig deeper into the troves of high life, R&B, hip hop and dancehall, those Latin and House influences shaping its future, and, of course, reach back to the foundational cornerstone of Kuti’s indelible Afrobeat.

Indeed, established and upcoming Afrobeats artists stretched the genre’s global imprint in ‘22 and a deluge of viral hits re-energised the genre. International breakthroughs, collabs and remixes by artists – Ida Banton, Goya Menor, King Promise, Ruga, and others – lit up faces, dance floors and social feeds with searing bangers. Kizz Daniel’s hit “Buga (Lo Lo Lo)”, featuring Tekno Miles, set Tik Tok ablaze with challenges, and Victony explored Latin possibilities in Afrobeats with an inimitable touch in hits such as “Soweto” and “Kolomental”. Camidoh’s sizzling cut, “Sugarcane”, needs to be added to the mix, while Crayon, for his own part, affirmed his presence on the scene with “Ijo labababa”.

Apparently, the fact that Afrobeats is rendered mainly in West African languages — from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast — hasn’t dimmed its global appeal. Its power stems from an innate primal heat, simmering tropical grooves and overwhelmingly good-natured vibes, bound to appeal to mass audiences, accelerating its rapid mobility and viral success. Burna Boy produced a worldwide anthem in “Last last” and lifted the 2022 MTV Europe Music Awards (EMAs) Best African Act trophy. Producer turned artist Pheelz signed a deal with Warner, also in early 2022, and the hit “Finesse”, featuring BNXN fka Buju, worked like the best ever summer charm; while Buju’s continued to consolidate his status as a certified master of hooks through collaborations with Wizkid, among others.

“Another banger” — Rema’s “Calm down” — had over 300 million views on YouTube by the end of the year. Rema also snagged a Selena Gomez remix which released in August, going on to dominate the number one spot on the weekly US Afrobeats Billboard chart – a chart that introduced its dedicated Afrobeats section in 2022 – from last September to date, in a record-breaking run. This January, the song also topped the Global Excl. U.S. chart in Rema’s first appearance on it, making him the first act from Africa to claim that particular number one spot. Audio of audience “Calm down” singalongs were popularised across socials, becoming the celebration soundtrack to a slew of 2022 events such as at the Qatar World Cup; at the NYE celebrations in Dubai, London, and Sidney; spawning, among countless others, a viral cover version played on the tabla.

Radio channels specifically devoted to the genre, in the vein of those such as UK’s Radio 1 Xtra, have emerged all over Europe. The “world’s biggest Afrobeats” Afro Nation Music Festival franchise, not surprisingly backed by Radio 1 Xtra, has held day events in the US, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Ghana and Mexico, with 2022’s edition back bigger and louder, being the first after the inaugural concert in 2019 and the hiatus of the pandemic. Even the United States, traditionally slower to pick up on non-American cultural trends, is increasingly showcasing Afrobeats hits on its airwaves. It was in 2022 that the American Music Awards created a distinct category for Afrobeats and Wizkid was bestowed the inaugural Favorite Afrobeats Artist award out of a field of nominees comprising Burna Boy, Ckay, Tems, and Fireboy DML. The Grammys and MTV Europe are now contemplating the same.

Commercially, this spread is impressive. From an artistic viewpoint, its frenetic pace could denote something more ominous. Lyrically there appears less and less to distinguish Afrobeats from the perennial pop music topics of young love and lust, wine, money, women and drugs, increasingly themes embraced by its contemporary artists. Comparatively little is known or celebrated about the multiple Afrobeats pairings across the continent or what’s occurring at the grassroots creativity of the scene, than the international, high profile but more mainstream remixes; neither does the originality and potency of Afrobeats stem from the validation of the Euro-American award ceremonies, despite the welcome shine of the global nod. And rather than looking backwards to its genesis for inspiration, Afrobeats as a whole appears to be turning elsewhere for growth and expansion.

Perhaps Kuti would have winced with dismay. Adamant about not diluting his message and vision, Kuti spurned efforts to have his sound go uber-commercial, reportedly turning down a lucrative offer from Motown to purchase his back catalogue. For him, music had deeper meaning, carrying with it considerable social responsibility.

Burna Boy, Afrobeats’ current biggest star, started off biting Kuti’s style and politics but has in the last year been seen to be caving in to the pressures of hip hop-inflected mega stardom and packaging, his social activist leanings waning: late to intervene during the anti-SARS protests in 2022, Burna’s utterances were deemed insufficiently effective. Wizkid, his compatriot, friend, and rival for the mantle of Afrobeats global king, remains deliberately quiet on any possibility of alignment with contentious issues such as politics and social justice. Although making some rare comments in interview and on his social channels dismissing the old political vanguard, like many successful mainstream pop stars, his lyrics keep it simple; beautiful women, uncomplicated club anthems and a fascination for trappings of the high life. The same can be said of Davido, another Afrobeats megastar, whose support of his uncle, Ademola Adeleke, and his successful campaign for governor of Osun State (Nigeria) in July has raised comment, but is an area resolutely separate from his music.

These kings of Afrobeats have in various ways proved they possess the cojones to take on the world’s stage of popular music and piss on it – and the dollars keep rolling in. And while this recent Afrobeats wave has been dominated by the overt raw power of like male success stories, alongside them, the increasing number of breakthrough young female artists – such as the rise of the likes of Ayra Starr and Tems, catching up with groundbreaking Tiwa Savage – demonstrate the more slippery scramble to crown the reigning Afrobeats’ Queen, showing a range of contestations with flavours a tad more subtle.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates Afrobeats’ creative dilemma and the tussle for its ultimate mantle than Tems’ 2022 summer trajectory. As Simran Hans for GQ has pointed out, in the same week that “Move” – the track Tems guested on with Beyoncé for the album Renaissance, also featuring Grace Jones – dropped online, Tems’ was the sound of the trailer for much anticipated Marvel  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, seen over 40 million times on YouTube, a Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack which itself overwhelmingly features Afrobeats cuts – also appearing on Barack Obama’s summer playlist. Yet her vibe continues to be “way too chill”, in Hans’ phrase, so laid back as to seem more suited to smoky clubs filled with appreciative patrons, as she hits a level of stardom that propels her front and centre of an aggressively competitive global stage. 

The “ageing” Tiwa Savage — so considered at just into her 40s, and someone who rejects the pressures of artificial, filtered beauty standards — or the youthful Ayra Starr, dubbed “Afropop’s latest eclectic It-girl”, may be less contentious fits.

As Savage put it in her acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate in Music from her UK alum, the University of Kent, in the summer of 2022: “Some call me queen, but it’s Dr. Savage from now on”. Dubbed “Beyoncé of Africa”, established, respected Dr Savage – who, by the time she began her solo career in the early 2010s, was already a Grammy-nominated songwriter and established vocalist, backing a raft of stars, including George Michael, Beyoncé, Ms Dynamite, and Mary J Blige, when still in her teens – is known for her advocacy for youth engagement, breast cancer screening programmes and support for those facing gender-based violence, as well as batting off criticism for her anti-corruption stance. And it is in the music and her expression of it. Savage’s late July concert in Kampala, explicitly empowered women in the industry, hosting female-only artists, DJs, and emcees – featuring Ugandan singers Vinka, Winnie Nwagi and Karole Kasita among others. 

Similarly, relative newcomer and firm global favourite Arya Starr, raised between Cotonou and Benin, is self-aware of the power of her position and her music platform on the Afrobeats scene. Now just 20 years old, Starr’s growth has been rapid, phenomenal and strategic, having started work on her debut with legendary music producer Don Jazzy at Mavin in early 2020, after an original track she released on Instagram caught his eye. Having amassed a worldwide Gen Z audience, who connect with her fresh fused sound and soulful, self-empowered lyrics, she sees herself as “part of the revolution – opening minds with the way I dress, the way that I speak and what I sing about”, going on to tell Music Week about a coming “wave of younger, amazing female musicians who can do what they want with less criticism” (August 31st 2022). Just after this interview, in September, Starr released a remix of the standout smash, “Bloody Samaritan” from her album, 19 & Dangerous, featuring Kelly Rowland, one in a legion of international fans who had joined in dance craze for the hit, and subsequently reached out to Starr for the collaboration. 

With cause, sceptics may argue that contained in this fruit of Afrobeats’ star studded ascendancy and crossover success are the seeds of future exhaustion. Afrobeats wriggled out of the sweltering Nigerian and Ghanaian underground scenes, artistically evolving onto the global stage, and into the clutches of a relentlessly commercialising capitalist machine. It has watched and drawn inspiration from hip hop, dancehall, reggae and R&B quite copiously and current trends are no exception. According to the logic of the global musical mosaic, 2022 could be the demonstration that it is fast becoming just one of the sonic ingredients in the generic potpourri. This crossroads situation has mixed implications. Does the magnitude of opportunities available to it in its wide acceptance signal the end of Afrobeats as we know it? Or are we seeing possibilities, the beginnings of something fresh and emergent, taking impetus from its roots to distinguish itself sonically, re-defining itself through new social paths? 

Signs could be good. There have been definite salutary developments during its latest wave, creating new opportunities for collaboration and cross-fertilisation. To take but one generic crossover example, Afrobeats’ deep dive into amapiano continued last year, with big names like Lojay, Goya Menor, Crayon, and Asake embracing the South African sound that sprouted from the economically depressed townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria, without negating their Afrobeats roots. Like Afrobeats, amapiano draws liberally from a mix – house music, jazz, kwaito, R&B – forming a blend of infectious clubland grooves coupled with emphatic electronic drum beats, and is the current dance craze gripping South Africa and beyond. On this score, Davido’s collaborations with South Africa’s Focalistic, an amapiano mainstay, on a number of hits beginning with the latter’s “Ke star” remix, are well noted, while other big name blends include Ckay, Niniola, and Nigeria’s Falz working with the likes of Bontle Smith and Kamo Mphela, Lady Du and Oskido.

Yet the pull of the beast of capitalism is a draw that continually demands fresh meat. Looking ahead to the Afrobeats mega reign continuing outward in 2023, are we to expect the acceleration of the same old tropes – boy-meets-girl vibes, superficial political lyrics at best, street-oriented wordplay? Maybe it is time, now more than ever, to take heed of those most important lessons offered by the breakthroughs and activist sensibilities bubbling beneath the surface gloss – all girded by the most infectious beats and rhythms ever concocted, as more souls learn to lose themselves in the streams of Afrobeats’ melodious grooves. 

Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021) among other publications. He is an Andrew Mellon Foundation supported senior research fellow  at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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2 replies

  1. I am so happy each time I receive this newsletter. One book I need to read (I picked it up at a community book drop off zone) is All Boys Aren’t Blue… the cover reminded me of Yellow Means Stay…

  2. This is a very interesting and timely unveiling of the topic of Afrobeat on this platform. While the credit for the genre of Afrobeats goes to the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti, for putting genre on an international platforn and for providing moneymaking template for contemporary Nigerian artists, it original, Ias i would want to reckon, dates back to our deamest past which could possibly be foregrounded in genres like Akpala and such like. What Fala has simply done is to provide a genre or data that opens up Afrobeat for intertextual studies. Also, beyond just a genre for entertainment, I also want to see Afrobeat a way of life. A genre which speaks to us about the life and people who consume the music form, a field where anthropological can thrive.

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