How Afrobeats took over the world — and is still evolving
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In Accra’s Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, a statue of Ghana’s first president bears his influential words: “Forward ever, backward never”. The leader of the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957, Nkrumah dreamt of a self-sufficient and united continent. Today, a similar enterprising spirit underpins the spread of Afrobeats from Nigeria and Ghana to the rest of Africa, the diaspora and music charts across the globe.
Far from viewing African music as an anthropological study under the contentious label of “world music”, a new generation has built this ever-deepening movement since the mid 2000s. Its name refers to Afrobeat, a genre developed in Nigeria in the 1960s, led by the late, great Fela Kuti, which combined aspects of jazz, soul and Ghanaian highlife with the polyrhythmic drumming of the Yoruba, Ewe and Ga tribes.
Afrobeats, its younger cousin, acknowledges the past via samples of classics and familiar African drum patterns, reborn in hybrid electronic form, mixing them with elements of Afro-pop, Jamaican Dancehall and Afroswing.
In recent years it has crossed over to the mainstream, its biggest stars filling stadiums and infiltrating airwaves across Europe and the US. Its global popularity has been marked by Grammy wins, viral dance videos and sold-out arena tours. In July, Afrobeats superstar Wizkid will play London’s 62,000-seat Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
While the movement was incubated in Ghana and Nigeria, London proved to be a key finishing school for many of the scene’s artists, including the Nigerian trio of Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy. Initially played at West African hall-parties and independence day events across the city, the music moved from DJ Abrantee’s show on influential black radio station Choice FM to national playlists. Soon a UK Afrobeats scene emerged, with regular collaborations between African producers and UK artists, or vice versa.
A key moment was the release in 2012 of “Oliver Twist” by D’Banj, the first Afrobeats artist to enter the Official Singles Chart UK Top 10 after signing to Kanye West’s GOOD Music label. D’Banj’s catchy track and inspired hook was boosted by an accompanying video featuring cameos from West, rapper Pusha T and Congolese-British comedian Eddie Kadi, reflecting the scene’s growing cross-border fandom.
Since then, Afrobeats has been embraced by some of the world’s biggest pop stars. Beyoncé leaned on many of the scene’s leading protagonists for her Grammy-nominated soundtrack album The Lion King: The Gift and there have been hit remix collaborations between Justin Bieber and Wizkid (on singalong anthem “Essence”) and Selena Gomez and Benin City boy Rema on “Calm Down”. Most recently, at February’s NBA All-Star Game in Utah, newly crowned Grammy winner Tems, Rema and the more established Burna Boy performed a medley of their hits. A fresh generation of fans with similar heritages to these stars sang along in English and Pidgin English.
Yet after all this crossover success and recognition on the global level, how can Afrobeats continue to flourish?
Festivals in Africa and elsewhere are a vital starting point. The debut edition of Afro Nation in Portugal in 2019 brought online fan communities together in person on a major scale for the first time. Known as the world’s biggest Afrobeats festival, it has since spawned editions in Ghana, Puerto Rico and a forthcoming debut edition in Miami. These cultural showcases also serve a networking function, attracting music industry professionals who can help push the culture further.
Similarly, in Africa over the past decade, “Detty December” has come to describe a period between December and early January when the continent experiences a surge of foreign tourism. The influx of black Britons, Europeans and Americans is a unique opportunity for in-real-life collaboration between underground artists and the mainstream across the arts more widely. Rising platforms Oroko Radio and iMullar Sound System in Ghana, alongside established events in Palmwine Festival and Nativeland in Nigeria, show an appetite for experimentation, though arguably greater effort should be made to add more female headliners and alternative artists to line-ups.
Technology and streaming platforms have made it easier for African stars to be discovered by global audiences. Since its launch in Nigeria in 2015, Boomplay Music has become Africa’s largest music streaming and download service with 75mn monthly active users and an impressive catalogue.
Popular playlists such as “African Heat” and “Africa Now” on Spotify and Apple Music respectively have also sparked cross-border collaboration, with the former expanding into more than 80 new global markets in the past two years, for instance Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Benin. This has led to a blending of production styles from other growing African genres, including South African Amapiano and Kenyan Gengetone, with artists rapping in Swahili and Portuguese and creating an adaptable sonic template for expansion into the less spotlighted region of east Africa. Tanzanian bongo artist Diamond Platnumz has collaborated with Davido and the first lady of Afrobeats, Tiwa Savage. Meanwhile, Cape Verdean artist Mayra Andrade was featured on the smooth multilingual banger “Love Language” on renowned Ghanaian-British producer Juls’s recent album Sounds of My World.
Despite all this streaming success, however, royalty collection organisations such as PRS for Music in the UK have been unable to maximise the continent’s lucrative potential. Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, Tiwa Savage and Tems have all signed major-label deals in the past six years, yet music licensing deals in the African market often do not reflect the stars’ global popularity. There is a need for the stronger legal frameworks on music rights that are already in place in more developed markets.
Nigeria’s ageing and authoritarian leadership has been slow to support this growing young industry, but recent elections represented an opportunity for change. With more than half of Nigeria’s 220mn population, Africa’s largest, under the age of 19, and 70 per cent below the age of 30, young voters from urban areas came out in large numbers to vote for Peter Obi, the Labour party candidate. Despite his loss to new Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, Afrobeats played its part in the election run-up by addressing societal issues. One example is “Electricity” by Pheelz and Davido, which addresses the issue of how many Nigerians live without a reliable power supply and calls on the political class to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Afrobeats continues to evolve. Alté, denoting “alternative”, comprises an experimental style that draws on dancehall, indie and R&B and emphasises strong visual storytelling. A mix of hip-hop, house and even goth aesthetics, attuned with the rising popularity of Y2K culture across TikTok, represents crossover potential for some of the scene’s dominant producers: Juls, P2J, GuiltyBeatz, Sarz, Odunsi and sibling duo Legendury Beatz.
Sarz is one of Afrobeats’s most experienced producers, having worked with the likes of Nigerian singer Niniola on “Maradona” and Skepta & Wizkid on the anthemic “Energy (Stay Far Away)”. Yet, his incorporation of Amapiano club sounds on Lojay’s smash hit “Monalisa”, along with a subsequent remix by American artist Chris Brown, shows how Afrobeats and its many sub-genres create hybrid sounds by reaching across Africa. The song has more than 100mn streams to date globally.
Arguably one of the scene’s most versatile producers is Grammy-award winning P2J. An executive producer on Wizkid’s critically acclaimed Made In Lagos album, he branched out to produce six songs on Beyoncé’s The Gift and worked alongside GuiltyBeatz on “Move”, a track on her latest album Renaissance. The South London-based producer, who also cites reggae and gospel influences, says of his approach: “I tried to draw some grooves and textures from Afrobeat music and add it into funky house.” It’s this merging of different genres from both sides of the Atlantic that has brought African music to the mainstream organically, with artists showing an awareness of roots and references.
And what of Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of a united Africa?
The togetherness that underpins the Afrobeats scene was evident at the Black Star Line Festival, held in January. Founded by Chicago-born rappers Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa, who has Ghanaian heritage, it was held in Accra’s Independence Square and attracted 50,000 people. The host of A-list acts from Africa and the west featured multiple Grammy award winners in Erykah Badu, T-Pain, Ghanaian legend Sarkodie and east London Afroswing collective NSG, to name a few. Afrobeats’s unapologetically African energy continues to draw the diaspora back to the continent, bringing to mind the Akan tradition of Sankofa, which translates as “go back and get it”.
Through this physical homecoming and by creating a feeling of connection between peers who have previously felt lost in the west, African music-makers have built a strong community as a global movement. It’s one in which these artists set the pace for global pop and continue to innovate while wearing their African identity with a new cultural pride.
Christian Adofo is the author of ‘A Quick Ting On: Afrobeats’, published by Jacaranda Books