That Nigerian artists nabbed two of the six nominations for BET's "Best International Act: Africa" award is no surprise. As allafrica.com pointed out the other day, Nigeria might well be the new DR Congo in terms of the sheer amount of good music produced by one country, in particular music that is popular and influential all over the continent. No better sign of this influence than the fact that artists from other countries are now imitating the "Naija sound" and intonation that you hear in the music of D'banj, J. Martins, P-Square, Tiwa Savage, and a long list of others.
That said Soukous, DR Congo's most popular musical export, continues to be refreshed by the new generation of artists like Fally Ipupa and Werrason, who've ramped up the BPM in line with what music fans expect today from dance music. Yet Soukous suffers in comparison to Naija music in one key respect: It has one leg in the past (it originated in the 1930s/1940s), which is why new listeners sometimes classify it unfairly as "world music". Naija music on the other hand sounds thoroughly modern, and even manages to convey the character of Nigerians who, after all, are known all over the world - fresh, exuberant, stylish, confident, unapologetically Nigerian, all of which Nigerians encapsulate in the word "swagger". This might even be the character Africans in general - or at least Africans under the ager of 30 - would like the continent as a whole to convey, or how they'd like the continent to be seen from within but especially from without. Other modern styles of music do this, too - Kuduro, South African House music, Kwaito, Bongo Flava, Hiplife, etc. - but none so far to same extent. Probably because the "foreign" part of the roots of these other styles is still discernible, whereas Naija music has truly become its own thing (which is why the default label "R&B" doesn't fit most of the artists to whom it is applied).
A long list of creative musicians and producers from all over the continent have shown just how well we can make non-homegrown styles like Hip-hop, Soul, R&B and House "our own", but there's nothing quite like a new generation of artists developing a style (almost) from scratch and taking it around the world with great success to make people feel, yes, this is who we are today!
Anyway, here are the six nominees for the 2011 BET award for "Best International Act: Africa":
2FACE IDIBIA (Nigeria)
Singer, songwriter, actor, record producer 2Face Idibia has been one of the most recognisable names and faces of contemporary urban Nigerian music since the late 1990s. Much awarded, his international profile got an even bigger boost when his well-loved track African Queen was used in the soundtrack to the 2006 motion picture Phat Girlz.
Singer, songwriter, harmonica-player D’Banj (aka The Koko Master) is the most internationally popular solo artist from Nigeria today. If he wins this award he'll be adding it to a long list that includes Best African Act, MTV Europe Awards 2007 and Artist of the Year an the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2009.
Versatile Hip-hop artist D-Black (aka Yes Boss) has shown just what he's made of in the past year, representing Ghana at the first ever BET Hip-hop Cypher and racking up nominations all over the place, including the Channel O Awards in South Africa.
Ghanaian music fas will be keeping their fingers crossed after the previous Ghanaian nominee, Kojo Antwi, failed to walk away with the award.
FALLY IPUPA (DR Congo)
The nomination list just wouldn't be complete without an artist from DR Congo, and no one at the moment deserves this nomination more than stylish, golden-voiced singer, songwriter and guitarist Fally Ipupa who's blend of Soukous, Ndombolo, Pop and R&B has gained him an international audience - and many awards - since going solo in 2006.
ANGELIQUE KIDJO (Benin)
Compared to Angélique Kidjo the other nominees are babes in the woods. The Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter had a No. 1 album on the Billboard charts before any of the others here had even thought about music as a career, and she's been racking up hits and performing on the world's stages ever since, as well as recording with artists like Peter Gabriel, Cassandra Wilson, Branford Marsalis, Ziggy Marley, Bono and John Legend. She also happens to be an activist, a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador, campaigner for women's rights, fair trade, environmentalism, to name a few; the BBC lists her as one of Africa's top 50 most iconic figures, and The Guardian recently listed her as one of their Top 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World.
How on earth the BET judges are going to decide between an icon like Angélique and the rest of the nominees is a complete mystery. I mean, Angélique's inclusion kind of reveals the absurdity of having one category for all contemporary urban African artists, don't you think?
TEARGAS (South Africa)
The South African Hip-hop trio may have only three albums to their name, but with each one they've managed to hit the double home run of critical and popular acclaim, and the award ceremonies haven't been slow to acknowledge their craft - they walked away with the Best Rap Album award at last year's South African Music Awards.
This is only the second time in its 11-year history that the BET Awards will be honouring African musicians, and the first time that the African acts will be in a standalone category, instead of being lumped in with acts from the UK under a general Best International Act category. A sign that contemporary urban music from Africa is finally being recognised for its distinctiveness, stature and international clout.
The BET Awards will air on the 26th of June.