"WORLD CLASS MUSIC WITH AN AFRICAN ACCENT" - D'banj
It's been a long time coming, but the tipping point appears to have occurred in the last eighteen months. In that time the urban African "sound" of artists like D'banj and Sarkodie that, in the diaspora, had previously been confined to "African" parties, "African" club nights and specialist shows on the radio spilled into the mainstream, and nowhere more so than in the UK.
The name Afrobeats (not to be mistaken with Afrobeat, the music breathed into life by Fela Kuti) was coined to describe what is, in reality, a collection of different styles from several countries in West Africa, but it's a useful handle in the same way that "Jazz" is a useful term for a number of styles that don't all sound similar and come from different places.
This spillover into the mainstream is significant at a cultural level, but its significance from the point of view of identity, the identity of Africans in the diaspora, is just as interesting and important. If you want to learn more about this, tune in the BBC 1Xtra DJ Edu-presented The Rise of Afrobeats, which ran on Sunday night and remains available online for the next 5 days.
The UK Guardian also just ran a feature on the phenomenon. London-based DJ Abrantee describes it as follows: "This is specifically the western African sound: there are a lot of shared ideas between (Nigeria and Ghana). I see Afrobeats as music which makes the heart beat. And it's funky, and hyped, and energetic and young." (After the article was published, some people got upset over the issue of who exactly coined the term "Afrobeats", but that takes nothing away from the phenomenon).
So why is it the UK in particular that is at the forefront of this injection of urban African energy into the global mainstream when the US is only slowly making its way to the table? Here are 5 reasons:
1. "SAME" NEW SONGS
Donaeo’s UK Funky House hit "Party Hard" became a hit in his home country Ghana
Afrobeats is typically undefined. The odd Autotune effect here, the Euro dance-style bpm there, all of them add up to the every-sound makings of the upbeat genre’s clear intention of dancefloor domination. Funky house, for example, now almost defunct in the UK, is somewhat re-incarnated in much of the current Afrobeat repertoire. You’ll pick it up in Ghana’s sound of the moment Azonto, which mostly makes use of the four-to-the-floor kick from Donaeo’s UK Funky House hit. It’s easy to convince a secondary British audience with.
2. AFRO SUPERSTARS
UK Rappers Wretch 32 and Chipmunk learn Azonto from Sarkodie
The successful recording-artist per capita ratio in the UK of direct African descent is unmatched in the diaspora. Tinchy Stryder, Estelle, Sway, Tinie Tempah, Lethal B, Dizzee Rascal, Taio Cruz and many more; all successful stories within their respective genres of UK pop music reinforce a renewed wave of pride in African identity, and similar successes are coming from the world of fashion and film in the UK. And this makes for a climate all the more receptive to the "imported" genre.
3. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Since Afrobeats springs from (and is dominated by) Naija pop followed by Ghanaian hiplife, it has the advantage of a large and increasingly influential UK-based "community", out which its core fans will have emerged. Like bashment and dancehall, Afrobeats has aspects of patriotism as part of its appeal, fuelling its popularity with the African diasporan community but also easing the access for music genres from other African countries.
The UK has a larger Nigerian diaspora than that of the US. There were 154,000 Nigerian-born residents in the UK in 2009, but this is thought to be a low estimate as it doesn't include undocumented gidians and their kids. If you count people of Nigerian heritage, then the number is apparently anywhere between 800,000 and 3 million. It's not for nothing that London is sometimes referred to as the 37th state (and Peckham, "Little Lagos"). Pair that with a typical hustle-ready attitude and you have the sturdy basis for a cultural movement.
4. CREATIVE BREEDING GROUND
Afrobeats blueprint: D'banj - "Fall In Love"
The UK is established as an incubator for music sub-cultures that mature into sought-after sounds by the big music names looking for the next big thing. The documented success of UK producers from Adam F in the 90s to Labrinth (Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out) in 2011 demonstrates this. It would seem that sounds and cultures once considered niche eventually get a fair shake at the commercial stick.
By this reasoning it was only a matter of time that we went from the odd African song played at wedding receptions (Premiere Gaou by Magic system, Tuface’s African Queen, D’banj’s Fall in Love) to entire club sets, playlists on mainstream radio stations, and most likely eventually outward to the global music scene.
5. NEW AFRICAN MEDIA
Within the media, a number of influential proponents of contemporary African popular culture have emerged in the last 7 years, with a fair number of them headquartered in London – FAB Magazine, Arise Magazine, Factory 78, BBC 1 Xtra’s DNA…it’s a long list. And it stands to reason that the subject immediately within reach will likely enjoy first dibs on inches and air time.
Don't forget to listen to BBC 1Xtra's The Rise of Afrobeats before its taken down. You can also join in the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #theriseofafrobeats.