If a reputable music awards organisation in America were to include a category for "Best International Act: Europe", I'm sure it would raise a few eyebrows, and elicit a few chuckles. How would you shoehorn such diversity into one category? But few bat an eyelid at BET's "Best International Act: Africa" category, the nominations of which were released a a few weeks ago.
Recognising African music and artists by lumping everything and everyone together into one dubious category is a step up from zero recognition. As we wrote in an article last year about the dangers of separate African cypher vidz at BET's hip-hop awards, such platforms help to bring the artists and their music to the attention of a mainstream international audience that might otherwise have remained oblivious to their existence. However, they also risk ghettoising African urban music as something "other". This is how you end up with vague, lazy generalisations like "world" music.
MTV used to do something similar with their "Best African Artist" category at the MTV Europe Music Awards (2005 - 2007). They got rid of this with the establishment of MTV Africa Music Awards in 2008, only for it to return last year under the guise of "Best Africa, Middle East and India Act". Talk about shoehorning!
The BET Awards are about R&B, hip-hop and gospel music. If you're going to throw open your award ceremony to the rest of the black world, why not just nominate artists from wherever, based on the fact they they're black and happen to have released one heck of an album in one of these categories. South African Afro-soul singer Lira - one of the nominees for "Best International Act: Africa" - wouldn't be out of place in the R&B nominee list.
Imagine an international jazz award event with the usual categories - contemporary, free jazz, vocal, big band, fusion, etc. - as well as geographical categories, African jazz, European jazz, Asian jazz, Australian jazz. The Best African Act-type categories are just as absurd.
The nominees in these "Best African Act" categories are good enough to go up against anyone in their rightful style-based categories, and in they're "international" then they should be in the same ring with everybody else. If they aren't good enough, they shouldn't be nominated at all because the "African" categories are something of a backhanded compliment.
Africa Is A Country has an excellent article on this issue of reducing all of Africa to one category, and they also raise a good point about what sort of urban African acts/music can make the BET cut.
That said, who made the cut this year?
THE NOMINEES ARE...
In a repeat of last year's list, Nigerian artists got two of the six spots. Nigerians almost always dominate African music awards lists (the exception being lists for award events taking place in South Africa), and we explained why that was when we wrote about last year's BET list.
This year we have Camp Mulla (Kenya), Ice Prince (Nigeria), Lira (South Africa), Mokobe (Mali), Sarkodie (Ghana), Wizkid (Nigeria).
This isn't the Olympics of music, though. The artists aren't "representing" their countries, so if artists from certain countries keep turning up on award lists for the continent, it's a reflection of the fact that more artists from said countries have tapped into something that crosses geographical and language borders more easily than artists from the other countries. That's certainly the case with countries like Nigeria and South Africa, and more recently Ghana. It's not that there aren't musicians in Tanzania or the Democratic Republic of Congo making great music. It's just that there are fewer artists in these countries tapping into that "something", whatever it is, that would make their music go down as well in mainstream clubs in Lagos as it would in Johannesburg or Accra. Or in London or Atlanta.
So, what have these six "borderless" artists released in the past 12 months to deserve the award?
CAMP MULLA (Kenya)
This young Kenyan group with the trans-Atlantic sound and party-time mix of R&B and hip hop that its teenage members call 2-5-Flow made its first public appearance less than 18 months ago, but have already built up a following of teenage fans (via Twitter, Facebook, etc.) that many Kenyan music veterans would kill for.
Watch any of their videos - Walking on a Dream, Party Don't Stop, Fresh All Day - and you'll see why they've become so popular so quickly, and why they've been nominated, even though FuNkYToWN, their debut album, isn't even out yet. Of all the nominees, this is the one you'd be least likely to guess were African. On one hand, not a bad thing, as it helps to expand people's idea of what African artists, even those operating in urban genres, are "allowed" to sound like. On the other, a Camp Mulla win would probably be the most controversial. They deserve a shot on the strength of their music - even if many music fans over the age of 30 refer to it as "bubblegum music" - but it would be hard to bat away the suspicion that BET had awarded the act that sounds most "like us", us being American. In other words, this would be the choice if BET wanted their viewers to believe the best music from Africa was that which suggested the "correct" evolution of African culture was towards the look, feel and sound of American culture.
ICE PRINCE (Nigeria)
Ice Prince's Oleku is probably on too many 'Top 10 singles of the decade' lists to count. It's certainly been remixed and covered more often than any other single we can think of from the last 5 years. Oleku came out in 2010, went No. 1 across Africa that year, and is still on heavy rotation across the continent. Just saying it went No. 1 doesn't really capture how well this track resonated with urban music fans in Africa. Its impact was colossal. Everybody Loves Ice Prince, the album on which it appears, wasn't released until October last year, and the album yielded another No. 1 single, Superstar, but didn't have anywhere near the same impact as Oleku. I feel the pumping, commercial appeal of Superstar, but Wassup Wassup, Juju and By This Time are more interesting.
In theory, it's the whole album that should determine whether or not Ice Prince wins the award, but really, it's all about Oleku.
LIRA (South Africa)
Rise Again, South African Afro-soul queen Lira's fifth studio album, comes out later this year, so it's for 2011's Return to Love (Sony/BMG Africa) that she'd have been nominated. Or perhaps for the 5-track EP that served as her introduction to American audiences.
If the award were for singing talent or vocal ability, it'd be a done deal. She won Best Album of the Year at the 2009 South African Music Awards for Soul In Mind, but this most recent album is even more impressive.
Woven through with jazzy elements (listen to Mali), this is the most well produced and grown up album of any of the nominees' albums. Without a single weak track, it's the sort of album I can imagine people who still buy CDs (we do), buying and playing from start to finish, rather than downloading the best five or six singles and ignoring the rest, the fate of most albums these days.
Sounds like a shoe in, right? Not so quick. Three things might count against it, and all would be unfair if they did: 1. it's got danceable tracks (When I Dance, for instance, is awesome), but none that have had the sort of continent-wide (and beyond) impact we saw with tracks like Ice Prince's Oleku or Sarkodie's U Go Kill Me; 2. the fact that the tracks are of an equally high standard might actually make it seem less interesting to judges than albums with peaks and troughs; 3. while Lira's album retains South African elements, if BET want to go for someone who sounds more immediately recognisable as "African", they'll give the award to someone else (the same issue could hobble Camp Mulla).
Rapper Mokobé is a talented and witty rapper of Malian origin, he's big in France (where he lives; to the French, he's a French rapper), and has collaborated with the cream of Francophone-African talent - Youssou N'Dour, Magic System, Salif Keita, the Molare, Tiken Jah Fakoli, Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangare - but the French language still presents something of a barrier for many music fans in the English speaking world, especially so for rap/hiphop - for obvious reasons - so he's not as well known as he deserves to be.
The videos for some of the tracks from last year's sophomore album Africa Forever are helping to bridge that French-English divide, particularly ones like 50 CFA, inspired by 50 Cents, and Oulala (below), referencing Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson). The fact that the album is a strong one, with something to satisfy a diverse range of listeners - coupé décalé fans, reggae, mbalax, hip hop and pop - and that several of the tracks have crossover appeal, should also count in his favour. But the language issue could still work against him.
Sarkodie (Micheal Owusu) is one of Ghana's most popular hiplife and hip hop artists, and also one of the fastest rappers on the planet (when he feels like letting rip). Anyone who hadn't heard of him up until last year probably did with the release of azonto anthem U Go Kill Me, which features on his most recent album, Rapperholic, released in February on Akon's Konvict Music label.
Azonto blew up in such a big way, and as U Go Kill Me was one of the tracks responsible for taking the style global, that might just clinch it in Sarkodie's favour.
Sarkodie and Wizkid retain more distinctly African elements in their music than the others nominees, so if BET want to make that particular statement (i.e., they've gotta sound recognisably "African"), the award would go to one of these two.
22-year old Nigerian pop singer Wizkid (Ayodeji Ibra'him Balogun Jr.; also signed to Konvict Muzi) already won the 2011 award for "Best African Act" at the 2011 MOBO Awards (is there no escaping this shove-'em-all-in syndrome?), so it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he won the BET award, too.
Last year's Super Star was his debut album, and it produced enough hits to justify the anticipation that preceded it: Holla at Your Boy, Don't Dull, Tease Me/Bad Guyz, Pakurumo, to name the biggest. Pakurumo remains our favourite.
The liberal use of Auto-tune throughout the album didn't count against him at the MOBOs, and no reason yet to suspect BET is any sniffier.
The BET Awards which will take place in Los Angeles on July 1.