Since its global breakout in 2016 with Drake’s “One Dance” featuring superstar WizKid, Afrobeats has taken over the airwaves, parties and events across the world garnering increasing popularity in the US, UK, and Europe culminating in chart hits for Davido and a grammy win for Burna Boy this year. An undeniable tough feat for even locals, it’s evident that Afrobeats is the sound of the moment. But what is it that makes this genre so different?
Not to be confused with the Fela Kuti pioneered genre Afrobeat (no s).. Afrobeats is a fusion and delectable sound showcasing the adaptability of Africans to date. Birthed from Afrobeat, a jazz didactic sound laced with string instruments and horns, Afrobeats takes on a contemporary approach. It is no lie that Africans have had a ton of western influence exist in their countries even after colonialism was over. And with the world becoming more localised thanks to the internet trends, styles and sounds in pop culture travelled across countries and cities. Early adopters of Afrobeats created afro fusion elements sprinkling a bit of dancehall, reggae, r&b and pop melodies and elements into traditional sonics like a wizard mixing concoctions. And that sound definitely entrapped listeners locally and globally under a spell that doesn’t seem to be breaking soon.
In Ghana, the Afrobeats sound took a different road. Blending the traditional Ghanaian horn laced Highlife with Afrobeats created a soft localised version of the genre. Purists will often say, Afrobeats came from Highlife. That is undeniable, considering the many years Fela Kuti spent in Ghana working with Highlife musicians like ET Mensah and co. However, the beauty of great music is it adapts, evolves and grows, and that is the case with Afrobeats.
Sub-genres that have emerged from Afrobeats such as Alte, Afropop and more are offering global audiences a look into the lifestyles that power the music they hear. The Ghanaian Afrobeats, which is heavy on borga Highlife and palm wine Highlife elements, showcase the more traditional attitude of Ghanaian music. Tapping into simple lyrics and exploring intricate string and piano chords.
Alte musicians like Amaarae from Ghana, whip up an exciting floral sound by fusing this version of Afrobeats with pop. Born in Atlanta and raised between Accra and London, Amaarae’s sound showcases what Afrobeats sounds like when artists are a little brave with it. The bounce to her songs combined with her racy lyrics and familiar drum patterns, makes the young singer a poster child for what the future holds.
The fusion of Afrobeats with pop has become so common that we see artists like Omah Lay, Tems, King Promise, Fireboy and Joeboy take over the airwaves in fast paced cities like Lagos and Accra. While high energy songs like that of street kings Olamide, Naira Marley, Zlatan and Phyno have not passed away, Afrobeats and its fusions have created a space for all the various sub genres to thrive and grow. Superstars like Wizkid are even creating low tempo smooth r&b and dancehall fusion sounds like his album Made in Lagos, that resonates with both a global and local audience.
Afrobeats goes Global
The internet not only bridged the gap between cultures but also between fans. Thanks to the power of ‘Beyonce’s internet’, local musicians are being explored globally and tapping into global audiences as well as connecting with other musicians. This is evident in cross collaborations between pan African artists, European, American and even Asian musicians. Beyonce’s ‘Black is King’ is heavily powered by Afrobeats productions and visuals. The album features African musicians from all over the globe and asserts the sonic diversity of the African sound. It is no surprise that among favorites from the album is the WizKid featured ‘Brown Skin Girls’. The Afrobeats tinged pop song won a Grammy in March 2021, giving Afrobeats another accolade to put on its mantle. Collaborations that exist in the creation of music such as P Diddy’s involvement in Burna Boy’s Grammy award winning ‘Twice as Tall‘ as an executive producer shines a light on the power of music to connect the experiences of Black Americans and Africans. The list of collaborations between African Americans and Afrobeats artists has only been getting longer. Atlanta musician 6lack has had a number of cross-continental collaborations, as well as Janet Jackson, Fabulous, Russ, Rick Ross, Alicia Keys, Ari Lennox and many others.
In 2018, British Ivorian DJ and musician Afro B took the dance world by storm with his catchy song ‘JOANNA (Drogba)‘. The song travelled beyond his home base of the UK and earned him a Gold certification in the USA. An Ozunna remix to the single was no surprise as it caught wind in Southern America. Also titled one of the most powerful emerging markets, the sonic resemblance between West Africa and South America makes collaborations between the two undeniable. In 2020, Nigerian musician Mr Eazi and South American superstar J Balvin collaborated on a number of songs including the chart topping ‘Arcoiris’ which earned the musician a Latin Grammy. Down the line we’ve seen emerging artists like Nigerian Rema connect with sonic siblings in South America to create amazing music that creates waves globally and locally.
Within the African continent, Afrobeats is still connecting and fusing various sounds to connect with fans across the 54 countries of the continent. South Africa’s trending new genre Amapiano presents similar characteristics to Afrobeats when it comes to fusion. The drum heavy genre takes its core from local genre Kwaito and fuses with house music and electronic dance music. Afrobeats takes it a step further and adds a little afro flavour to create a familiar sound for west africans. Songs like KDDO’s ‘eWallet’ and Kabza de Small’s ‘Sponono’ featuring Burna Boy, Wizkid and Cassper Nyovest.
Not lost in the mix are other power players in the music industry. In 2018, Apple Music set up its headquarters in South Africa. Followed closely by Audiomack and now Spotify. All three major labels, Sony, Warner and Universal Music have established local footprints on the continent and seek to grow the market. The ease of access for the Afrobeats community to reach global audiences is greatly enhanced by these power players in the community.
The Next Chapter for Afrobeats
The secret sauce in Afrobeats is not only its adaptability but its ability to maintain its roots as a west African genre. The ability to create something new yet familiar is a true gift that allows Afrobeats to travel across borders. Projecting to the future, it’s easy to see how Afrobeats’ adaptability and fusion will enable it to cross borders as well as evolve through the years. As an arguably young genre there is still more for the sound to achieve.
However, the growth of its various sub genres across markets is a strong indicator of its success. Skeptics say that this characteristic may very well be its kryptonite, allowing the genre to fade out and seize to exist. In all this the power of ownership and culture come into play. Afrobeats is west african, and as long as that is always put first, there is a strong future for the genre.
Benewaah Boateng is a writer and music curator with a passion for creating global opportunities for African musicians. You can check more of Benewaah’s work on her platform Harmattan Rain.
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