Before scrolling down, click play on the Youtube link above to hear a selection of our favourite Afrobeats tracks, which inspired this article
“Afrobeats” is a new music genre coming out of Accra, Lagos and London. My girlfriend and I heard it by chance the other day a freestyle between Dotman and Mr Eazi on Radio 1 Extra caputured our attention. Afrobeats, with an “S” is not to be confused with Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, it is a modern and produced sound, “Beatz”. It exudes studio slickness like the big American hip hop productions. The relevant Youtube clips are tastefully edited with an African colour palette and identity. However, we are not talking about a music which fetishizes tradition or an archaic Africa. It is young and upbeat, reinforcing a positive vision of Africa. Neither heavy like grime or with too much of that criminal aesthetic that rappers fetishize. The musicians use London patois, black western values but at the same time with a distinctly African cultural identity, completely plugged into global cultural production.
MC Skepta participating in a collaboration on Wizkid’s Ojuelegba says on the track “I had to tell my story cause they’d rather show you Black kids with flies on their faces on the television.” Another Afrobeats star from Nigeria, Burnaboy, explained it this way: “The only thing you really see about Africa is ‘Help a child’ or some shit like that. I just wanted to listen to DMX.”
The Afrobeats clips show an affluent Africa, the Africa of Lagos and Accra as modern cities. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes in Mercs and Bimma’s. Mansions and champagne clubs, hot women exuding a chic nonchalance. A perfect vehicle to combat the association of Africa with the black kids with flies in their eyes conception. Following another star on Instagram, Mr Eazi, I can see he did one shows in London, another in Houston, and next photos of him onstage filling out a stadium in Goma. Goma, DRC!? Where the blood diamonds and Warlords come from? Yes, and also where Mr Eazi was onstage the other day, performing for DRC Independence Day, seeing that I felt a kind of communion with the people from Goma, they are liking the same sounds that I am, rather than somehow feeling sorry for the ‘wretched people’ down there, the music somehow bridged a gap of empathy and understanding, opening my eyes to a happier reality.
The connected world that we live in is allowing Africa’s cultural pedigree to shine. Instagram and Youtube serve as platforms, and HD cameras and music making equipment the tools which have democratised Africa’s access to, and growing influence over pop culture. In the digital age, Africa’s music does not need some sort of great white explorer, like Peter Gabriel to popularize it. Digital globalisation allows everyone to plug in, and for African artists to reach us directly. The Afrobeats sound gains space, just because it is really good, on its own merit.
Africans are no longer isolated culturally. The digital age gives all of us the opportunity to follow global trends, we all watch Netflix to an extent, and we all know who the biggest Jamaican DJs and American rappers are. The Afrobeats music makers from Lagos and Accra, are often also from London as much as from Africa, fully engaged with ‘Global Americanised Black Culture’. By this term we mean the manifold of black pop culture heavily influenced by North American cultural points of reference: Beyonce and Jay Z, basketball, the black struggle in America, being a ‘gangsta’. African contemporary culture was always somehow excluded from this discourse. For blacks in the Americas a place that exists in the imagination, a forcibly obscured ancestral land of one’s forefathers, somewhere to make a pilgrimage too perhaps. Meanwhile real African cultural influence on notions of globalised blackness is minimal. It is alluded to, and imagined, but African culture ‘as is’ has not yielded cultural influence. I am writing this from Rio de Janeiro, down here we see very little engagement with what is going on in Africa now. It would be great if we could somehow change that.
The rise of Afrobeats demonstrates that Africa’s music has jumped out of the “World Music” section. The Afrobeats feels instantly ‘cool’, not as worthy as highbrow Kora or underground DRC beats made by street children, but with a much more instant, poppy appeal because it plugs directly into, (and we hope begins to exert an influence over) globalised black popular culture. For Afrobeats London plays an important role, it informs the music culturally, making the music conform to being respectably ‘cool’ by London standards. Whereas Staff Benda Bilili played in London at the Barbican Centre to a 90% middle class white crowd, Afrobeats attracts mainly black audiences, Burnaboy’s show in London had three or four white people at the show, one was my Mum, another my brother.
A trend within Afrobeats is the presence of ‘black british’ producers, who decided to embrace their African-ness, and to engage with the continent as such, rather than emulate only American or Jamaican styles. This is interesting because these guys add their cosmopolitan influence to the genre. On the 23rd of July Malik Berry, Juls, Team Salut, Legendury Beats, Bankuli and Bayoz Musik were in the Radio 1 Extra Destination Africa show talking about this subject. Pioneer producer Bankuli explained that the important role of the UK Afrobeat producers like this: “Its like a virus, a very good virus…it’s Africa that’s in the limelight.”
Mr Eazi, from Kumasi, Nigeria, mentioned above, a self-effacing posterboy for the new wave of Afrobeats artists. He says that he can’t sing, and was studying mechanical engineering in Ghana before becoming an events producer booking top Afrobeats musicians for Uni shows. The singing career began as a hobby as he was finishing his engineering Masters’ degree in Ghana. He has been a gold trader, and has a serious tech start up company selling refurbished phones, ‘Phone Trader’, and is looking for relevant tech products to launch in Africa. He is putting on an Afrobeats culture show in London, bringing not only the music, but fashion food and culture too to London in September.
The producer for probably the best tracks by Mr Eazi, Burnaboy is producer, and singer now, “Juls”, from London and Ghana. He does the music as a hobby after hours working as a financial investment adviser for Ghana National Bank. He is the guy producing the coolest sounds, and it is only a hobby! The point is these guys couldn’t be further away from Kinshasa streetkids. They are from the generation of empowered Africans who did business studies, and somehow ‘speak MBA’. Eazi talks about metrics, when he invited upcoming musician Dotman to accompany him on tour, he said he chose him because of his numbers. These guys, like Puff Daddy are business savvy, they ain’t playin’ around. Not cliche soulful Africans with rhythm in their genes, but businessmen. Mr Eazi’s motto is ‘Africa to the world’, and who better equipped to globalize this wicked African sound.
African fashion is flexing its muscles, and there is somehow a resonance with what’s going on with Afrobeats. The South African luxury knitwear brand Maxhosa uses prints inspired by Xhosa tribal colour combinations cut in a French classical style. The result is a spectacular fusion. The African as protagonist in this example is using European cuts to modernise a distinct Xhosa aesthetic. The designer Laduma Ngxokolo is Xhosa, and his motivation was to create attire suitable for the Xhosa male initiation ceremony, where luxurious clothes should be worn. B Fyne women’s swimwear label produces wonderful bikinis, the designer Nigerian Buki Ade was inspired by Nigerian culture and prints in making the collection.
European and American luxury fashion seems somehow tired and bland when placed side by side with Maxhosa or B Fyne. Western fashion’s cultural references seem like a spent mine compared to the rich veins of untapped resources in Africa. African tribal culture, and an African lens somehow offer a wealth of untapped inspiration for designers.
African contemporary art is our opinion the best in the world too. The work being produced by leading African artists is consistently excellent. El Anastui creates huge regal tapestries from bottle tops, Ghanian Ibrahim Mahama covered Venice’s Arsenale in old jute fabric for impressive effect. South African Ralph Ziman covered a South African armoured police car in beads, Nelson Makamo paints wonderful street art style portraits of people. Ghanian Serge Clottey’s work with gallons is also really powerful.
The dead posh London auction house Bonham’s launched an ‘Africa Now’ auction fixture, to sell African contemporary and modern art for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Burnaboy was at the launch as well as celebrity Nigerian socialite DJs.
Nevertheless, African culture is still marginalised. The Afrobeats music scene has not broken into mainstream ‘black’ music yet. Fashion Week Lagos and South Africa are becoming more important, but African fashion does not threaten the hegemony of Paris, Milan and New York. In the intellectual-filled contemporary art world there is reverence for Africa’s contemporary art, but it is somehow peripheral compared to the reverence shown to art of European origin.
Jack Weatherford argues that the renaissance in Europe owes a huge debt to the Mongol Empire which allowed for a scientific and cultural cross-pollination to happen, through safe trade routes and movement of people guaranteed by the empire. This enabled a fusion of knowledge from distant regions.
We are somehow on the cusp of an African Renaissance, facilitated by the instantaneous communication of audio-visual information, and diaspora connections to the world’s cultural capitals.
2018 will see the arrival of supercool African superhero Black Panther in a Marvel Studios super production. Albeit in Marvel fashion, Black Panther addresses clichés, the superhero is a prince the hidden kingdom of Wakanda, the richest country in the world with super advanced technology.
Like Black Panther, African cultural producers are keen to show that Africa is no longer ‘the developing world’, but that it has arrived. Infusing the continent’s own music, fashion and art with astute engagement with the trappings of modernity. This engagement to me signals the arrival of a 21st century African renaissance.
This article was written following extensive discussions about Afrobeats, Brazil, and the potential rise of Africa’s influence between me, George Howell, and brazilian stylist Tai Brum. We live in Rio de Janeiro, and are working to grow Afrobeats, and African cultural influence here.
24th July 2017