Afrobeats: How the world danced to a Nigerian tune

Afrobeats: How the world danced to a Nigerian tune

A collage of Afrobeats superstars: Davido, Mr. Eazi, Burna Boy, Rema, Tiwa Savage, Wizkid and Tems.

  • About seven days ago, Wizkid sold out the Accord Arena, in Paris, France, spectacularly descending from the sky to give a charged, knockout performance to over 20,000 enthralled fans.
  • The 'Soco' hitmaker had, just nine months earlier, sold out the fabled O2 Arena in London; selling out the entire 20-000 man arena in under 12 minutes.

About seven days ago, veteran Nigerian Afrobeat megastar Wizkid sold out the Accord Arena, in Paris, France, spectacularly descending from the sky to give a charged, knockout performance to over 20,000 enthralled fans.

The 'Soco' hitmaker had, just nine months earlier, sold out the fabled O2 Arena in London; selling out the entire 20-000 man arena in under 12 minutes (we see you Beyonce) and bringing out everyone from Chris Brown, to Skepta to Ella Mai.

In March 2022, Wizkid's Afrobeat contemporary and on-and-off rival Davido also shut down the same London arena, packing tens of thousands of breathless fans, as they watched him dramatically cascade from the rafters, with Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba introducing him and Jamaican ragga ace Popcaan rocking the stadium away.

As the two battled on who was the GOAT, Burna Boy boisterously roared into the chat, reminding them that he had, in August 2021, sold 80,000 tickets at the O2 Arena himself and grossed an obscenely-gigantic amount of cash - $5.6 million (approx. Ksh.679 million).

And in April 2022, Burna Boy became the first Nigerian singer to sell out the olympian Madison Square Gardens, majestically ripping through a seismic repertoire of some of his biggest hits and appearing on pretty much all late-night shows in the US.

Afrobeat newcomers Tems, Rema, Omah Lay, Ruger and Adekunle Gold have also found their own version of unimaginable global success, from appearing on Beyonce's album, to featuring Selena Gomez on a remix and performing at Coachella.

Across Africa (and the World at large), Nigerian singers have become so big, so ubiquitous, DJs have been reduced to playing nothing else but a winding riff of Afrobeat megahits, from dusk to dawn.

Chris Brown has looked to Nigeria for inspiration, Justin Bieber has inserted himself into the Afrobeat culture for points, Ed Sheeran has fallen under the enchanting Yoruba spell and Beyonce has even dropped an album packed with the Lagos wizardry.

As of 2022, Nigerian music has become a must-have world staple with many fumbling in the dark unable to explain the source of this irresistible Afrobeat charm.

In an article for the Quartz Magazine, senior reporter Sarah Todd opened: "Artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift, and Jon Batiste are up for trophies at the 2022 Grammy Awards on Sunday. But one winner is already clear: the genre of Afrobeats."

In an interview posted on the official Grammy Awards website, Angelique Kidjo, a frequent Burna Boy collaborator, explained:

"I think the Academy (Grammys) has, for the first time, a grip on the complexity of the music that’s out there. Today, we have a vehicle, and it’s Afrobeats. Because if you take any music from any part of Africa and put it in Afrobeats, it gives you a different flavor of Afrobeats," she said.

"The music that we do can make people say, “Oh, this language is different, or this aesthetic.” But because you have the pulse of Afrobeats in it, you can consume and discover music from North to South, East to West, and Central Africa in a way that we haven’t [before]. The Afrobeats is underlining all those traditional rhythms."

Nigeria, the bastion of Afrobeats, produces most of the stars who have penetrated the West in recent years. 

Industry insiders point to the country’s immense population of more than 206 million, comparative wealth, and more-developed music-business ecosystem as contributing factors to its indomitable dominance. 

“They’re all across the planet, as well,” said Juls, a successful Ghanaian producer and DJ. “Everywhere you go, Nigerians are there, and Nigerians are very loud and proud about where they come from. They support their own.”

Studies have shown that large swaths of West African immigrants and their first-generation American offspring are concentrated in places like New York, the D.C. area, Houston, and Atlanta.

"In these places, it’s not unusual to find Afrobeats powering gatherings of Africans and Caribbeans, whose culture and music share roots. A lot of Africans in those cities have been religiously playing Afrobeats,” Juls says. “It’s just gotten around like, ‘Wow, I went to this club, and this is what they were playing, and it was going off!’”

The genre's success can also be attributed to excellent marketing, impeccable PR teams, partnerships with global music outlets, the artists' own grit and ambition and, generally, the fluidity of the music across all African communities.

Ghanaian singer Amaarae, in an interview with Rolling Stones, also pointed out that the world was looking to Africa (read, Nigeria) for musical direction.

“It’s pretty clear Africa is the next frontier,” she said. “Audiomack has an office now in Nigeria. Spotify made moves towards Nigeria. Universal Music Group now has a Nigerian branch.”

According to Ken Ouma, one of the pioneering music producers in Kenya, it all boils down to musical identity, structures and sound. 

"In Kenya, the dynamics are totally different. Here, the music business is yet to stabilize in the manner that it has in, say, Nigeria. There are still a lot of loopholes in the industry, quack producers, a very unstructured distribution network and a somewhat demoralised community of artists,” Ken Ouma, also known as Mr. K. O, a music producer, talent scout and music executive at Ouma Productions, says.

"Also, Unlike Nigerians, Kenyans lack a universal sound. We tend to sound like everyone else. In South Africa, they have Amapiano, in Tanzania, they have their Bongo sound, Ugandans have that distinctive ragamuffin sound, Nigerians have Afrobeats, the Congolese have Lingala and Rhumba, what does Kenya have? Nothing. We cannot be copying styles from across the world and still hope to leave a mark in the global music map."

In an interview with the BBC, music publicist Bilha Nguraiya reserved some harsh words for many Kenyan musicians who, according to her, "didn't want to compete and measure up" with the continental stars.

"Music was a way for some of them to get away from poverty. And now they are too scared to get out of their comfort zone because it might upset the equation - they don't know better and are afraid to take risks," she told the BBC.

And while music genres like Amapiano and Afrobeats continue to rapture the world and reach hitherto unchartered lands, Kenyan musicians can only sit back, dazed, unsure of where the rain started to beat us. 

“Afrobeats is going to be on par with hip-hop, because what makes hip-hop great is not that it is recognized as a genre, it is also recognized as a culture,” Fireboy DML said to Rolling Stone, “Afrobeats is a culture too.”


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