Since superstar D’Banj topped UK charts in 2012, Afrobeats music has burst onto the mainstream. How did a cross-pollination of musical genres played in tiny clubs make West Africa so cool?
Words Nana Ocran Photography Boombox Television & Jonathan Perugia
For the last couple of years, Afrobeats UK has become something of a catch-all term for a musical movement that has been forging a triangular route between Ghana, Nigeria and the UK. The relatively recently named genre (the UK bit at least) has also been felt by hardcore African music aficionados to be a band-waggonish construct, in what might be seen as a shameless attempt to free ride on the pioneering Afrobeat music made famous by the musical don, Fela Kuti. However, the elder statesman’s fusion of Yoruba music, jazz, highlife and percussion still holds strong and is a far cry from the non politically-driven contemporary mash-ups of hip-hop, techno, reggae, ragga and breakbeat that comes with generous levels of auto-tuning on most tracks. Essentially, the newer Afrobeats camp musically showcases the cross-pollination of Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, US and Jamaican lyrical influences, but with healthy slabs of West African pidgin at their core.
The fact that London now has an Afrobeats festival hosted by award-winning urban music DJ Abrantee of Choice FM radio, as well as an annual Afrobeats UK hoedown at the cavernous O2 Centre, means there’s a huge and growing audience for the hyped-up sounds from the sub-Sahara. Although the music’s rapidly mainstreaming, much due to the likes of the Kanye West-signed D’Banj with his super-danceable Oliver Twist track, the music still has elements of an underground flavour, although how edgy or subversive can the genre be when events like this year’s London May Bank Holiday Afrobeats Festival featured throngs of people young enough to require the presence of an adult chaperone? But then, this junior age range is testament to the power of Afrobeats’ popularity and its greater pop potential. In fact, anything that can appeal to everyone from children to pensioners is bound to be onto a financial winner.
In any case, this isn’t a genre with lyrics that are necessarily going to shock its listeners, in so much as most of us have enough familiarity with dance music’s preoccupation with girls, guys, cars, cash, sexual prowess or superstar fantasies to pen our own tunes. However, despite tracks such as D’Prince’s suggestive Give it To Me, D’Banj’s Mr Endowed and Ice Prince’s autobiographical Superstar, you might still find a few examples of melodic piety, such as with Nigeria’s Wande Coal, who now and again touches on religious shout-outs in his single Se Ope.
For all this, I have to admit that I’ve been a novice to much of the scene, so a conversation with Kofi Debrah, the London-born co-founder of the Asabaako music festival in Busua, Ghana was something of an enlightenment. His eyes lit up at the mention of the Afrobeats genre.
“I’ve been told that in London it’s going crazy now and becoming part of the fabric of pop music in England,” he says. “I only know of it from the Ghanaian perspective and it’s really exciting because when I left the UK two years ago, I knew Africa was on the rise but I didn’t know it would rise this fast. It’s caught everybody by surprise.”
He’s particularly focused on the phenomenon of London-based DJs who have been tapping into their cultural roots within a UK-centric environment, noting that: “You’ve got producers like Roscoe who’s on Rinse FM. He’s made some of his tunes for a Ghanaian audience. I listen to them and I think, was he in his basement in east London, thinking about Accra?”
Having been steeped in the ‘urban’ rhythms of Ghana, Kofi’s aware of the way in which the sounds of Ghana and Nigeria have completely changed over the last few years, in that the music has become more hip-hoppy and far more about dancing. It’s a series of uptempo sounds that have definitely seeped into all corners of Ghana, with the quality improving and becoming increasingly inventive.
“It’s an amazing time for the music and entertainment scene,” Kofi adds. “If you look at the development of reggae internationally, it was Jamaicans abroad who were pushing it. Now, you’ve got a huge diaspora of Africans who are not just concentrated in Europe and America, but also in Asia and elsewhere.”
His sentiments are echoed by Don Omope, a founder member of the London-based BoomBox TV production company. He recalls being all the way in East Asia when he first became aware of how popular the music had become. “I got a taxi in China and the driver was playing Wande Coal’s Bumper to Bumper,” he says. “I thought, Wow, this is West African music. I became really inquisitive about it. It felt like the internationalisation of the African experience.”
A slick reiteration comes in a track by Wiz Kid, who informs us in his single No Lele that “my music travel, no visa”, which nicely taps into the fact that the constant movement of African people from region to region has spawned a spread of musical culture, much in the way that Nollywood film seeped out of Nigeria and took off wherever Nigerians with DVDs, or the ability to copy them, chose to land. It’s this physical movement alongside social media and digital TV channels that’s helping to spread the sound.
In London, Don and fellow producer and BoomBox co-founder Sam Blankson were approached by the executive producers of Afrika Rising, an imprint of the larger OHTV international TV network, to produce a pilot for an Afrobeats TV show. “We’d already done so many different features on Afrika Rising,” Sam explains. “We’d had Tuface, Ice Prince, M.I, Sarkodie and all these different artists already so we were familiar with a lot that was going on around the scene.”
The music and players aren’t particularly new to these guys, but they have strong thoughts – mainly around the definition of the genre and what initially drove it.
I think the Afrobeats UK scene, if I’m right, revolves around the Azonto dance,” Don says. “It’s more than a dance though. In Nigeria, we call it swagger. The way we walk, the way we talk…
Azonto, the Ghanaian dancefloor-filler, first got an international look-in when soccer star Asamoah Gyan let loose with his post-goal celebrations during the Fifa World Cup in 2010. It’s a dance very much tied into the latest West African sounds, so referencing the music as Afrobeats within the continent doesn’t really stand up in the way it does on British soil.
“I’d say the difference is in how the music is consumed,” says Sam. “In the UK, if you have a radio show, people are downloading music and making mixtapes, but if you go to Ghana, the music’s there 24/7. Rappers who were into hardcore hiplife have gone for Azonto songs. Recently in Ghana, I went to a church where a guy was singing. After a while I heard, ‘do an Azonto for me’, so the pastor took the mic and was telling everybody to do the dance.”
It definitely seems to be a different ballgame in the UK where there are specific club nights – a kind of compartmentalised enjoyment. Leader of the pack is DJ Abrantee who is said to have coined the Afrobeats term in the first place although no one can really lay claim to be the originator of the name. According to Don, the energy of the music “is coming off the backs of giants,” although he also feels that there’s a tendency to overanalyse things. “Afrobeats in the UK is almost like the celebration of African-ness by young British-born Africans, but it’s a UK local term. If you go over to Nigeria and say Afrobeats, people will tell you that is Fela, and in Ghana if you say the same about Reggie Rockstone’s songs, people will feel you’ve insulted a legend. It’s hiplife. Similarly, if you go to South Africa and say you guys are playing Afrobeats they’ll say, What? it’s Kwaito!”
With the sense of Western media being world media, there’s always the notion that catch-on genres can get stuck, and then passed around the globe, but both Don and Sam have notions that the Afrobeats moniker might be short-lived, and wider debates have also incorporated the notion of Afro-pop as the true name of a genre that is rapidly becoming more globally mainstream. This pattern is no different to any other music past or present that’s worked its way into any national or international consciousness.
Sam: “The names, hiplife, highlife, and raglife all exist as different genres in Ghana. No one’s taking those away. Hiplife is generally a Ghanaian form of hip-hop. So no matter what you do, if it’s some kind of rap, your music is a little bit highlife-y and you speak in a local language, that’s hiplife.”
The origin of Azonto has been tied to one particular artist. London-born Ghanaian-Guyanese Donaeo’s single Party Hard seemed to set things rolling in 2009. It was his use of beats that inspired Ghanaian MCs and music producers to put more of their own spin on something that they recognised as being fundamentally linked to their music.
New technologies and a broadening DJ culture are also helping the African musical evolution along, and it’s often a few simple moves by one or two clued-up individuals that can really change the shape of music and determine how and where it travels.
“What’s happening in Ghana and elsewhere is that with some of the cameras people are getting – DSLRs and that kind of stuff – it’s becoming much easier to shoot music videos,” says Sam. “There are people that literally only exist online in terms of throwing out clips. Many of these are artists who have never travelled to the UK. One guy, Yaa Pono, was freestyling Azonto classes on YouTube. Everyone got to know him that way, but in terms of DJs, there’s a Vietnamese guy Neptizzle. I’d say he’s one of the best people DJing Ghanaian music right now.”
Indeed Neptizzle, along with Jam Jam (aka Oyinbo Swagger – or ‘white-boy swagger’ to the uninitiated) have carved out quite a niche for themselves in Ghana and Nigeria respectively.
“What drives a lot of the African DJs is the music,” says Don, “but people like Neptizzle and Jam Jam are specifically technical. It’s as if they’ve learned their trade based on what DJing culture is and then fell into Afrobeats music. They don’t just play the music back to back, they are scratching, doing drop-ins, sampling. Neptizzle now DJs in Ghana every Christmas.”
And what about Afrobeats TV? Where next for the three-episode pilot that the BoomBox duo has shot so far?
“We’re actively seeking sponsors,” says Don. It’s a TV concept that’s worth investment, not least to showcase the youth-led movement in new African sounds that are evolving – mainly with Ghanaian and Nigerian influences, but even this regional slant might change.
Don: “Because of Nigeria’s size, its music has been able to go around the whole continent and beyond. It’s not that Nigerian music is better than any other African music; it’s just because of the power, the economics.”
He has wider views about what might happen in the future. “South African House is one of the untapped musical pleasures out there. It could absolutely blow up across Africa,” he says. “It’s basically house music that was taken from the West and infused with a local flavour. Now the music has become so successful that it has spread around the southern region of the continent. If we all start dancing to it, people in Ghana and Nigeria will become influenced and start blending genres, so within the fluidity of the music, I think ‘Afrobeats’ as a standalone title could actually wear off after a while.”
A guide to Afrobeats sounds from Jo’burg to London
Afrobeat: A 1970s-pioneered phenomenon of traditional Yoruba music, jazz sounds, highlife and vocals. A sound created by activist and multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti, and debatably the giant on whose shoulders the latest Afrobeats music is standing on.
Afrobeats: UK Born in the UK, this urban African sound features a fusion of highlife, hip life, techno, ragga and funky house with a touch of grime.
Azonto: It’s all about the body in this Ghanaian dance that involves the feet, hands and hips moving in time to rhythmic dance music, with movements depicting anything from washing, praying, boxing, driving or whatever action you want to portray to whoever’s watching.
Highlife This music kicked off in Ghana back in the 1900s and managed to spread to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia and pretty much any English-speaking African country. Jazz horns and synthesised sounds are at the heart of it.
Hiplife: A fusion of highlife and hip-hop. It originates in Ghana but has incorporated influences from reggae and ragga.
Raglife: Pretty much an extension of hiplife but with deeper reggae and ragga sounds attached.
Kwaito: Based in Johannesburg during the 1990, Kwaito is a mix of moderately-paced house music and garage offshoots, with African vocals and samples.