The Italian Afrobeats club proving that music can still change the world
© Lou Marillier
The Teranga club in Naples is a microcosm of how West Africa's Afrobeats scene is bringing communities together and inspiring artists to embrace their identity and create world-conquering sounds.
“It was quite amazing, that feeling of ecstasy when you’ve missed something for so long. Music you listened to back in your country, and you see Africans and Italians dancing together to music you used to listen to with your friends. That feeling of happiness and joy was amazing.”
Yankuba, an aspiring biochemist who fled poverty in the Gambia for Europe, is talking about Teranga – a migrant-run Afrobeats club in Naples, Italy. Translating as 'hospitality' or 'welcoming generosity' in Wolof, a language found across Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania, Teranga has lived up to its name, becoming a haven for African migrants in the city.
In Italy, asylum seekers can wait a long time to be processed, waiting out this period of limbo in Emergency Reception Centres. In these circumstances, music serves as both comfort and escape, and Naples’ Teranga club offers a safe space where migrants can find community, solace and, of course, Afrobeats.
Bubbling up out of Nigeria and Ghana in the 2000s, and nurtured by the launch of MTV Base Africa, the sound took off in the 2010s thanks to Wizkid, Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage and Davido. Its complex yet infectious rhythms, heavy percussion and upbeat, high-energy melodies fold in elements of everything from house music, hip-hop, dancehall, soca, Jùjú music and highlife, to R&B, Ndombolo, Naija beats, Azonto and palm-wine music. It might now be a global phenomenon, drawing on global influences, but the beats are rooted in its birthplace, nodding to the traditional African percussion and rhythms of West Africa, as well as the Afrobeat of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s the sound of home for the sprawling African diaspora.
Yankuba vividly remembers his first trip to Teranga, which sits just off Naples' tree-lined Piazza Bellini, with its busy cafes and bars. “You could feel the heat, flickering lights, beautiful lights, people dancing to the Afrobeat,” he says. “The music gives me that feeling of home, being back home in the Gambia when I was young with my friends in college – making tea after playing football, sitting underneath the trees. That feeling of home away from home.”
In the same way that Afrobeats rhythms are intrinsically linked to its West African roots, it also connects migrants in Italy to their home, binding them together as a community. For Yankuba, after his journey from Africa, Teranga felt like home. “Teranga is a really important place, a safe place for me, a place I go to feel that I’m not alone, to feel that I have people who’ve also experienced that same thing,” he explains. “Meeting these people, chatting with them, singing with them, dancing with them – it gives me that sense of not being alone, that things are going to be okay.”
Fata is another migrant from the Gambia – a DJ who spins Afrobeats, dancehall, hip-hop and reggae, and who can sometimes be found playing or dancing at Teranga. He feels that same solace at the club. “Life is not always easy, but Afro music makes our minds free, it reminds us of our home, and Africa, you know?” he explains. “Teranga is important – it’s the place we play, the place that makes us happy.”
Beyond these very personal connections with the music, it shows there’s also something universal about Afrobeats. Just look at Drake's 2016 hit One Dance, which draws on elements of Afrobeats and features one of the scene's biggest names, Wizkid. The song became Spotify's most played track, with more than a billion individual streams. “Afro music is the most famous music in the world right now,” says Fata. “Anybody, any place, everyone loves it. Afro rhythm, the beat the music gives you, is really different. If you want the crowd to be happy, you play afro music.”
Teranga has become a place where people of all backgrounds come together, making the club a Neapolitan phenomenon. The recent documentary Teranga: Life In The Waiting Room – directed by Sophia Seymour, Daisy Squires and Lou Marillier – traces the club's story, after journalist Seymour discovered the club while immersing herself in the city’s underground music scene. Reflecting the club’s role in the community, its soundtrack was recorded by two groups of asylum seekers – Doz3r Starlet and Lil Bo$$ AKA Lucky Child – in a local, DIY, migrant-run recording studio. “Teranga did all these things for African society in Napoli,” reflects Fata.
Afrobeats has done incredible things for society back in West Africa, too. The genre's success has meant big things for the creative industries there; according to a 2017 report by business consultancy firm PwC, the Nigerian music industry was expected to experience an annual growth of 13.4 percent up until 2021. Grammy-nominated Burna Boy – whose granddad managed Fela Kuti – is the latest star in a long line of West African Afrobeats artists to storm the international mainstream, working with Fall Out Boy, J Hus, Lily Allen, Jorja Smith, Stormzy and Ed Sheeran.
The success of Afrobeats has given young West African artists the confidence to take creative risks. “I think more than anything it has inspired young artists into believing they can achieve anything they want,” says Nigerian artist Lady Donli, who is associated with Nigeria’s alté scene – a movement of artists drawing on everything from R&B, soul and rap to Afrobeats and indie.
“It’s like when you see your homegrown idols doing great things, it suddenly seems within your reach and not so far away," she continues. "That’s the way it has definitely inspired me. When I see West African artists going the extra mile and paving the way for me, it’s like I can definitely do it with time. Everything seems within reach.”
Based between Lagos and London, Lady Donli, who fuses hip-hop and alt-jazz with neo-soul and psychedelic funk, and is inspired by everyone from Mali’s Oumou Sangaré to the UK’s Little Simz, adds that “being Nigerian and being African” is a central part of the music she makes, even the way she dresses: “I want people to see the culture, I want people to feel the culture.” And it seems more and more people are. Afrobeats, says Donli, has brought growing audience for West African artists.
“It’s allowed people to be seen and be heard, that’s for sure. When a specific artist is doing big things on the global scene, everybody wants to know where they come from, everybody wants to see the other talent that comes from there as well,” she explains. “I think people who make music that isn't conventional are more inspired to take more risks when they see a genuine interest coming from home and away because it feels like the risk is worth it. You know? People are actually interested.”
This confidence and visibility has brought with it a real sense of pride, identity and self-worth, which can be seen everywhere from Nigeria's studios to Naples' Teranga club. WANI – a fresh face on the Lagos scene who draws from Afrobeats as well as dancehall, contemporary R&B and the sounds of the early 2000s – says: “It’s an exciting and inspiring time for us, the creatives, because with the attention comes opportunities… It’s cool to be African now. It’s not like back in the days where we would watch foreign artists and try to emulate their style. These days, most of our influences come straight from the source.”
“I love being Nigerian and I love being African,” agrees Lady Donli. “I’m carrying it on my back more now because I’ve begun to understand the power in my identity. So yeah, I want everyone to know!”
This galvanising effect can be seen in the UK's own African diaspora. Since the Afrobeats first hit the UK's Top 10 in 2012 with D’Banj’s Oliver Twist, the genre has weaved its way into the nation’s musical fabric. It’s been spun with dancehall into Afroswing and Afrobashment by UK artists like Hardy Caprio, Kojo Funds, Not3s, Lotto Boyzz, Kida Kudz and J Hus, who are proudly delving into their heritage to create new UK sounds. Meanwhile, Stormzy has worked with the likes of Burna Boy, and Skepta raps about his Nigerian heritage: “When I was in school, being African was a diss / Sounds like you need help saying my surname, miss.”
The role that Afrobeats is playing in lifting up the African diaspora can't be underestimated. From young artists seeing new opportunities open up before them, to the joy and solace that the music brings to African migrants in Europe and its power to bring people from different walks of society together, the sound of Afrobeats is vital in so many ways. In part, this is down to the fabric of the music itself.
“It comes down to how it’s structured, a beat that brings out the dance in you,” says Yankuba, reflecting on what makes this music unique, and on what he sees on the dance floor at Teranga, where Italians dance alongside the local migrant community. “That vigour, that energy. A lot of people get that from Afrobeats. This property is really unique – it’s one of those genres of music that whenever you hear it you just want to move.”