The story behind West Africa's booming Afrobeats musical export
© Andrew Esiebo
Afrobeats is the music on everybody's lips. We travelled to Ghana to attend West Africa's biggest gathering of current and future Afrobeats superstars to experience the scene at its source.
Published on The Red Bulletin
Backstage, it's comparatively quiet. The muffled sounds coming from the main stage blend with the gentle rumble of the ocean just metres away. A few people sit on wooden benches, sipping beer and chatting about the live acts they've just seen, while artists get ready in green-room tents. The air smells of fried chicken and jollof rice, prepared in a food truck close by.
Suddenly, there's shouting and around 30 young men and women in flashy clothes, gold chains and designer sneakers fall upon the area. The excited group are drinking Hennessy cognac and champagne straight from the bottle and they arrive accompanied by men in military uniforms, with machine guns. Bystanders with smartphones surround them in the hope of catching the man at the centre, who's setting the scene on fire. His name: Davido
The 27-year-old Nigerian is tonight's headlining artist at Afro Nation in Ghana – billed as Africa's biggest urban music beach festival. Last January, Davido sold out London's O2 Arena, where he was introduced onto the stage by friend Idris Elba. The video for his 2017 hit Fall recently surpassed 158 million views on YouTube and his critically acclaimed new album, A Good Time, gained him the title 'King of Afrobeats', which seems fitting – as the son of a billionaire businessman, he loves to make a grand entrance. Last night, when Davido arrived in Accra, a presidential SUV motorcade escorted him from the airport, and the star waved to astonished passers-by from the sunroof of his Range Rover Evoque.
It's our new oil
We're promised a brief interview before his show, but it won't be easy. Dozens of fans, friends and journalists fight for the king’s attention. There are elaborate handshakes, cheers, clinking glasses. When The Red Bulletin is finally granted an audience in his tent, Davido excitedly tells us about the success of Afrobeats, the West African pop genre that's taken over the world's music charts in recent years.
"It's our new oil," he says of the genre's economic potential. "When I lived in America, being African wasn't cool. The first thing you'd hear about Africa is scams and poverty. Now, people talk about the culture, the food. Now everybody wants to make African music."
After only three minutes, Davido's sister is pulling him away – it's time to get on stage. But first she puts her hand on his neck and summons a small group to gather around him in a circle. "Praise the lord," she shouts, theatrically. "You, David, are blessed, you are favoured and you are going to kill it. Amen."
There's applause, hugs and cheering. Supermodel and Davido fan Naomi Campbell is part of the prayer circle. Following the singer and his entourage towards the main stage, she tells us, "There's such an appetite for Africa. Finally, the world has woken up and realised there's a beautiful continent it has ignored. But, the best thing is Africa didn't need us. Afrobeats doesn't need us. We need them."
Afrobeats (not to be confused with Afrobeat, a blend of jazz and funk popularised by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti in the 1970s) is an umbrella term for contemporary pop music from West Africa, predominantly Nigeria and Ghana. Its artists mix rap and R'n'B with syncopated dancehall rhythms and local genres such as highlife and jùjú to create sweet, lighthearted songs that make it hard to stand still.
The wider world discovered the sound in 2016 through Canadian superstar Drake's hit single One Dance, which had elements of Afrobeats and featured one of the scene's biggest names, Nigerian artist Wizkid. At the time, One Dance became Spotify's most played song ever, with more than a billion individual streams. Ever since, Afrobeats has been on everybody's lips.
Numerous rap and R'n'B artists, from Snoop Dogg to Chris Brown, have experimented with the sound and collaborated with the likes of Davido, Burna Boy and Mr Eazi. In July last year, Beyoncé predominantly picked Afrobeats artists for her soundtrack album The Lion King: The Gift, saying, "I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa."
It's rumoured Bey and her husband Jay-Z will be among the celebrities visiting Accra for the Year of Return, a governmental initiative encouraging African diaspora to come to Ghana and celebrate the continent, 400 years after slavery began in America. There's a buzz as market stalls along busy Oxford Street sell bootleg T-shirts reading 'Welcome to Accra, Bey', and many open-air bars blast her tunes alongside local anthems such as Mr Eazi's Tony Montana. (Sadly, the rumours ultimately prove untrue.)
Afro Nation is the biggest event planned for the Year of Return. Following its debut in Portugal in July 2019, the organisers are bringing the four-day festival to Accra's Laboma Beach Resort, attracting 18,000 music fans and artists from all across Africa and beyond. As well as local dons such as Wizkid and Davido, acts including Tanzanian rap duo Navy Kenzo, Congolese powerhouse Innoss’B and Moonchild Sanelly from South Africa are united on the bill.
The spotlight is on West Africa right now, which is a big chance for all of us
The festival's pan-African orientation is one of the things that makes Afro Nation unique, explains Moonchild Sanelly, who's not an Afrobeats artist by definition. The 31-year-old singer with the signature mop of blue curls fuses electro-funk, rap and the South African house genre gqom. Sanelly stresses the importance of transglobal cooperation to the worldwide success of African music.
"The spotlight is on West Africa right now, which is a big chance for all of us," she says, referring to her collaboration with Ghanaian artist Okuntakinte. What pushed her career like nothing else, though, was her feature on Beyoncé's Lion King soundtrack. "There’s no bigger co-sign. My streaming numbers went from thousands to millions within a few weeks – and my pay cheques changed."
The majority of non-African artists on the bill come from the UK. London has established itself as a home away from home for Afrobeats. Second-generation Africans such as Yxng Bane incorporate the genre's light mood and shuffling beats into their rap tracks, creating a sub-genre dubbed Afroswing.
The east London-born rapper – whose track with fellow Brit Yungen, Bestie, went top 10 in the UK in 2017 – looks satisfied after his set. "I've never consciously tried to incorporate Afrobeats into my music," he says. "It just comes naturally. My parents are from Congo and Angola, so I'm an African boy."
Asked why Afrobeats is making such huge waves abroad, the 23-year-old points to artists from the diaspora. "African music used to come from Africa, but now a lot of it is made by second-generation Africans born in Europe and the US. When we're doing Afrobeats, it's easier for people at home to consume."
The Afrobeats craze started a bit earlier in the UK than elsewhere – Nigerian musician D'Banj's dance track Oliver Twist debuted at number nine on the UK singles chart in 2012. This was the tune that elevated African pop music from the communities into a broader urban space, explains radio and TV presenter Adesope Olajide.
Here at Afro Nation, Olajide is better known as ShopsyDoo, the Energy Gawd – a nickname that's well-deserved. With his equally agile colleague Eddie Kadi, the entertainer introduces every act to the stage and he bridges the time between live sets by dancing, joking and getting women from the audience on stage for an impromptu twerking competition.
Back home in London, Olajide is known for being one of Afrobeats' earliest UK supporters. During a break, the 43-year-old sits down to talk (or, rather, hoarsely whisper – being on stage for 10 hours a day has left its mark) about the early days. Around 2008, he and Afro Nation founder SMADE (real name Adesegun Adeosun Jr) flew Wizkid to London for the first time to perform at a 300-capacity club in east London. After the gig, the singer slept on SMADE's sofa. Today, Wizkid fills the O2 Arena.
Even black people with Caribbean heritage would mock the African kids
When asked about the significance of Afrobeats in the diaspora, Olajide refers to a line by British-Nigerian grime star Skepta in the 2015 remix of Wizkid's song Ojuelegba (When I was in school, being African was a diss. Sounds like you need help saying my surname, miss).
"In the past, a lot of first-and-second-generation Africans didn't want to identify themselves as African," he says. "Their surnames were being slaughtered, because people couldn’t pronounce them. Even black people with Caribbean heritage would mock the African kids. But, with the advent of D'Banj and Wizkid, a lot of these kids saw celebrities who looked like US rap stars and they felt like, 'Hold on, these guys aren't the African image that's been sold to us'. A lot of them started to come out of their shells and identify more with their heritage."
Olajide raves about the sense of unity and pride that Afrobeats instilled in kids of the diaspora, citing his 13-year-old daughter as an example. "I speak Yoruba to her," he says. "But her pronunciation comes more from the Nigerian artists she listens to. That's why it's gone beyond the business element and become something bigger. My daughter is growing up in a world where, to her, Davido is as much a superstar as Justin Bieber."
The ultimate equaliser
As recent as 10 years ago, it was unimaginable that songs in Yoruba would be released by major labels and appear on heavy rotation on mainstream radio stations, or that the biggest artists in Western music would not only sample an African musician's track, but instigate a collaboration to increase their coolness. What's changed?
Olajide and Kadi point to the internet – the "ultimate equaliser", as they call it. On one hand, social media made it possible to cut out the gatekeepers at traditional radio stations that kept Afrobeats off the air; on the other, internet artists abroad have discovered their similarities, says Olajide. "Young artists like Drake and Skepta realise that the only difference between them and Burna Boy or Wizkid is their location. They have the same lifestyle and are into the same things. It's only natural they would collaborate."
Another aspect is the economic potential that comes with these team-ups, as BBC World Service journalist and Afrobeats expert Hannah Ajala points out. "American artists and record labels realised the potential of combining two huge world markets," she says. "Nigeria alone is peaking at 200 million in population size."
On top of this, the local entertainment business is booming. According to a 2017 report by business consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCooper, the Nigerian music industry was expected to experience an annual growth rate of 13.4 per cent up until 2021, a rise from £30m in 2016 to £56m.
Back to Accra
If you want to find out how it all started in Accra, we're told, you must speak to Ruddy Kwakye. This is easier said than done – Kwakye is the event producer of Afro Nation, which means he's in charge of almost everything. Barely does a moment pass when his radio isn't demanding his attention, or someone isn't tapping him on the shoulder and asking, "Ruddy, do you have a second?" We join the queue and after 20 minutes the former radio presenter and brand representative for MTV Base Africa is ready for us. He tells us about the crises that befell the Ghanaian music industry after the military coups of the 1960s and '70s.
"We used to have a vibrant scene, with professional recording studios built by our first president [Kwame Nkrumah], and we were about to set up a proper music industry," he says. "But by the time I grew up, in the dark days, most of the studios had closed and former music venues and cinemas had been converted into churches. Music went underground. It was only in the mid-'90s that radio was liberalised and there was new demand for local music, reviving the scene and providing a viable means of distribution."
Bootlegging – whether illegal downloads or CDs sold in the street – is still a problem, due to the unavailability in West Africa of streaming services such as Spotify
Artists began to fuse traditional sounds with R'n'B and rap influences, laying the foundation for Afrobeats. Today, says Kwakye, there are around 60 local radio stations in Accra blasting out the genre all day. When asked about the economic potential of Afrobeats, the 39-year-old references Afro Nation's success and the trickle-down effect on local tourism. "But we need to start putting infrastructure in place," he says. "It's nice when you invite me to your house, but when you convert it into a bar, you make me come back every day. Ghana's selling point is the country's political and economic stability. We're still an easy country to enter and to stage an event like this one, but we need to move fast – other countries see our achievements and they're coming."
Despite the stability that makes Accra a haven for creatives from all over the world – The New York Times dubbed it "Africa's capital of cool", while Time Out lists historic fishing district Jamestown as one of the world's most fashionable neighbourhoods – it's still a challenge to carve out a living as a musician here. Bootlegging – whether illegal downloads or CDs sold in the street – is still a problem, due to the unavailability in West Africa of streaming services such as Spotify. In addition to this, artists complain that they're not receiving royalties from radio airplay of their music. In 2017, Ghanaian dancehall star Shatta Wale called out the Ghana Music Rights Organization on Facebook, with an angry post that read, 'GHAMRO, are you ready to pay my royalties or you want me to go haywire!!'
KwakuBs, a member of Accra-based music collective La Même Gang, can empathise. "One time, I found out one of my songs was used in a movie, but no one ever asked me," he says. "Anyone just does anything over here, because even the police wouldn't do much about these things."
At Afro Nation the previous night, KwakuBs and his five band-mates set the stage on fire with their bass-laden tracks. Today, the boys, all in their early twenties and heavily tattooed, are chilling in producer Nxwrth's bedroom studio. Some of them are on a Nintendo Switch, others play with Nxwrth's dog Astro (named after Travis Scott's album Astroworld), while KwakuBs records vocals.
When the group formed in 2017, Afrobeats was on the cusp of becoming a global phenomenon, which made them want to do something different. When Nxwrth, a 23-year-old sporting pink mini-dreads, boldly states, "I'm trying to change the soundscape in Ghana," you can see where he’s coming from. With kick drums layered in heavy sub bass, tunes such as Know Me and Stone Island are closer in sound to trap than to classic Afrobeats and their songs celebrate an individualist lifestyle.
"Ghanaians have very strong opinions, especially in terms of morals," KwakuBs says. "You can't look a certain way, can't just give a brother a hug. We have tattoos and dyed hair, which went against everything and was met with negativity at first. But, recently there was a shift. We're part of a new wave."
This new wave also includes local fashion labels, like Free the Youth and design collectives such as The Weird Cult – like-minded artists who motivate each other and, through collaboration, give one another a platform away from the mainstream. As the local Afrobeats radio stations refuse to play La Même Gang's tunes, these artistic synergies help them gain the attention of international music and fashion publications. "We wear our friends' clothes in our videos and they make merchandise for us," says La Même Gang member Darkovibes. "We believe that if you want to move far, move together. You want to move fast, you go alone."
I'm the future. I want to be a role model for kids
Also part of this new wave is 19-year-old Rema from Benin City, Nigeria, whose track Iron Man made it onto Barack Obama's favourite songs list for 2019 and who topped the Apple Music Nigeria chart last year with his eponymous debut EP. This happened, Rema says, not because, but in spite of, the international success of Afrobeats.
When he started out, people around Rema advised him to make music within the genre, but instead he decided to rap and use Arabic melodies, which infused his melodic pop songs with spirituality. These choices are a result of his upbringing: Rema's father and brother died when he was a child and rapping in church gave him hope and motivation.
Initially, Rema struggled to get his music heard, but when he was signed by Don Jazzy – co-writer of Oliver Twist and owner of Nigeria’s biggest independent record company, Mavin Records – his career took off. In stark contrast to his idols, such as Wizkid and Davido, Rema renounces the glamorous lifestyle. He doesn't drink or smoke, doesn’t show off expensive clothes. When quizzed on the subject, the quiet, thoughtful young man smiles. "You see, they're the old generation," he says. "I'm the future. I want to be a role model for kids."
Minutes later, he steps out on stage in a black tie-dye T-shirt and jogging pants to rapturous applause. "I am Rema," he declares. "Every country I go to, they tell me I am the future." A sea of smartphones captures the moment to transmit to the world. The ascendency of pop music from West Africa has only just begun.