How Afrobeats is Making the World Listen by Mankaprr Conteh

Musicians and fans from Africa have been diligently constructing the sound of the future. Now it’s here.

Ckay, Fireboy DML, and Amaarae (from left) Illustration by Sean McCabe. Images used with illustration, from left: Atlantic Records; Tomm; Sacha Leccanone

In 2006, a crew of young musicians from Nigeria set up the Hottest Coalition of Nigerian DJs. The group comprised artists living in the country as well as in the growing diaspora around the world. Their mission was to promote the kind of music that was popular in West Africa at the time, by acts like P-Square, 2Baba, and D’banj. These were tunes with elements of electronic and dance music set to African percussion, as well as including hints of highlife, dancehall, hip-hop, and R&B — origins traceable across the spectrum of Black expression. “It was obvious that [Africans living abroad] were craving their own [music], because that’s one of the ways they could connect back home,” says DJ Neptune, one of the earliest members of the coalition. “This was before we started having blogs coming into the game,” he says.

Over the years, the kind of music they were promoting has become known as Afrobeats, a term that describes the most popular music coming out of West Africa. Coined in the aughts, Afrobeats (with an “S”) is similar in name to the Afrobeat music popularized by Fela Kuti in the 1970s, but is distinct in its more modern origin and flavor. While Kuti’s music was characteristically political and orchestral, Afrobeats is often jovial, digitally produced, and sung in English, West African, and pidgin languages.

Now, artists from Africa are rapidly reshaping the sound and texture of pop music — and Afrobeats just had its biggest year ever. Burna Boy and Wizkid, two of Nigeria’s biggest stars, both took home Grammys in the past year, and American pop stars have eagerly tapped into the scene. After a dazzling appearance on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, fellow Nigerian Tems delivered one of the year’s best records with her EP, If Orange Was a Place. There was also the viral rise of Ghanaian American Afro-fusionist Amaarae, whose Kali Uchis-assisted remix of her 2020 single “Sad Girlz Luv Money” became an anthem for independent women across the internet.

Last fall, Nigerian-born artist CKay’s lovestruck single, “Love Nwantiti,” became a Top 40 hit in the U.S., this after emerging as one of Shazam’s most-searched songs (and dominating TikTok for months). “Afrobeats had its year of widest coverage from my perspective,” CKay says. “The music reached places it has never reached.” 

Even with its recent Western crossover moment, Afrobeats can’t be separated from African culture. It’s in the percussion and deep bass of Burna Boy’s “On the Low,” a standout on his 2019 album, African Giant, and in the treatises on colonialism, economics, and politics throughout the record.

You can feel it in last summer’s global smash “Essence,” which earned the Lagos-born Wizkid his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 as the lead performer (he nabbed his only Number One as a guest on Drake’s Afro-Caribbean smash “One Dance”), reaching the Top 10. The song’s chorus, “Only you fit hold my body,” is a testament to the diligently rhythmic language of the diaspora; to a population’s power to morph stilted tongues — injecting texture and vibrancy into the English language.

The same can be said for the original version of Nigerian singer Fireboy DML’s “Peru,” released last summer. It’s like hearing all of Afrobeats’ most compelling traits served up at once. Its intoxicating rhythm, courtesy of Nigerian producer Shizzi, unrolls over seductively polyrhythmic drums, while Fireboy’s vocals gallop smoothly to the percussive beat. The Pidgin English dialects that are spoken throughout West Africa guide the song’s inherent charm. 

Fireboy recently teamed up with Ed Sheeran for a remix of “Peru,” and he’s set to embark on his first U.S. tour in February. “In the next two to five years, Afrobeats is going to be the greatest, most recognized genre in the world,” Fireboy says. “We are talking not just European tours, not just U.K. tours or whatnot, but world tours.”

A Growing Listener Base

Nigeria is the bastion of Afrobeats, producing most of the stars who have penetrated the West in recent years. Industry insiders point to the country’s population of more than 206 million, comparative wealth, and more-developed music-business ecosystem as contributing factors to its dominance. “They’re all across the planet, as well,” says 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.” 

Back in the early 2000s, the Hottest Coalition found itself pushing for an audience many Western countries hadn’t yet recognized as a significant demographic. “The narrative has started changing,” says Neptune. “The acceptance we have now can’t be compared with that time. I fly into America and land in Atlanta, and as I am heading home I am hearing a Davido song playing on V103, or I am walking to the mall and I’m hearing a Mr. Eazi record playing. It’s almost impossible to say you don’t know there’s a genre called Afrobeats.”

According to Pew Research, between 2000 and 2015, the African-immigrant population in just the United States more than doubled, exceeding 2 million. It was the fastest growth rate for any population during the time. Nigerians make up the largest share of that demographic with about 348,000 Nigerian immigrants living in the United States as of 2017. By now, many of these people have children who grew up straddling two cultures, the kinds of listeners the Hottest Coalition hoped to reach back in 2006. Except now they make up a significantly more visible part of pop culture.

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!’”

At the Atlanta stop of Wizkid’s North American tour in October, an additional date had to be added to the 2,600-capacity venue to meet surging demand. One of the shows started with DJ Tunez, who serves as Wiz’s in-house DJ, running through hits that spanned time and geography across the African diaspora. He played tracks by a new generation of artists and songs that the current generation of West African millennials learned from their parents — Magic System’s “1er Gaou” and Awilo Longomba’s “Karolina.” “It’s a beautiful time to be African,” Tunez told the crowd.

Tunji Balogun was instrumental in signing Wizkid — as well as Davido and Tems — to Sony’s RCA Records, where he was executive vice president of A&R. He now serves as chairman and CEO of Def Jam Recordings, but he was once a Nigerian American kid navigating the double-consciousness of his identities. “Previously, I’d only hear African music in strictly African spaces when I was in America, like at a wedding or a birthday party. I would never hear it in a public space,” he says.

Balogun is uniquely situated between African acts and an American industry that has doubted their necessity. “I’m one of the few executives that’s a second-generation African in a position of power. I don’t take that lightly. I want to be a bridge,” he says. “Part of the reason I even wanted to take this job at Def Jam [is] because I feel like the label brand and what it represents aligns with my philosophy of [asking] ‘Who’s creating the future of these Black music experiences?’ I definitely think that a lot of what’s happening on the continent currently fits really well within that narrative.”

In his new role, Balogun is hungrily approaching partnerships with African artists in Afrobeats and beyond, like amapiano, the currently surging genre of South African house music. “Number one, as a fan, I’m obsessed with the music,” he says. “Number two, as an executive, I know that the audience is growing and that it can cross over to a wider array of fans and listeners.”

A Global Sound

Now more than ever, Western audiences are accustomed to encountering African culture. South African Trevor Noah is one of America’s most beloved comedians. Millennial Ghanaian American novelist Yaa Gyasi has won major awards for her two books on African and American life. Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a world-stopping track.

Yet, the strongest and most direct connection to the heartbeat of Africa seems to coalesce in the music from the continent, and in the music, composition is key. Just as Noah, Gyasi, and Adichie thread together global experiences, the most successful Afrobeats producers are the ones who can manage to fuse together all of the world’s forms of musical expression and create something new. “I always want to give props to producers,” Wale Oloworekende, a Nigerian journalist and the African music columnist at The Face magazine, says. “Without them, our music wouldn’t mutate as seamlessly as it does and then there’d be no variety.”

Juls is a particularly talented alchemist of international music: Take “Wish You,” a single from October’s spectacular Sounds of My World. Featuring sweet singing from Nigerian DACA recipient Mannywellz and cool raps from Dreamville MC Bas (who is Sudanese American), “Wish You” starts with Brazilian baile funk beatboxing before introducing soft house pianos and African percussion. “I feel like all of those sounds are appealing to people of different cultures, different ethnicities, different backgrounds,” Juls says.

“Essence” co-producer P2J says he and Wizkid align in taste and intention: working to widen the scope and audience of Afrobeats by merging African elements with styles like reggae and R&B. “​​I’ve always wanted to be one of the people to take Afrobeats music into popular music,” he says. As one of Afrobeats’ most prolific and versatile producers, the London-based Nigerian beatsmith has worked with everyone from Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, and Wizkid to Aminé, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé.

That Afrobeats is becoming such a force in the United States is no small feat. American audiences have a long history of being tepid in their embrace of global sounds. “To break records in the U.S. is a very different ballgame than the U.K.,” says Nikita Chauhan, a BBC Radio 1Xtra alum who now manages Ghanaian producer GuiltyBeatz. “But once the record connects, there’s no stopping it.”

Take the indomitable rise of “Essence,” first released in October 2020. For a subset of young, hip, mostly Black people, the song was an immediate standout. “Essence” got an extra marketing push in April 2021 with a vibrant music video, and in July, after it soundtracked a summer of fleeting freedom for people across the globe, it started scaling the Hot 100. Sure, a Justin Bieber feature on the remix didn’t hurt, but Wizkid mania had taken a firm hold of Afrobeats lovers stateside.

Now, there’s plenty more evidence that Afrobeats is connecting in the U.S. Last October, Burna Boy became the first African solo artist to headline the Hollywood Bowl; this year, he’s slated to play Madison Square Garden, the first headlining performance for a Nigerian musician at the storied New York venue. Duke Concept, the production company behind the shows, was founded by Osita Ugeh in 2013, two years after he moved to the United States from Nigeria. The business initially had to be scrappy, producing concerts at small nightclubs and DIY warehouses — some of the only venues available to Afropop artists at the time.

Today, things look much different. In 2018, Duke Concept secured a partnership with Live Nation, and last year spearheaded the U.S. tours of African acts such as Wizkid, Omah Lay, Olamide, Adekunle Gold, and Diamond Platnumz. “It’s quite inspiring to see, because these are the dreams,” Ugeh says.

Afrobeats is gradually becoming a mainstay on international radio, as well. As George Cook of Dallas radio station K104 explains: “Listeners who love Afrobeats are extremely passionate about the genre — and that passion has increased over time with the momentum of the music.”

Cook admits that it took time to figure out how to make Afrobeats reach a broader audience. “The answer turned out to be just let it happen organically. The organic success of ‘Essence’ on radio demonstrates this. And now, I am hopeful for the bigger and broader success of other Afrobeats songs, like CKay’s ‘Love Nwantiti.’ ”

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Producer Juls, DJ Neptune, and P-Square (from left) Illustration by Sean McCabe. Images used with illustration, from left: Courtesy of Juls; Geography; Dan Steinberg/AP Imagesnone

The Future Is in Africa

“It’s pretty clear [Africa] is the next frontier,” singer Amaarae says. “Audiomack has an office now in Nigeria. Spotify [made] moves towards Nigeria. Universal Music Group now has a [Nigerian] branch.” She also notes that Apple Music’s Africa Now and Africa Rising initiatives have amplified artists from countries that include South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria. Elsewhere in the streaming space, by late 2019, all three major labels had struck licensing deals with streaming service Boomplay Music — one of Africa’s most successful, boasting 60 million monthly users.

There are obvious and overtly capitalist reasons for the burgeoning interest in music from Africa, like Africa’s young and booming populace. According to United Nations estimates, Nigeria is projected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s third most populous country by the year 2100, and per a report from PwC, it’s set to be among the world’s top ten economies by 2050. There’s also the fact that immigrants from Africa are among the most upwardly mobile demographics in America — almost 60 percent of the Nigerians living in the U.S. have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, nearly twice the rate of the overall population. 

Even the term “Afrobeats” could be seen as more of a commercial than cultural development. As the writer Korede Akinsete points out in a recent OkayAfrica op-ed, the term originated in the U.K. club scene of the late 2000s — coined as a reference to the primarily Nigerian and Ghanaian music that first-gens were increasingly demanding to hear at parties. Afrobeats became a catchall as well as an easy sell; to Akinsete, it felt like the commodification of culture.

Like some other artists, Burna Boy questions — and has personally rejected — the Afrobeats moniker. “It’s not fair to just join everybody. . . . It’s almost like joining hip-hop, R&B, and dancehall into one thing and call it ‘Ameribeats,’ ” Burna told New York hip-hop station Hot 97. “It doesn’t do justice to what’s really going on.” Burna refers to his music as Afro-fusion, with a base of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat and layers of other diasporic sounds atop. Amaarae, while wary of genre conformity, has also called her music Afro-fusion.

For all of its capacity to smooth over cultural and creative nuances, plenty of insiders see Afrobeats as only the start of a more significant shift. “There are people that do R&B. There are people that do pop. There’ll be a lot more narrowing down of the genres,” predicts Ibukun Aibee Abidoye, an EVP at Chocolate City, a prominent Nigerian label with a recent partnership with Warner Music Group. “I think it’s going to change from just being known as Afrobeats to people really understanding that there’s different contexts to it.”

“When I grew up in the Nineties, the African experience was very much an outsider experience,” says Def Jam’s Balogun. “The most people knew were either just ignorant tropes or, like, Coming to America . . . which is hilarious, but also full of ignorant tropes.”

In 2017, Balogun helped curate Black Panther: The Album, produced by Kendrick Lamar and inspired by the Marvel film about a futuristic African nation. The album featured Black artists from across South Africa, like the rapper Yugen Blakrok and gqom artist Babes Wodumo, as well as stars like Lamar, Jorja Smith, and Khalid. “I saw Black Americans embrace and proclaim their connection to their African heritage,” Balogun says.

The following year, Beyoncé spearheaded The Gift, an album accompanying the remake of The Lion King. Dubbed her “love letter to Africa,” the project was doused with stars from Afrobeats and other African genres.

Afrobeats’ rise is a testament to the strengthening ties between Africa and its diaspora. Technology has shrunk the world; even the two writers of this piece, one in Lagos and the other in Atlanta, were brought together through Twitter, connected by a love of their African identities, people, and music.

Tuma Basa, YouTube’s Director of Black Music & Culture, is enthusiastic about the cross-continental connections Afrobeats is soundtracking, noting that several genre standards including Burna Boy’s “Ye,” Davido’s “If,” and Tekno’s “Pana” surpassed 100 million views on his platform last year. YouTube collaborated with Ghanaian music festival Afrochella in December, which he tracked via livestream and social media. “It was beautiful to see young African-Americans, Black Britons and Africans partying together, vibing to the music of King Promise, Ayra Starr and Wizkid,” says Basa. “That kind of cultural exchange makes Black music super strong.”

Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo recently launched the “Year of Return,” a yearlong schedule of events specially intended for young members of the diaspora living all over the world to engage with their roots. The inaugural event, in 2019, marked the 400-year anniversary of the earliest record of enslaved Africans being forced upon the Virginia shore. Cardi B was among the celebrities in attendance.

Meanwhile, Statista projects that the Nigerian music industry is set to rake in about $44 million by 2023. It’s a dynamic that has the potential to reshape countries in Africa, tipping the scales of power toward culture-savvy young people. The #EndSars movement, among the largest youth-driven protests in recent history, was bolstered internationally, as musicians from Nigeria offered support for protesters and their demands to the government. After the reported killing of demonstrators by police at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, Burna Boy commemorated victims with a song, the searing and urgent “20:10:20.”

It brings to mind the explosion of hip-hop in the Eighties and Nineties — a movement that reconfigured the way people saw the world, the reverberations of which we can still see multiple generations later. “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 says. “Afrobeats is a culture too.”

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