Accelerated by the arrival of MTV Base Africa in the mid 2000s, stars began to emerge across the continent. Artists M.I Abaga, Naeto C and Sarkodie were followed in the late 2000s by the likes of 2Baba, P-Square, and Flavour N’abania. By 2011, Wizkid’s ‘Holla At Your Boy’ and D’Bani’s ‘Oliver Twist’ reached a global audience for the first time. In the UK, this was amplified by radio shows dedicated solely to Afrobeats, not least that of Choice FM’s DJ Abrantee, who is widely credited with coining the term for a new generation of listeners. As Sierra Leone rapper Drizilik describes, fresh from a collaboration with London rapper Big Zuu, “Afrobeats connects people from across different cultures across Africa. In the UK, Afrobeats is what connects Africans to their roots.” The exchange isn’t just one-way. In 2015, Wizkid’s ‘Ojuelegba’ was remixed by Skepta and Drake, setting the foundations for ‘One Dance’ - the standout track of Drake’s 2016 album Views, which featured Wizkid and South African producer DJ Maphorisa and became the most streamed song of the year. Artists like Fuse ODG helped popularise the music in the UK, where J Hus would pioneer the derivation, Afroswing, bringing together Afrobeats, dancehall and a potent blend of trap, hip-hop, RnB and grime.
THE EVOLVING SOUNDS OF AFROBEATS
“What we hear today is Afropop, Afro-hip-hop, Afro-whatever – you know, Afro-fusion,” Burna Boy told NME in August 2020. “They decided to use the word ‘Afrobeats’ to put it all under one umbrella." Unlike its predecessor Afrobeat - the radical blend of jazz, funk and highlife pioneered by Fela Kuti and Tony Allen in the early ‘70s - the umbrella of Afrobeats can be traced back to the bubbly electronic pop music coming out of Ghana and Nigeria at the turn of the millennium. With lyrics sung in a mixture of English, pidgin and languages like Yoruba, it initially fused genres like hiplife and jùjú with dancehall, soca and hip-hop influences from across the Black Atlantic. Uniquely creative, vibrant and collaborative, it is a style evolving so fast, the industry that labelled it can’t keep up.
Some artists have taken matters into their own hands. Mr Eazi calls his sound Banku Music, Burna Boy has settled on Afro-fusion, as have Davido and Wizkid, and Afropop is often used interchangeably. Others have called for ‘Afrobeats’ to be dropped altogether, in favour of the more nuanced genres and styles that better represent both individual artists and the diversity of countries and cultures they are rooted in. But, as Wizkid put it in an interview with Capital Xtra in 2019, “for me, it’s just good music.” While its recent history is far from linear, there is a thread which ties the sounds of the late ‘90s and early 2000s to the global phenomenon it is today.
By 2019, many of the genre’s biggest stars, including Wizkid, Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Tekno, and Mr Eazi, were drafted onto Beyoncé’s 'The Lion King: The Gift' soundtrack, while others like Davido signed to major US labels. For Burna Boy, the year also saw the release of critically acclaimed LP 'African Giant', a preface to new album 'Twice as Tall', which takes aim at systemic oppression and colonialism with razor-sharp precision. In doing so, he connects Afro-fusion to a lineage of revolutionary, pan-African protest music that runs back to Fela and beyond. As he told Hypebeast in 2019, “The same way every child has a childhood hero in the comics that they want to be, that’s who Fela is for me.” Burna Boy’s grandfather also happened to be Fela Kuti’s first manager.
As many artists continue to conquer new heights, scenes are blossoming across the continent. While Sierra Leone’s music industry is comparatively small, Drizilik has sought to inject traditional styles like bubu, milo jazz and gumbe into his sound, while also citing Kanye West as a major influence. “The Afrobeats scene in Sierra Leone is lively,” he exclaims. “Sierra Leonean creatives have found a way of telling their own stories using lyrics and beats, using it as an inspiration to create our own sound.” Much of what has been called Afrobeats is connected by that same impulse, whether within Africa or across the diaspora. It’s an idea that Lloyd Bradley articulates beautifully in a review of 'Twice as Tall' - “that you can revel in the particularities your own specific locale while also being part of a pan-global black culture.” It is in this spirit that dances like Azonto from Ghana and Shoki from Nigeria can get down to dancehall and bashment riddims from Jamaica, that grime from the UK can intertwine with verses sung in Yoruba or pidgin, and that the celebratory sounds of highlife, hiplife, and jùjú can fuse with RnB and hip-hop to create something completely new. In Drizilik’s words, “the groove is endless and it leaves you wanting more.” As the music continues to evolve, the possibilities are just as endless. Text: Anton Spice Collage: Diogo Lopes