A Brief History of Afrobeats Music
Beyoncé’s smile delivered extra wattage when she gave a rare interview to ABC’s Robin Roberts this past week. She spoke about her new album, The Lion King: The Gift, the soundtrack to the widely awaited Disney film. Calling this production, “a love letter to Africa,” Beyoncé included her own tracks and brought in popular artists from across the continent, especially Nigeria.
These performers — Burna Boy, WizKid, Tekno, and Tiwa Savage — have become increasingly famous during the past few years, but they will surely play on far bigger stages with this film’s release. This event will also serve as a global introduction to their genre, known as afrobeats.
Afrobeats is jubilant party music that draws on West African sources — hybrid languages, propulsive rhythms — and mixes them with delivery and tone from across the Americas, referencing hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall. This blend has a similarly named Nigerian predecessor, afrobeat, which emerged almost 50 years ago.
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Beyoncé performs during the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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The two are markedly different yet share a trajectory.
Essentially, afrobeat arose from the mind and spirit of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti who, like Beyoncé, is identified on a first-name basis. Throughout the 1970s he fused James Brown’s funk, traditional West African dance rhythms with jazz and his own take on chamber music for lengthy compositions. As Fela fronted large and tightly scripted bands, he turned his words and charisma toward excoriating the colonial powers that carved up Africa as well as the corrupt systems that kept his country’s leaders in power.
After Fela’s death at age 58 in 1997, his international stature grew among hip-hop’s creators. Mos Def used his “Fear Not For Man” as the lead-off track to his 2000 disc, Black On Both Sides. Questlove and Erykah Badu have curated his recordings for box sets. His life was also chronicled in a Broadway musical (Fela!). These productions anticipated the cross-cultural appreciation that would lead to The Lion King: The Gift. Back in Nigeria, the pop music that became known later as afrobeats also began around the time of Fela’s passing but its sunny spirit seemed far removed from his complex art and beliefs.
Most of today’s afrobeats stars, now in their late 20s, grew up under different circumstances and influences than Nigeria’s instrumental trailblazers like Fela. Hip-hop informed their beats and sampling. Vocalists’ combination of English and Yoruba sounded more lyrical than aggressive. Songs became shorter and were produced to sonically fit alongside their counterparts in global R&B. As reggae became stripped down, electronically programmed and sped up to create dancehall tracks, young Nigerians listened and adapted.
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Tiwa Savage performs during the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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Lagos-born Tiwa Savage — who spent her teenage years in the United Kingdom and attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music — had her own cosmopolitan experiences: Her gigs included singing backup for Mary J. Blige and co-composing “American Idol” winner Fantasia’s soul-drenched “Collard Greens & Cornbread.”
England’s vivid African immigrants’ communities also helped build the movement, which eventually attracted American collaborators. Britain-based Ghanaian DJ Abrantee is usually credited with coining the pluralized “afrobeats” term in 2011 to describe the mixture of new West African records he played on-air and at shows. Audiences expanded online and in concert halls.
Last summer, more than 20,000 people attended the first AfroRepublik festival at London’s O2 to see such stars as WizKid and Tiwa Savage. Their YouTube views are in the tens of millions while ringtones and social media helped these artists bypass a stagnant music industry, which has since caught on to the trend. WizKid raised his American profile after appearing in Drake’s romantic “One Dance” in 2016 and the Canada-born rapper/singer guested on his Nigerian friend’s equally amorous “Come Closer” the following year.
Still, Fela’s lineage remains present within afrobeats. Burna Boy, the grandson of Fela’s manager Benson Idonije, sampled several of the Nigerian legend’s records for his own tracks. Femi Kuti, son of the afrobeat founder, plays saxophone on WizKid’s “Jaiye Jaiye” and his father’s image appears in the accompanying video. Overt sexuality runs throughout the words and images in afrobeats’ songs and videos, but this was also a major theme for Fela as well as among musicians pretty much everywhere.
What’s interesting is that true, afrobeats stars do not (or, not yet) deliver Fela’s signature anti-authoritarian defiance. On the video to a fresh-faced WizKid’s “Holla At Your Boy” from nine years ago, he chats up his attractive classmate instead of, say, challenging a wider global system. Likewise, Tiwa Savage issues a catchy invitation for love and money in “All Over.” Tekno expressed similar desires within the upscale video to his “Duro,” although his recent “Woman” points to growing feminist consciousness.
But perhaps an inherently political message lies underneath it all. While much of the American media — and certain ignorant American politicians — focus on Africa’s poverty and violence, this upbeat music and its presentation offer a contrasting bright vision of what the continent represents. That combination of youthful energy, brilliant style, and enduring hope answers Beyoncé’s love letter with equal enthusiasm.