As we sway with other Black bodies to ‘Karolina’ by Awilo Longomba in a Chicago nightclub, part of me feels like I’d briefly entered a pan-African utopia, the Wakanda of my dreams. With every whine, hearing the Congolese soukous fills me with nostalgia for the early aughts. As I look around, I realise what’s been exalted as a dancefloor staple for decades, akin to hearing Bell Biv DeVoe’s ‘Posion’ or Montell Jordan’s ‘This is How We Do It’, is now being lumped into the ‘Afrobeats’, a category it supersedes.
The recognition that Afrobeats is becoming the catch-all term for any music emanating from the continent is coupled with fascination about what that could mean for Africans. As fans, protection is the first impulse: To safeguard the music against the flattening of the breadth of African contemporary music genres as one. The second is intrigue: Is Afrobeats being treated as a representative framework for Africa—How are African creators navigating this? How are audiences receiving it? Does it really matter?
From the implications of Billboard’s new ‘Afrobeats US’ category to the Afrobeats crossover records with Afro-descendant artists, Afrobeats may not be the catch-all label or lens we asked for, but it’s the one being used.
How we got here
In 2011, when legendary Ghanaian DJ, presenter and promoter, DJ Abarantee, began describing the contemporary West African records he played during his sets as ‘Afrobeats’ to audiences in the United Kingdom, the term took on a life of its own. That same year, Abarantee also launched Afrobeats with DJ Abarantee (a radio show on Capital XTRA) and Afrobeats Sundays (a weekly event at the O2), popularising ‘Afrobeats’ for UK audiences.
As Africans around the diaspora shared and promoted the music bubbling back home throughout Europe, Asia, North America and South America, Afrobeats came to represent African music in most global listeners’ minds and replaced the much despised ‘World Music’ as the framework audiences receive contemporary African music.
Africans continue to utilise this framework from the diaspora to help promote African-based music to global audiences. Festival series – Afro Nation, for instance, was founded by SMADE and Obi Asika, two prominent UK-based Nigerian music industry players.
So far, Afro Nation has held festivals in Puerto Rico, Portugal and Ghana, bringing together the most prominent acts in Afro-fusion, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, soca, and other black-led musical genres. This movement was founded in response to commercial festivals’ hesitation to book African-based acts despite the demand demonstrated by African acts like Davido, WizKid, and Burna Boy selling out large-scale venues like the O2 and Madison Square Garden. In 2021, WizKid and Tems’ ‘Essence’ reached number one on the US Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and in 2022, Burna Boy’s ‘Last Last’ reached number four on the UK Top 40 chart.
These accomplishments should’ve triggered the acknowledgement of African-based artists’ impacts on Western pop music but instead, the Grammy’s began discussing the creation of an Afrobeats category. With the Grammy’s history of snubbing popular Black artists from top awards like Album of the Year or Best New Artist, this new category may be a way to avoid nominating African artists for those top awards.
Afro Nation positions African artists under the umbrella of Afrobeats. In 2020, they partnered with Official Charts in the UK to create the ‘Official UK Afrobeats Chart’. In March, they collaborated with Billboard in the US to create the ‘U.S. Afrobeats Songs Chart.’
Afro Nation is an example of an organisation that deeply understands popular contemporary African music’s nuance and global impact. At the same time, Afro Nation finds the recognition of the moniker ‘Afrobeats’ helpful in enhancing these artists’ audiences and marketability. Afro Nation’s choice to establish international charts under this label further correlates Afrobeats with African artists in the minds of new listeners.
Even performers touted as the leaders and definers of the genre do not identify their music as ‘Afrobeats’ specifically. Burna Boy, considered by many as a pioneer of ‘Afrobeats,’ instead coined the term ‘Afro-fusion’ to define the amalgamation of genres his music draws from.
An example of a sub-genre that doesn’t fall within the mould of ’Afrobeats’ is the Alté (rooted in ‘alternative’) sub-genre, which comprises various styles, including dancehall, indie music, and R&B. Emerging genres and sub-genres, such as Afro-fusion and Alté, help point to African artists’ desire to self-define. From Nigerians to Tanzanians, attempts to define the artistic products of people as nuanced and specific as Africans will always fall short of their realities.
Artists outside Nigeria
For African artists outside of Nigeria, the umbrella of Afrobeats can be even more misrepresenting and flattening. When non-Nigerian artists are mislabelled as Afrobeats artists, it denies audiences the opportunity to learn about their specific genres and the cultures that accompanies them. For example, listening to gqom or amapiano music is an entryway to South African youth culture. It means exposure to dances like the gwara gwara or zekethe, isiZulu slang and township fashion.
These genres are vehicles for nuances in South African culture that may be missed if a casual listener falsely associates their music with Nigeria or West Africa. Furthermore, how do you label contemporary African music genres when they intersect with one another. An artist may use a South African amapiano beat, Nigerian Pidgin lyrics and rap in Atlanta trap cadence while doing Ghanaian dance moves all in one song. The question of how to define the genre of these acts is as complex as musicians like The Weeknd or Drake. It is often so muddled that one asks, ‘when does our music just become pop’ since it is seemingly popular’.
Erasure & legacy
Before there was a need for the term ‘Afrobeats’, there was Afrobeat, the movement and genre. Ghanaian highlife was foundational in the development of the sound we know as Afrobeat. Ghanaian artists like E. T. Mensah and Gyedu-Blay Ambolley influenced a generation of artists across West Africa, including Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, to fuse indigenous sounds with international influences like jazz and funk. When Ghanaian hiplife gained notoriety in the ‘90s, it affirmed Ghana’s multigenerational influence on West African music. Hiplife’s fusion of hip–hop, highlife and indigenous language was then instrumental in the development of genres that are now labelled ‘Afrobeats.’ When the Afrobeats gained popularity, not only did it water down the Afrobeat movement that proceeded it, but it also furthered the erasure of the impact Ghanaian artists made with highlife and hiplife.
The utility of Afrobeats
Fans concerned for the future of Afrobeats should consider the unique ways the genre is already utilised globally. Whether or not the Afrobeats label is the best term to reflect all contemporary African music, it has taken root and become a movement itself. Afrobeats is becoming synonymous with Black pride, Black beauty aesthetics and pan-Africanist unity between Africa and the Black diaspora (Afro-descendants, Africans abroad, children of African immigrants). Afrobeats has promoted a new image of a ‘modern’ and ‘thriving’ Africa that challenges the antiquated perception popularised in the West. This diasporic unity is meaningful to Afro-descendants and provides an opportunity to re-engage with present-day Africa.
Afrobeats has also placed a spotlight on the talents of the African creative class, helping them to leverage their talent in international markets and to grow their country’s economies. Though sometimes obscuring, the Afrobeats umbrella serves as a vehicle for disseminating African content worldwide. Popular films like Black Panther and Lion King and Netflix series like Blood & Water and Young, Famous & African utilise popular African music (amapiano, Afrobeats, bongo flava) within their scores and soundtracks to create ‘Afrobeats’ vibes that unite Black audiences around the world.
The rise of Afrobeats has coincided with growth in Internet culture, especially on platforms like YouTube and TikTok which aided in the increased visibility of African content creators. Popular Afrobeats songs became synonymous with street dances and dance challenges creators make to accompany them. Challenges like Akwaaba, Pilolo, Kupe, or Jerusalema are connected to specific songs and help to increase the streams and impressions of the songs while promoting the creativity of African dancers and choreographers.
The utility of ‘Afrobeats’ in the Americas
Afrobeats is affirmation for Afro-descended artists who have developed genres that interpolate their experiences of blackness, African heritage, resistance, and joy. Although much of mainstream Latin America still frames Africa as something ‘almost folkloric’, Afrobeats has begun to penetrate popular music in the region. In Afro-descendants, Afrobeats has found a receptive audience and talented collaborators. While Afro-Latino sub-genres like Reggaetón are co-opted by white and lighter-skinned Latinos for global audiences, Afrobeats offers more than just crossover collaborations; it provides an opportunity for coalition and connection between Black artists.
Artists like Colombia’s ChocQuibTown collaborated with Nigerian producers to bridge genres across the Atlantic by creating a hybrid Pidgin(English)-Creole(Spanish) Afrobeats song. These collaborations are expanding the audiences of both African and South Latin American artists to demographics receptive to Black aesthetics that are not always accepted in the dominant Western music scenes. Mainstream Latin American artists like J Balvin and Bad Bunny are also reaching African audiences through Afrobeats collaborations.
In North America, a similar effect is happening. When artists collaborate with Afrobeats artists and create songs, many in the Black diaspora feel empowered. Songs like ‘Bloody Samaritan (Remix)’ by Ayra Starr ft. Kelly Rowland, ‘Somebody’s Son’ by Tiwa Savage ft. Brandy, African Bad Gyal by WizKid ft. Chris Brown, and Beyonce’s entire Black Is King album personify Black love, beauty, and empowerment to many in the diaspora.
Even a song created to narrate everyday life in Africa may take on a deeper meaning in the diaspora. For example, 2Baba’s ‘African Queen’ is a love song in the continent but in the diaspora, it also becomes an ode to Black beauty and Black love. Songs like this portray high quality creative work from Black entertainers and production teams that overall is viewed as an uplifting or unifying representation in the diaspora.
As infectious as the sounds of Afrobeats are, their visuals are equally impactful. African creators and aesthetics are showcased in visuals. The creative direction utilises innovative fashion designers, directors, and visual artists to create imagery that feels distinctively African. These visuals are helping African creatives gain visibility and access to international opportunities.
The popularity of Afrobeats has coincided with growth in African ‘creative economies’. Fields like art, fashion and film contribute to the aesthetics of Afrobeats that resonate with global audiences. The visuals utilise local African talent at every level, allowing it to be a cross-promotion platform. The iconic visuals created by video directors like Clarence Peters, Meji Alabi, and Daps led them to become highly sought after across genres and global markets.
The era of self-determination
Contemporary African music is niche, specific and local. As genres rise to regional and global prominence, there’s a desire to package them as one to make them more palatable or marketable for external audiences. With Africa, these attempts will always fall flat because at its socio-political root, Africa is nuanced. Artists and industry players alike will have to navigate, disseminating their music in authentic ways. Maybe Afrobeats will be a valuable tool in that process. Perhaps, will it be an obstacle? It is not a question with a precise answer. However, it is vital to remind African creators of their agency over their creations.
As a continent whose self-determination has been historically and systematically infringed upon, we have never been given the grace to explain who we are and how we want to be defined. Within our art, we need to be able to make those statements. We set the tone. When cultures are not guarded, especially subcultures, there’s a fast-track to erasure. Black musicians have historically been erased from the genres they’ve created even as such genres gained mainstream popularity. Ultimately, the goal must be for contemporary African musicians and creators to define their discourse and maintain their agency on a global scale.