In addition to the rise in collaboration between Afrobeats artists and western musicians, there has been increased ‘Pan-African’ collaborations with older, more traditional African artists. Are these collaborations motivated by pursuit of international accolades or genuine creative expression?
Ololade ‘Asake’ Ahmed, the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Money’, set the music industry alight in 2022 with a relentless run of chart-topping hits. The release of ‘Omo Ope’ in February 2022 was the beginning of a truly extraordinary journey captured aptly in the article ‘Them Never Seeing Me Coming: The Captivating Rise of Asake’s Music’. Despite the wide acclaim, his detractors were quick to point to what they perceived to be a repetitiveness in his sound, described by some as ‘a predictable blend of Fuji and Amapiano’ in the middle of the artist’s run. Despite Asake showing us his artistic range with songs like ‘Trabaye’, ‘Dull’ and ‘Nzaza’, he seems to have resumed this year with a renewed desire to clear all doubts of a repetitious sound with his first release, ‘Yoga’. Here, Asake steps away from the Amapiano sound, giving us a harmonious and novel blend of Mauritian sega music (sampling Michel Legris’ ‘Mo Capitaine’), Senegalese griot sounds and his trademark Fuji flow. The song was further enhanced by its accompanying video, a rich and colourful masterpiece shot in Senegal by Asake’s usual co-conspirator, TG Omori.
Such collaborations are no stranger to Afrobeats; the genre has been built on the fusion of a variety of sounds such as dancehall, pop, R&B, Amapiano and several others over the past decade. This heterogeneity has been a large contributor to Afrobeats’ massive—and increasing—global appeal and commercial boom, allowing the music to strongly resonate with a wide range of Black audiences, both within and outside Africa. Several of the genre’s leading names have leveraged international collaborations to access even larger audiences by riding on the commercial juggernaut that is the United States’ music industry.
Irrespective of one’s stance on the musical contributions of these collaborators, their commercial impact cannot be overlooked. For example, the ‘Calm Down’ remix featuring Selena Gomez has amassed over 700 million streams on Spotify, and while the original version of the song has an impressive 400 million streams on the same music platform, the numbers clearly indicate that the remixed version of the song reached a wider range of listeners, therefore lending commercial reason to why Nigerian artists are quick to collaborate with western artists. The case is similar for other hits; the remix of Fireboy’s ‘Peru’ has 250 million streams on Spotify (vs 85 million streams for the original version) while Justin Bieber’s presence on ‘Essence’ by Wizkid and Tems catapulted an already high-performing single to stratospheric heights. Speaking on the ‘Essence’ remix in 2021, Audiomack’s Lagos team said, ‘Necessary musically? No. For reach, yes. It’s a strategic play that will guarantee chart positioning easily and get listeners’.
In addition, the past few years have seen collaborations between leading Afrobeats artists and more ‘traditional’ artists such as Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and several others. The motivations behind these collaborations are less clear, with certain power dynamics in the global music industry and recently increased interest in engaging with African histories inviting us to take a closer look at the situation.
PAN-AFRICANISM FOR WHO? BY AYOOLA OLADIPUPO
During the isolation of the pandemic, now three years ago, music served as a lifeline to many, including myself. A particular day of interest during this time was 14 August 2020; I gathered with some close friends over a video call to listen to Burna Boy’s newly released album, Twice as Tall. The self-proclaimed ‘African Giant’ set the tone for the rest of the album with the intro song, ‘Level Up’, a song which includes a vulnerable recollection of Burna Boy’s disappointment with losing the Grammy Award for Best Global Album earlier in the same year. The song also features vocals from seven-time Grammy nominee, Youssou N’Dour, described by Rolling Stone magazine in 2004 as ‘the most famous singer alive in much of Africa’. As we listened to the rest of the album, some of which featured words from Diddy–who executive-produced the album along with Burna’s mother and manager–and collaborations with other American heavyweights such as Timbaland and Naughty by Nature, we knew he would win it this time. Although we unanimously agreed that African Giant was a better album, this entire album seemed painstakingly engineered to win a Grammy, including that Youssou N’Dour feature. By featuring Youssou N’Dour, Twice as Tall was able to incorporate the type of music the Academy applauds or appreciates in respect to ‘Global’ music–a vague term which is discussed and addressed in the article A Myopic Perception of Non Western Music. Burna Boy has risen to incredible heights in the past five years and developed a large fanbase in the United States’ and European markets, largely helped by crafting a ‘Pan-Africanist’ identity that endears him to the African diaspora. Burna Boy was nominated again in the same category earlier this year for his Love, Damini album. However, despite features from widely acclaimed artists, such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the legendary South African group with five Grammy award wins, Love Damini did not win the Grammy.
Much like Burna Boy’s entire socially conscious, Pan-Africanist persona, these features seem largely performative. This is perhaps most clear to Nigerians living in Nigeria, who watched his historic performance in Madison Square Garden—which opened with a stunning rendition by Youssou N’Dour delivered to Burna Boy’s true target audience—and then months after were treated to ‘God punish una’ and other insults after waiting for over five hours to see the artist perform in Lagos last December. During the February 2023 presidential elections, the results of which have been the subject of intense controversy and scrutiny across the country, many were quick to address the self-proclaimed African Giant’s silence on the process. The artist responded, ‘I’ve never supported any political party or candidate in my life because I don’t want to make you vote and then blame me…’ While everyone is certainly within their rights to (not) share political opinions, his actions and inactions confirm that there is little substance behind his ‘hot take’ lyrics and ‘African Giant’ act.
While the reductive nature of the Global Music Category has been well documented, it remains perhaps the most highly coveted award by African artists. Historically, African nominations in this category have prioritized a certain type of sound—what can loosely be described as ‘traditional’ music—with nominees such as Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Ali Farka Toure and King Sunny Ade. As a result, Burna Boy—and other artists with similar aspirations—dance to the tune of these western establishments. This homogenous view of African culture has also manifested itself in the film industry, with commercially successful movies such as Black Panther and Woman King cantered around combining histories, politics and cultures from several African countries to create movies that are better able to resonate with a wide range of Black audiences.
While collaboration is indeed essential to the evolution of sounds and genres, the long-term success and trajectory of the Afrobeats genre will depend on its ability to derive and retain its authenticity, while providing the necessary space for its artists to evolve. The topic of gatekeeping Afrobeats surfaced on social media earlier this year, in February—when American singer Russ released a teaser of his upcoming ‘Afrobeats’ single, with music journalist, Joey Akan, commenting, ‘when Afrobeats can exist in the US without Nigerian artists, we are back to square one….while you’re trying to fly, build at home’. The likes of Youssou N’Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, despite wide international acclaim, attained their longevity and legendary status by anchoring themselves to the rich histories of Senegalese mbalax and South African isicathamiya, African music styles with rich socio-cultural foundations. If contemporary artists, African or otherwise, merely adopt these sounds— which each have their own contexts and histories in different African societies—to earn accolades, African artists may be contributing to the slow and steady demise of the genre we hold so dear.
PRESERVING THE RICHNESS OF WEST-AFRICAN MUSICAL ORIGINS BY ZAINAB KUKU
It is very common for Black artists to create songs or albums with the aim of extending the global reach and exposure of music from the African continent. Although musical genres should evolve and be experienced by as many people or cultures as possible, indigenous genres should ideally not be altered to produce manufactured and disingenuous replicas that are divorced from their musical origins. Such sentiments are echoed and reflected through the work of Malian folk and blues singer Ali Farka Touré. Touré has worked with a wide range of Western artists. These collaborations include the song ‘Roucky’, featuring the American blues singer Taj Mahal, and the collaborative album with rock guitarist Ry Coder, Talking Timbuktu. Through these collaborations, Ali Farka Touré’s Malian influence takes centre stage. Ali presents the same Malian folk music that is heard on his solo albums to a much wider or international audience, without altering or modifying his musical and traditional roots.
African artists have always shown a keen interest in merging other African and diasporic sounds with their indigenous musical influences, cultures and backgrounds. Years before current artists like Patoranking, Burna Boy or Ruger explored the fusion between Caribbean musical influences and Afrobeats, we had Nigerian artists such as Daddy Showkey and Majek Fashek who were heavily influenced by reggae and dancehall through their music and aesthetic. Through their musical legacies, Daddy Showkey and Majek Fashek respectively demonstrate that merging different sounds to create a new or modified genre is part of what makes music interesting and evolutionary.
Daddy Showkey was one of the pioneers of a genre called Galaga music or Ghetto dance, and is often credited as an artist who brought street culture in Lagos to the mainstream, with hits such as ‘Welcome’, ‘Somebody Call My Name’ and ‘Fire Fire’. These songs had strong reggae influences but were relatable and at the forefront of Nigerian popular music in the early to mid-1990s. In addition, Majek Fashek is widely recognized for his strong reggae influences, which are reflected in the production and vocal performance delivered on his 1989 song, ‘Send Down the Rain’. He also experimented with mixing reggae, rock and Afrobeat to develop a genre called Kpangolo—a brand of reggae music influenced by Fela’s Black consciousness and Bob Marley’s rhythm, cadence and tonality. Both artists relied on reggae as the foundation for creating Galaga and Kpangolo—two distinct sub-genres of indigenous music with popular appeal.
Collaboration and experimentation are not solely tools or stepping stones for commercial success, critical acclaim or international exposure; they equally enable artists to express their creativity in unexpected ways. For instance, before artists such as Niniola and Zinoleesky, merging Fújì and Amapiano was not a creative choice many artists experimented with and explored. However, Qdot and Niniola show that this is sonically great through their collaboration, ‘Gbese’, the fifth song on Qdot’s Alagbe album released in 2020. The song sounds indigenously Yoruba, as the Fújì influence is distinctly heard through Qdot’s lyrical delivery. Qdot’s Fújì background is then paired against the reoccurring, Amapiano–influenced beats on the chorus. Niniola’s discography of Amapiano–inspired music, such as her songs, ‘Want’ and ‘Commando’, explain and contextualize the Amapiano input on ‘Gbese’.
Through their joint collaboration, Qdot and Niniola demonstrate that it is possible to create music that feels indigenous without diluting or adapting their key musical influences or practices—Amapiano and Fújì—to appeal to an international audience. Such collaborations are valuable and important, particularly in the current climate where African music has received increased exposure, increasing the pressure artists may feel to step further away from indigenous music and lean more directly towards mainstream music trends. Although artists, such as Asake, have shown that having an indigenous outlook and sound does not alienate wider audiences but makes them more receptive towards the authenticity of the music, it is equally fair to note that the rise in collaborations between western artists and African artists sometimes dilutes the indigenous qualities of a song and makes the song more palatable to a wider audience.
Trying new afro-fusion mixes and collaborating with other African artists across the continent does not require a loss of Nigerian music identity or a need to adapt to a sound that is palatable to western audiences. Although collaboration can be used as a tool to further the latter agenda and foster greater international exposure and acclaim, it is far more significant and authentic when artists collaborate and experiment with the intention of exposing themselves and their audience to an alternative and equally rewarding side of their music practice.
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN: THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION AND FUSION
We are surrounded by collaboration, fusion and artistry which is built on experimentation, as seen through the fusion of Fuji and Amapiano or the origins of Galaga. Artistry is and should be a continuous project of self-exploration. Collaboration—learning from and being inspired by different African and diasporic cultures—provides the canvas for such discovery and experimentation in music. In practice, these ideas often get lost in the background, surrounded by commercial pressure and the pursuit of international recognition or accolades, therefore bringing into question whether such collaborations are performative or genuine⎈
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