Afrobeats has evolved commercially, sonically and collaboratively over the years. We need to strike a balance between commending Afrobeats for its global success and protecting the genre, so its authenticity is not diluted for global markets.
In recent years, the exposure of Afrobeats to a much wider, international audience has changed its landscape both commercially and sonically. The current landscape and ongoing evolution of Afrobeats is collaborative, adaptable and interconnected with other musical genres within Africa and its diaspora. Examining Afrobeats through this lens brings it into focus as a genre which is constantly evolving and merging with complimentary sounds to shift and re-direct its trajectory.
INNOVATION: WOMEN IN AFRO-FUSION AND AFROBEATS
Women within Afrobeats and Afro-Fusion have had a significant influence in shaping the genres. Yet, their contribution is made invisible and constantly overlooked when it should not. For instance, Niniola began delivering Afrobeats-style lyrics using Amapiano inspired beats before it became popular among other artists. Equally, Yemi Alade’s ‘Mama Africa’ model as a continental, as opposed to Afrobeats artist was forward thinking, as it embraced the collaborative and pan-African direction Afrobeats has taken in recent years.
Women artists also embrace experimentation through their work. This is evident through the Water and Garri EP by Tiwa Savage, which served as a clear departure from her traditional Afrobeats sound. The EP reflects the collaboration and experimentation driving Afrobeats into a space of fusion with alternative beats, sounds and concepts. In the EP, Tiwa Savage features Tay Iwar on ‘Special Kinda’ and Amaarae on ‘Tales by Moonlight’, suggesting her interest in sharing space with these subversive artists.
Meanwhile, it is important to note that many of the women whose music are currently being recognized and applauded on a national and global scale either are not Afrobeats artists or have an indirect relationship with the genre. Musicians such as Tems, Amaarae and Lady Donli are Afro-Fusion artists, however, their respective genres might occasionally intersect with Afrobeats. Tems makes a diverse range of music where she incorporates Soul, Pop and elements of Dancehall in songs such as, ‘Replay’ and ‘Damages’, different from her less upbeat records like ‘Ice T’, ‘Higher’ and ‘Free Mind’.
Amaarae makes music that pushes the creative boundaries of what Afro-Fusion can sound like, as seen through songs from her debut album, The Angel You Don’t Know. Amaarae’s song ‘Sad, U Broke My Heart’ borrows subtle elements from Afrobeats, such as the repetition of melodies which are not structured as lyrics but as catchy Ghanaian references and freestyled inflections. Alternatively, ‘Jumping Ship’ with Cruel Santino and Kojey Radical has little to no Afrobeats or Afro-Fusion elements, and sounds unique and transformative in the way the beat is structured, composed and delivered against Amaarae’s soft melodies and audacious lyrics.
Lady Donli, who refers to herself as a Pan-African Rockstar, demonstrates her art through a deep understanding of African music history by consistently incorporating music samples that are nostalgic and innovative into her work. Her 2019 album Enjoy Your Life, for instance, is influenced by Igbo Highlife music, performed by musicians in the 60s such as Stephen Osita Osadebe. This influence is demonstrated on ‘Corner’ featuring Vanjess and The Cavemen, while ‘Suffer Suffer’ is reminiscent of the Afrobeat music performed by Nigerian and Ghanaian artists in the 1970s. Lady Donli also delivers a socially conscious framework which is currently absent from mainstream Afrobeats, as seen through her ‘Corner’ video. The video addresses the sex for grades scandals which occur in Nigerian universities.
These examples demonstrate that women artists continue to be at the forefront of advancing Afro-Fusion. More so, such women do not need to create mainstream Afrobeats music for their work to be viewed as significant or as a source of inspiration to other artists within the Afrobeats genre and its Afro-Fusion sub-culture.
FLUIDITY AND VERSATILITY
Afrobeats has evolved from its distinct beat and song structure to a much more fluid style of music, which constantly incorporates different genres to create new sounds.
This sound evolution is evident in Wizkid’s first studio album Superstar released in 2012 and his Made in Lagos album, which was released in 2020. Although both albums are different bodies of work, there is a clear evolution in the artist’s style. Wizkid’s music moved from the nostalgic, up tempo and irresistibly catchy songs on Superstar, to the melodic and softer tempo on Made in Lagos. These demonstrate the fluidity afforded to artists within the current Afrobeats space. Wizkid’s commitment to versatility and experimenting with different sounds on Made in Lagos, is shown as he explores the fusion between Afrobeats and other genres, such as reggae in ‘Blessed’ featuring Damien Marely while mixing R&B and Dancehall in ‘True Love’ featuring Tay Iwar and Projexx.
Newer artists such as Rema and Ayra Starr consistently demonstrate versatility in the ways they merge Afrobeats with other genres and how they sometimes move away from Afrobeats entirely. Take Rema’s ‘Dumebi’, ‘Lady’ and ‘Why’, for example: each song stands out through their beats, cadence and melodies. ‘Dumebi’ is undeniably Afrobeats, ‘Lady’ relies on strong Fújì elements to give it a more deconstructed and nostalgic feel, while ‘Why’ is a trap song.
Meanwhile, Ayra Starr has delivered hit Afrobeats songs such as ‘Bloody Samaritan’ and ‘Fashion Killer’. Equally, she has embraced the fusion of complimentary genres as demonstrated on her song, ‘Amin’. The song incorporates elements of Yoruba gospel, while Ayra’s song ‘Away’ also shows her departure from Afrobeats and experimentation with softer, soulful melodies.
Within the collaborative and experimental framework of Afrobeats, Wizkid, Rema and Ayra Starr present themselves as multidimensional artists, creating music that promotes versatility and creative freedom on their own terms.
THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF BLACK CULTURES
Afrobeats consistently blends and merges with other genres of music connected to Black people within Africa and its diaspora. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, explains that as Black people ‘our shared cultural codes provide us, as “one people” with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual histories.’ This is evident through the way Dancehall and Soca elements have become an integral part of Afrobeats. The song ‘Risky’ by Davido and Popcaan, demonstrates the ease with which Afrobeats and Dancehall complement each other. Patoranking and Burna Boy also consistently blend Patois and Pidgin, while infusing dancehall tempos and beats within their songs.
Afrobeats’ compatibility with (non-West African) Black cultures and languages, is important because it shows that Black people across the world are in direct dialogue with each other. For instance, West African and Caribbean cultures have both found accessible ways of communicating, whereby ‘broken’ English is spoken through Pidgin in West African countries and through Patois in Caribbean countries. This overlap between Pidgin and Patios is also evident through the similarities of words and phrases in both languages. For instance, a child is referred to as ‘pikin’ in Pidgin and ‘pickney’ in Patios. Both words might not be exactly the same but they sound very similar and have the same meaning. Patois and Pidgin often intersect and feed into each other. Black people in Africa and its diaspora are bonded not solely by the colour of our skin but equally through our shared history, traumas and the interconnectedness of our cultures and languages. This direct dialogue explains why Pidgin and Patois are spoken interchangeably on a Patoranking or Burna Boy song.
The fusion of Afrobeats with other genres shape and enrich Black experiences. The synergy of varying mediums and cultures is something that should be welcomed and celebrated as it demonstrates the adaptable nature of Afrobeats within the current music landscape.
FUSION OF INDIGENOUS AND POPULAR CULTURE
A key component of Afrobeats is the fusion of indigenous and popular music culture, where both mediums are unapologetically celebrated through artistic expression. This is important because, ‘music not only reflects what is happening beyond the immediately visual or aural, but rather is the particular space of negotiations over identities, ethnicities and human relationships,’ as described by Wale Adedeji in his article ‘Nigerian Hip Hop and the Yoruba Influence’. For instance, Adekunle Gold transitioned from an indigenously Yoruba outlook (displayed on his first studio album, Gold), to a much more Afro-Pop and Fusion persona on his most recent body of work, Catch Me If You Can. This transition demonstrates that the evolution of Afrobeats or in this specific case its sub-genre of Afro-Pop, does not require a complete abandonment of tradition and culture. Adekunle Gold’s music on his Catch Me If You Can album sounds elevated and self-assured as he skilfully adapts his Yoruba perspective into a pop culture landscape.
Recent Adekunle Gold records such as ‘One Woman’, ‘FYE’ and ‘Dior, Dior, Dior’ might not have the Yoruba elements directly reflected through his earlier songs. However, Adekunle Gold’s focus on making music, which presents the subject of his affection as beautiful and adored, has not shifted and is still an integral part of who he is as an artist. This theme is evident on his earlier songs, such as ‘Orente’, and ‘Beautiful Night,’ as well as the more recent songs, such as ‘One Woman’ and ‘Dior, Dior, Dior’. His career trajectory supports Wale Adedeji’s assertion that ‘the relationship between music, identity and the appropriation of Yoruba culture within Nigerian popular music… can be varied. It can be ethnic and national or Pan African.’ Adekunle Gold represents the ethnic and national relationship between music, identity and Yoruba culture on his first studio album Gold and more recently on High featuring Davido. Additionally, his versatility is clear as he also explores this relationship between music, identity and Yoruba culture from a pan-African perspective on his Catch Me If You Can album. The album features various artists from the African continent and diaspora, therefore demonstrating the collaborative approach adopted by Adekunle Gold on his latest body of work.
‘Born Again’, the introductory song on Catch Me If You Can, taps into the very collaborative and explorative spectrum Afrobeats currently exists within. Adekunle Gold featured the Malian singer, Fatoumata Diawara, to create a song that can be compared with ‘Level Up’ from Burna Boy’s Twice as Tall intro, in which Burna Boy features the Senegalese artist, Youssou N’Dour. Adekunle Gold and Burna Boy opened their respective albums with other West African acts, who specialize in other genres. Fatoumata Diawara combines traditional Malian music, Wassoulou, with more western influences, such as blues and folk.
Meanwhile, Youssou N’Dour makes Senegalese dance music called mbalax. Irrespective of how distinctive Afrobeats is from these genres, both Fatoumata Diawara and Youssou N’Dour bring a feeling of refinement to their respective features, which might not have been present if another Afrobeats artist was featured or if both Burna Boy and Adekunle Gold decided they did not need these different elements to complement their art. They collectively indicate that collaboration within the African continent and diaspora is a great way for Afrobeats to maintain its commerciality and exposure without losing its authenticity.
THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF AFROBEATS
Collaboration between Afrobeats artists and other African or Caribbean musicians is great and should be encouraged. However, artists need to approach their collaborations with Western acts with more care. A precarious feature of Afrobeats’ exposure and commercialization is the proximity and access Western artists have been granted as a result of the genre’s global success. Justin Bieber appeared on the ‘Essence’ remix and more recently featured on Omah Lay’s song, ‘Attention’. These types of ‘collaborations’ should be questioned because they suggest that Afrobeats is attempting to accommodate musical cultures and perspectives it was never created to fit into.
Where do we draw the line on allowing spectators and outliers to be direct participants in a genre, which has no connection to them? At what point does the inclusion of these outliers transition from a source of economic success and exposure for local artists to a means to more exploitation and appropriation?
In the early to mid-2000s, Afrobeats appeared to have a much more restricted answer to such questions. The music was arguably less adaptable to and accommodating of Western music as is currently being reflected in the work. Besides, a Justin Bieber feature to one of Wizkid’s early hits, such as ‘Pakurumo’ or ‘No Lele’ would have felt misaligned and chaotic.
It is also worth interrogating whether this restricted answer is due to the limited access wider audiences had to Afrobeats in the early to mid-2000s, as music was mainly shared through CDs, radio or TV. It was a time where streaming was not the normalized mode for consuming Afrobeats music. The music industry has evolved from what it was in the early 2000s and it currently operates within a globalized world, where social media and streaming are dominant platforms for sharing or discovering artists.
Social media has heavily contributed to the commercialization and exposure of Afrobeats and its sub-genres. Artists who might have otherwise experienced national and even continental success across Africa are currently receiving global success due to the dissemination of their work across social media platforms. Consider, for instance, CKay’s cross-over hit ‘Love Nwantiti’, which reached 15 billion streams on TikTok as of November 2021.
The increased exposure of Afrobeats and its sub-genres provides great opportunities and exposure for its artists. However, the commercialization of Afrobeats gives rise to concerns when Western audiences interact with the genre in a detached way. This detachment arises because Afrobeats is listened to and engaged with but little to no contextual understanding of the genre or its artists is reflected on a global scale. Consider the widely used term Global Music, a vague category or faux genre which merges contradictory sounds in ways that whitewashes the spirit and context of any type of music that is not within the contexts of Western audiences. Afolasade Adewunmi recognizes this in her thesis by stating that, ‘the global culture of homogenization is fast spreading and contributing to the destruction of highly specialised indigenous cultures. The globalized way of life has come to stay and cannot be washed away.’
AFROBEATS: EXPERIMENTAL AND FLUID
Afrobeats has evolved commercially, sonically and collaboratively over the years. A dominant theme of this evolution is the consistent merging of Afrobeats with different genres, such as Amapiano, R&B and Dancehall to create an experimental and collaborative framework.
This fluidity should be encouraged and welcomed as it fosters much needed connections within Africa and its diaspora. However, such fluidity becomes concerning when Western audiences, artists or demographics start co-opting a sound that was not initially created by or for them. As audiences we need to strike a balance between commending Afrobeats for its incredible exposure and commercial success, and, simultaneously, protecting the genre so its authenticity is not diluted for the comfort or consumption of Western audiences⎈
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