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Afrobeats : watch out for the S !

The great musi­cal styles of the 20th cen­tu­ry – blues, jazz, rock, funk, hip hop, tech­no and their many incar­na­tions – can trace their roots back to Afri­ca. Today the conti­nent has assi­mi­la­ted these trends and sug­gests a new take that is enthral­ling the West yet again : afro­beats, born in West Africa.

Afri­can music afi­cio­na­dos know all about afro­beat but now the term has reap­pea­red with the addi­tion of a final “S”, some don’t even notice and are under the impres­sion it’s more or less the same thing. The ghost of Fela Kuti, the crea­tor of the ori­gi­nal afro­beat, must be tur­ning in his grave.

Fela stood up to the world, advo­ca­ted an Afro-cen­trist conscience and denoun­ced the ram­pant cor­rup­tion run­ning on his conti­nent with soa­ring brass, wild­ly swaying rhythms and flo­wing poli­ti­cal lyrics.

Wiz­kid, Tiwa Sau­vage, Ree­ka­do Banks Ninio­la and Davi­do, the Nige­rian stars of afro­beats, strut around in their videos wea­ring the latest fashions and dri­ving glea­ming sports cars, in the com­pa­ny of seduc­tive crea­tures of both sexes who don’t seem to be expec­ting any­thing other than to have a good time. While their music occa­sio­nal­ly recycles rhythms and gim­micks taken from the tra­di­tions of West Afri­ca, the fact remains that ulti­ma­te­ly their auto-tuned cho­ruses can be easi­ly assi­mi­la­ted to the domi­nant Wes­tern styles of R&B, rap trap and house.

The good news is that their cock­tails are a hit on dance floors all over the world and on social media, attrac­ting inter­na­tio­nal stars and giving Afri­ca a star­ring role in the evo­lu­tion of contem­po­ra­ry music. During the sum­mer of 2016, the mul­ti-pla­ti­num rap­per Drake’s smash hit “One Dance” was co-writ­ten by and fea­tu­red Ayo­déd­ji Ibra­him Balo­gun, known as Wiz­kid. Ree­ka­do Banks and Tiwa Savage, a for­mer backing sin­ger for George Michael, Mary J. Blige and Cha­ka Khan, have joi­ned Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, brin­ging with them a win­ning remix of “Bitch Bet­ter Have My Money”, by the Bajan super­star Rihan­na, also part of the Ame­ri­can rapper’s team.



The Nige­rian phe­no­me­non has promp­ted major inter­na­tio­nal recor­ding com­pa­nies Sony and Uni­ver­sal to open offices in Lagos to tap into the mar­ket and give ideas to artists from neigh­bou­ring countries.

In Europe, Sidi­ki Dia­ba­té, is known as the son and musi­cal heir of the great kora-player Tou­ma­ni Dia­ba­té, who ele­gant­ly keeps alive the tra­di­tions of the Man­din­go empire and acts as a gua­ran­tor of authen­ti­ci­ty for the French musi­cian M for his pro­ject Lamo­ma­li. In Afri­ca, he is one of the lea­ding Malian expo­nents of the afro­beats move­ment. Desi­gner track­suits have repla­ced tra­di­tio­nal batik or bogo­lan bou­bous while the crys­tal­line chords of the kora have made way for care­ful­ly pro­gram­med rhythms to sup­port cat­chy cho­ruses shrou­ded in vocoder.

It may well frigh­ten aes­thetes but it’s noti­cea­bly uns­top­pable on the dance floor.

In Dakar, Pape Diouf is the new king of the natio­nal rhythm Mba­lax, spon­so­red by the sty­le’s boss, Yous­sou N’Dour. But when Pape Diouf set out to win over a new audience out­side his conti­nent, he concoc­ted Paris Dakar, an album that is more pop than roots, more afro­beats and nothing like afrobeat.

The sin­ger from Cape Verde May­ra Andrade admits to having had her head tur­ned by afro­beats on a visit to Gha­na, where the genre is flou­ri­shing. Sho­cked in a posi­tive way by the Afri­ca­nist nature of the move­ment, she cal­led on the young Ivo­rian beat­ma­ker 2B (BLZ) to pro­duce her recent release Man­ga along­side French musi­cian Romain Bil­harz. They avoi­ded the fla­shiest cli­chés of afro­beats to create a subtle blend of the tra­di­tions of her home­land (cola­dei­ra, funaná, mor­na, batu­ko and finan­çon) and this elec­tro­nic afric’attitude.


Uncon­trol­lable Gha­naian origins

Gha­na is the coun­try that springs imme­dia­te­ly to mind, along with Nige­ria, whe­ne­ver the term ends with an “S”. Gha­na was the bir­th­place of high­life, a syn­the­sis of tra­di­tio­nal music and Ame­ri­can influences that emer­ged in the 1920s. Gha­na is one of the ingre­dients of Fela’s afro­beat : Gha­naian artists do not go unno­ti­ced on the inter­na­tio­nal stage these days. Fuse ODG has col­la­bo­ra­ted with mains­tream Major Lazer, and Della$ie was encou­ra­ged by Talib Kwe­li and Phar­rell Williams at the begin­ning of her career.

The ques­tion of whe­ther or not Gha­naian artists were the first to find the win­ning afro­beats for­mu­la is worth asking. For Wan­lov the Kuba­lor, half of the duo Fokn Bois, there is no doubt about the ans­wer : “Things have always moved around in West Afri­ca. Some­times things would jump in from South Afri­ca, like with South Afri­can house, which fed into Gha­naian azon­to, also an evo­lu­tion of high­life. It was this cock­tail that then made it to Nige­ria to create afrobeats”. 

And to bring an end to the debate, Wan­lov makes it clear :

The term afro­beats was used for the first time by DJ Abran­tee, a Gha­naian living in Lon­don. Before that, this kind of music was just cal­led afropop”.

You have to laugh

Since the ear­ly 2000s, either sepa­ra­te­ly or toge­ther under the name Fokn Bois, the Gha­naians Wan­lov the Kubo­lor and M3nsa have been cooking with the same ingre­dients : hip hop in pid­gin and ances­tral rhythms com­bi­ned with elec­tro­nic effects. They have wor­ked with the Nige­rian star, Mr Eazi, among others, but keep an iro­nic dis­tance from the move­ment, entit­ling their latest album Afro­beats LOL.

But are they real­ly making afro­beats ?   Wan­lov ans­wers : “Men­sa and I aren’t fans of the name. We don’t think there was any need to adopt the term to refer to afro­pop. It creates confu­sion with Fela’s afro­beat, which deli­ve­red a posi­tive mes­sage and tried to bring about social change. They added an S, which we just think repre­sents the dol­lar sign $. Afro­beats dis­torts Fela’s ideas when it’s only about accep­ting what’s hap­pe­ning and enjoying life, if you’re lucky enough to have money. Exact­ly what Fela was against. This music is made for people who take money from Afri­ca. With Afro­beats LOL we deci­ded to make a come­dy about afro­beats. We talk about living on small bud­gets rather than get­ting rich. We’re more realistic”. 

Do they reject the move­ment entirely ?

Lots of suc­cess­ful artists like Wiz­kid, Ninio­la and Mr Eazi are good at what they do but we’re tired of the fact that they always talk about the same sub­ject : my girl, my money, my car. What they’re real­ly saying is : ‘I’m going to get rich. Thanks for the money,’ rather than poin­ting out pro­blems with socie­ty. We try to express that people shouldn’t stay in a bubble”. 

With plen­ty of humour, groove and insight, Fokn Bois are trying to re-engage with the social cri­ti­cism so belo­ved of Fela, while denoun­cing abuses per­pe­tra­ted by the continent’s poli­ti­cal lea­ders or the excesses brought about by the ove­ruse of social media.

Whe­ther they are aware of social and poli­ti­cal issues or not, West Afri­can musi­cians are revo­lu­tio­ni­sing the glo­bal music landscape.

Benjamin MiNiMuM

Benjamin MiNiMuM


Benjamin MiNiMuM was editor-in-chief of Mondomix, both an Internet platform and print magazine that drove the world music community from 1998 to 2004.  He now works as a music journalist for the Qobuz and PanAfrican Music websites and for conferences, themed exhibitions or audio-visual pieces, while pursuing his own creative musical projects.

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