L-R: Asake, Arya Starr, Burna Boy, Davido, Tyla
Burna Boy performs at the 2023 Coachella Music and Arts Festival.
Rema and Selena Gomez accept the award for best Afrobeats for “Calm Down” during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.
Angélique Kidjo arrives at the presentation of the 2023 Gershwin Prize in Washington.
African music genres and talents are reaching audiences and dance floors across the globe in a breakthrough for an industry that has long endured structural challenges. Inclusive is progression from an electrifying and colorful musical performance at the FIFA World Cup to a new Grammy Awards category.
With performances on the world’s biggest stages and record numbers on global music charts, African acts are charting a new course for music produced on the continent, taking advantage of high-profile international collaborations, a boost from the internet and streaming platforms, and new investment opportunities.
A new Grammy, Best African Music Performance, will be awarded Sunday, highlighting regional musical traditions and recognising “recordings that utilise unique local expressions from across the African continent”.
Said LeriQ, a Nigerian producer and force behind Burna Boy’s Grammy-winning “Twice As Tall”: “For a musician, the Grammy is a worldwide nod for your accomplishment and hard work — that we hear you and we see you on the world stage”.
Sub-Saharan Africa was the fastest-growing region for recorded music revenues in 2022, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Music Report 2023 revealed.
At the centre of that growth are newer genres of Afrobeats — the renowned blend of distinct West African music styles — and amapiano, which fuses South African kwaito with African jazz, house music and soulful vocals.
There is also Afrobeat — different from Afrobeats — a blend of jazz, funk and traditional West African rhythms popularised by Nigerian musical icon and political agitator, Fela Kuti, in the 1970s. Then there’s Afropop, a rich variety of contemporary styles. The traditional soukous dance music out of Congo and other parts of Central Africa. The rhythmical and heavily vocal shaabi and chaabi heard on the streets of North Africa. Kenya’s benga and Tanzania’s bongo flava reverberate across dance floors in East Africa, just as fuji and high life do in West Africa.
Streaming platforms are helping push the genres across borders and continents. On Spotify alone, Afrobeats streaming has grown by more than 500% since 2017, disclosed the platform.
Nigerian artiste, Rema’s “Calm Down”, featuring Selena Gomez, is not calming down. The 2022 track became the first led by an African artiste to hit 1 billion Spotify streams and has the record for the most weeks — 64 — spent on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart.
One key factor in how “Calm Down” and other such Afrobeats songs have grown lies in how they mirror daily lives through a mix of Pidgin and local languages, melodies, drum patterns, heavy rhythms and poetic style, said Joey Akan, founder of Afrobeats Intelligence newsletter.
Said Akan, referring to the chorus of Burna Boy’s 2022 hit “Last Last”: “And so now we’re having people dancing and screaming things like, ‘I need ‘igbo’ and ‘shayo,’ — that is, ‘I need marijuana and alcohol’. That’s what it is. ‘I need marijuana and alcohol because I’m having a heartbreak’”.
South African sensation, Tyla’s “Water”, cemented the ascendance of amapiano, making the artiste the highest-charting African female solo act of all time after peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
And some tracks meld the genres under the African music umbrella.
Said South African club and radio DJ Nafy Dread: “If you listen to the song, ‘Unavailable’, by Davido (from Nigeria) and Musa Keys (from South Africa), which has been nominated for a Grammy, it is possibly an example of a perfect Afrobeats and amapiano cross-border collaboration”.
In the last year, soccer’s biggest stages have featured African stars, from Burna Boy, who thrilled Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium during the UEFA Champions League final, to Rema, who entertained the world’s greatest players at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or event, to Davido, who was on the official FIFA World Cup soundtrack.
Said Tina Davis, president of Empire, a digital media distribution company that works closely with Grammy nominee Olamide’s YBNL record label: “A lot of the music we love today that’s outside of Africa originated or had a root in African music”.
Five-time Grammy winner, Angélique Kidjo, is one of the continent’s greatest exports, with 16 albums to her name.
Said the Beninese singer in 2020, upon winning the best world music album Grammy (a category since renamed): “The new generation of artistes coming from Africa are going to take you by storm, and the time has come”.
That storm also comes with the strength of Africa’s numbers.
The continent’s young and culture-savvy 1.3 billion people will make up a quarter of the world’s population by 2050. Nearly half of Africans who migrated from their countries of origin live in a different region, revealed Pew Research, each taking African melodies and tunes along.
That reach is particularly interesting considering that African music is produced for its people, embodying all aspects of their lives from their culture and experiences to their struggles, LeriQ said.
When they are not blasting through speakers at clubs and bars, the songs have become the megaphones blaring against repressive governments and unjust societies.
Hip-hop artiste, Nay wa Mitego, used his 2023 single, “Amkeni”, to tackle alleged corruption and bad governance in Tanzania. Burna Boy’s “20:10:20” told the chilling story of how security forces opened fire on Nigerian youths protesting police brutality, just as Folarin Falana’s “This Is Nigeria” mirrors a society whose citizens are growing poorer amid vast mineral resources and oil wealth.
Said Chika Anene, a designer living in Abuja, Nigeria, who insisted she couldn’t live without music: “With the kind of society we are in, you can understand why music is not just for entertainment but serves other interests depending on your condition and needs”.
Amid increasing global appeal, institutions and individuals are more willing to commit resources to the development of local talents and infrastructure, industry insiders say, with increasing attention from major record labels.
The internet has also played a key role in growth and can continue to do so if properly utilised, analysts say. The continent leads mobile device web traffic in the world, said the U.S. International Trade Administration, translating to more market opportunities for artistes.
For one, the internet has democratised African music by removing the concentration of power from the hands of gatekeepers who wanted music from the continent to “sound a particular way” and enabled artistes to put out what they want and audiences to seek what they want, said Kenyan musician, Eric Wainaina, who sings benga-influenced social justice songs.
Still, it remains an uphill task to produce music on the continent, owing to challenges like limited funding and infrastructure that sometimes require reliance on foreign companies for development and promotion, said G’bemi Ereku, a Lagos-based entertainment and media executive.
Said Ereku: “Our global appeal is not at its peak yet because of structural problems, in the sense that no tree can grow bigger than its environment”.
The continent’s population notwithstanding, there is still limited purchasing power — its projected music streaming revenue this year is around $410.7 million — less than 4% of the United States’ expected $12 billion, disclosed the market research firm Statista.
Nigeria — seen as the bastion of Afrobeats — does not have a music arena with a capacity above 6,000, reportedly one of the reasons for last year’s cancellation of the Afro Nation Festival, the world’s biggest Afrobeats festival, that was to be held in Lagos.
Even fast-rising talents like Nigerian artiste, Jhello, finds it difficult to break into the highly competitive industry with little institutional support.
Said Jhello: “There is a lot of talent on the streets but what sets you apart from the others is branding, which currently takes a lot of effort and resources”.
Still, the music is finding resonance with people around the world.
Said Akan of Afrobeats Intelligence: “The world has discovered that there’s a new way to approach music … that hits you, gives you a new emotion, gives you new feelings, gives you a new experience. And they like that experience”.
A beginner’s playlist of the global hits from Africa
2024 best African music performance Grammy nominees:
“Amapiano,” Asake and Olamide
“Rush,” Ayra Starr
“City Boys,” Burna Boy
“UNAVAILABLE,” Davido, featuring Musa Keys
From South Africa:
“Imithandazo,” Kabza De Small and Mthunzi, featuring Young Stunna
“Fatela,” Aymos and Ami Faku
From East Africa:
“Enjoy,” Jux, featuring Diamond Platnumz
“Suzanna,” Sauti Sol
From West Africa:
“Calm Down,” Rema, featuring Selena Gomez
“Do Yourself,” Angélique Kidjo, featuring Burna Boy
“Party No Dey Stop,” Adekunle Gold and Zinoleesky