Interviews Thursday, November 02, 2023

Afrobeats Cannot Be the Antagonist in Its Own Story

In the backseat of a Rolls Royce coated green-white-green, two Nigerian guys, Don Jazzy and D’Banj, ride between the tall palm trees of Los Angeles to a sizeable neo-classical mansion somewhere in the Hills —marking the grand arrival of a culture (Afrobeats) that had successfully been exported into the U.S. market.

Between an aesthetically pleasing staircase of vast proportions, these guys moved smoothly amidst gorgeous models, oozing pizzazz and eternal swag in expensive coats while flanking their American collaborator, Snoop Dogg.

That’s my earliest memory of Afrobeats on a global scale; watching the music video of “Mr. Endowed Remix” on a Nokia Xpress Music phone in 2011. I was fourteen, my 30-something-year-old friend and neighbour had come to knock on our door to wake me up in the late P.M., to make sure we heard the song remix and saw Snoop Dogg in the stunning visuals together. It was a huge deal then. Not just for recording artists, engineers behind boards, talent managers, or the industry players, the fans and listeners too, were excited. We all felt like we were part of it. The floodgates had just opened up.

Though the effects of 2Face’s “African Queen” and his win at MTV Europe Awards in 2005 weren’t fully gleaned till more than a decade later, it felt incomparable to the take-off of Afrobeats that I’d witnessed D’Banj herald in 2011. A year later, it was doings upon doings for Naija artists and the industry. Collaborations and linkups with foreign acts started happening; P-Square made “Onyinye Remix” with Rick Ross. Mo’Hits met Kanye West in Dubai– a relationship that nurtured into Kanye’s feature on D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist Remix” and even brought him to join D’Banj on stage in London. We saw the chain gift and the “Welcome to G.O.O.D. Music” rite on that music stage. A massive win for Mo’Hits and D’Banj as well as a novel development in the local industry on a whole, at that point in time, as it became very clear that “global” could solidly stand beside the phenomenon that is our dear Afrobeats.

With the popularity of social media, the acceleration of the Afrobeats movement gained more horsepower. Social media outpaced the traditional and legacy media outlets, then facilitated a quicker consumption of music (that has its downsides, but that’s yarns for another time). Music got on streaming platforms, bridged the gap between the motherland and the diasporas, giving anyone anywhere in the world access to music anytime, for free or meagre American dollars.

That was a paradigm shift.

As the sound spread wildly, more audiences and cultures became attracted to Afrobeats. “Ojuelegba” linked Wizkid with Skepta and Drake together in 2015. Reminisce’s “Baba Hafusa” album peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard World Music Album chart. And for homegrown vibes for those far from home, the One Africa Fest at Barclays, NYC had been happening circa 2016. Wizkid was “disturbing” London and soon did a show at the O2 in 2018 — two years after he had given Drake his first ever solo U.K. number one with “One Dance.” Also in 2018, Tiwa Savage won Best African Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Davido was on a spree of features and hits. Burna Boy scored with “Ye” and hasn’t looked back since the world found a way to his music. You see, Afrobeats had gradually become the sweetheart of world music — also the category title African music was majorly housed, particularly at the Grammys award — but now there’s a Best African Music Performance spot that’ll go live at the 2024 Grammys Award show. That’s impact.

Although music streaming at the cost of ₦900 (just ₦50 away from turning to one U.S. dollar) will give access to unlimited music and premium features, subscribed streaming still isn’t the definite source of music consumption here. The diaspora is the biggest paying streamer of the music. Yet the local audience has widely opened the doors of Afrobeats and other African music to global streaming platforms like Apple Music, Audiomack, and Spotify which just concluded its “Journey of a Billion Streams” campaign that launched and celebrated the genre and culture after Rema’s “Calm Down Remix” featuring Selena Gomez made a billion streams history on the digital streaming platform in September 2023. That was a year after the song had already peaked at number one on the US Billboard Afrobeats Songs chart (an American chart christened and dedicated to the music genre). The song topped the chart for 52 weeks and its producers Andre Vibez and London appeared on the Billboard 100 Hot Producers’ list.

Impact keeps building.

Between those times and the present moment, the rise of Afrobeats has become almost unbelievable. It has some of the world’s biggest stars on its sound, sold out and been on international music stages and arenas, appeared in foreign shows, publications, and won awards. Also, Turntable Charts, Nigeria’s own music chart and certification body is rising up. The ascent of Afrobeats has become almost unbelievable. Dreams have become a reality, and new aspirations are set up.

Afrobeats, as it expands, shapes out a new dimension. People confined as just consumers and outsiders to our music and culture are slowly peeping into the game and recreating the African magic.

Some weeks ago, a video clip of Burna Boy roasting a white British guy who makes Afrobeats trended online. Other videos of the guy’s music renditions soon made viral rounds with different reactions; excitement, outcries of cringe and indifference– which is what I feel.

But if we’re sincere, cultural intercourse isn’t an unfamiliar concept. We’ve all seen it many times: white and asian dancers dancing to “Kukure,” and “Skelewu,” throwing Legbegbe and Zanku moves and such. Non-Nigerian and Africans singing along, making covers and creating content around Afrobeats is another context inside the concept of cultural intercourse. We know it too well.

Maybe someone like Burna Boy is afraid that if a white boy completely masters the elements of contemporary Nigerian music, the guy (and many more that will come up) would give him and his colleagues a run for their money. Or, going by Burna’s disposition that the Nigerian experience is a crucial part of making Afrobeats — therefore, the guy is unqualified to deliver a local groove. Maybe. Maybe. These are all assumptions.

The second assumption is possibly valid. But if my first assumption is accurate —it makes me ask why that’s what we’re afraid of. This Afrobeats culture we’re screaming “to the world” will only go as far as we allow people to interact with it. And, you know, interactions come in different waves. In our case, there’s consumption; fans, followers and listeners, participation; artists, businesspeople, the suits and briefcases, record labels, investors, culture vultures and even clout chasers.

Rightfully, the colonial experience has indelibly left us defensive and overprotective of ours. However, and ironically, the West isn’t physically captivating the locals, stealing sculptures and bronzes anymore. The new artifacts are our music and its surrounding culture — and this brings up the critical point that Afrobeats should shield from external exploits without chasing away interests and opportunities.

Regardless, Afrobeats is an expanding hub and a hotspot. People naturally want to come in and be a part of it. Some are inspired to try and make good things out of it. At the same time, some are just at this table to feed on the culture and mark their presence. As a result, capitalism is unavoidable. That’s how the industry itself builds a socio-economic structure and survives. Inspiring diverse backgrounds is set in stone for Afrobeats. Has always been. The earlier we become entirely open to letting other cultures borrow from and mix with ours, the more precisely we see the perspective that’s ours and how our narratives should be shaped.

But this work starts from inside first. We need to look inward, get our house in order and steer towards a unifying direction. Moreover, there’s more leverage now than the older generation had. We have more information now than ever before. Naturally, it falls on us, the new guys — musicians, media and press, managers and executives, plugs and culture evangelists — to document and own narrative, and provide information and access that foster artistic, economic and structural growth to run a better and intentional industry.

If we’re going to have control of our story without pushing interactions away, the mentality of “omo-onílè” has to go. 

Asserting ownership that vomits nothing more than momentary values will eventually lead to an unending frustration that passes down from generation to generation. We’d cry, “Afrobeats has always been ours” —traditional land owners who lack actual control.

This is a call for the industry to look inside itself. We can’t be the conflict actors in our own story.

The lack of structure is also a significant drop-back. We don’t have things in order: no writers association, split sheets, or bodies to put things in place. Everybody has to do it themselves. Major labels are coming in, but that’s a scratch on a large board. The more significant shares go back into the pockets of the foreign investors. We can all say what we want, talmbout, “business is business.” No doubt, but our great, sellable music makes the business viable. It is only sensible that we hold some powers that make differences for us and our market in the global sphere.

This is where I’m heading: the shining example of a standard record label in Nigeria, Mavin Records, is looking to inject investments or sell out. The idea of Mavin Records falling into the hands of some European foreign businesses gives me “craw-craw”.

No doubt the company has become a very profitable and reputable business and it has made itself very viable, this possible sale projects that our industry is ripe for legit investments on an international scale. In fact, it opens more avenues and opportunities outside cultism and fraud money to do it. Also, it’ll bring more capital, more skills and more employment and wealth for more people in the music industry.

Selling Mavin will definitely provide the industry more access to more international leverage and benefits it wouldn’t have ordinarily. But also, if they eventually sell off, that’ll be the shutdown of an indigenous music powerhouse and operations, then a further assertion that Africa is just a breeding ground for the music export markets — my own opinion again.

One thing though, as long as there’s a consistent current beneath it, Afrobeats won’t stop swimming to the forefront, freely flowing and mixing with the atmosphere.

It’ll take a while to figure out, but we must drive the narrative we envision. It’s up to us to decide if Afrobeats will be a stepping stone for individual prosperity while venture capitalists turn it into a fat cash cow that’ll never reach many of its actual contributors. Or a sustainable, wealth-creating and rewarding culture, viable and efficient than just a global sweetheart and cultural export.

However long we’ve come, the road still needs coverage, and that walk is even longer than the journey already covered. ‘Nough said.

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