Non fiction

Riding Afrobeats Across The World

After The Revolution, Now What?


When foreign friends introduce him to the music "back home", TJ Benson seeks to understand how this local music, which he used to listen to in Nigeria, has become so globalized as to become one of the most listened-to styles in the world.

Right over a bridge that carried me from a casual meeting in Brooklyn to my hotel in Manhattan, my Uber driver changed whatever music he had been playing to Wizkid’s ‘Ojuelegba.’ I wondered if it was because of my Nigerian accent for a while, but I decided it was a coincidence and kept quiet. The track finished and the driver picked up his phone to play Burna Boy’s ‘Ye’ and turned to wink at me in the backseat. I sighed, mildly uneasy. Here I was almost 9000 kilometers away from my country in New York, yet our music had found me.

The globalization of Nigerian music is a phenomenon that predates my birth by decades, proliferated by several other artists than the renowned, larger than life Fela Anikulapo. By 1983, King Sunny Ade had already toured different countries and had his Juju music nominated for a Grammy, becoming the first Nigerian to do so. In fact, as of 1969 Victor Uwaifo’s band was playing Joromi on stages from Germany to Japan. Said globalization might have tapered down in the last decade of the Nigerian Military rule and new artists in the early 2000s like Plantashun Boiz, Style Plus, Tony Tetuila and mid-decade, Timaya exploded but within the continent of Africa at best. Those who endured like Timaya or evolved like Tuface who split from Plantashun Boiz capitalized on this continental success and became mega successful, paving the path for new iterations of Afrobeat music from artists Dbanj, Flavour, Omawunmi, Waje, to the point that new breakout stars in the US at the time like Kanye began to take interest and seek means to collaborate. This class of Nigerian musicians toured as widely as the last decade, filled up stadiums round the world so why does this phase of Nigerian music within the larger theme of ‘Africa Rising’ feel new? Perhaps my experience with a colleague in downtown Iowa can help illuminate.

First there is the forced collaboration; better established ‘first world’ artists eager to cash in on the explosion of African talents quickly snap them up into concoctions that irritate the ear

We were rounding up an exchange program and so a bit excited and emotional, so he sidled up to me singing Ckay’s 2020 hit song ‘Love Nwantiti’ except that it was in Arabic. How had this song gone from Igbo-English I could barely understand to Arabic? My colleagues from all over the world delighted in showing me Spanish, French and several other versions on TikTok. Nigerian music, even in indigenous languages, now sings in other tongues. The difference is the internet. The song tracking app Shazam is largely responsible for the explosion of artists like Ckay whose ‘Love Nwantiti’ became the most searched song on the app in the entire world as of September 2021. Nigerians watched in awe as the song travelled to fashion shows in other parts of the globe and became a hit in night clubs. ‘Do these White people understand the Igbo he is singing in?’ we asked each other in amusement but then a large percent of Nigerians are not from his tribe and don’t understand a lot of the song either. Not understanding Yoruba didn’t stop us from enjoying our internationally acclaimed Asa either, but we could lay claim to her Nigerian sound. So even though I was mildly embarrassed by my colleague singing the song in Arabic, I was immensely proud.

The internet has brought a longevity to Afropop and Afrobeats that most Nigerian musicians didn’t have before. There is suddenly more room for everyone, more room to experiment with sound. If you are hardworking, happy accidents can occur. Inspite of harsh criticism from some South Easterners, the contemporary highlife brother-band called Cavemen have used the features on Afropop and soul albums like ‘Enjoy Your life’ by Lady Donli to find their listeners online. Now they have released two successful albums exuberantly received by Nigerian millennials and GenZ and gone on tours in Europe this year, never mind that their fellow Igbo tribes people feel their use of the language in their songs isn’t authentic enough. Yemi Alade’s immediate global breakout on Youtube with her ‘Johnny’ has taught her to not measure her success by the Nigerian audience and has pursued successful collaborations with other African artists. Burna Boy who started his career dabbling with the Alte sound has now become a fully-fledged Afrobeat megastar. He is from Nigeria, but his music belongs to us as much as it belongs to skating rings in Berlin, exclusive nightclubs in London and daytime block-parties in DC. Many trace the explosion of his music to his release of the track ‘Ye’ which coincided with the titular album of the same name by Kanye in 2018. Direct endorsements like Billie Eilish mentioning Tekno as her favorite artist in 2019 have also helped. TikTok has made Kizz Daniel (whose fame was dimming down as several newer artists sprawled out of the Nigerian talent factory in 2019) enjoy a new emergence by making his ‘Cough’ song the global mock-anthem for coronavirus symptoms on the platform. Old footage of concerts would show Europeans nodding and shimmying offbeat to Fela, but now my Romanian and Cape Verdean acquaintances in the UK can rap along to Olamide in Yoruba and dance to Tiwa Savage while skating. It is exciting to watch your local experience get celebrated on a global scale but also mildly awkward to watch a white person sing he no wan make I bend ova with all seriousness.

Many Nigerians are thrilled by this movement, it is as deeply pleasant to see how startlingly well Tems’ sound blends in the Wakanda Forever trailer as it was a cause of pride for many Nigerian Diasporeans to watch Pacific Rim Uprising in cinemas with friends of other races and find Wizkid’s ‘Daddy Yo’ on the soundtrack. Yet many more are starting to question if this globalization is always a good thing. First there is the forced collaboration; better established ‘first world’ artists eager to cash in on the explosion of African talents quickly snap them up into concoctions that irritate the ear. These hasty unions promise the local artists a larger platform and the western artist (often trying to re-emerge from retirement) some form of social relevance since African sound is now trendier than before. The result is the local sound and lyric losing context and therefore power.

Selena Gomez singing ‘calm down’ which is supposed to be in Nigerian Pidgin English doesn’t quite land on Rema’s already successful song of the same name and was Burna Boy’s verse on Sam Smith’s ‘Oasis’ really necessary? Say the truth. Madonna’s attempt to revive her ‘Frozen’ by injecting Nigerian talent Fireboy DML’s sonically and lyrically out of place verse ‘wahala go dey toba lo’ almost soils the inimitable 90’s classic and Apple music transcribing the line as ‘wahala got into our love’ is simply hilarious. It is unequivocally agreed on the continent that the beloved Dbanj lost the sweet Nigerian sound that made him sought after, once he collaborated with Kanye on the track ‘Oliver Twist’ ten years ago. This certainty has only come in retrospect, at the time the idea of Kanye on a song with a Nigerian artist was thrilling and the song became a hit, spawning several dance videos from fans. This precedent should have made more Nigerian artists cautious of rushing to the studio just because a famous artist reached out to them. The Frankensteinian auditory experiences born out of these hideous unions never survive a month on airplay and everyone moves on as quickly as they can to the next hot Nigerian thing while the artist hustles harder to take advantage of the hastily open door or sink. Are the higher stakes worth it?

It is exciting to watch your local experience get celebrated on a global scale but also mildly awkward to watch a white person sing he no wan make I bend ova with all seriousness

This isn’t to say there aren’t excellent contemporary collaborations. Lesser known marvels like the upbeat ‘Zulu Screams’ by DC rapper Goldlink featuring Nigerian singer and producer Maleek Berry and Seyi Shay’s ‘Gimme Love’ featuring Teyana Taylor’s feisty vocals are good examples. So far Tems has done no wrong, both in features and songwriting, her voice belongs everywhere it goes. Tiwa Savage’s work in Beyonce’s ‘The Gift’ album is just perfect however Yemi Alade’s work in the same album has been the butt of jokes on Nigerian twitter, especially because of how aware the world is of her singing talent and composition skills. Nigerian Rap seems to be holding up the fort or left behind, depending on how you look at it. Is the dwindling genre in need of Western collaborations? Many legendary rappers like Naeto C, Eva Alordiah and 9ice have quietened down, some like Olamide have dedicated their time to finding and raising more Afrobeats and Afropop talent. Those who remain like M.I., LadiPoe and Vector continue to whip out lines that cut through the artificiality of the music industry. The terribly underrated Showdemcamp duo continue to put out timely projects that feature artists like Tems right at the brink of stardom. Their rap candidly looks at aspects of contemporary life from the violence of government in the 2020 police brutality protests to the switch of millennials from Abrahamic religions to Western Astrology. In the end, taste is relative and maybe the sum of the good is better than the bad, especially for the Nigerian artists whose country has no structure or plan for the creative industry. Isn’t this globalization what I hope for as a writer, that huge publishers far from home would sign me on? That my writing would speak multiple languages? I sighed in the car that New York evening as the driver played one more Nigerian song before I got to my hotel, grinning at me without saying anything. Maybe it was just because I was dreading the tipping dollars this patronizing would cost me at the end of the ride.

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The second issue however, is one Nigerians home and abroad can agree on. Everyone is tired of going to concerts of their now international stars and being taken for granted. As their careers explode globally, Nigerian artists have gotten the notorious reputation of turning up several hours late for their shows or not showing up at all on African soil. This would have been excused as an artist’s eccentricity if these same musicians weren’t turning up promptly for their shows in London, Berlin, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Is it the currency that the people pay with on the African soil that is the problem?

Kizz Daniel was arrested in Tanzania this past August for failing to perform at a paid gig. The cost of the show was $300,000 and his excuse was that his flight had failed to bring a box that had a gold chain he intended to wear during his performance. In 2018, just when his artistry was catching fire in Europe and America, Burna Boy turned up for his headline show seven hours late. He did apologize and give a new show weeks later, but many Nigerians would prefer to save up and see him in the UK just to be safe. In a cryptic statement released on 11th December 2022, Wizkid stated that there were safety and production issues that stopped him from putting a quality show after failing to turn up yet again for a performance. I had been in Ghana the previous month and drove past several billboards covered with his face throughout the city of Accra. Hotels had been booked, air-tickets to Ghana purchased. The driver who picked me from Kotoka Airport had caught me looking at one of the billboards and asked ‘You will be around to attend your brother’s concert?’ I sat back in my seat, smiled and said ‘No’.


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