The whole ‘Afrobeats’ thing

Two recent features in the mainstream British media turned out to be enough to spur some debate about the so-called “Rise of the Afrobeats” in the U.K. The Guardian interviewed DJ Abrantee (quoting Abrantee as him having coined the term “Afrobeats” — or so the journalist said, which Abrantee later denied, but which didn’t stop MTV Iggy from copying it) while BBC radio aired a one-hour show as “your complete guide to Afrobeats.” Both features came with popular music plugs but also with some ludicrous quotes (such as “Nigerians are just hustlers on a high level… A Kenyan you can just walk by, he doesn’t exude that super star flair”; “male African dancers are much better dancers than the female Africans”; “African music is just beginning, just starting now”; “Africa’s a place full of love, despite it being depicted as war-torn”; “these songs are not about sex, but about love”; etcetera). Host of the show DJ Edu later clarified he wanted to “package African music to the West who loves a story” but it got us thinking.

Even from the outside looking in, one can recognize a persistent genre obsessed hype machine around “Black Music” in the U.K. We’re familiar with wider debates around the practice in the “World Music” industry in general so we won’t spend too much time explaining why the “Afrobeats” name is somewhat irresponsible and misleading (adding an “s” to Afrobeat?). Those of us who are interested in promoting African music around the world have to be wary of the reflex to lump music from diverse places and historical contexts into one new category. If we want to be pan-African, then let’s be pan-African, but let’s not pave over local identities and histories solely for the sake of an easier marketing plan (let alone for the West “that loves a story”). Plus, since we at AIAC often rep for smaller countries, we realize that scenes in less equipped areas will never be able to compete with the giant industries in places like Ghana and Nigeria. If practices like this continue, too many local and national scenes will fall victim to unfair international competition.

Another problematic claim that has emerged through the dialogue is that the U.K. is “leading the way” in the popularization of African music in the world. While we’ll admit that the U.K.’s large immigrant communities certainly play a role in the popularization of African music in the British mainstream, the problem with a U.K. centered view is that it ignores the waves that popular African artists have made in other places. Paris centered explorations with Coupe Decale and Kuduro have made a significant impact in France and Portugal, but also in Brazil, the U.S., Spanish speaking America and other parts of the Caribbean (Kuduro has been getting play at Brooklyn Carnival for the last couple years.) Maybe Don Omar isn’t as big as Kanye to many in the English speaking world, but he’s undoubtedly bigger in other parts of the world. So when he jumps on a track called Danza Kuduro, it holds mainstream weight.

Lastly, perhaps the biggest worry is how in the wake of Kanye signing D’Banj, people’s focus has seemed to center around getting U.S. corporate mainstream attention. While that’s also part of spreading the music, since when did the U.S. mainstream become the end-all watermark of success for African artists? We’ve personally always believed in de-centering global creativity away from the U.S. and Europe, and we think that’s the real story here. It’s not “Afrobeats” in itself, but what “Afrobeats” will allow.



Boima Tucker

Chief Boima is a Sierra Leonean-American music producer, DJ and writer. He is also the managing editor, podcast host, and music section editor of Africa is a Country.

  1. You missing a few tings here:
    1) the difference between the street & the commercialisation of some of the street – in that respect African artists, african musics & other musics have been mixing up long time in UK/EU/various African countries
    2) Paris & London are 1/1/2 hours apart by train – add to mix
    3) u need 2 understand the Paris underground carpark thing & ‘backstreet’ London gigs 2 know the x-overs
    4) Latin x over in all this – more so in London/UK/Africa/Spain/Paris(last 1 smaller but growing) I know you mention it a bit but it is way bigger and older…..
    5) Why u read the Guardian 4 music info? (Or BBC?) LoL that’s like looking in Women’s Wear Daily for the best place to score coke!
    6) Kenyan DJ Edu is playin on a main stream station but they’ve been doing this stuff for 10 years – 1Xtra was ‘neutralised’ somewhat a few years ago for various reasons (including digital broadcast tech not just ‘politics’) but even so they brought African labels to a wider audience & deserve some credit for that & play music that gets pushed out of gig licensing by the police. They were playin Dbanj long before he was ‘known’ & he’s not even a good example cos they played Africa soundsystems & allsorts of other African produced music. And I am no fan of Edu but he plays music from all over Africa including what you called ‘smaller countries’. Be careful of making ‘mainstream’ a homogenous sin. But like I said 1Xtra is not the pirate stations we listen to in London or the cuts that fly around the street…..
    7) you write from afar & it seems a very ‘foreign’ view – the traffic between diaspora in UK/EU & Africa is constant & a whole generation of UK/EU born peeps have joined with that traffic. Just because the UK government has an island mentality it doesn’t mean everyone has. Likewise the traffic of those people around EU- you need to understand the African ‘patera’ migrant soundsystems too – some great stuff – yeah ‘globalisation’ but its productive & porous much more linked to ‘internal’ African music production than you seem to suggest.
    8)Don Omar?? Reggaeton has been massive in Spain for years & the traffic between Spain & UK is massive – even 1Xtra have been playing that for years – the Latin music scene in London is strong & been going a v long time….

    I know you are taking a ‘pop’ at some of the commercialisation & marketing, & that’s always going to be a problem for musicians but the way you’ve set it up is problematic too – that’s chicken feed like taking candy off a baby & the walls aren’t solid & while & I agree with the general principal of de-centering I think you could do better……..

    I could go on it is so much more vibrant & complex than your article suggests.
    I love this site but sometimes I’m just a tiny bit peeved :-)

    1. Yo digital djeli. Great response. I’m working on a tv show about music around the world and I’m looking to talk to some people with unique and deep insights into various scenes. You seem to fit the bill. Care to discuss? Please email me at executivecy AT yahoo dOt com

  2. Speaking from a perspective that I admit is peripheral to this discussion, that of the US *non-mainstream*, I’d just like to say that those of us over here who love various forms of African music but are skeptical of hype machines in general are simply hungry for good information and leads on artists we haven’t heard yet, both old and new. The explosion of non-US-based african music and culture websites in the last few years, and well informed US ones, has been a very welcome development of course, but we are simply far removed from all of the various centers of music and culture, whether in Africa, Europe or elsewhere, and the more information we can get, the better.

    It’s not for me to say what the goal of African artists or their supporters should be, but if there is a process of de-centering taking place – which seems very laudable to me – please remember that the US audience does not solely consist of the mainstream. For instance, my friends and I all consider Kanye to be a buffoon and a musical non-entity, a sham and a fool. His recommendations on any front are not to be taken seriously, though as an old saying here goes, even a blind pig finds a nut every once in awhile. Of course, in terms of commercial success his endorsement is a weighty thing. And I never begrudge commercial success in and of itself…a more interesting example is ?uestlove, a significant booster of African artists who now stands poised between the mainstream and alternative culture, with one foot in each. He’s lost some indie cred in recent years, but his musical taste is far more relevant and important outside the mainstream than Kanye’s is, though his endorsement will make no one rich by itself.

    My hope is simply that my European and African friends realize that America is far from a monolithic place, though the pop culture image that is projected outwards can make it seem thus at times. And it is a large enough place that the non-mainstream, countercultural audience is well worth considering. We are a multi-ethnic, postmodern group, diverse and hungry to learn from other cultures, but reflexively averse to being marketed to.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this article, and I applaud the conversation or dialog to weight out the future directions of “our” music before it gets too far. It’s great to have purposeful intent, as we move ever forward. And history has been an EXCELLENT enough teacher, of how ALL Indigenous cultures should be Very WEARY of Western / European domination or marketing of “our” art forms and expression. Great website, and great story!

    1. Thanks, Iain. That’s the interview in which Edu says he wanted to “package African music to the West who loves a story,” which we quoted in the first paragraph.

  4. Great article and interesting point about the UK ignoring popularity of African music outside Anglophone countries. It’s always the way that non-English lyrics seem to get in the way of a good tune!

  5. I definitely think this article has a lot of truth in it, why do we need America to define success, can’t artists make it worldwide without conquering America first? Also why is it more important that as soon as D’Banj got signed to Kanye West he was all of a sudden ‘hot topic’!

  6. Check out Beebizz Artist new track called BOLINGO meaning (LOVE) featuring Kolade Adekoya aka Splita

    Please feel free to give us feeds backs
    You can also follow us on Twitter: @beebizzMusic and @splita4eva

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