‘The world is now coming to Africa’: why Madonna and Ed Sheeran want a piece of Afrobeats

West African artists such as Davido, Fireboy DML and Amaarae are ruling pop on their own terms, reflecting a new cultural pride – and western pop stars want in

Of all the TikTok trends to break this year, perhaps one of the least likely is the sight of users around the world singing in Nigerian pidgin English and Yoruba as they dance to the two biggest west African hits of the moment. One is a slowed-down version of the languid love song Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah) by the Nigerian singer CKay; the other is the party-ready Peru by fellow Nigerian Fireboy DML, which reached No 2 on the UK singles chart earlier this year thanks to a remix featuring Ed Sheeran.

Internationally, west African music is having a moment. If you ask Nigerian afro-rave artist Rema, that’s no surprise at all. “I knew I was going to break, I knew I was going to be global. The only thing I didn’t know was the timing,” he says. The jumpy, jovial Dumebi, from Rema’s self-titled debut EP, blew up in 2019 and has been streamed more than 56m times on Spotify. “This phase of Afrobeats is really having that global stance,” he says. “Every generation has added to the buildup. At this stage, the main motive is to globalise the sound and make every continent rock with it.”

That motive is reaping rewards. Last July, Wizkid’s Essence made history as the first Nigerian song to chart on the US Billboard 100, bolstered by a remix featuring Justin Bieber. It was the year’s most Shazamed song in the US (having heard the track out and about, listeners used the music-identifying app to discover what it was), and reached No 16 in the UK. Love Nwantiti hit No 3 on the UK singles chart and major acts such as Wizkid and Davido are selling out massive venues such as London’s O2 Arena. Madonna, ever keen to stay close to the centre of pop culture, released a Fireboy DML remix of her 1998 single Frozen this week.

Davido, who is playingthe O2 this Saturday, says the audience makeup of his UK shows has reflected the rising popularity of his sound. “Now Afrobeats has a bigger audience, we tend to see a different demographic,” he says. “When I started doing shows in the UK it was predominately Africans, then, as Afrobeats got bigger, we started getting mixed crowds.”

For a long time, African artists with a lucrative global listenership were generally in the “world music” category – think Baaba Maal, Salif Keita and Rokia Traoré, the type of artist who might appear on Jools Holland. The new generation, however, are aimed squarely at young pop fans. Sipho Dlamini is CEO of Universal Music’s South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa division. His appointment reflected the major label’s expansion into the African market, though he notes that the rise of Afrobeats has been a long time coming. “For people that haven’t been paying attention or caught Afrobeats in the last 12 months, they’ll think it just happened,” he says. “But it has been a long journey to get [the genre] to where it is. It’s become a movement, it’s no longer about genre.”

Christian Adofo, author of A Quick Ting on Afrobeats, the first book about the genre, argues that these developments relate to other sociocultural changes among the diaspora. He traces it to the annual homecoming events in December in Ghana and Nigeria – where diasporans return to the continent for musical and social events, and to visit loved ones. “The cultural programming, featuring a mix of artists from west Africa and the wider African diaspora, pulls a cosmopolitan range of creatives together,” he says. “They’re networking and bringing their professional expertise to push the subculture around the sound holistically.”

Tiwa Savage
Globally popular … Tiwa Savage. Photograph: Lakin Ogunbanwo

These collaborations and cross-pollinations in turn feed into heavily globalised social media platforms such as TikTok, where musical success relies on catchiness rather than cultural familiarity – hence the languid Love Nwantiti finding popularity on the platform, albeit more than a year after its release.

Amaarae found global success with her single Sad Girlz Luv Money, which featured fellow Ghanaian musician Moliy and the US singer Kali Uchis. She credits social media and streaming as a vital tool in breaking internationally. “With Apple Music, Spotify and TikTok, the world is a global village now,” she says. “As long as you make music that everyone in the world can connect to, all of these different platforms facilitate discoverability.”

Dlamini explains that leading west African artists – including Wizkid, Davido and singer-songwriters Tiwa Savage and Tekno – went all out in their aims to make themselves globally popular, in some cases “even before the labels got involved”. The Nigerian singer D’banj found success after signing to Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, an affiliation that probably helped his single Oliver Twist become the first UK Top 10 single by a Nigerian artist.

“You had a number of artists that would go to the UK and US, and be there for six months to a year working on music,” Dlamini says. Laying these foundations has led to high-profile collaborations with the likes of Drake (who featured Wizkid on One Dance) and Beyoncé (whose Don’t Jealous Me featured Tekno, Lord Afrixana, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi).

But what’s at stake with these crossover attempts? Despite their impact, the success of songs such as Peru and Essence remains relatively rare – and both songs truly ignited internationally thanks to collaborations with massive UK and US artists. Can Afrobeats artists have hits without these high-profile collaborations, often with white artists?

Wizkid … a high-profile collaboration with Drake. Photograph: Rob Rusling

“That’s a tricky question,” says Amaarae, who acknowledges the role that Uchis, a Colombian-American act, played in boosting Sad Girlz Luv Money. “Once the music is palatable, it will reach audiences. Having a key figure who is white definitely does help break the ice in those markets. Once you overcome that, then it’s easier to get in touch with those markets on your own.”

Davido agrees. “We’ve had records that haven’t needed any US or UK artists to succeed, but yes, it does give more exposure,” he says. “A Justin Bieber remix obviously would be bigger than a regular remix. Same thing goes for an Ed Sheeran remix.” But deciding which direction to take with a single is often a toss-up between nabbing lucrative domestic markets and giving the extra push abroad. “Back home the original records would be bigger,” he says.

And these collaborations work both ways. It was Sheeran who asked Fireboy DML if he could feature on Peru, which was already massive online. He had even written his own unsolicited verse. Although it may appear as if artists from the global north hold all the power, even relatively new Afrobeats artists offer innovative sounds, a unique knack for marketing and incredibly large fanbases (Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa). In a world where streaming is king, this crossover benefits British and US acts too: on Friday, Justin Bieber releases a new collaboration with the Nigerian star Omah Lay, who has more than 550m global streams.

Rema …releases his debut album later this year. Photograph: @scrdofme

Rema, Davido and Amaarae all hope their music will travel internationally, but they also say this isn’t at the forefront of their minds when creating songs. Rema is set to release his debut album this year and says he hasn’t deliberately changed his sound to appeal to global listeners.

And, while the likes of Essence, Peru and Love Nwantiti are breaking records, Adofo weighs the success of west African pop differently. “A number of songs we may now consider Afrobeats classics had finishing schools in migrant communities across the diaspora: on the hi-fi system of a barbershop, or the dancefloor of a uni rave,” he says. “They are memories attached to a moment in time and reflect a new cultural pride in African identity. That can’t be measured in a quantitative sense.”

Davido says west African artists don’t need to push too hard. “We have our own festivals, so I don’t feel like we need to overdo anything now,” he says. “We need to stick to the game and just embrace our culture, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Like you see every December, everybody rolls back to Africa to experience homecoming and to experience Africa. The cycle is going the other way: the world is now coming to Africa.”


Christine Ochefu

The GuardianTramp

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