Afrobeats: An Overview of Africa’s Message of Untold Tales And Untapped Potential to The World

BY Edwin Lamptey October 9, 2023 10:03 AM EDT
Photo Source: Instagram/@2niteflavour@officialniniola,@mreazi

Afrobeats or Afro-Pop or Afro-Fusion (or Afropop or Afrofusion), the new trend of African music, is a general term used to describe the popular music of West Africa and the diaspora, originally developed in Nigeria, Ghana, and Britain from the early 2000s. 

Afrobeats is less a style in itself and more a description of the merging of sounds flowing predominantly from Ghana and Nigeria. While drawing influences from its mother roots Afrobeat, Afrobeats is a diverse fusion of genres including British house music, hiplife, hip-hop, dancehall and soca, jùjú music, highlife, R&B, with a few other new sounds thrown in the mix once in a while.

Unlike Afrobeat, a well-defined genre, which was almost singlehandedly created by Fela Kuti, Afrobeats is more of an umbrella term for contemporary West African popular music. This new trending genre of African music combines the different elements and sounds of African music to give it a more accessible label to those unfamiliar with the sounds of Africa. 

The name took flight after a UK-based Ghanaian disc jockey, DJ Abrantee, coined the name during a show in 2014. Capturing the essence of the new wave of African music, describes it as ‘the genre that emerged when West African pop music became cool.’

Afro Pop Music is mainly produced in Lagos, Accra, and London. Historian and cultural critic,  Paul Gilroy reflects on London’s changing music scene as a result of demographic change. In his book, The Black Atlantic, Gilroy rejects the notion that black culture and music could be tied to a geographic region. Afro-pop music is definitely an example of this syncretism as a transnational genre that is now going international. 

Afro Pop Music is most easily recognized by its signature beats of percussive beats, whether electronic or instrumental. These beats are stylistically reminiscent of a variety of traditional African percussion beats found mostly in West Africa, as well as the precursor genre, Afrobeat. Rhythm in Afro-pop music is not just a foundation for the melody, but acts as the main character in the song, taking a lead role, sometimes considered more important than the lyrics and more central than the other instruments. 

Afrobeats shares a similar drive and the tempo of house music. Afrobeats generally use the 4/4-time signature common in Western music and commonly feature a 3–2 or 2–3 rhythm called a clave.

Styles of songs that make up Afrobeats in large part started out within the 1990s and early-mid-2000s. With the launching of MTV Base Africa in 2005, West Africa turned into a huge platform in which artistes sought to grow. Artistes including of MI Abaga, Ten Over Ten singer, Naeto C, and Sarkodie have been recognized as some of the Afrobeats stars to benefit of this.

Prior to this, bands like Trybesmen, Plantashun Boiz, and The Remedies were known as early pioneers that fused cutting-edge American impacts from hip-hop and R&B with neighborhood melodies. While this allowed them to construct neighborhood audiences, it blocked them from a broader platform because of the language boundaries in place. Nigeria’s twin musical prodigy, P-Square, with the launch of their album Game Over in 2007, became a sensation for the utilization of Nigerian rhythms and melodies. Meanwhile, artistes like Flavour have been capable of local fulfillment by embracing older genres, consisting of highlife, and remixing them into something special, as can be seen in his song Nwa Baby (Ashawo Remix).

 By 2009 artistes within the then-burgeoning space had started gaining popularity throughout the continent and beyond.

However, it was until the release of Choice FM’s New Afrobeats Radio Show’,  birthed and offered through DJ Abrantee in April 2011 that the style won traction and saw ‘Afrobeats’ trending.

 P-Square launched Chop My Money (Remix) with famous Senegalese-American artiste, Akon in 2012. Nigerian artiste, D’banj’s Oliver Twist, was launched online in the summer of 2011 and it charted on the United Kingdom Singles Chart in 2012. Mr Eazi credited D’banj in an interview with Sway on “In The Morning” in 2019 for assisting and inspiring Nigerians to embody their accents and songs.

In 2011, a 21-year-old Nigerian artiste named Ayo Balogun famed as Wizkid released his debut album, Superstar. Some of the songs that hit a nerve in the backbone of music lovers were Don’t Dull and Pakuromo, which combined a variety of musical styles and lyrical switches between English, Pidgin and Yoruba. 

While Wizkid wasn’t the first to make music with this mash-up approach, nor the first to gain international recognition for it, he saw the long game and his album title proved to be prophetic. Rather than trying to mimic or “Africanise” global pop, R&B, and hip-hop, Wizkid and a cohort of other Nigerian titans, including Davido and Tiwa Savage, used their uncanny ear for melody and polyrhythmic sensibilities to dance along the margins of several genres, never quite sounding too much like R&B, hip-hop, dancehall or traditional music, but definitely feeling new and exciting.

While Afropop has been primarily dominated by men, artistes like Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade have paved the way for women to take center stage with their own strides in the genre. Savage, who signed with Roc Nation in 2016, got her start as an R&B songwriter in Los Angeles until her 2010 breakout hit Kele Kele Love established her in the Nigerian music scene. Her brand of Afropop has an R&B core, as demonstrated in the soulful vocals and smooth harmonies of her 2017 EP, Sugarcane. Yemi Alade the Oh My Gosh hit singer, on the other hand, took a more Pan-African approach to Afropop, singing versions of her songs in Swahili and French to appeal to wider audiences.

Adding to the mix is self-proclaiming Afrofusion artiste, Burna Boy. His dips into dancehall, house and hip-hop produced one of the most sonically diverse yet cohesive Afropop albums of 2018. On Outside, he masterfully weaves together his various influences, from Patois to the traditional drums in Koni Baje, both of which celebrate his cultural upbringing as a Yoruba boy in a highly globalized world.

In a similar vein, Mr Eazi has redirected the pop wave, stripping it down to its essentials. The slower tempo and laidback vocals of his breakthrough single, Skin Tight, produced by Ghanaian producer Juls and featuring Ghanaian vocalist Efya, have become Eazi’s signature. Oozing an irresistible sense of chill, his music has shifted the genre once again and prompted other artistes to try and hop on his bandwagon.

When it comes to the cultural exchange between Afropop and the other musical styles on the continent, the conversation has been dominated by the growing influence of South Africa’s House sound. Many have briefly experimented with the sound, including Davido in his 2014 release Tchelete, a collaboration with South African duo Mafikizolo as well as rising vocalist Niniola, who came into the spotlight with her 2017 hit, Maradona

The South African sound has also found a more permanent home in the tenacious street anthems of artistes like Olamide, particularly in his 2017 standout Wo!, and in newcomer, Mr. Real’s breakout hit Legbebe.

One cannot speak about Africa’s sound without highlighting the rise of 2023 BET International Flow winner, Black Sherif, who is trending with releases like Kwaku the Traveller, Soja, among many other songs.

Songs from such young Afrobeats artistes are becoming popular and gaining international eyes and ears. The Afrobeats space has seen Nigeria’s Rema and American pop star, Selena Gomez hitting it off with Calm Down. Asake’s newest joint, Lonely At The Top and Johnny Drille’s “Believe Meare all major songs gaining prominence in the world of music.

The question on the minds of many music critics is, would Afrobeats fade out like the other genres, be submerged into others, or keep standing out and making waves? The question remains unanswered yet what can be boldly said is that; Afrobeats is the message of Africa to the world.