Afrobeats and Language: How Nigeria’s Yoruba Has Risen To Global Acclaim

BY Edwin Lamptey October 11, 2023 12:10 PM EDT
Photo Source: Instagram/@asakemusic, @asaofficial, @burnaboygram

When it comes to languages, Africa is known to be home to thousands of indigenous languages. However, through colonization, many Africans were groomed to perceive their mother tongues as inferior and only spoken in homes. 

This notion began to change when educated African men and women like Leopold Senghor of Senegal, America’s W.E.B Du Bois, and South Africa’s Alice Kinloch all believed that the element for Africa’s emancipation was rooted in their culture and what they stood for as a people. 

In the 1960s, the music scene of Africa began to change with Fela Kuti blending his indigenous native language, Yoruba, (spoken in Nigeria) music style with jazz, funk, and blues to communicate and express his cultural heritage.

Beninoise Angelina Kidjo cannot be left out of how her use of the Yoruba language put her on the global stage. 

This is in line with what Briggs and Sharpe (2004) believe began to happen with Nigeria’s music industry —”After independence, Nigeria engaged indigenous knowledge in resuscitating its cultural identity in the musical art industry.”

With the recent recognition of the Nigerian pidgin  (Nigerian Creole) as part of the world’s Creole heritage, this African nation’s impact in globalizing African music, and its cultural essence in Africa’s story to be heard cannot be undermined. 

The rewriting of the African music journey to an appreciable extent can be attributed to the Yoruba tribe of southern western Nigeria, some parts of Benin Brazil, and the Caribbean Islands.

Their music styles of jùjú, àpàlà, fùjì and sàkàrá, their subgroups of folk music have infiltrated so much into the popular Nigerian music market so well that it has given room for Yoruba indigenes, both in the past and recent times, to become celebrated stars.

It is believed that music was the major communication tool for the Yoruba people. Many of the values and essence of their culture have been well-preserved and passed on to generations through their musical arts. The Yoruba understand how music is at the center of human culture and its appeal to the soul. The core of Yoruba music is rooted in their elaborate spoken word, storytelling techniques with proverbs, idioms, and poetry. 

Before Fela Kuti took the stage and put Yoruba music on the world map, the Nigerian music industry saw individuals like Haruna Ishola, Alao and modern jùjù musician, Babatunde King. 

For every decade of Nigeria’s history, the Yoruba rocked the nation and the world with their instruments, music, and storytelling;

Bobby Benson took the stage in the 60s. Fela Kuti took center stage in the 70s. King Sunny and Ebenezer Obey jammed the 80s. King Wasiu Ayinde and Sir Shina Peters were household names in the 90s.

The 2000s saw Paul Play Dario and D’Banj taking over in the 2010s. History continues with the music scenes both in Nigeria and Africa and the world as a whole being dominated by Yoruba stars like Wizkid, Yemi Alade, Seyi Shay, Teni, Burna Boy, Rema, Asa, Asake and the list just keeps getting longer. 

The modern Yoruba music community continues to teach the African people an art of communication that never fails — through the art of music. Its blend of pidgin and the Yoruba dialect to unapologetically self-express their identity and heritage is worthy of an ovation and applause. 

Soon enough, everyone will be learning a thing or two about the Yoruba language through their music. It is even more beautiful when one is moved so much to find out what a specific lyric in modern Yoruba-themed music means. 

 Finally, the past and modern Yoruba music movement is a testament to Ngugi wa Thiongo’o’s assertion of language being a powerful weapon in Africa’s mental emancipation journey. 

“If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement.” (Ngugi wa Thiongo’o – Decolonizing the Mind – The Politics of Languages in African Literature)