One element that earmarks Africa’s music genre whether Afrobeat or its newest brand, Afrobeats, is the art of storytelling. Generations of oral traditions of the African culture have been characterized by storytelling blended with music.
Take Ghana’s mythical spider legend, Anansi, for example. His adventures were always told with musical interludes contributing some lyrics connected to the story.
The well-patterned and rich colored fabric of the Asante people of Ghana, the kente, which has become a global identity for Ghana is appreciated with a musical tune of its own.
The popular kente song by Ephraim Amu celebrates Ghana’s indigenous heritage of kente weaving. The lyrics depict a tale of a traveler who has seen and heard tales yet was mesmerized after seeing kente being woven.
In mainstream African music, Fela Kuti who is recognized as the father of Afrobeat, dedicated the lyrics of his music to social issues then facing Biafra in Nigeria during the West African nation’s civil war. Kuti was noted for creating awareness for his Pan-African ideologies and criticizing the Nigerian government for the oppression and injustice visited on the Nigerian people in the 1960s and 70s.
In his Zombie hit song, Fela addressed the growing spate of police brutality by elements in the Nigerian police service. The Let’s Start hitmaker grew to be known as the man who could not be silent about corruption and injustice and utilized his mastery of music to state his grievances and criticize oppression.
In Kuti’s own words, he enunciated the power of music; “Music is the weapon of the future. “
In recent times, the rebirth of African music, Afrobeats, while seeking to capture the global audience with its rhythm and tunes relies on two fundamental concepts; the warped aspirations of the African youth and the social contradictions.
In songs like Asake’s Omo Ope and Rudeboy’s Reason with Me, we see the artistes sharing their perspectives on the topic of wealth. The latter song’s lyrics inspire hope of a breakthrough as individuals work hard. Asake’s song celebrates individuals who have finally made it and are enjoying the fruits of their labor.
A recent statement by Jamaican veteran DJ, Bounty Killer asserting that the Afrobeats genre lacks lyrical strength may be devoid of truth. He cited Burna Boy’s Ye as lacking lyrical content.
“Afrobeats have no lyrics; they have a lot of melody, grove, and topic. Ye ye ye is not a lyric; it is a topic. The song only has a style, melody, and topic,” the disc jockey noted.
Another critic of the strength and content of Afrobeats songs is New York Times pop culture writer, Reggie Ugwu. In an article he published in 2016, Ugwu wrote:
“Contemporary Nigerian pop is both proudly local and pleasantly porous.” It’s a two-edged sword, killer tunes with really poor content.”
These assertions open room for a lot of debate because the story of the African people is multifaceted and its creativity does not follow a given set of standards. Nonetheless every word or lyric in an Afrobeats tune depicts parts of the African dream and experiences —from wealth, religion, happiness, beautiful women, and lessons of life.
Inasmuch as one cannot deny that some stories or music lyrics may not be the expected, accepted expressions one may be looking forward to, it does not justify the perspective of the artiste or singer as flawed.
To an extent, the Afrobeats genre has a story for each individual, giving room for a vast array of storytelling. The lyrical content of the Afrobeats genre is almost a reflection of the life and experiences of the African generation of today.
African music has always been more than a storytelling experience. Sometimes it serves as an escape route away from the harsh realities of corruption, joblessness, and poverty. The hope of what the African youth want to experience is embedded in their musical expressions.
The issue of repetitive, long lyrics and sometimes melodies, is not erroneous in any way. This is a reflection of the African art of communication where things are repeated to show emphasis.
Burna Boy’s Ye song portrays a vivid image of the struggles faced by individuals trying to make a living in Nigeria. The song presents a contrast between the desire for material wealth and the importance of staying alive and highlights the pressure to conform to societal expectations. The lyrics are powerful and resonate with many individuals who face similar struggles in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
The lyrics written in Nigerian Pidgin English reveal the struggles of making a living in Nigeria, the pressure to conform to societal expectations, and the desire to enjoy life despite the difficulties.