Afrobeats is in a state of constant evolution. The genre has grown to cover such a nebulous range of tempos, conventions and rhythmic patterns, that it can equally refer to the bashment flavoured street anthems of Burna Boy as it can the high energy, EDM fuelled rave tracks of Ghanaian producer Sarz. Every year sees new trends rise and fall, often boosted by an accompanying dance craze, from the Azonto mania of 2012 to last year’s Shoki dance.
So far these trends have been largely dictated by the twin epicentres of Lagos and Accra. West Africa is experiencing something of a musical golden age, with artists such as WizKid, D’Banj and Davido attaining global stardom, almost entirely outside the mainstream, disseminating their music through social media. By 2012, Ghana had the fastest internet speed in Africa, and Nigeria the eighth fastest, and this vast improvement in internet connection, along with the viral power of Facebook and Twitter, has enabled artists to get their music directly to fans in a way previously unimaginable. They’re connecting on a worldwide scale, escalating from reaching hundreds of thousands locally, to reaching the millions that make up the vast West African diaspora.
Producers are running Afrobeats through the same syncretic process that saw jungle chop up hip hop samples and 2-step repurpose disco classics.
For the last couple of years a new generation of UK producers, largely first and second generation West African immigrants, have been responding to this influx of music. Inspired in no small part by the success of Fuse ODG, artists are creating a homegrown variant of the sound, introducing elements that chime with British audiences. Producers are running Afrobeats through the same syncretic process that saw jungle chop up hip hop samples and 2-step repurpose disco classics. The word on everyone’s lips is fusion, with the syncopated rhythms, up front drums and distinctive vocal melodies of Afrobeats purposefully laced with the flavour of UK street sounds.
This process has been percolating since UK funky turned towards deep house around 2011. Numerous previously successful MCs found themselves locked out as the scene distanced itself from the boisterous MC-led skanks of funky. Artists such as Mista Silva, SKOB and Tribal Magz – having cut their teeth in funky raves – began looking to the staccato house rhythms of Afrobeats for inspiration, drawing more and more West African slang into their lyrics, and knocking out UK remixes of the rawer grooves coming from their (or their parents’) homeland. Mista Silva’s 2012 break out hit “Bo Won Sem Ma Me” is a perfect example – the beat is lifted from Accra-based duo 5 Five’s hit “Move Back,” then laced with Silva’s lively spitting, pushing the track to a grittier place.
Later that year the Weray Ent crew were the first to attempt a genuine UK/ Nigerian hybrid with their Afrobeats version of “Pow!”; “Ching Chang Wallah.” The track blended aggy grime synths and flows with Nigerian slang and a 120 BPM rhythm that was heavy with bassy percussion. While it didn’t gain much traction in Africa, it laid down a marker for others to follow, something that is now starting to pay off.
“In 2014 a lot of the UK stuff broke through into the African Afrobeats market,” notes respected scene DJ Neptizzle, “you can play it to the crowd that listens to strictly African stuff, it’s definitely picking up. One of the UK tracks blowing up right now is Kwamz and Flava’s ‘Wo Onane No.’”
People who don’t listen to Afrobeats hear the start and are like, “Oh, what DJ Mustard record is this?” Then... they ... are like, “Wow! I never thought Afrobeats could do this.”
Released in the spring of 2014, “Wo Onane No” took time to take hold. The track opens by explicitly referencing the staccato pulse of DJ Mustard’s R&B productions, notching the tempo up from Mustard’s typical 100 BPM swagger to a propulsive 110, introducing a shuffling 4/4 beat that borrows snare patterns from UK funky, and layering in deep synth pads, Kwamz and Flava’s vocals dropping like an incantation over the top. Heavily supported by DJ’s such as Abrantee, Edu, Neptizzle, and Afro B, the track is now picking up spins from hip hop and house DJs, something that – according to song producer Newton “BoatzMadeIT” Boateng – was always the plan.
“I’m trying to make tracks that remind people of hip hop,” he starts, “I DJ, and most of the time when I play I’m trying to mix different genres – when I hear DJs mix ‘Wo Onane No’ with hip hop or bashment, that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. People who don’t listen to Afrobeats hear the start and are like, ‘Oh, what DJ Mustard record is this?’ Then as the energy builds up, they end up listening to an Afrobeats record and are like, ‘Wow! I never thought Afrobeats could do this.’”
African-based artists have now picked up on the success of “Wo Onane No,” and are looking to Boatz for productions. “I didn’t want to come out and do what everyone else is doing,” he concludes, “I want to set a trend, and I want to take it worldwide.” Other UK performers have been quick to follow Boatz’s lead, utilising Mustard’s skeletal sound palette as a key element of their production. It’s a fairly natural fit: Mustard’s pared, electronic aesthetic appeals to kids who grew up on the sparse arrangements and synthetic melodies of 8 bar grime.
Charles Oladunni, AKA C-Boy, has just released “Super Eagles,” a cut paying homage to his roots that features an unmistakably Nigerian vocal melody rolling over a beat, which meshes American R&B and Afrobeats.
“I fuse American influences, that Mustard sound, with Afrobeats,” he agrees, before drawing a vital distinction. “But it’s got its own element, it’s unique, it’s different; we’re trying to bring in new styles: We’re UK. I just believe we’re making our own genre of music – it wouldn’t make sense to try and sound like anyone else, like someone in America, or someone who’s established, when we’ve got everything we need over here to make tunes – tunes that other people would then want to copy.”
Previous C-Boy productions have seen him throw house, and even grime into the mix, with his year old cut “Drop Your Load” offering an echo of iconic grime track “Ghetto Kyote,” the melody re-surfacing like a favourite tale recalibrated into an African chant.
“I used to listen to grime growing up,” he enthuses, “and all those genres influenced what I make. I just fuse everything together. If it’s going to be house, I’ll make it house, it can be anything.”
“Confam It” has no real antecedents. To Omeiza, it’s the sound of progress.
The artists share a pragmatic outlook – based in the UK, they know that a straight up Afrobeats sound, delivered in the intricate shibboleth of pidgin English, is going to struggle to have the same impact in London or Liverpool as it does in Lagos and Accra. And so they adapt. This is largely realised in two ways – firstly, MCs bring a UK-friendly legacy of rave performance to their performance. While African Afrobeats tracks tend towards vocals that work in melodic harmony with the beat, UK artists are more inclined to cut across the melody, repeating catch phrases, and dropping explosive percussive plosives. In the UK, the dynamic sensation the lyrics impart carries as much meaning as the literal content. “Drop” from Vibe Squad is a great example of this – while the duo’s lyrics are delivered in strong Nigerian accents, they steer clear of pidgin, and spit a single word chorus with crowd-moving vitality.
The second adaptation is to increase the presence of Western musical signifiers. While a big African artist, like, say Nigeria’s Davido, can have a huge hit in his homeland with a song like “Aye” – basically a traditional West African love song – the UK artists are doubtful that such a track would have much traction with English audiences, and are concentrating more on ramping up the “beats” side of the Afrobeats equation.
Like BoatzMadeIT and C-Boy, the producer and artist David Aliyu, known as Omeiza, has consciously tailored his sound to this end, working what he considers to be EDM influences into the mix – although to him EDM is less Tiësto and more “Cashmere Cat, Disclosure, Kaytrananda, James Blake.”
The intriguing result of this is “Confam It,” a song written with the Manchester based Nigerian Ezi Emela. The track has no real antecedents – its mix of reverb-drenched drum clatter, ghostly rave synths, and Ezi Emela’s whispery vocals may nod to hip hop, electronica, Afrobeats and soul, but don’t sound quite like any of them. To Omeiza, it’s the sound of progress.
“Having produced Afrobeats for a while I wanted to push myself in different ways, to fuse that African sound with EDM, or soul and make something that cuts across markets,” he says. “Big songs in Nigeria – good songs – haven’t been big over here, because people can’t relate to them. So when an African decides to make a song that people here can understand, then that’s a different thing. They react to a song like ‘Confam It’ way more than they do to songs that are more ‘African.’” Inspired by “Confam It”’s positive reception, Omeiza is moving forward, planning to mix the aggression of trap with the traditional music of the Hausa people.
The thing that all producers agree on, is that no matter how far they may travel from the chart hits Fuse ODG has delivered, they are all still making Afrobeats. There is no attempt to throw up genre walls and pin the sound down to one tempo, one set of sound tools, or one rhythm pattern. The prevailing attitude is that a slow winding R&B-influenced number can be just as much an Afrobeats track as a hyped up four-to-the-floor pounder. In some ways, the term has become a less problematic, African version of “urban” – it contains a huge diversity of sounds, but, unlike “urban,” doesn’t serve to obscure the music’s origin. While a non-African artist could make Afrobeats, (and it’s worth noting here that DJ Neptizzle is of Vietnamese heritage), there can never be any doubt as to the sounds’ roots.
And, maybe, this is why some artists display such a pride in Afrobeats. C-Boy points to the incredible, almost unique liberation he gets from the term: “I can’t really describe the feeling it gives me to know that Afrobeats can go in any type of direction it wants,” he says. “It’s just a feeling; if you hear a beat, and you like it and you think ‘I can do my thing on this,’ then you can be yourself and express yourself. There are no boundaries and no rules.”