Permeating African music markets in a steady yet undeniable fashion and converting sceptics into fanatics, Afrobeats is a genre that is so homegrown that any recreations fall short. The menacing melodies that force one to get up and dance (or sing despite language barriers) are part of a unique recipe that has lodged itself deep into the hearts of many worldwide. The sound is inescapable, infectious, and irresistible, so much so that its reception has grown exponentially in the last decade. Taking over the world are the architects of this genre who pour their essence into each song, hit after hit. So, where do Afrobeats originate? Who are the custodians of the genre who have broken into markets, making it a worldwide phenomenon?
The history of Afrobeats trickles down to one ancestor: multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and activist Fela Kuti. Fela Kuti pioneered a genre called ‘Afrobeat’ (not to be confused with Afrobeats. As closely linked as the two genres are, there is a crystal clear distinction). Afrobeat is aptly described as “a music genre that involves the comnination West African musical styles (such as traditional Yoruba music and highlife) and American funk, jazz, and soul influences, with a focus on chanted vocals, complex intersecting rhythms, and percussion.” Afrobeat, characterised by its intricate instrumentation and filled with social and political messages, reflected Nigeria in the 70s.
The high-octane nature of Afrobeat is part and parcel of the many influences that Kuti and drummer Tony Allen infused to create the genre. Ghana is also a big part of the foundation of Afrobeat through the genre Highlife, which is known for its “jazzy horns and multiple guitars.” By developing his sound throughout the 60s, Kuti’s music underwent many transformations before becoming the masterpiece that took Nigerian youths by storm in the 70s and what we know today.
Often mistaken for Afrobeat, and understandably so, Afrobeats is the name given to the various contemporary pop music (including Afro-Pop and Afro-Fusion) that comes from Nigeria and Ghana. A DJ from London named Abrantee coined the term when he created a radio show called ‘Afrobeats With Abrantee in 2011.’ “For years, we’ve had amazing hiplife, highlife, Nigerbeats, juju music,” he told The Guardian in a 2012 interview. “And I thought: you know what, let’s put it all back together as one thing again, and call it Afrobeats, as an umbrella term.”
Developed through the mid-90s and early 2000s, Afrobeats began to take up a life of its own. While Afrobeat contains funk, jazz, and soul ties, Afrobeats took on a more youthful sound indicative of the then-current state of music. In addition, Afrobeats incorporated hip-hop, house, and R&B elements addressing topics about love and having fun by infusing African meters, percussions, and chants in indigenous languages. In a natural progression of music, Afrobeats cemented itself as a genre to take note of as being the newest sound of the young and hip.
Nigerian artist D’Banj is heralded as one of the most significant crossover Afrobeats artists. His 2012 single ‘Oliver Twist’ climbed the UK charts. “Fela Kuti is obviously a massive legend in the game,” said British-Ghanaian rapper Sway. “What he was doing is not too different to what D’Banj is doing now – taking western influences and adding them to African culture, and coming up with something new that appeals to everyone.” The 2010s saw a meteoric rise in popularity for Afrobeats. It was everywhere. More artists took the genre and made it their own, creating some of the best music to come out of the continent. Artists that debuted in this decade, such as Wizkid and Burna Boy, have amassed fans globally and enjoyed success on American and UK charts resulting in both becoming Grammy winners. Wizkid’s ‘Essence’ featuring 2022’s biggest breakout star Tems became the first Nigerian song to chart on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Global 200. Other notable and successful performers include Flavour and P-Square. Maven Records boss Don Jazzy brought us the incomparable songstress Tiwa Savage. Yemi Alade’s high energy performances and iconic song “Johnny” have made her a household name.
The effect of Afrobeats on a global scale has become undeniable, with many artists wanting in on the action. Collaborations with Afrobeats artists have increased exponentially. Massive artists like Drake, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, and Beyonce have taken a page out of the genre’s book and opened it up to a bigger world of fans and consumers. It is safe to say that Afrobeats is a worldwide party-starter staple. Festivals like AfroNation draw thousands of crowds from different corners of the world into Europe with lineups of most African performers. With the emergence of South Africa’s newest genre, Amapiano, taking on a similar path to popularity as Afrobeats, it’s no surprise that when artists from these genres get together, it’s a showstopping occasion.
In true African style, an essential facet of Afrobeats is dance. You will oblige if a song tells you to whine your waist or do the Azonto. Today, TikTok challenges are often one of the simplest ways to catapult a song to mega-hit status, but Afrobeats employed that tactic years prior. Iyanya’s Kukere, Davido’s Skelewu, and Mr. Real’s Shaku are examples of dances that helped the songs amass millions of views and streams and become cultural phenomena.
Afrobeats are of utmost importance to African music history. It is a proudly West-African product that has taken the world by storm and opened doors for many. The rise of the genre has yet to reach even higher levels. It is exhilarating, and enjoying a front-row seat bearing witness to its global takeover is a pleasure and a privilege. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back at the beginnings of Afrobeats and bask in all it has achieved.