LET’S face it: Afrobeats didn’t really need an endorsement from Beyoncé in 2019. Wizkid, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage and Tekno — all featured vocalists on her latest album, The Lion King: The Gift — are big Nigerian stars in their own right, smashing streaming stats and racking up millions of YouTube views. As such, they’ve been hugely important in transforming this hybrid of Ghanaian highlife, US hip hop and Jamaican dancehall from a popular West African style into a global pop phenomenon.
Of course, Beyoncé isn’t the first Western megastar to have repped for Afrobeats, but if anybody somehow managed to make it through 2016 without hearing Drake’s Billboard-topping One Dance, featuring Wizkid, then her new record will have plugged that knowledge gap.
However, Afrobeats — not to be confused with Afrobeat, the hard-driving pop music developed by Fela Kuti, although the two are connected — is becoming less a genre tag than an umbrella term for popular music with African roots.
It’s an expansive sound that’s recently found its way into soca, thus giving Caribbean carnival music a fresh twist, has been absorbed by Durban’s gqom style and even more enthusiastically embraced in the UK.
Pinpointing exactly when Afrobeats first made its mark here is tricky, although D’Banj’s Top Ten hit Oliver Twist, of 2012, is significant. It’s easier to identify high-profile local artists who’ve adapted it to their own sound: Afro B (who prefers the term ‘Afrowave’), Kojo Funds, Yxng Bane and J Hus.
Others have recently shifted ground to embrace Afrobeats: grime MC Lady Leshurr, drill star Loski and R&B-pop singer Mabel. As it gathers momentum globally, this music is on its way to becoming as potent a force in UK pop as hip hop, R&B and grime. We introduce some of Afrobeats’ main players here…
Wizkid is Afrobeats royalty in Nigeria but also has real international clout. His beginnings, singing in the church choir aged 11, were modest for someone whose rise has been impressive, if steady, and involved not only high-profile collaborations with the likes of Beyoncé, but also his own Starboy Entertainment label, to which he signed Mr Eazi.
‘Afrobeats is music that gives people joy; it comes from the soul and it’s a universal language. The world will gravitate towards good music because it’s good music. And this music is good. It travels.’
■ Wizkid plays Victoria Warehouse, Manchester on Oct 18 and The O2, London on Oct 19, wizkidofficial.com
Tiwa Savage lived in London for 15 years and was influenced by the likes of Take That and George Michael. She later studied music in the US, where she took to soul, jazz and hip hop. Returning to Nigeria, she reconnected with highlife and her take on Afrobeats reflects that journey. She’s newly signed to Universal Music Group. ‘My melodies and my hooks are usually very pop-friendly but the rhythm is always going to sound African. In my lyrics I mix my local dialect with English, so you can understand the concept of the song. The reason Afrobeats has taken on a life of its own outside of Africa is that Africans living in the diaspora are starting to connect back. You look up to the Drakes and Rihannas and Beyoncés, so when you have artists like that embracing our sound, it’s like a co-sign. It’s a revolution that’s going on, taking it back to the source — which can only be good.’
■ Tiwa’s single, 49-99, is released today, facebook.com/tiwasavage
Mr Eazi was born in Nigeria, but moved to Ghana aged 15 and now spends a fair amount of his time in London. In 2013 his debut mixtape, About To Blow, won widespread acclaim and he’s worked with Rudimental and Diplo, among others. He calls his style ‘banku music’.
‘I mix highlife from Ghana with pop music from Nigeria and R&B. Banku is a Ghanaian dish made of fermented corn and cassava dough, so the whole concept is that you’re mixing two different things. And I shift between Yoruba, Nigerian pidgin English, [branch language] Ga, Ibo, English… The African diaspora is becoming louder and louder in expressing its culture, which music is a very strong part of. It’s positive in that there is so much attention and not just for the top artists; people looking to invest in African music are now thinking of the next generation. And it’s good for people across the value chain, from producers and DJs to stylists, dancers and choreographers.’
■ Mr Eazi plays Ritz, Manchester, on Nov 13, and touring, metropolismusic.com
Juls is a fêted British-Ghanaian producer/DJ whose work on Life Is Eazi: Accra To Lagos played a significant role in Mr Eazi’s rise. He’s also worked with Burna Boy and Kojey Radical, among others.
Juls’s own music has more of a sweet, Ghanaian highlife bent. ‘I feel like every ten or 15 years there’s a genre of music that becomes popular globally and I think the reason Afrobeats has is: 1) the collaborations that have been involved, e.g. artists like Drake and 2) there are so many cultures in the UK, especially African, so that music stems from our households and friends, all interacting with each other. There’s been a lot of hype around that and then people have caught on to the trend. So now there’s this crazy hunger for our music, which is a good thing for us and hopefully, we capitalise on that. At the same time, it’s important to preserve the culture along the way.’
■ Juls plays Hangar, London, on Oct 27, shoobs.com