Is Afrobeats stifling the growth of other musical genres in Africa?

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Friday, 11 March 2022 17:02

Music Burna Boy
Burna Boy performs at the Coachella Music Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. on 14 April 2019 (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)

Music, a potentially powerful tool for unification in Africa, has not been the rallying point to propagate the ideals of pan-Africanism on the continent. Instead, it has lent itself to the petty politics of nationalism and xenophobia. However, one music genre that seems to be standing the test of time is Afrobeats.

Following a concert at Ghana’s biggest stadium in Tema on 26 December 2021, Ghanian dancehall musician Shattawale boasted about how his tickets sold out, a feat he said he managed without the support of Nigerian musicians.

In a viral video clip shared on social media, Shattawale said: “Do you know that [the] majority of people in the Ghana music industry are fools? They told me that I won’t be able to fill my stadium. I don’t look up to any […] Nigerian artiste. I look up to my fans. […].”

This remark triggered responses from his Nigerian counterparts, including Burna Boy who said on Instagram: “Pushing this agenda of separation between our beautiful African nations is a grave disservice to the generations coming after us. It goes against everything I stand for as a man and as an unapologetic pan Africanist. Therefore, if Shatta or anyone has a personal problem with me, I’m still open to fighting one on one and squashing it after…”

These kinds of exchanges reflect tension and rivalry in the Ghana/Nigeria music industries, which dates back from the golden age of high life in the 1960s to 2017 when Mr Eazi, a Nigerian musician, professed that the sound of Nigerian Afrobeats was influenced by Ghanaian music. He came under fire from his countrymen on social media. It is worthy to note that Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, now deceased, expressed similar sentiments in the 60s.

People hold up a photo of Nigeria's music legend Fela Kuti at a night show in Lagos
People hold up a photo of Nigeria’s music legend Fela Kuti at a night show marking the end of a week-long celebration in his honour, in Lagos October 22, 2012. Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

Politics of nationalism and xenophobia

Music, a potentially powerful tool for unification in Africa, has not been the rallying point to propagate the ideals of pan-Africanism on the continent. Instead, it has lent itself to the petty politics of nationalism and xenophobia.

In 2019, South African rapper AKA was accused of instigating xenophobic sentiments in a series of tweets after his home country lost a football match to Nigeria during the AFCON Quarterfinals. A cohort of Nigerian musicians – Ycee, MI Abaga, Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy – condemned the rising spate of xenophobic attacks of Nigerians by South Africans.

In 2020, two rising Nigerian musicians, Omah Lay and Tems, were arrested in Uganda after performing at a concert that police said was contrary to Covid-19 laws. Ugandan musicians, including Cindy Sanyu and Gravity Omutujju, had earlier registered their displeasure about what they termed as ‘selective enforcement’ of Covid-19 rules, which they said enabled the Nigerian musicians to perform. Another furore ensued on social media with posts affirming tensions between Nigerian and Ugandan musicians.

In February 2021, Peckham-raised Nigerian musician Naira Marley had his valentine concert was cancelled twice in Buea, Cameroon. Nigerian musician-cum-journalist Joey Akan decried the incident as an attack on Nigerian music. In a series of tweets, he said: “For months, there has been a growing anti-Nigerian movement, with many disgruntled entertainers [from across the continent] calling for a ban on Nigerian music.”

Venue to vent

These troubling reports from different African countries strongly suggest that regional grassroots music industries believe they are unevenly matched to compete with the more popular music genres.

Today, disgruntled local musicians express their displeasure through channels available to them: from social media outbursts to petitions written via their local unions, and even physical protests.

All these three genres of African pop music come from some of the biggest music producing countries in Africa.

Chief among their complaints on social media is the insularity of Nigeria’s listeners and the lack of support of other African artists from their Nigerian counterparts. This is in stark contrast to the period when Nigerians embraced music from across the continent, such as the brass band styled highlife ET Mensah in the 1960s and the new wave of Awilo Logomba’s soukous in the early 2000s.

DJ Tarico, Focalistic and Amarae from Mozambique, South Africa and Ghana, respectively, also had their music enjoy heavy rotation in the Nigerian music scene last year.

One-man protest

On 9 February 2022, Kenyan comic and musician, Eric Omondi staged a one-man protest by locking himself in a glass box outside Parliament building in Nairobi. On the glass box, the words ‘Play 75% Kenyan’ were written in bold. His was a campaign for Kenyan radio stations to increase their play of Kenyan music from the current 40%.

The contemporary music scene in Kenya is dominated by West African Afrobeats, Tanzania’s Bongo Flava and South Africa’s Amapiano, while older listeners continue to enjoy the ageless Congolese Rhumba and American hip-hop.

Mombasa-born Makadem, a multi-genre musician who conducts extensive tours within East Africa, has a contrary opinion. “…all these three genres of African pop music come from some of the biggest music producing countries in Africa. […] Kenya is largely a consumer of good Afropop music… Afropop still doesn’t surpass the love for Congolese rhumba, here let alone Jamaican reggae! These two [have a] massive [fan base] here.”

Makadem is however not enthused about Omondi’s protest to increase the radio quota of Kenyan music.

“…the definition of Kenyan music is twisted here […]. According to Nairobi, Kenyan music means Kenyan Afropop music with foreign influences like R&B, hip-hop, reggae, Afrobeats. These are the acts whose music is [referred to as] Kenyan music and these are the artists at war with foreign pop music dominance. In Kenya, we have ethnic or tribal pop music, which is way bigger than the former…” he tells The Africa Report.

Nevertheless, Makadem agrees that his fellow Kenyan musicians are becoming ambitious. “Our local pop stars feel the pinch, but I see it making them start to strategise for bigger better regional content than what they have been doing…”

Afrobeats’ phenomenal rise

Regardless of the local politics around influence, dominance and nomenclature of these music genres, Afrobeats’ phenomenal rise to global popularity has been a source of inspiration to other genres. Even so, Afrobeats’ ascent did not happen out of the blues, it required deliberate interventions.

In the early 2000s when Afrobeats was still in its infancy, American hip-hop ruled the Nigerian radio waves. Superstars like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West and 50 Cent regularly held massive concerts in Nigerian cities. Local musicians were assembled into a roster of opening acts for these shows.

American rapper 50 Cent headlined the 2004 edition of the four-city concert Star Mega Jam in Nigeria. Eedris Abdulkareem, a Nigerian rapper who broke out of the popular boy band Remedies, protested the preferential treatment given to 50 Cent and his crew: they had been flown into the country on first-class tickets aboard a plane reserved for them. A physical fight broke out, which led to the premature departure of 50 Cent and his crew from Nigeria, with the help of the American embassy.

50 Cent bragged in his book that he did not know anything about Nigeria and he was [still] offered $4m to do the show.

Jide Taiwo, a veteran music journalist and author of History Made, reflects on this incident 18 years later saying he may not agree with Eedris’ methods, but he understands his frustrations. “…Eedris may have been misguided in his delivery, but fundamentally, what he was saying was right. 50 Cent bragged in his book that he did not know anything about Nigeria and he was [still] offered $4m to do the show. None of the Nigerian musicians [even got] N1m ($2,409).”

Dissenting African musicians have yet to resort to physical violence like Eedris, but Taiwo believes that they could learn from the Afrobeat example. “…a lot of things happened for Afrobeats to become popular. The music did not stop being good, we kept tweaking and honing. We had telcom [telecommunication] and alcohol [beverage] brands that needed to reach a younger set of consumers and just used the music as a vehicle to push that. The NBC [Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation] directives that radio had to play about 60%-70% of Nigerian music also [boosted this]. All of these happened at the same period… It was an eventuality that the music was going to blow [become successful].”

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