From Lagos to London: Dancing to Afrobeats over the years

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Friday, 29 July 2022 14:21

Nigerian singer Femi Kuti (son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti) performs during the opening ceremony before the World Cup group A soccer match between South Africa and Mexico at Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday, June 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Having enjoyed both critical and commercial success on the global music scene, Afrobeats is now classed as a global sound. A dance genre fusing ageless West African rhythms with more contemporary influences from the Black Diaspora (hip-hop from America and dancehall from the Caribbean Islands), Afrobeats’ evolution as a global pop sound has been more than two decades in the making.

It has required the diligence and unalloyed creativity of performing artistes, music producers, show promoters, video directors, choreographers, disc jockeys, graphic artists, fashion stylists and record label executives working across Accra, Lagos and London, the three main Afrobeats hubs, to elevate the profile of this genre.

Afrobeats has grown from that lowly music signalling the end of a DJ’s set in the early noughties to becoming the real essence of the party and lifestyle to boot!

“Afrobeats to the World” is that recurring catchphrase deployed on social media and internet blogs to mark new frontiers achieved by the genre. Since Afrobeats caught the attention of North American pop stars like Drake, Justin Bieber and Beyonce, these frontiers continue to multiply.

Nigerian singer-songwriter Temilade Openiyi, popularly known as Tems, recently won the BET 2022 Best International Act, “an award given to honour the outstanding achievements of international artists from around the world every year”. It is a first for a Nigerian female musician, and for Tems, whose professional career began in 2018, it has been an extraordinary ascent.

Books, podcasts, vlogs

Documenting Afrobeats’ ascent eventually evolved beyond social media and music blogs to vaunted international music platforms. The earliest Afrobeats artist profiles and album reviews appeared in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and FADER less than seven years ago. Today, it is standard fare to report recent news like Tems’ songwriting credits on Renaissance, Beyonce’s forthcoming album, on these platforms. These stories are also increasingly being told by locally based journalists who are able to provide nuanced context and an in-depth understanding of the culture.

Beyond profiles, interviews and gossip bits, books, video blogs and podcast series have begun to appear to consolidate the documentation of the Afrobeats. A profile of 21 Nigerian songs, History Made: The Most Important Nigerian Songs Since 1999 written by Jide Taiwo, a veteran Nigerian music journalist, was published in 2020. Taiwo highlights in his preface that his choice of word “important” instead of “popular” was to retrospectively eschew the metrics of popularity for the more thoroughgoing cultural relevance.

Christian Adofo’s book, A Quick Ting on Afrobeats, is a 195-page book of essays that traces the emergence of Afrobeats from precursor sounds based in Nigeria and Ghana. Part of the A Quick Ting series commissioned by Magdalene Abraha and published in 2022 by Jacaranda books, this book, written in styles ranging from ethnomusicological to autobiographical, particularly offers a wholesome account of the Ghanaian and European Diaspora’s contribution to Afrobeats.

Several podcasts and video blogs based in Africa and the Diaspora are dedicated solely to Afrobeats. Notable among them are Pulse Nigeria’s Facts Only, Joey Akan’s Afrobeats Intelligence and Adesope Live’s The Afrobeat Podcast.

Enter the docuseries

Afrobeats: The Back Story, a 12-episode documentary series premiered on Netflix in June 2022. Filmed over a 20-year period, this documentary relies on rare video footage to tell Afrobeats’ evolution over the years.

The producer, Ayo Shonaiya, an avid filmmaker and lawyer, has been an industry insider since the late 90s. His multiple roles as a music video director, talent manager and broadcaster at the first black-owned UK Television, Bright Entertainment Network, fortuitously place him at key moments in the evolution of the Afrobeats culture armed with a camera.

Years later, he builds a sprawling narrative from these grainy archival videos around key players, moments, and musical concepts. He relies on the accounts of fellow industry insiders, however in telling the back story of Afrobeats, Shonaiya places himself at the forefront of the narrative. His documentary relies excessively on his own opinion and understanding of its ethos. Whenever the documentary side-steps this, it illuminates differently like the sterling episode on music videos.

Also streaming on Showmax since June 23 2022 is Journey of the Beats, a 10-part docuseries produced by Obi Asika, an accomplished creative entrepreneur and co-founder of Storms Record, an indigenous record label. Journey of the Beats builds its narrative around intersecting stories told by a diverse cast of music historians, and industry veterans including musicians and record label executives. New episodes, majorly narrated by a different actor, are released on a weekly basis.

Although these two expansive documentary series were preceded by several one-off notable reports like Norbert Hahn’s “Afrobeats – Nigeria’s groove goes global” published on the German public broadcast service, the expansive nature, industry anecdotes and co-production ethos of these former docuseries give them a luminous quality.

Enter the naysayers

Afrobeats: The Back Story has understandably come under fire for some of its factual inaccuracies. Prominent among the naysayers is veteran musician and record label owner Dare Fasasi aka Baba Dee, who has highlighted critical issues around timeline and credits.

“The poor attempt to change the narrative of the evolution of the Afrobeat Music genre by latter participants who took the narrative from their own perspective while disregarding important events and players is not a true representation of Afrobeat back story,” he says in an Instagram post captioned, “THIS IS NOT AFROBEATS BACK STORY.”

 

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“Starting the post [sic]reggea era of Afrobeats music with the return of Kenny [Ogungbe] and D1[Dayo Adeneye] is false,” he says. “…Before any artist in Nigeria, Baba Dee had recorded and shot a video for ‘change your life style’- the first song with indigenous Yoruba rhymes and raps done on a foreign beat…”

Baba Dee’s complaints are somewhat valid. A music scene, even if moribund, existed prior to the year 1999 often touted as the year of birth of Afrobeats.  Baba Dee’s debut album, Most Wanted, was released in 1997 and some songs on this album served as the original movie soundtrack to Tunji Bamishigbin’s early Nollywood caper film, Most Wanted, released in the same year. Ditto for the US-based Seyi Shodimu’s hit song ‘Love Me Jeje’ featuring vocals and a video appearance from actress Shafy Bello.

In 1996, veteran rapper Zaaki Azzay released his hit song ‘Na Me Go Marry Am’, which infused pidgin English into the prevalent hip-hop sound. The jury is still out on Journey of Afrobeats, but so far it has side-stepped mythmaking. Junior and Pretty’s song ‘Monika’ released on their 1991 album, Fufu Flavour, has been credited as the first Afrobeats song.

“Obi Asika’s documentary was particular about the history and development of the Nigerian music sound across many years,” says author Jide Taiwo, who worked on both docuseries as a writer.

Errors from an insider’s perspective

The Afrobeats industry – as it is so often called – is hardly a structured entity; rather, it is an amorphous arrangement organised around the common goal of making effective West African dance music. 1999 was a pivotal moment in Nigeria’s political history as it signalled the end of a 15-year long military rule.

Consequently, there was a burst of creativity and optimism from the Nigerian youth (similar to the Golden Age of Highlife in the 60s), which may well explain why 1999 was assigned as Afrobeats’ year of birth.

Regardless, both docuseries offer slightly different perspectives that align around how Afrobeats has not only thrived on little institutional and governmental support but mostly on the willpower and creativity of its long-suffering practitioners.

A Hall of Fame may better assuage aggrieved pioneers who demand that the Afrobeats story is told properly.

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