While it’s easy to label Drake’s More Life playlist, which featured production and features from the entire African diaspora, as “wave riding” or culture vulturism, it’s clear that the OVO impresario was on to something. At a time when music has never been more globalized and genre less important, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more interesting and influential scene than Nigerian Afrobeats.
A derivative of Afrobeat (sans the s), the West African mix of jazz, funk, and African melody popularized by titans like Fela Kuti and William Onyeabor, contemporary Afrobeats artists have fashioned a cultural and sonic mash of dancehall, hip-hop, R&B, and African rhythm.
After dominating the African music scene for years, Nigerian Afrobeats artists like Burna Boy, Davido, and WizKid are taking over the global music scene.
The handprints of Afrobeats are all over contemporary music. Besides Drake’s More Life, Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces was basically a collection of Afrobeats production without any actual Afrobeats artists, The Weeknd adopted WizKid’s ‘Starboy’ moniker for his most recent release.
Drake allegedly took the More Life title directly from an interaction with Burna Boy, who gave Drake 5 songs for the playlist, only to get a small part on “Get It Together”. WizKid and Drake linked up for the ubiquitous “One Dance” off 2016’s Views. Nigerian-British grime artist Skepta apparently introduced Wiz and Drake back in 2014.
Perhaps as a way to emphasize his exclusion from Drake’s album, the first song off Outside, Burna Boy’s new album, is titled “More Life”, a smooth, simmering track where Burna Boy wonders what else there is to do with his full-ass life.
Outside spans the Afrobeats landscape, taking elements of Afropop, reggae, American rap, and R&B and wrapping it up in a wildly impressive project. Burna has coined his mix of different genres as “Afrofusion,” basically a selection of Black music from across the globe.
“Ph City Vibration” pulsates with steel drums as Burna Boy recounts his childhood. It’s a nod to his roots that have made him the artist, and man, he is now, but it wasn’t always the case.
Burna Boy had to leave Nigeria to truly appreciate his heritage and culture. He went to university in London, but dropped out after two years and rediscovered his roots and his lineage that includes an uncle that was once Fela Kuti’s manager.
He told The Fader last summer about growing into his African and Nigerian pride:
“When you’re young, it’s not something that you’re proud of. We watch TV and the only thing you really see about Africa is ‘Help a child’ or some shit like that. I just wanted to listen to DMX. I didn’t really appreciate Africanisms like that.”
But he began to examine his personal history more:
“I started knowing more about who I was, where I come from, and where my father’s father comes from. When people are singing my lyrics, you can see the emotion because they can relate to what I’m saying — ‘no money, no life, no water.’”
Early in his career, Burna Boy made the decision to spurn trying to get accepted in America or England and instead turned his attention toward dominating Africa. He frequently toured across the continent, collaborated with African artists, and never charged American or British artists more than his African contemporaries for a verse or hook.
The evidence of his emphasis on Africanism is all over Outside. The guitar production on “Koni Baje” sounds like it could’ve been lifted straight from the Malian folk of Ali Farka Touré.
“Sekkle Down” with J Hus, one of the rising artists in UK grime and another product of the thriving musical diaspora of Africa, is a dancehall ballad that’s simultaneously romantic, bouncy, and fun as hell.
Burna Boy’s Outside is notable in its lack of American involvement, something that has been an issue in Afrobeats circles.
When fellow Nigeria star, in fact the original Starboy, Wizkid dropped Sounds From The Other Side last summer, he was criticized for the amount of American features and production. With Drake, Major Lazer, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, and Trey Songz, WizKid’s album wasn’t ‘African’ enough to some.
Another Nigerian Afrobeats star Davido labeled Sounds as ‘pon pon,’ claiming that WizKid was trying to appeal to international listeners too much.
Regardless of the Africanism of Sounds From The Other Side, an issue which, as a white American, I have very little to contribute to, the album is pretty fucking fun.
WizKid is much less contemplative and reflective than Burna Boy, even less musical. Sounds is a collection of irresistible, throbbing dance music. The chorus of “Daddy Yo”, on which a woman implores Wiz to “make me dance” feels less like a command than a statement of intent from the Nigerian artist.
The multiple collaborations with Ty Dolla $ign also reveal a formidable partnership of thirst fostering and beat riding.
Some dancehall traditionalists may take issue with how WizKid incorporates American themes into his music, but every genre is a sort of scale, and if Wiz is a sell out, he’s damn good at it.
As for Davido, the artist that outwardly criticized WizKid as ‘pon pon,’ he’s been a sort of standard-bearer for the genre since his boastful album Omo Baba Olowo, “Son of a Rich Man” in Yoruba, dropped in 2012.
For his part, Davido has his own American features, including a song with Rae Sremmurd and Young Thug, which is a banger but it kind of raises the question as to what qualifies as “pon pon” or music overly catered to international audiences.
Because of the African diaspora, and the fact that the roots of African music dominate virtually every popular genre in world music whether it’s hip-hop, pop, dance music, or bossa nova, actual birthplace can’t disqualify an Afrobeats artist.
Maleek Berry, a British-born Nigerian artist, is making some damn good music that could qualify as Afrobeats. Davido himself was born in Atlanta before moving to Lagos as a kid.
When you start worrying about the qualifications of a certain genre, you’re just doing a disservice to good music.
The influence of Africapop and Afrobeats on contemporary popular music is immeasurably intense and vast. It appears that African artists are finally getting the worlwide shine they deserve, even if that comes with subsequent, Americanized, wave riding.
Burna Boy and WizKid have been stars in Africa for years, now they’re poised for worldwide domination.