Afrobeats star Fuse ODG reps Raiders.
In the navel-gazing world of London dance music, we're used to nursing life-changing sounds and then letting them go, like weary mothers watching our progeny fly the nest. So long, acid house. Farewell, drum and bass. Bye bye, dubstep. You were once our little ray of sunshine, and we know that when you come home for Christmas you'll be a different person, with cargo shorts and a Skrillex tattoo.
The latest member of the family tree to flourish on London's dancefloors wasn't born in the UK, and has more complicated DNA than most. It's also the most thrilling sound to come of age here in years.
What has come to be known as Afrobeats (note the "s") is an umbrella name for mostly Ghanaian "hiplife" and Nigerian "Naija." Broadly, the sound draws on the rich legacy of highlife and Afrobeat (à la Fela Kuti), contemporary American hip-hop and R&B production, a bit of Jamaican dancehall swagger, and Britain's grimy take on house music.
UK artists with African roots are being drawn towards the sound too. Born in Britain but raised in Ghana, Fuse ODG is the first British Afrobeats star. His unabashedly poppy hits "Azonto" (also a phenomenally popular dance, and a byword for this whole sound) and "Antenna" have taken Afrobeats to mainstream daytime radio for the first time in the UK. The towering big-room synths probably helped make it more accessible to unfamiliar ears, but really, it's the track's irresistible rhythmic drive that made it the UK's first homegrown Afrobeats top ten single. The US industry wagonjumpers are growing ever more common, not least from stars looking for a fresh sound: Wyclef's addition to the track above is kind of cute. He's old enough to be Fuse ODG's dad, but with his skater backpack, seems determined to look like one of his peers. Meanwhile Akon has signed several Nigerian stars to his label, most notably Wiz Kid, and Kanye West has signed top producer Don Jazzy and vocalist D'Banj, following their collaboration with Snoop Dogg on "Mr Endowed."
"I like the fact that it's inclusive but proud," says one of the most prominent London-born MCs, Mista Silva. "It shouts, 'Hey, I'm of African heritage and I'm proud, and if you're from somewhere else who cares?'" Silva's career began in London's UK funky scene in the mid-2000s, MCing over heavy, percussive club grooves. After spending time in Ghana, he returned in 2011 and turned his attention to Afrobeats, producing glorious singles like "Boom Boom Tah" and "Now Wats Up." In his breakthrough tune "Bo Won Sem Ma Me," accompanied by A-Star, Flava and Kwarmz, the MCs switch languages in a way that rolls naturally over the insistent four-to-the-floor rhythms. "It's great to see that it is teaching and inspiring young British Africans to embrace their roots and their culture rather than feel ashamed," Silva said last year.
Many of today's Afrobeats producers grew up to the street sounds of grime, house, and UK funky—as well as their parents' highlife records. "It didn't used to be cool," explains DJ Abrantee. "But now they're going through their parents' record collections, saying, 'Have you got this old song by Daddy Lumba?'" It's an exciting new twist for the UK's tired rap scenes to see an MC spitting about being a "tribal master" on the grey streets of London, surrounded by their mates in a scene reminiscent of any of the thousands of low budget grime videos on Youtube.
Or partially reminiscent, at least. There's one key difference that seems so blindingly obvious it's not often pointed out: after the moody, skunked-out head-swell of dubstep and the macho, contorted screw-face of grime, this music is just so freaking... happy. "When we bust through the doors it's party time—bare dancing, bare laughter" spits Flava, bobbing up and down in a barber shop wrapped in a Ghanaian flag. In a decade of following grime obsessively, I don't think I ever once heard an MC extol the virtues of laughter.
Many of the UK's older urban music stars of African descent were touring in Ghana—and making musical connections back to the mother country—long before the more recent explosion of interest in Afrobeats. In 2010, Sway collaborated with Ghanaian rap superstar Sarkodie on "Lay Away," while UK vocalist and producer Donaeo has been making trips to Ghana for years. The influence is clear on his UK funky beats like "African Warrior," as well as collaborations with Sarkodie on "Move to da Gyal Dem" and EL on "Life Saver." Silvastone, who produced tracks for Blak Twang and Estelle the best part of a decade ago, is now making stirring Afrobeats tracks, with the kind of high-gloss pop production you might expect of American Top 40. Here he reworks 90s legend Mark Morrison's gospel-Popeye comeback "I Am What I Am."
Black British music has long been caught in a tug-of-love between US hip-hop and the Jamaican diasporic influence, from UK reggae back to lover's rock, ragga jungle, 2-step garage, UK hip-hop, grime and dubstep. Increasingly, London's most compelling sounds are emanating from a different Atlantic coast—the former British colonies of Ghana and Nigeria. Professor Paul Gilroy, leading scholar on what he terms the Black Atlantic, told me in a discussion about UK funky in 2009 that the key to understanding the music that followed the grime and dubstep of the mid-2000s was "the contemporary transformation of Britain's black communities. We are moving towards an African majority which is diverse both in its cultural habits and in its relationship to colonial and postcolonial governance, so the shift away from Caribbean dominance needs to be placed in that setting. Most of the grime folks are African kids, either the children of migrants or migrants themselves. It's not clear what Africa might mean to them. Their ambivalence toward it is the key I'd guess. As the old song says, 'the dances are changing.'"
Via Afrobeats, some of this ambivalence now seems to be smoothing out into a kind of giddy positivity—audible in the beats and gleeful dance videos, as much as the lyrical references to black stars (aka the Ghanaian flag, and indeed football team), linguistic code-switching, and flag-waving. Fuse ODG has even taken it on himself to coin the phrase, hashtag, and—if you look at what he and Wyclef are wearing in the Antenna video, even a clothing line?—#TINA, which stands for This Is New Africa. Earlier this year, he was even invited to Stanford University to discuss it. He told the readers of Young Voices in June:
"This movement will shed light on Africa in a positive way and focus on how we can improve Africa. It's not about just plying your talents in the Western world; it's about going back home and helping Africa. The same way I believe you can't forget your roots in music, you can't forget your roots in life; where you're from. It's our duty to make noise about the positive things that are happening in Africa. It's on us to make noise about the good things that happen and spread the word."
In fact some have expressed discomfort with how the word has spread, calling Afrobeats a clever re-branding that lumps together music from "diverse places and historical contexts into one new category." Boima Tucker elaborates in a recent article for Africa is a Country, explaining "If we want to be pan-African, then let's be pan-African, but let's not pave over local identities and histories solely for the sake of an easier marketing plan."
There are good intentions behind those concerns, but they seem a little pernickety. The music we're talking about is almost all from Ghana and Nigeria, and the historical context is, um, now. Nobody is trying to erase the million nuances of a continent's history and cultural diversity. As long as it's recognised as an umbrella term, a piece of shorthand, there doesn't seem to be too much to worry about. We've been here before, of course, not least with the highly controversial term "world music," invented in a pub in north London in 1987, by evangelists who decided the only way to sell non-Western music in the West was to give it its own category in record shops. Afrobeats may suggest a pan-African musical unity that isn't there, but since when has a genre name ever been accurate, or even popular? Taxonomy is important, but a name is much less important than what it describes.
And what it describes is just dazzlingly good fun. I've not even had the chance to delve into the music of Wiz Kid, R2Bees, D'Banj, Ice Prince, Atumpan, Tiffany, Castro, Don Jazzy, or a hundred others. Get thee to YouTube, pronto.