It’s hard to tell when exactly afrobeats in the UK went mainstream – but you could argue that Nigeria’s D’banj helped shove it into view. His smash “Oliver Twist” wove through the 250,000-strong crowd at London’s official New Year’s Eve fireworks display right at the end of 2011. Almost exactly eight years later, we’ve wrapped up a year in British music where the sounds of Ghanaian and Nigerian pop rhythms, blended with elements of grime, rap, hip-hop and just-about R&B have permeated clubs, parties, Uber ride playlists and crept up through the charts. So whatever you may call this loose gathering of genres – afro-bashment, afropop, afroswing, all distinct in their own ways – you can’t deny they’ve enjoyed a massive year. The fact that your family might recognise J Hus, Kojo Funds and Not3s’s names now shows as much.
And so, yes, we can spend time trying to figure out exactly when afrobeats made its major impact in Britain. But there’s more to think about now, especially considering how many new acts have risen in the past year aligned with that sound. What might happen if the sounds of the west Africa diaspora aren’t “on-trend” anymore? We saw how so-called tropical house became an early, fleeting 2010s moment, pegged as the hot new thing in 2015, covered extensively in 2016 and then relegated to advert syncs and songs by artists you’ve never heard of lingering towards the middle of the top 100. As blackness itself has transformed into a coveted aesthetic (see 2018’s blackfishing Insta models and the plethora of black women on September issue fashion mag covers), a shift might pull underneath a cluster of genres that are only just gaining the shine they deserve. Speaking to industry experts, from Spotify and one of the three major labels, I get the sense of a mixed opinion on what this all might mean. But between afrobeats’ global reach, its virality online and its relentlessly catchy hooks, it’s hopefully here to stay.
For Parris O’Loughlin-Hoste, senior urban artist manager at Sony, afrobeats’ banner year in 2018 holds deeper significance. “There is a group of young, first- or second-generation Africans and Caribbeans who have grown up in London and other major cities listening to afrobeats or dancehall, reggae etc their whole lives,” she tells me. “Afroswing or afrobashment or afropop is simply an amalgamation and natural influence of the melting-pot culture in large cities like London and Birmingham. To discredit a whole genre as an ‘of the moment’ thing feels wrong."
“J Hus is notably a genre-defining artist, a pioneer of all of this, nobody sounds like him, but he is clearly influenced by afrobeats/dancehall and bashment in his melodies. NSG, Belly Squad, MoStack, Lotto Boyzz, Tion Wayne, Yxng Bane, Maleek Berry, Juls are all the successful artists from the diaspora in the UK. The list is endless and it shows us solidifying a scene as global, genre-defying artists and showing how successful we can be representing the influence of UK culture on our ‘home’ cultures.”
The variety of names Parris mentions flags up one of the obstacles to understanding the depth of afrobeats’ UK impact: it’s birthed so many subgenres. One of the genre’s biggest challenges arises from making sure Western media or labels don’t get to completely define the emerging hybrid genres. “How can we expect labels and radio to respect our diverse sounds if we can't even properly identify or classify them for global consumption?” asks Tunde Ogundipe, the global lead of African Music & Culture at Spotify, in an email to me. “When those questions can be answered by those leading this movement, both artists and labels, I believe we'll be in a better place collectively.”
That being said, some artists have made a firm mark on the genre. Burna Boy enjoyed an exemplary 2018, particularly with the release of his album Outside. J Hus followed last year’s critically acclaimed debut album Common Sense with his Big Spang EP, though he’s now been sentenced to eight months in jail on a knife-related charge. WizKid headlined AfroRepublik at the O2 in May, drawing in a crowd of 20,000 people and selling out in a matter of days. In The Guardian, author Yomi Adegoke described how the essence of Black British music is the merging and blending of sounds across class, heritage and culture. That’s why artists like Kojo Funds and Burna Boy can put out a bashment song right after an afrobeats track, without it feeling unnatural.
Now, to the genre’s virality. Take Burna’s “Ye,” spun off into Black Twitter favourite “My Yé is Different To Your Yé” by London artist Osh. On the one hand, viral success speaks to the way that social media and visibility go hand-in-hand. One-off single record label deals help artists like Osh make the most of meme-like popularity on Twitter or Instagram – for example, Sony/Columbia officially handled the digital release of “My Yé.” But the downside to viral success is that it’s been difficult to measure its impact – how much is a meme really worth to a label? Either way, a musician’s ability to connect with thousands of people online still nods to the wider cultural renaissance taking place in Black British music. Tunde believes that, really, fans couldn’t care less about an artist’s analytics. In his view, the lighthearted or comedic viral route to success can be short-lived. “While many afroswing/bashment/wave and pop artists intrigue me right now, time will tell which artists will grow and emerge on top of the pack in 2019. I believe that a lot of the artists who have thrived simply off of hype in the past year will now be tasked to prove themselves.”
The nature of afropop of late, however, leans towards singles, remixes and maybe EPs. For example, Not3s has yet to release an official album, despite having two mixtapes under his belt. “Addison Lee,” and “My Lover” did the necessary work, with the latter peaking at number 14 on the UK Charts. The issue with a lack of afropop studio albums is that, in time, and when we come to look back on this moment, there may not be a cohesive long-play canon to refer to. If Common Sense by J Hus is the standard, then what followed it may have been more like a playlist of singles by various artists, rather than a load of seminal albums.
The work of producers like JAE5 and Juls undeniably plays a role too. Critics of the cluster of afrobeats subgenres often say that it ‘all sounds the same,’ pointing to the lilting xylophone-like sample stacked in the backbone of most song melodies. But as long as producers stay innovative, that doesn’t have to spell disaster. Unlike UK funky a decade ago – a hybrid of grime and funky house that didn’t chart too well, besides a few hits like “Migraine Skank” – afropop has found a place in the British charts for a core audience that makes up less than 10 percent of the country’s population.
You could argue that pure pop acts like Lily Allen, who featured on Burna Boy’s “Heaven’s Gate” and has recently played with afroswing-inspired sounds, may see the subgenres as momentary. But for the Black artists who likely grew up listening to D’banj or Fuse ODG, it’s more lasting. “Artists like Afro B have been taken themselves global. You don’t come out at a Wizkid show in New York and have him jump on the remix of your song and the biggest song of the summer and people not acknowledge the power of the genre,” says Parris. “It can only get bigger – the pop element of it is what excites me most, because of how relatable this genre is to a whole generation of people.”
Tunde sounds more reticent, bringing up how easily afrobeats could lose its way if artists forget the specificity and nuance of its roots. “There is hardly any connection between Afrobeats music and the multitude of African pop and dancehall records being released today – aside from acts like Burna Boy, who regularly infuse elements of Afrobeat music within his records,” he tells me. “The lack of music education or veneration of African music history by creators results in confusion for everyone, especially in the western world. Now that many of the acts coming through have been signed to the majors, they’ll have both massive new opportunities and potentially more creative control to relinquish. 2019 will undoubtedly be a busy year for the UK afrobeats scene, though. And who knows what the “Oliver Twist” of the 2019 fireworks might be.
You can find Jesse on Twitter.