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More breakthroughs, less crossover: Afrobeats is here to stay, on its own terms

todayFebruary 16, 2024

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    More breakthroughs, less crossover: Afrobeats is here to stay, on its own terms NPR

Burna Boy (center) has been nominated for the Grammy award for best global music album in four of the last five years. This year, he was among the nominees for the inaugural best African music performance prize and was the first Afrobeats artist to perform on the Grammy prime time telecast.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Burna Boy (center) has been nominated for the Grammy award for best global music album in four of the last five years. This year, he was among the nominees for the inaugural best African music performance prize and was the first Afrobeats artist to perform on the Grammy prime time telecast. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Earlier this month, the Nigerian superstar Burna Boy made history as the first Afrobeats act to perform during the prime time, televised ceremony of the Grammy Awards. The singer graced the stage accompanied by R&B legend Brandy and rapper 21 Savage to perform his song “Sittin’ on Top of The World.” It was a fitting choice to usher in Afrobeats to music’s biggest night, considering the new heights the genre is reaching in America’s music industry.

In a new report on how U.S. and global listeners consumed music in 2023 compiled by Luminate Data, the evidence was clear: Global music — with Afrobeats and K-pop leading the way — is the fastest growing genre among both U.S. and global listeners, with on-demand streaming up 26.2% in the last year. And stateside musical institutions have started taking notice. The Recording Academy debuted a brand new category specifically to honor music from the continent: best African music performance.

From Burna Boy to Sade, King Sunny Ade to Miriam Makeba, African-born artists have been nominated and won Grammy Awards before — often in the best global music album category — but the creation of an entire category dedicated to the continent marks the new level of impact.

The award is a signal to American audiences that music by Africa’s new wave is not a niche, fad or trend — it’s a culture that’s here to stay. Though Afrobeats often gets used as an umbrella term to describe the musical phenomenon coming from the continent, the extent of the diversity of sounds underneath that catchall is what’s ensuring its longevity and its success stateside.

“We’ve been doing this for such a long time and it’s a long time coming.” Ayra Starr beams. “It’s a new game now.”

The 21-year-old Afropop singer reps Benin and Nigeria, and was one of five inaugural nominees in the category, along with Davido feat. Musa Keys, Tyla, Burna Boy and Asake & Olamide. “I’m so glad I’m part of the generation that is showing the world what Africa is,” the Sabi girl says via Zoom from her Lagos studio.

Her nominated song, “Rush,” which sits at 325 million Spotify streams and counting, signifies how African music is changing the American soundscape. The track blends elements of American pop culture she grew up on with the music of where she’s from.

“There’s some elements in here, in the beat, that are very ’80s pop, American pop, too. And then, there’s some elements in here — from the kicks to the snares and everything — [that are] very Afrobeats. When you hear the chords, the chords are very almost R&B-ish,” she says. “It translated so well internationally but at the same time, I wasn’t singing in English. It was a very African song.”

Heran Mamo, a hip-hop and R&B reporter at Billboard magazine, has been tracking the explosion over the past few years. As a child of Ethiopian immigrants, African music has been part of her life since she was born.

Mamo says even though Afrobeats artists have popped up on U.S. Billboard charts in recent years, it has mostly happened by collaborating with an established Western act. For example, Drake’s 2016 hit single “One Dance,” which featured the Nigerian star Wizkid, scored the Canadian rapper his first U.S No. 1 as a lead artist.

But chart appearances like that were few and far between. According to Mamo, that changed during the 2020 pandemic — when the world felt smaller and more connected by way of our phones — and in then 2021 — when we finally got back outside. She noticed African artists were impacting the U.S. in ways they never had before.

“It wasn’t until the song “Essence” [by] WizKid and Tems,” notes Mamo. “You couldn’t escape that summer without listening to that song.” The discovery of the track internationally was slow and steady, but once it hit, it became an anthem for the long-awaited return to the turn up. The single was commended as a cultural bridge for African music in the states. Rolling Stone awarded “Essence” the No. 1 song of the year in 2021, noting its staying power more than a year after its initial release.

After this, African acts were breaking through without crossing over: No need for changing languages or relying on a feature from an established American star. Now, African artists are regulars on the Billboard charts and festival lineups. In 2022 Billboard established a new chart to track Afrobeats hits in the U.S. Burna Boy, one of the emergent superstars, made history as the first African artist to sell out a U.S. stadium in 2023.

“He’s someone that I feel like his music translates so well because there are familiar elements to it that can draw you in but then the unfamiliar elements can excite you at the same time,” Mamo says, describing the hip-hop influences that Burna blends with his Afrobeats sounds.

She points out that newcomer Tyla, who took home the first-ever African music performance Grammy this year for her viral hit “Water,” fuses genres of her homeland in a similar fashion. The production of Tyla’s songs blend amapiano, a piano and percussion-heavy form of house that originated in South Africa, with elements of pop stars like Rihanna: “That’s very R&B, pop centric. But obviously with the log drums, the production is more amapiano-based.”

This mixing of traditional African drum patterns with contemporarystyles is one reason the music keeps growing. To Ayra Starr, this chemistry is a nod to the fact that Africa’s new generation grew up being exposed to both.

“The only time I would see a teenage pop star was… I had to watch Disney,” Starr says. “And it was not even Black pop star, there was no Black [pop stars] like me. And I remember, I was like, ‘I want to show African girls that we can do this, too. And I’m doing that. And it’s such a big deal for me and also for the people I’m inspiring.”

This renaissance is also changing the image of Africa along the way.

For so long people have, you know, negative images associated with Africa,” Mamo explains. “They think about poverty. They think about government corruption. And so what really made me happy about this explosion of African music, especially Afrobeats, is it was bringing a more positive image to the continent.”

But the new spotlight shines on a fraction of what Africa has to offer. This year’s Grammy nominations in the new African music performance category included artists from only three of the continent’s 54 countries.

“Harvey Mason Jr, who is the CEO of the Recording Academy, he says it takes time for them to really study the music and make sure, ‘OK, there is enough interest so that we can support to have a whole new additional category,'” Mamo explains. “The continent is too vast to be limited to one category.”

Africa currently has the youngest global population, and even with comparatively limited industry resources, youth culture — music included — has bloomed in all corners of the continent; “It’s not just Afrobeats but Afropop, Afrofusion, alté, amapiano, kizomba, Ethio-jazz, Ghanaian drill,” Mamo says.

Mamo is encouraged by the progress, but wants even more. She’s dreaming of one day covering “something like the African Grammys” in a similar fashion to the Latin Grammys. But Ayra Starr is using her Grammy nom as the battery in her back to think of even more limitless possibilities.

“I feel like the more we collaborate and the more we work together we’re going to bring up different sounds,” she says. “I feel like that’s where Afrobeats is going. Just collaborating with other African artists and making the genre bigger than any other genre in the world.”

Audio story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Audio story edited by Ciera Crawford

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Afrobeats music is everywhere right now. If you open up TikTok or turn on the radio, you may hear artists like Davido or Rema.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “CALM DOWN”)

REMA: (Rapping) Baby, calm down. Calm down. Girl, this your body e put my heart for lockdown, for lockdown (ph)…

KELLY: The Grammys recently debuted a new African music category, but critics say the development is behind the times for a genre that is taking over the world. NPR’s Sidney Madden reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF 66TH GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

BURNA BOY: (Rapping) We can go ahead and just head out and chill up in my villa…

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: At the 2024 Grammy Awards, Nigerian superstar Burna Boy made history as the first Afrobeats act to perform during the show. The singer graced the stage with R&B legend Brandy and rapper 21 Savage for his song, “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.”

(SOUNDBITE OF 66TH GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

BURNA BOY: Clap your hands.

BRANDY: (Singing) That I’m sitting – sitting on top of the world.

BURNA BOY: (Rapping) Feel my thug passion…

MADDEN: It was a fitting song choice for the ceremony. Last year, Luminate data reported that Afrobeats is the fastest-growing genre being listened to in the U.S. And this year, the recording academy debuted a whole new category dedicated to music from the continent – best African music performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYRA STARR: What’s up? I’m Ayra Starr, the one and only Sabi girl, celestial being – you know the vibe.

MADDEN: Twenty-one-year-old singer Ayra Starr is from Benin, in Nigeria. She was one of the seven nominees in the inaugural category for her song, “Rush.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUSH”)

AYRA STARR: (Singing) But e dey rush – e dey rush well, well, e be much. Na God dey make my tap, e dey rush (ph). The kind money we touch…

MADDEN: “Rush” is the type of song that signifies how African music is changing the American soundscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUSH”)

AYRA STARR: (Singing) No be hype, everybody dey crush (ph). There’s no dulling with us.

MADDEN: Heran Mamo, a staff writer at Billboard magazine, has been tracking this explosion over the past few years. But really, as a child of Ethiopian immigrants…

HERAN MAMO: African music has been part of my life basically since I was born.

MADDEN: Mamo says even though Afrobeats artists have popped up on U.S. charts in recent years, it was mostly by collaborating with an established Western act – think Drake’s 2016 hit, “One Dance” featuring Wizkid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ONE DANCE”)

DRAKE: (Rapping) That’s why I need a one dance. Got a Hennessy in my hand.

MADDEN: And even then, it was few and far between. According to Mamo, it was the 2020 pandemic, when the world felt more connected by way of our phones, and in 2021, when we finally started getting back outside, that she noticed African artists were impacting the U.S. in ways they never had before.

MAMO: It wasn’t until, you know, I would say, like, when “Essence” was popping up – the song by Wizkid and Tems.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ESSENCE”)

TEMS: (Singing) Only you fi hold my body (ph). You don’t need no other body.

WIZKID: (Rapping) Say na me dey mess up your mind, and da ne dey make you free up your mind (ph)…

MAMO: It was just so popular at all the different parties and clubs. You couldn’t escape that summer without listening to that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ESSENCE”)

WIZKID: (Rapping) Yeah we dey together yeah day and night (ph).

MADDEN: They were breaking through without crossing over. No need for changing languages or relying on a feature from an American.

Fast-forward to now, and they’re regulars on the Billboard charts. Some, like Burna Boy, have emerged as megastars.

MAMO: He’s someone that – I feel like his music translates well because it has that familiar elements to it that can draw you in, but then the unfamiliar elements can excite you at the same time.

MADDEN: And the same goes for Ayra Starr’s “Rush.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUSH”)

AYRA STARR: (Singing) Sabi girl no dey too like talk. Animals dey in human form (ph).

It translated so well internationally. But at the same time, I wasn’t singing in English – it is a very African song.

MADDEN: Ayra says her tracks work by blending American pop culture she grew up on with the sounds of where she’s from.

AYRA STARR: There are some elements you hear in the beat that are very, like, ’80s pop – American pop, too. And there are some elements you hear in the beat, from the kick to the snares, and everything – it’s very Afrobeats. But when you hear the chords, the chords are very, almost R&B-ish (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUSH”)

AYRA STARR: (Singing) Wan dey check if my tab e no rush. But e dey rush – e dey rush well, well, e be much (ph)…

MADDEN: South African newcomer Tyla, who ended up taking home the Grammy for her viral hit “Water,” fuses genres in a similar fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WATER”)

TYLA: (Singing) Make me sweat. Make me hotter. Make me lose my breath. Make me water.

MADDEN: Mixing traditional African drum patterns with contemporary styles like R&B is the reason the music keeps on growing, and it’s changing the perception of Africa along the way.

AYRA STARR: I’m so glad I’m a part of the generation that – showing the world what Africa is, you know? I feel like people have so much misconception about Africa, you know? I try, when people are like, oh, you have that in Africa? – like you.

MAMO: For so long, people have, you know, negative images associated with Africa. They think about poverty. They think about, you know, government corruption. And so what really made me happy about this explosion of African music, especially Afrobeats, was that it was bringing a more positive image to the continent.

MADDEN: But this spotlight – it shines on a fraction of what Africa has to offer. This year’s Grammy nominees repped (ph) only three countries out of 54.

MAMO: I think that the continent is too vast to be limited to one category.

MADDEN: One category to account for over a billion people is not nearly enough space for the diversity or the diaspora. Heran Mamo is encouraged by the progress but wants even more.

MAMO: So not just Afrobeats, but Afropop, Afrofusion, alte, amapiano, kizomba, Ethio-jazz, you know, Ghanaian drill – you name it.

MADDEN: So there are still a lot of genres that need to be recognized.

MAMO: I think having something like the African Grammys in a similar fashion to the Latin Grammys would be incredible.

MADDEN: But with this Grammy nom as the battery in her back, Ayra Starr says it’s a new game now.

AYRA STARR: I feel like the more we collaborate and the more we work together, we’re going to bring up more different sounds. And I feel like that’s where Afrobeats is going – just collaborating with other African artists and making the genre bigger than any other genre in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STABILITY”)

AYRA STARR: (Rapping) E n le oh. Greet everybody for here, oh. Padi jo shey shey pele oh. Mo ti so funwon tele oh (ph).

MADDEN: Sidney Madden, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STABILITY”)

AYRA STARR: (Rapping) I get belle oh (ph)… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Written by: NPR

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