Read on for our essential guide to the genre-blending music that’s making it big out of Nigeria.In 2011, a 21-year-old Nigerian artist named Ayo Balogun released his debut album, Superstar. In it, the young Wizkid tried everything – rapping and singing, with and without Auto-tune, over all types of beats. The cuts that hit a nerve however, Don’t Dull and Pakuromo, combined a variety of musical styles, lyrical switches between English, Pidgin and Yoruba and a swagger-laden rhythm that made the tunes incredibly danceable.While Wizkid wasn’t the first to make music with this mash up approach, nor the first to gain international recognition for it, he saw the long game and his album title proved to be prophetic. Rather than trying to mimic or Africanise global pop, R&B and hip-hop, Wizkid and a cohort of other Nigerian titans, including Davidoand Tiwa Savage, used their uncanny ear for melody and polyrhythmic sensibilities to dance along the margins of several genres, never quite sounding too much like R&B, hip-hop, dancehall or traditional music, but definitely feeling new and exciting.
This sound has commonly been referred to as Afrobeats, a name coined by Ghanaian-British radio host Abrantee in 2011, as the fresh wave of music from the continent was gaining currency in the UK underground. Over the past few years, though, artists within this sonic sphere have begun to distance themselves from the term, given its incorrect association with the Afrobeat movement started by Fela Kuti in the 1970s.Outside of sharing Nigerian heritage, the 21st Century sound’s emphasis on joyful lyrics and groovy vibes is worlds away from the social consciousness Kuti awakened. Kuti’s righthand man, percussionist Tony Allen, balked at any connection between the two styles and Davido served it straight in a 2017 interview, when he noted, “There’s so much going in Africa, the last thing people want to hear is sad music.”Where Fela Kuti’s music functioned to wake Nigerians up, making them aware of the injustices around them, the younger generation is shaking up the outside world’s perceptions of Africa, alerting them to the continent’s abundant beauty, joy and, most importantly, impeccable style.But if Afrobeats as a term doesn’t serve the style, what can we call it? With its constant genre-blending and reinvention, the most accurate term to describe the wave of music flowing out of Nigeria and Ghana is Afropop. While specific artists have chosen their own titles – Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy have referred to their sound as Afrofusion, while Mr Eazi prefers the more idiosyncratic Banku Music to emphasize the influence that Ghana has had on him as an artist – at the end of the day they can all agree that they are making popular music. Together, these artists have carved out a space for Africa on the global music stage by refusing to be bound by any one genre.Technological advancements on the continent have also played a role in Afropop’s success over the past decade. The spread of Afropop into the diaspora – and in effect, the global psyche – coincided with the rise of the internet and smartphone use in West Africa. Social media access across the Black Atlantic linked the diaspora and Africa in a way that’s never before been seen. The type of cultural exchange that used to require a trip to another country or imported tapes and CDs, suddenly became possible via a quick upload on YouTube or a WhatsApp message.Even so, that correlation doesn’t quite capture the milestones Afropop has accomplished in just the past two years. The most streamed song of 2016 was Drake’s One Dance, which featured contributions from Wizkid and South African producer DJ Maphorisa; between 2016 and 2018 the genre’s biggest stars were scooped up by the some of the world’s most influential labels (Roc Nation, RCA, Mad Decent) and have all been booked for major international festival stages; and this year Wizkid became the first African artist to walk a Dolce & Gabbana runway – and he did it to his hit track Soco. The exponential rise of Afropop is due in no small part to the risks its artists took to find the right sonic blend that held true to both the musical references they were born into, and the influences they were raised with. The following guide traces the beginnings of the sound from its foundational early stars to its innovative global future.
In the late 1990s, pan-African music television was dominated by South African network Channel O, which in effect meant that the majority of African tunes breaking across the continent came from South Africa. When MTV Base Africa launched in 2005, it carved out a space for other countries to be showcased, and West African artists – most often Nigerian – were some of the first to benefit.Moving away from the older styles of highlife and Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, young Nigerian artists were focused on building up a new sonic export in the form of hip-hop and R&B. Rappers like Ghana’s MI Abaga, Naeto C and Sarkodie were making waves as skillful lyricists with production that matched their western idols. But while their local fan bases grew, in the broader hip-hop market, language barriers stagnated crossover appeal.Placing higher emphasis on the sound over the lyrics, the road to pan-African success was much clearer for R&B artists. In 2004, one of the first major hits to break was Nigerian music industry veteran 2Baba‘s effortless ballad, African Queen. Formerly known as 2face Idibia, 2Baba’s raspy vocals and sappy yet endearing lyrics were a major boost for Nigerian pop, with the song even earning a placement in the 2006 American romantic comedy Phat Girlz. Though the film didn’t fare well, the song flourished, bolstering the profile of Nigerian pop.
Around the same time, two twin brothers from Jos with a penchant for Michael Jackson were climbing up the Nigerian charts. Called P-Square, they followed the R&B pop formats popularised by the likes of early 2000s Usher, with precise choreography to boot. While their first album, 2003’s Last Nite, followed that format pretty strictly, by their third album Game Over in 2007, the brothers had began incorporating more Nigerian rhythms and melodies, tapping into the Afropop sound that would fuel the rest of their career. The album’s bright and bouncy single No One Like You would go on to service many a wedding reception dancefloor across the continent and diaspora, but it was the sleek bop Do Me that solidified the twins as Afropop stars.
Flowing easily between Pidgin and English, their sexually-charged lyrics over a dancehall-influenced beat proved to be exactly what young Africans around the world were looking for in a pop artist, and P-Square’s success inspired other artists who’d previously pursued more niche sounds to hop on the Afropop wave.For example, FlavourN’abania, a Nigerian artist known for his modern take on Igbo highlife, scored a major crossover hit with 2010’s Nwa Baby (Ashawo Remix), a rework of his 2005 track Nwa Baby, which is itself a cover of Cardinal Rex Lawson’s highlife hit Sawale. While the 2005 version paid respectful homage to the original, the 2010 remix brought it into the future with a pounding dembow-flavored beat accompanied by bouncy flutes and synths, sprinkled with adlibs in patois and Pidgin. It proved that the music of past generations wasn’t just for family functions and dusty shelves, but would provide the foundation for an invigorating new sound.
By the beginning of 2011, Nigerian Afropop had launched veritable stars who were scoring massive hits across the continent, and the world soon began to take note. Seeing P-Square’s rapid rise, Senegalese-American rapper Akon hopped on one of their biggest songs, Chop My Money. That same year the brothers scored another American rap feature when Rick Ross performed on the remix of Beautiful Onyinye.While these features made an impact on the continent and within diaspora communities in Europe and the United States, they struggled to break into international pop. It wasn’t until D’banj, an exuberant vocalist known for his humorous playboy personality and over-the-top performances, struck gold in the summer of 2011 with Oliver Twist that the gatekeepers of the global pop market began to play closer attention to what was coming out of West Africa. The track’s irresistible bassline and cheeky lyrics spread like wildfire, all the way to the number two spot on the UK R&B charts. A major milestone in Afropop’s growth, global appreciation for the track culminated in D’banj getting signed to GOOD Music.While the Kanye West affiliation didn’t produce more than a few features and video cameos over D’banj’s five-year run with the label, it ignited a flame in a new generation of aspiring Afropop artists, proving that if they could perfect their take on the sound, the world would also open up to them.
Afropop to the world
If there’s a golden era of Afropop, it likely began in 2014 with the release of Wizkid’s Ojuelegba. Produced by his frequent collaborators Legendury Beatz, the heartfelt mid-tempo chords, which featured a soft sample of Dr. Dre‘s Nuthin’ But A G Thang, perfectly evoked the personal message of the song. Named after the working-class neighborhood of Lagos that Wizkid grew up in, the song is an ode to his humble beginnings and an expression of gratitude for how far he’s come.The track and video find Wizkid at his most vulnerable, as he swaps out his standard flashy visuals for a somber ride through the neighborhood on public means. Instead of the usual designer name-dropping, he opts for references to the people and places that paved the way for his come up. Ojuelegba eventually caught the ear of British-Nigerian grime mainstay Skepta, who shared it with Drake. A remix featuring all three artists followed, and while it’s arguably not as good as the original, the highly influential cosign exposed the genre to a whole new set of ears ready to embrace it.
While Afropop has been primarily dominated by men, artists like Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade have paved the way for women to take centerstage with their own personal takes on the genre. Savage, who signed with Roc Nation in 2016, got her start as an R&B songwriter in Los Angeles until her 2010 breakout hit Kele Kele Loveestablished her in the Nigerian music scene. Her brand of Afropop has an R&B core, as demonstrated in the soulful vocals and smooth harmonies of her 2017 EP, Sugarcane. Yemi Alade, on the other hand, took a more Pan-African approach to Afropop, singing versions of her songs in Swahili and French to appeal to wider audiences.
Adding to the mix is self-proclaimed Afrofusion artist Burna Boy. His dips into dancehall, house and hip-hop produced one of the most sonically diverse yet cohesive Afropop albums of 2018. On Outside he masterfully weaves together his various influences, from the patois-inflected Ph City Vibration to the traditional drums in Koni Baje, both of which celebrate his cultural upbringing as a Yoruba boy in a highly globalized world.In a similar vein, Mr Eazi has redirected the pop wave, stripping it down to its essentials. The slower tempo and laidback vocals of his breakthrough single, Skin Tight, produced by Ghanaian producer Juls and featuring Ghanaian vocalist Efya, have become Eazi’s signature. Oozing an irresistible sense of chill, his music has shifted the genre once again, and prompted other artists to try and hop on his mellowed out vibe.
When it comes to the cultural exchange between Afropop and the other musical styles on the continent, the conversation has been dominated by the growing influence of South African house. Many have briefly experimented with the sound, including Davido in his 2014 release Tchelete, a collaboration with South African duo Mafikizolo as well as rising vocalist Niniola, who came into the spotlight with her 2017 hit Maradona. But the South African sound has also found a more permanent home in the tenacious street anthems of artists like Olamide, particularly in his 2017 standout Wo!!, and in newcomer Mr. Real‘s breakout hit Legbebe. Trading the lush, high-class surroundings of typical Afropop videos for murram roads, large street posses and grit, these artists are writing yet another chapter in Afropop’s constant evolution.
The diaspora rises
As the names of Nigerian and Ghanaian artists became more widely recognised outside of Africa, artists of the diaspora began working to perfect their own specific sonic blend, using Afropop as their inspiration.In the early 2010s, as the West African genre picked up speed in the UK underground, African influences began to creep into the sound of UK artists. As they’ve climbed the pop ladder, the likes of J Hus and Yxng Bane have expanded the reach of Afropop into the European mainstream. J Hus’s 2017 debut Common Sense, which reached the top 10 in the UK albums chart, was a hugely successful venture into the intersection of UK rap, bashment and Afropop, holding true to Hus’s roots as a London native of West African origin.Similarly, in Paris rapper MHD is spearheading a wave he coined Afro-trap, which more prominently features percussive elements reminiscent of Atlanta hip-hop alongside African instrumentation.Though collaborations between African and European artists have been happening for several years, it’s still unclear how Afropop will truly break in the United States. 2018 saw the release of two Afropop songs by American artists: Janet Jackson‘s Made for Now and Ciara’s Freak Me, which features Nigerian artist Tekno and heavily samples Tiwa Savage’s 2013 sleeper hit Before Nko. While an impressive feat for Afropop, the former lacks African representation and the latter lacks originality, which demonstrates that these experiments are perhaps just that, rather than a concerted effort to make the sound stick in North American pop. Nevertheless, in an increasingly globalised world, it’s impossible to ignore the growing influence of Afropop artists. For every lazy imitation, there are countless gems from Afropop artists so it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world is forced to catch up.