If any global sound is on the verge of blowing up in 2017, it’s the pan-African mélange known as afrobeats. Or, depending on who you ask, afropop, afrofusion or afropolitan – but not to be confused with political Fela Kuti-style afrobeat (singular), nor with any of the traditional music that has tended to find its way into the “world music” section of western music shops. Rather, this is simply pop music. Just as in the West, this means danceable, glamorous escapism preoccupied with love, money and all this entails – and driven by charismatic figureheads, ludicrously catchy hooks, and beats that happily purée a plethora of influences to make something vital and new.
In the West, we’re familiar with American and British producers whose spirit animal is the magpie, swooping over disparate styles to pick out the shiniest bits: think turn-of-the-century rap and R&B’s fondness for Bollywood samples, for example, or the way in which mainstream producers incorporated so much dubstep into their work that the entire genre ended up a mutant version of its original self.
Afrobeats artists work in much the same way, but the power structure is flipped. Since its inception roughly five years ago, the nascent genre has been happy to borrow the tropes of United States hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall or European house – but African sounds from Ghanaian highlife to South African kwaito have always been at its heart, and its primary audience and perspective has always been firmly African.
Even this year, with overseas interest brewing, Yemi Alade – one of Nigeria’s biggest singers – chose to deliver an album statement that re-emphasised her commitment to a pan-African aesthetic rather than follow western trends.
Bar a handful of hits – D’Banj’s Oliver Twist in 2012 and Fuse ODG’s Antenna two years later – afrobeats as a scene in the West has been nurtured by the global African diaspora rather than any crossover audience. There’s both an irony and inevitability that the vehicle for change here has been notorious culture vulture Drake, a man whose try-hard attempts to fit in with the Jamaican dancehall and British grime scenes have become infamous on social media. His One Dance single may have been a pallid rework of a seven-year-old UK funky classic, but it still dominated the summer – and featured on it, albeit as a curiously mixed-down presence, was Nigerian superstar Wizkid. In September, Wizkid announced a seven-figure record deal with RCA – joining fellow Nigerian artists Davido and Tiwa Savage under the Sony umbrella in the West.
But separately, afrobeats’ presence has continued to extend in several separate directions. The power line between Lagos and Kingston has long been evident, with the Jamaican “singjay” vocal style – a fusion of singing and MCing – a heavy influence on several Nigerian artists. Most prominent is Patoranking, who has long sold himself as an afro-reggae singer. This year saw the release of his debut album God Over Everything, complete with features from dancehall stars Elephant Man and Konshens, but most inescapable was his turn on Krishane’s aching, aqueous Inconsiderate.
Elsewhere, a less-direct link came with the release of the rambunctious bashment of the Skelewu Riddim, the basis of hits such as Spice’s Indicator and named after Davido’s 2013 single of the same name. There was no actual sonic connection, bar a common commitment to percussive energy, but it was more evidence that Caribbean and African artists are operating in overlapping spheres.
The concept of afro-bashment, meanwhile, has also been finding separate traction in Britain. In 2015, East London rapper J Hus broke through with Dem Boy Paigon, a hybrid of grime and afrobeats that reflected his Gambian heritage and, with industry support from Capital XTRA’s resident afrobeats DJ, Abrantee, a wave of artists is picking up J Hus’s baton.
North London’s MoStack and the Belly Squad crew both temper the aggression of UK road rap with melodic choruses and unmistakeably African rhythms, while the UK-based Ghanaian duo Kwamz & Flava – fresh off their irresistible Take Over single – signed to Rudimental’s Black Butter label, the imprint that spearheaded the return of urban dance to the British charts in 2012-13. (It’s no surprise that this lineage can be traced back, via UK funky, to the type of soulful house also present in the DNA of South African club music.)
Meanwhile, the Iray MVMT collective, and Dutch-born singer Jaij Hollands – their biggest potential breakout star whose Pinga single was remixed by afrobeats star Stonebwoy in 2015 – bring a specifically Ghanaian element to this nascent scene.
Afrobeats may be an increasingly widespread musical lingua franca, but the importance of a shared actual language is also crucial. In 2014, Nigeria’s first lady of afrobeats, Yemi Alade re-recorded her domestic hit Johnny in French for the African Francophone market, only to find herself with an unexpected breakthrough in France as well.
This year, Cameroonian artists such as rapper Franko and singer Reniss have excelled: the former’s Coller La Petite has become one of the scene’s biggest dancefloor anthems, in part thanks to cosigns from French footballers such as Didier Drogba, while the latter’s La Sauce is a thoroughly modern update of the traditional Cameroonian bikutsi sound, dizzying polyrhythms topped with Reniss’s irrepressible exhortations.
From Paris to Atlanta and London to Jamaica, it’s increasingly clear from afrobeats’ overseas influence that it’s on its way to becoming one of the most exciting global genres. But the heart of its ever-mutating innovation is at home.
Wizkid and Davido may have made the furthest inroads into the western music industry, but 2016 was relatively quiet in terms of music: the former’s third album and the latter’s second remain works in progress, though Davido’s low-key Son Of Mercy EP in September was noteworthy for How Long, a laconic duet with American R&B star-in-waiting Tinashe. But it’s always the sign of a genre’s health when artists below the A-list are consistently able to bring the heat, such as Nigerian sisters ShiiKane, whose yearning harmonies were paired with revolutionary imagery in their Loke video.
The amount of pan-African sounds encompassed by the afrobeats umbrella means that hits are constantly emerging from different directions, not just the Nigerian and South African powerhouses: one of 2016’s finest singles was Tanzanian rapper AY’s tumbling, stop-start Zigo (Remix).
Producers such as Young John, with his trademark birdsong synths, and Tekno, whose Pana was a brilliant blend of US trap rhythms with delicate acoustic details, are crafting beats as strange and boundary-pushing as prime Neptunes and Timbaland. And in South Africa, kwaito house is mutating thanks to the syncopated rhythms of Durban subgenre gqom; this year its leading light, singer Babes Wodumo, released a bold debut album proclaiming herself Gqom Queen. Call it what you want: afrobeats is poised to take over from all sides in 2017.
Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Guardian and New Statesman.