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Retrospection of Dance Music: The Problem With the Name, Afrobeats

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Contemporary Nigerian Popular Music is a mouthful but it does justice to the description of the new wave of dance music that grew into its own less than a decade ago. The journey of this sound is one that has been told before: of a renaissance that began after more than a decade of cultural anomie occasioned by despotic military rule; of musicians taking their register, style and couture out of American Hip-Hop music at the turn of the new millennium; of the influence of cultural entrepreneurs like the duo Keke Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye, both creative directors at Kennis Music, the record label that drove this new imitative sound towards self-discovery.

Those who remember the euphoria of the new millennium and democratic rule in Nigeria will also remember the reign of private broadcasting corporations. Africa Independent Television and RayPower FM both owned by Raymond Dokpesi were at the forefront of pushing both audio and video components of this new dance music back then.  This cultural evangelism – for the lack of a better phrase, inadvertently led to the production of some evergreen classics, among which are Paul Play Dairo’s Happy Day album, TuFace’s Face to Face and a slew of singles by notable musicians like Remedies, Azeezat, Azadus, Plantashun Boys, Artquake and so forth.

At this point, this music played a supplementary role, an alternative or filler for the well-loved American Hip Hop music of R. Kelly, Aaliyah, Timbaland, DMX which ruled both radio and television air waves. When these American pop-stars began to tour Nigeria, our indigenous musicians were the opening acts at their concerts. Contemporary Nigerian music, at the time, neither had name nor prestige.  It was loosely called Naija music or Naija pop or Naija Hip-Hop music. Perhaps the last term ‘Naija Hip-Hop’ was the most appropriate, as the music back then was majorly a reflection of American Hip-Hop influences.

Many years down the line, this music would find its footing in African roots. The exact instance of this shift is not known but the timing is circa mid-2000s. The proponents of this indigenization of Nigerian dance music were musicians and producers on the roster of Mo Hits Records. It was also at their instance that this contemporary dance music began to break new grounds in finding western audience. D’Banj’s massive radio single, Oliver Twist, summarily conquered Europe and probably pointed him in the direction of seeking an international following.

Whenever an African cultural export finds its way into the West, it must report itself for branding. Contemporary Nigerian Popular Music is a mouthful label; it is neither trendy, nor is it exciting. It had to be replaced with something more convincing and apt. Enter London-based Ghanaian DJ Abrantee who lends the music the term, AFROBEATS. What DJ Abrantee seemed to have done appears ingenious: to add a single letter suffix to the already popular Afrobeat term easily recognisable by a Western audience. By bringing an ‘s’ to the established Afrobeat, he also brought in the legacy of Afrobeat no matter how tedious the journey to that legacy was. He also suggested its heterogeneous tendency by expressing it in plural form.

The term Afrobeats has become the de facto nomenclature for our music in the West. Even local critics and artistes have taken a liking to the term. While it is difficult to understand the appeal of this term, it is also important to expose its simplistic, patronizing and deceptive tendencies. It brings to mind World Music, a well-behaved short form for Third World Music, a division that subsumed all music coming out of Third World Countries. Of course, this must have felt like a triumph, a pragmatic problem solving term that subsumes all music produced from this region into a big box without taking to account the subtleties of the sound and the cultural importance of this music.  

Legends like Youssou N’Dour, Mariam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, Don Maraya Jos and Salif Keita belong in this particular box. How easy was it to strip them of their cultural differences and sophistication while forcing them to wear this label ‘World Music’ on their sleeves?

The fate of ‘Afrobeats’ is a bit more sinister. The seemingly onomatopoeic term sits at the crossroads, that proverbial place that confuses the unfamiliar. It is old knowledge that the maestro Fela was not favourably disposed to his music being called Afrobeat, even if he was arguably the pioneer of this sound. He preferred the grandiose and self-explanatory, African Classical Music. Yet, every listener worth his salt is aware that the music pushed out by Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun Anikulapo-Kuti, Chicago Afrobeat Project  and the Chilean band Newen is nothing like Wizkid and Davido’s sound. Perhaps it is more fitting to reserve the term ‘Afrobeats’ to capture the subtleties of  these different musicians and bands that have taken the baton from Fela and his peers to a different place of artistic accomplishment.

Instead the term Afrobeats is borrowed to describe that digital dance music with strong elements of percussion and sparse lyrics, drawing influences from more traditional forms of African music as well as from Hip-Hop and the Caribbean Soca and Dancehall. Unfortunately, it appears this term Afrobeats has come to stay, regardless of this belated objection.

Afrobeats is currently enjoying its moment of worldwide curiosity and we cannot tell how long this curiosity is going to last. Perhaps it may last longer that the American appeal for Soca music or shorter than the world’s appeal for Reggae.

Regardless of the fate of our music in the hands of a secondary and foreign audience, I denounce the term, Afrobeats.

Music Critic. Dancer. Poet

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