Who owns Afrobeats?

Does Afrobeats come from the continent or the diaspora. This reviewer of a new book on the genre's history and rapid takeover of our airwaves and playlists, argues we need to center Africa more.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash.

Over the last decade musical acts grouped under the Afrobeats banner have built a distinctive musical movement of remarkable reach. With artists from Ghana and Nigeria enjoying unprecedented popularity on the world stage, Afrobeats brims with significance as a watershed for Africa’s place in global pop, with the likes of Burna Boy in the same league as Bad Bunny. For some, Afrobeats feels like a homecoming, a new platform for Africans in the modern musical mainstream. As an industrial force, it is quickly becoming the envy of more established brands like Jamaican dancehall. Christian Adofo’s book, A Quick Ting on Afrobeats (Jacaranda 2022), attempts to narrate this development, mixing a personal archive of listening and dancing in African communities with a journalistic account of particular players in the Afrobeats story. While it sometimes falters in focus and falls prey to boosterism, the book bears vivid witness to the importance of Afrobeats for a generation of listeners, especially for Africans in diaspora.

At base, the story of Afrobeats, and the personal context that Adofo weaves into the book, is about the power of representation: about seeing and hearing African artists being themselves in the world, and therefore feeling seen and heard too. “For the children of African migrants who are fluent in their mother tongue,” Adofo argues, “Afrobeats presents a powerful space.” In this telling, however, the inspiring pan-African character of Afrobeats threatens to eclipse the music’s Afro-diasporic history. Adofo doesn’t exactly neglect the importance of the UK as a foundational site for Afrobeats or the ways it has been shaped by Afro-Caribbean and broader diasporic currents. Indeed, he grounds the book in his own experience as an African living in the UK to underscore the significance of Afrobeats to the children of African migrants there, who no longer feel the need to pretend to be “West Indian,” as the author recounts.

But the book’s substantial attention to earlier examples of African popular music—Afrobeat (with no ‘s’), Highlife, Hiplife, South African pop and jazz—suggests that we should situate Afrobeats more directly in continental currents than diasporic contexts. Likewise, a lengthy chapter on “Wxmen [sic] in Afrobeats” devotes the first two-thirds to artists who far predate the movement. Miriam Makeba is a legend, but does she require several pages in this Quick Ting? On one hand, this is crucial context, especially for the inter-generational shaping of taste and consensus around “the sound of Africa,” which no doubt informs the reception of Afrobeats. On the other, Adofo’s focus on earlier waves of African pop undermines an appreciation of Afrobeats’ actual moment and context of emergence—and perhaps underplays how this momentous cultural turn relates to demographic shifts (the larger number of Africans, vis-a-vis Afro-Caribbeans, living in the UK) and other material factors. For all their importance to generations of listeners, especially for continental and diasporic Africans, these cherished styles and artists are arguably less important as musical predecessors to Afrobeats than certain Caribbean and UK-based genres. Eventually we read that Afrobeats “emerged from multiple Black subcultures,” and that “London played a relatively significant role,” but these facts get buried in the text.

Readers don’t get a good sense of the pivotal importance of UK Funky, for instance, until halfway into the book, and there is little mention of the ways that Jamaican reggae and Cuban clave still echo across nearly every Afrobeat production. A narrative that paid greater attention to dancehall, hip-hop, and Black British dance music could better explain why Afrobeats emerged when it did, why it sounds the way it does, and why that is so significant. Ultimately, a sense of what Afrobeats actually sounds like—and how that compares to currents in the longer history of African pop—fails to emerge, and this lack of musical precision muddies the waters further. Describing a particular artist’s sound as “a fusion of dancehall and Afrobeats,” for instance, is sort of like describing a sandwich spread as a blend of chocolate and Nutella, while calling Burna Boy “an artist who fused African sonics with Caribbean musical style” starts to read like backhanded erasure.

Similarly, sifting Afro-swing, Afro-bashment, and “Afro-fusion” from Afrobeats in the penultimate chapter hardly produces greater clarity. Given all the debates around “Wot U Call It?”—to invoke a slightly earlier moment in the branding of Black British culture—I would have preferred for Adofo to take a position on these questions of nomenclature and what they reveal. I also would have liked Chapter 9 (“Afrobeats (Yes, With An S)”), which explicitly addresses the genre’s name and its meanings, to appear far earlier in the book. In this light, other odd inclusions and omissions stand out. There is a fair amount of attention to the gospel industry in Nigeria and Ghana, though these countries’ local dancehall and hip-hop scenes seem more directly pertinent to Afrobeats. And there’s little discussion of how African popular music has been circulating and mutating in the Francophone and Lusophone worlds alongside Anglophone and African-language contemporaries—no mention of coupe decale, say, before the book’s final pages, and hardly a word about amapiano or other South African styles circulating in London and elsewhere alongside and amidst Afrobeats.

Despite these critiques, the book has commendable qualities. Chapter 7, on dance crazes as a crucial vector for Afrobeats in the age of social media—from UK Funky “skanks” to #hashtag challenges on TikTok, and from Azonto to Skelewu—serves to ground Afrobeats-era dance both in its historical and technological moment and in forms of traditional West African movement. The chapter includes a contemporary canon of hallmark dances and songs that stand as a loose chronology of the emergence of this new musical identity. Other important points also surface, such as the importance of the internet in facilitating a global circulation of a newly emplaced (if displaced) sense of Africanness, thus marking the historical specificity of Afrobeats as a 21st-century soundtrack for diasporic and continental structures of feeling. Similarly, Adofo situates Afrobeats in reference to recent changes in UK demographics, citing a recent study that found “the Black African population in England and Wales was almost a million larger than Black Caribbean and other Black groups combined.” This supports and historicizes Adofo’s contention that “being Black and British is no longer solely focused on the cultural impact of the Caribbean islands,” and that “London is the home of Afrobeats outside Africa.”

The question of whether London is simply a home-away-from-home for Afrobeats, or the site where the movement actually comes into being, looms large over this text and the broader conversation about Afrobeats. At a time when debates rage over who gets to participate in an increasingly lucrative movement (e.g., not white Americans), the stakes are admittedly high. But aside from questions of origins and ownership—if those can be set aside—the big takeaway from A Quick Ting on Afrobeats is that African sounds and artists are embedded in the UK and global mainstream in a new, exciting, and important way.

As a platform, Afrobeats offers African artists and audiences a new sense of self-determination, and an opportunity to shed longstanding stigma. While the book seems to waver in its assessment of Afrobeats as symbolizing a fundamentally diasporic process or a continental continuity, it is hard to imagine telling the story of this music and its significance without centering Africa.

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