African music's growing popularity

Shuffling and syncopated beats of modern African pop have found their way into hits such as Rihanna's Work and Alicia Keys' In Common


NEW YORK • For all of his inescapable hits in the past few years - Hotline Bling, Started From The Bottom, guesting on Rihanna's Work, to name a few - it was only in May that Drake finally topped the Billboard charts, with the bubbling, shuffling beat of One Dance.

And while he is known to assist rising stars such as Migos, on One Dance, he was the one who got a boost from singer Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun, better known as Wizkid.

All but unknown in the United States, Wizkid is a star in his native Nigeria and a major force behind Afrobeats, a fidgety musical hybrid mashing Afro-pop, Caribbean soca and American hip-hop (not to be confused with Afrobeat, the genre pioneered by Fela Kuti that has a heavier, more driving beat).

Nigeria has a long musical heritage, including Fela, King Sunny Ade and William Onyeabor. But in singing a verse on One Dance, Wizkid became the first Nigerian artist to land on the American charts as well as the first to top them.

It may be no anomaly.

Of course it's going to be an advantage for them too, to get their music out there. If you ask me, it goes both ways.

NIGERIA'S DAVIDO (above), on the musical exchanges between American and African artists

Along with Nigeria's Davido, South Africa's Black Coffee (who became the first South African to win Black Entertainment Television's BET Award in the US this year), Ghana's Sarkodie or Ayo Jay, African artists of all stripes might soon become permanent fixtures on both the American pop charts and in the dance music underground.

"Most music that comes out these days has our elements already in it, so why wouldn't the people love African music?" said Davido, whose real name is David Adedeji Adeleke.

The African superstar recently co-headlined alongside Wizkid at the One Africa Festival, a huge coming-out concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

The showcase included Ghana dance hall singer Stonebwoy and Fela's son Seun Kuti. There was also a strong Afro-Caribbean connection, as Nigerian singer Timaya was joined onstage by the Trinidadian King of Soca, Machel Montano.

Label it Afrobeats, tropical house or dance hall lite, but turn on the radio now and the shuffling, shimmering, deliciously weightless syncopated beat that underpins modern African pop bobs to the surface of any number of recent hits, such as Justin Bieber's What Do You Mean, Rihanna's Work and Alicia Keys' In Common.

When Keys performed her hit at the Democratic National Convention last month, it meant that Afrobeats had sneaked onto the national stage.

If you follow Keys on Instagram, you have already seen her shimmying poolside to Wizkid, so it seemed inevitable that she would absorb that sundress-light sound into her music. A 15-time Grammy winner, Keys also tapped South African producer Black Coffee to give In Common a Mbaqanga twist and she is now working with him on new music.

Her husband, hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, is also a fan and at One Africa, he joined Wizkid onstage. Together, they ran through Wizkid's playlist of Nigerian hits, as well as some of Beatz's biggest tracks, including Jay-Z's Onto The Next One and DMX's Party Up (Up In Here).

Even though Afrobeats is decidedly more nimble with its beats and breezy with its melodies than hip-hop's heavy-hitting meter, the two mixed effortlessly. The ritzy braggadocio of the latter carried across the ocean intact, with Wizkid's lines boasting about Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and that "my girl wear designer".

Outside of shows in giant sporting arenas, ambitious African music is also making inroads in the American and European underground.

South Africa's Culoe De Song, who caused a sensation in Berlin clubs when he dropped his first deep- house single, The Bright Forest in 2009, has been a fixture on the European club scene and at American festivals.

"The crowds in South Africa really enjoy the warm sound of house music and we have a big radio culture for house music there," he said. "In Europe, they have a huge clubbing culture that's not necessarily driven by the radio and the culture originates strictly from the underground and then goes outwards."

As tracks make ripples in Europe, attuned American DJs and dance fans pick up on it.

For De Song, the challenge is in straddling both worlds. On the eve of releasing his ambitious, 18-track, 90-minute concept album Washa (about a dystopian future world destroyed by pollution and greed but redeemed by music), he had just played a well-received set at a superclub in Ibiza.

Platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat also allow for exchanges between cultures. Before Timaya took the stage, the One Africa Festival emcee said he might be recognised from appearing on Rihanna's Instagram.

Meanwhile, Rihanna, a fan of Timaya's, absorbs some of that African flavour in her own music.

As American mainstream success beckons these African artists, more tantalising are the collaborations with artists that introduce both sides to millions of new fans.

For Davido, that means co-signs from Meek Mill and Major Lazer, or Wizkid recently announcing that he was in the studio with Sean Paul.

As African artists make inroads in the American market, American artists with whom they record songs will get more play in Africa.

"Of course it's going to be an advantage for them too, to get their music out there," Davido said. "If you ask me, it goes both ways."

Someday soon, African and American audiences might all groove to one dance.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'African music's growing popularity'. Print Edition | Subscribe