As American Hip Hop became more and more popular in the late 90s and exploded in the noughties, young Africans in the diaspora found Beyoncé more attractive than M’Bilia Bel. But things have changed!
Turn on your urban radio station right now and within 30 minutes, you are likely to listen to an Afrobeats. “Afrobeats” as opposed to “Afrobeat” (1970 genre invented by Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti) is a music phenomenon that exploded in 2012. And frankly, 7 years later, I believe it is long overdue. African immigration is not new to the United Kingdom and yet, France and Belgium in particular, have always been at the forefront when it came to promoting African music.
“ Africans in the UK seemed to identify with their Caribbean cousins more than their brothers in the motherland. One can question the reason for this. Was it a sense of sharing a common British culture? Or was it a lack of self-identity?”
As early as 1999, Bisso Na Bisso, a conglomerate of French rappers with a Congolese heritage, released RACINES (Roots) to celebrate their African-ness. That album successfully blended Rap and RNB to classic African rhythms and melodies to spearhead a movement that many followed in the Francophone and Lusophone diaspora community. Bisso Na Bisso looked to Africa for inspiration. The lyrical content equally addressed the woes of being black in Europe as well as la joie de vivre typical to Africans.
Around the same time, Africans in the UK seemed to identify with their Caribbean cousins more than their brothers in the motherland. One can question the reason for this. Was it a sense of sharing a common British culture? Or was it a lack of self-identity? When a place is depicted as a “dark” continent rife with tribal wars, petty crime and abject poverty, you wouldn’t claim to hail from there or want to be associated with negativity, would you? Fair enough. So what did a Malian or Senegalese parent teach their kids that a Ghanaian or Nigerian parent didn’t? As far as West Africa is concerned, there seemed to be a contrasting mentality between French and British colonies. While one promoted integration, the other one encouraged autonomy.
African Music and Acquired and Exotic Taste
This could explain why African music thrived in Paris in the 80s and 90s while London presented the genre as something exotic, an acquired taste for a certain class of the society. Those records were hard to find and seemed to only be played amongst students or post-hippies. Never among the Caribbean community who had a problem understanding the language and missed out on feeling the beautiful melodies and intricate guitar plays.
As American Hip Hop became more and more popular in the late 90s and exploded in the noughties, young Africans in the diaspora found Beyoncé more attractive than M’Bilia Bel. African music was always music their dads and uncles played at parties but they couldn’t identify with it unless it was mainstream (Mory Kante’s Yeke Yeke, for example). To also be hip as a black man, one would rather be heard playing Reggae than Makossa. Lucky Dube could pass from a dude from Kingston and he was definitely cooler than Kanda Bongo Man!
When I moved to the UK in winter 2000s, I struggled to relate musically to the fast paced sound of Garage or Drum-N-Bass. As a Hip Hop fan, the polished sound of Roots Manuva (especially Run come save me album) was somehow westernized and too electronical to my taste. I started to look for some obvious influence of African culture within the urban music scene and couldn’t find any. After I moved to Nottingham, my ideas to blend what I grew up listening to (Congolese Rumba) with Hip Hop RNB, fell in deaf ears. I was misunderstood. No one wanted to do what I felt was the next step in British Urban music: Afro Hip Hop.
I became a DJ to scratch an itch that wouldn’t go away: sharing popular music from the motherland with like-minded individuals. I was lucky enough to have found a platform through a new local radio station and was able to champion the sounds of Africa, from Cairo to Johannesburg. It’s around that time that I heard Skepta’s Sweet Mother (2007) and thought to myself, this is only the beginning.
It will take a Ghanaian boy from Mitcham to take it global
As the cost of travelling to Africa became affordable for most families and advancement in telecommunications reduced the distance between relatives, young Africans discovered a land that was beautiful and had much to offer. They saw nothing that was shown on TV and their minds were opened. They embraced the culture of their parents with open arms. They started to learn the language and the culture. They brought it back with them. Freshly settled immigrants shared stories that injected a new dynamism in their heritage.
For me, current African music conquered the West when 2Face song’s My African queen appeared in a movie soundtrack in 2006. His success inspired more Nigerian artists to travel back home, build a fan base and come back to conquer Europe. When D Banj’s Oliver Twist was played during the 2011 New Year’s Eve fireworks display on BBC1, I knew that the genre has become mainstream. It will take a Ghanaian boy from Mitcham to take it global with Antenna and announcing that This Is New Africa. The summer of 2012 saw the true explosion of the musical genre powers that be shamelessly and lazily dubbed AFRO BEATS.
But African music is more than just Afro Beats. How do you call a music that has South Africa’s House elements mixed with Kizomba cadence, sang in Lingala (language spoken in the Congos) and performed by an Egyptian/Sudanese songstress? The UK is complex like that. That multicultural is beautiful and yet it remains a mystery for most because they have not bothered to learn about their neighbour’s history. And that is probably why it took so many years for British Urban music to go Afro.
Is Wizkid the poster child for Afrobeats?
Where do we go from here? The lines have been blurred between Dancehall and Afrobeats. Even Drake, arguably one of the most influential musicians of recent years, recorded Afro Beats songs (listen to More Life). The collaboration between Jamaican artists and African artists, especially in the UK, means that the genre might just be a fad like similar genres (remember Funky House?) When you think Salsa, you hear Spanish and you picture gracefully executed dance steps. There are still new Afro Cuban music artists releasing singles or albums. Can we say the same for Afrobeats 5 years from now? Craig David was the poster child for Garage. Is Wizkid the poster child for Afrobeats?
The UK African music scene has always gone through phases the same way the urban scene has. It is a shame that few pioneers of those waves ever cement their status or maintain a strong loyal fan base. They all come and go, like fashion. They mark one area (Sheffield with Niche or bassline) or country (Azonto for Ghana) to reach nationwide appeal and die out in favour of a new vogue. What I would love to see is a bona fide group of artists that stand the test of time rather than the current myriad of one-hit wonders that would be forgotten the time it takes to warm up a bowl of cereals.
When are we going to have true African music bands? An artist or a band that genuinely transcends generations and trends. One who can earn the respect of his peers and enjoy mass appeal the same way Sade does. They ought to be celebrated. The world is changing. We are becoming more and more mixed and with that cultural mosaic, a new universal sound is being architected. Imagine a Rumba Reggae Rock message of peace and harmony sang beautifully by a Welsh-Zulu Bajan Bengali rapper from Didcot! This is the future of UK Urban music.