Africa is cool.
Rewind back two decades earlier, and I would not boldly write that sentence. As a British-born Nigerian, I would be telling porkies if I wrote that I was always proud to be Nigerian. In fact, during my childhood, I did not even know what it meant to be Yoruba – only that it was a Nigerian ethnic group my parents were part of. Back then, I considered myself to be British first, Nigeran second.
But now, I am proudly Nigerian (or more accurately, a British Nigerian). This reconciliation between my Britishness and my Nigerian heritage became easier when Afrobeats gradually became a mainstream music commodity. It's not that I was ashamed of my Yoruba culture, but I felt it was challenging to express it in the UK – a country where, for a long time, the African identity was ridiculed by both blacks and whites, but the Caribbean culture was accepted.
Around 2013, I noticed a shift in mainstream music tastes. Afrobeats/afroswing began to receive heavy radio play in the UK. Artists such as WizKid, British-born J Hus and many others were singing in Nigerian dialects, and their music videos were washed with an unfiltered African aesthetic. Finally, I felt like I could be loud with my heritage in Britain. Young white people started wearing traditional African lace, singing African songs, and I had white girls telling me they love jollof rice and pounded yam.
Afrobeats music had ushered in an unprecedented interest in African culture that fed into every aspect of western society. Millennial Africans within the diaspora finally felt that the western's perception of the African identity had moved on from the outdated colonist notion that we are savages and jungle people.
In America, the globalisation of Afrobeats music has had an even more profound effect on African Americans.
A bridge back to the motherland
African Americans have a tenuous relationship with Africa. Based purely on my own observations over the years, African Americans tend to fall into two camps.
In one camp, you have the African Americans who openly acknowledge their roots to Africa by wearing dashikis and necklaces in the shape of Africa. Although it's a superficial acknowledgement of where their enslaved ancestors came from, at least they are still demonstrating an understanding of their heritage.
Now in the other camp, you have African Americans who identify little with Africa or barely even recognise the continent as their motherland. Despite the glaringly obvious, these group of African Americans simply do not feel Africa is their heritage. America is their home, their land, their culture, not some dark continent where their ancestors were forcibly taken from and shipped to work as slaves on plantations.
There is a reason why the very term "African American" is used widely among black people in the US and why "Black British" is not a popular term among the black community in the UK. African Americans were disconnected from Africa in a way us black people in Europe are not. For many of us black people in the UK, our parents came to the island by choice, so they still had ties to Africa. In America, African American's and their parents and their grandparents and their grandparents only remember America as their home.
The worldwide success of Afrobeats has finally provided a shiny bridge for all African Americans to connect back to their homeland, and America's biggest stars are crossing that bridge.
It started with Black Panther. The Marvel blockbuster cast America’s biggest black actors, from Chadwick Bosman to Michael B Jordan and with a soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar which featured songs from many African music artists. Grossing $700.1 million in the United States and Canada, Black Panther's enormous success was an affirmation by African Americans. They were finally ready to embrace the motherland even if it's given to them in a shiny and nice package.
Following Black Panther, African culture began to permeate through African American entertainment. Beyonce, the black queen of African Americans, recently directed a musical filmed called 'Black is King.' The film, inspired by Lion King, features a host of African talents such as WizKid, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage and Moonchild Sanelly, to name a few.
With the world’s biggest music star now using African talent as a vehicle to drive her latest artistic endeavours, Afrobeats music has globalised and, subsequently, commoditised the richness of African culture.
But at what cost?
Is the commercialisation of African culture exploitative?
Rap mogul and Ciroc advocate Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs recently executive produced Burna Boy’s latest album ‘Twice as Tall.’ For many, it was an unexpected pairing. Diddy was brought in when the album was almost finished to provide ‘fresh ears.’
Yet the cynic in me believes there is a lot more to it than that.
Diddy’s involvement in Burna Boy’s album was a calculated business move. With the spotlight on Afrobeats and African culture, Diddy simply saw an opportunity to grab himself a piece of that African pie. And what better way to do that than being an executive producer on Afrobeats' hottest artist right now? Up until now, Diddy never demonstrated any interest in African music.
What slightly concerns me is that many businessmen and brands will follow Diddy's strategy and begin jumping on the African bandwagon dripping with sauce. Sadly, they are only there to greedily consume the sauce and then leave when the bandwagon has been emptied. There is no genuine interest to really deepen and grow Africa's music. Only to make a quick buck.
Many have said that ‘Twice as Tall’ is not nearly as good as Burna Boy's previous albums and I am inclined to agree. It's not a bad album by any standard, but it does feel over-produced and over-commercialised. That Chris Martin feature was just…no.
Afrobeats and the broader African culture is at an exciting crossroads. Many established brands are taking it seriously. In July, BBC announced it was officially launching its own chart dedicated to the genre. John Boyega has partnered with Netflix to produce a slate of African movies. While these announcements are fantastic for Africa and the African diaspora, one aspect must not change:
The content must remain authentic and in control of the creators.
Time and time again, history has shown us that as soon as big corporations get involved in a movement, they immediately dilute it. Make it more mainstream or radio-friendly. That mustn't happen to the Afrobeats genre, or it will perish. History is filled with corpses of dead movements and burgeoning sounds that were murdered by greedy capitalism.
Africa has always been cool. It's fantastic that the rest of the world finally recognises that. But as Afrobeats and the broader African culture shifts into the mainstream to become a significant player in western civilisation, I pray to my African ancestors that the African authenticity, that sauce, is not watered down.
After all, Africa is cool because it's African. Nothing else.
Many have tried, but you cannot silence the voice of black culture. It’s just too stubborn.
Not even the coronavirus pandemic could manage it.
During the early days of the lockdown, while we had virtual raves on the House Party app and we all agreed that Carole Baskin did kill her husband, a black online radio station began to capture our ears. Its name: No Signal.
It started with the now infamous NS10V10 show. The idea of one Jojo Sonubi, these radio sound clashes pitted African and Jamaican music artists against each other using songs from their musician's library. First was Burna Boy VS Popcaan, and then Vybz Kartel VS Wizkid and these sound clashes sent a wave across Britain's black youth culture. Reactions from the likes of John Boyega flooded black twitter. Burna Boy was live streaming his response from the comfort of his living room. At its peak, these musical clashes on No Signal's website managed to attract 89K listeners before the entire site crashed.
Sure enough, No Signal went from being an online radio station broadcasted from someone's bedroom to a fully-fledged radio station run by black people and for black people.
The success of No Signal is a reminder that radio has always played a hugely important role in spreading black music and black culture to the masses in Britain.
And it all began with pirate radio.
Pirate radio and the resilience of creative black youth
It must have been in the early 2000s. I was 15 years old and addicted to the sound of grime music. Back then, grime was not mainstream so the established and commercially focused black radio stations like Kiss FM and Choice FM did not play it. The only way you could listen to a grime MCs latest tracks or clashes was tuning into pirate radio stations. During this period, the most famous pirate radio station for grime music was Deja vu. It gave voices to the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Ghetts and Kano – all household names now. I have fond memories listening to Deja vu after school with my cousin and his friends in a park in Stratford.
Deja vu and the many black pirate radio stations that preceded it represented the counterculture – a middle finger to the radio-friendly, mainstream culture. It was all about having an edge and being truly authentic to the street sounds of black music.
90’s prolific British rapper Rodney P’s YouTube documentary ‘The Last Pirates’ brilliantly takes us through the rise, fall and commercialisation of Britain's pirate radio stations which illegally dominated the airwaves throughout the 80s and 90s. By transmitting their signals from tower blocks and high-rise estates across London and other British cities, black pirate radio stations played popular black music at the time, mainly soul and rap, to the growing multicultural population sprouting across the UK's major cities.
As is always the case with anything that is black and garners significant attention, black pirate radio stations were continuously shut down by government enforcers. But, as we say now, we move. And the DJs during that era did that. Literally. They stayed one step ahead of regulators by finding new ways to hide their broadcasting signals or changing the location of their transmitters to avoid detection.
But this cat-and-mouse chase between black pirate stations and government regulators could not continue. Soon, many of these pirate radio stations such as KISS FM were finally granted a license and allowed to operate as official radio stations. However, Trevor Nelson, who was a DJ during KISS FM's pirate days, explains in the documentary that as soon as these black-owned radio stations became commercial, they lost their original flavour and voice. Gradually, these once authentic and boundary-pushing black radio stations began to bow to commercial and stakeholder pressures.
A new era of independent black creative enterprises without the suits
Unlike the era of the 80s and 90s, we now live in a time where black entrepreneurs don't need gatekeepers. We don't need huge corporatIons or white men in suits to control what we create. Black creatives can create content and distribute it to millions with a click of a button.
No Signal represents this new era of black-owned creative enterprises that can remain authentic, attract a vast audience and without the endorsement or backing of big money. We see this play out with the proliferation of black podcasts and black chat shows like '3 Shots Of Tequila,' 'BckChat' and the 'ZeZe Millz show' to name a few.
As we have seen with the recent racial protests, black suffering and black voices cannot be silenced. The same goes for our sound and our culture.
So don’t try and fight it. Just tune in.