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Africans within the diaspora finally felt that the western's perception of the African identity had moved on from the outdated colonist notion that we are savages and jungle people.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.