A surge in interest in African music in Britain is creating new economic opportunities for the continent’s musicians. The new sound heating up the U.K. music scene is “Afro Beats” – a high energy hybrid that mixes Western rap influences with Ghanaian and Nigerian popular music.
Afro Beats draws its inspiration from the “Afrobeat” sound popularized in the 1970s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrobeat).Afrobeat recordings from that time are still making money as long-forgotten tunes are re-packaged by so-called ‘crate divers’ – enterprising people who rummage through old vinyl record collections and re-brand scenes and sounds.
This is part of the global creative economy, which is thriving despite the recent years of economic turmoil. Musicians offer many lessons for businesses in the South, both in their adaptability to new conditions and their resourcefulness in experimenting with new business models to earn an income.
Afrobeat stars and pioneers like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fela_Kuti) have been popular outside Africa for many decades. But Afro Beats – a new name with the addition of the crucial letter “s” – is being declared as the beginning of a new phase in taking African music global.
As the digital music revolution has rocked the global music business, artists have had to adapt and change their business models. For all but a very few “big names,” it is no longer possible to build a career on royalties from recordings and hits. Stars and novices alike must battle with music pirates, who sell CDs and downloads of other people’s tunes and keep the money for themselves. Legitimate income often comes in micropayments from large music platforms like iTunes as people pay to download an individual song or mix and match tunes they like from an artist’s catalogue, rather than buying a whole album as they would in the past.
Clever musicians have turned to building their brand, using live performances and the ability to sell other services and merchandise to make a living. They create their own web platforms, or mobile phone apps (applications), and do the marketing and distribution on their own to build a loyal fan base. Others are creating their own mobile radio stations by distributing CDs to the ubiquitous taxi mini buses that are the main means of transport in most African cities.
But some things remain the same as in the past, such as the importance of having a champion, such as a radio DJ (disc jockey), who acts as a “taste maker,” discovering new acts and telling their audience about them.
The DJ most associated with pushing the Afro Beats sound and scene is London-based DJ Abrantee (http://www.facebook.com/djabrantee).
“I’ve been playing this music to three or four thousand people at African events in the U.K. for years,” DJ Abrantee told The Guardian. “For years we’ve had amazing hiplife, highlife, Nigerbeats, juju music, and I thought: you know what, let’s put it all back together as one thing again, and call it Afro Beats, as an umbrella term. Afrobeat, the 60s music, was more instrumental – this Afro Beats sound is different, it’s inter-twined with things like hip-hop and funky house, and there’s more of a young feel to it.”
Abrantee (abrantee.com) promotes Afro Beats in the United Kingdom in myriad ways: he broadcasts six days a week on a radio station, including an Afro Beats-themed show on Saturdays. He travels around to DJ and takes Ghanaian and Nigerian tunes with him. He says Africa is so musically vibrant, he can’t keep up with it all.
“This is specifically the western African sound: there are a lot of shared ideas between these two neighbouring countries,” he explained to The Guardian. “I see Afro Beats as music which makes the heart beat. And it’s funky, and hyped, and energetic and young.”
Afro Beats has also been able to reach a young audience. “It’s striking how young they are – when I do these Afro Beats events there’s thousands of people, and they’re all youngsters, really.”
One of the Afro Beats stars is D’Banj (mohitsrecords.com/d-banj) – a Nigerian rap star – who has been receiving attention for his song Oliver Twist.
The Afro Beats sound is also provoking a new interest in all things African amongst youth with African parents. This is a big change from when American “cool” set the trends. As DJ Abrantee notes, “the parents are really pleased, and proud, that their kids are all of a sudden embracing their culture. It didn’t used to be cool, but now they’re going through their parents’ record collections going, ‘Have you got this old song by Daddy Lumba?’.”
Some of the Afro Beats leaders include Sarkodie’s ‘U Go Kill Me’, Ice Prince’s ‘Oleku’, Atumpan’s ‘The Thing’, Castro ftAsamoah Gyan’s ‘African Girls’.
Afro Beat’s popularity in Britain has led to African artists collaborating with musicians in the UK. Afro Beats musician Sarkodie has collaborated with London-based artists Donaeo and Sway. DJ Abrantee sees this trend continuing and expanding. “You’re going to see more U.K. artists doing Afro Beats collaborations now,” he said.
Other Nigerian artists who have benefited from the increasing awareness are Wiz Kid, 2Face Idibia and P-Square (mypsquare.com).
Abrantee believes Ghana and Nigeria are having a big impact on the global music scene.
“The floodgates have opened. Music is always evolving, and everyone’s always looking for the next drug. Funky house has died out, grime is still there but it’s gone back underground, electro-pop’s got U.K. urban music in the charts, but that’ll die out, it’s got a short shelf-life. … and people are finally noticing I’m getting 3,000 people coming out to dance to Afro Beats.”
British-Ghanaian hip-hop performer Sway sees connections between Afrobeat and Afro Beats.
“Fela Kuti is obviously a massive legend in the game, and what he was doing is not too different to what D’Banj is doing now – taking western influences and adding them to African culture, and coming up with something new, that appeals to everyone,” he said.
And technology is seen as the binding element that is connecting African music and musicians to other scenes.
“African music in Africa is evolving in relation to what’s going on abroad too,” said Sway. “Via the Internet they’re picking up certain trends much quicker: so for example you have Auto-Tune and western styles of singing cropping up on all these Afro Beats tracks.”
And Sway believes the quality of production of African music has improved: “There’s been a serious change in the music coming out of Africa lately.
“The sound is heavier and clearer, the videos are better, there’s been a positive growth in the African music scene. It was just a matter of time before people paid attention.
“When you’ve got African swag and African traditions combined with up-to-date western styles, and singing in English, well – you’ve got a winning formula on your hands.”
Published: February 2012
1) Mongolian Rock Pop book: In the Mongolian language, this UNDP book details how pop musicians led on business innovation during the turbulent transition years of the 1990s. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/23917535/Mongolian-Rock-and-Pop-Book
2) Afrobeat: An interactive exploration of Afrobeat and its participants from National Geographic. Website: http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/view/page.basic/genre/content.genre/afrobeat_686/en_US
3) DJ Abrantee: More from the champion of the Afro Beats scene. Website: http://www.abrantee.com
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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