Afrobeat and Afrobeats, although related, are quite distinct. Afrobeats is the genre that emerged when West African pop music became cool. Its origins coincide with the media liberalisation that accompanied the “final” wave of democratisation in Africa from 1999. More than this, it is a convenient term for Europe to refer to music coming out of Africa, distinct from Euro-American pop.
Afrobeat, on the other hand, is what Nigerian music icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti called his invention, which blended jazz, funk, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chant and rhythms in the early 1970s. Afrobeat typically bears messages of liberation.
There is a relationship between Afrobeats and Afrobeat; indeed, an overlap between Fela’s music, lifestyle and message and today’s Afrobeats practice.
West African musicians (like King Sunny Ade, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti and Rocky Dawuni) have been nominated for or won (Angelique Kidjo) Grammy Awards for several years. But it took an album richly intertwined with Fela’s essence for an Afrobeats artist to earn the same.
Burna Boy’s African Giant (2019) paved the way for Afrobeats at the 62nd Grammy Awards in 2020 through a nomination for Best World Music Album. Afrobeats eventually had its big moment a year later at the 2021 Grammy Awards where his Twice as Tall (2020) was named Best Global Music Album.
The nomination of Wizkid’s Made in Lagos (2021) for the same category this year makes it the third time in succession that Afrobeats is being recognised at the Grammys. Wizkid’s Essence, featuring Tems, is also in the reckoning for Best Global Music Performance.
Afrobeats is having a big transnational and transatlantic moment, and I’ve considered some of the factors driving it.
Pop musicians from other parts of the continent have been making music under the Afrobeats banner, but it is the Nigerians Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy who have each sold out The O2 arena in London or the Accor Arena in Paris. Undoubtedly, Nigerian artists are the trailblazers of the Afrobeats movement.
Nigeria’s over 200 million-strong population comprises a middle class that ranks among the world’s most migrated. There are Nigerian populations in many parts of the world, owing to the country’s infrastructural challenges and high level of unemployment. Artists are not exempt from this exodus, although success can give them the means to return home.
Consequently, contemporary Nigerian culture – Afrobeats included – is a culture very much on the move. If the artists are not between cities, the consumers are. Members of the Nigerian diaspora are enthusiastic about the experience of a concert with their favourite Afrobeats stars.