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What is Afrobeats exporting?

We scream about the world spotlight falling on our music, and the creators that we have made superstars. But what are they selling to the world? Are we selling anything other than our buzz?

Afrobeats is the western moniker for the pop music that we make all around in tiny studios in Lagos. Nigerian creatives are engaged in a debilitating cycle of repeatedly punching above their weight, hacking through their limited opportunities and governmental snobbery to make records that they are exporting.

It’s beautiful that we are pulling beyond our weight, and achieving the unimaginable. We had ‘One Dance’, and we have been dining with it ever since, while looking for a new hit record to define this era of penetration into the US market.


But while Sony, a record label that have attempted to pierce the charts in the US, have largely struggled to make a dent, and Universal Music is still developing properties and sonic real estate in Lagos and beyond, many people are asking why isn’t it all coming together? Why is the coveted slot on Billboard an elusive target? What is the catalyst that we all need to become more like our Asian counterparts in K-Pop? Why is Afrobeats still underground in the US, with all the hype, enthusiasm, and reported activity? What isn’t clicking?

There’s an established formula to generate buzz and present it to the people. This process involves mapping out a standard radio and multi-media strategy, where the artist pulls strings to plug a single into radio. The radio rounds run concurrently with TV appearances on selected shows that have an inclusive bent. Next up will be an article from one of the most respected music news platforms. Recently, Nigerian musicians have launched their international marketing cycle with articles from ELLE, Vogue, Rollingstone and DJ Booth. Also, there will be key performance slots negotiated by the musician’s label and management which would give the artist visibility.

All of these contrived works in the background will be mined, edited and curated for fans. What you will see is the Nigerian superstar taking photos with interesting people he will collide with on this journey, from other musicians chasing their private businesses to backstage photos while waiting to take the perfect selfie. That’s when the media houses will write headlines like “Is Artist X collaborating with JAY-Z, Beyoncé, And John The Baptist?” or another favourite: “Will Artist X be the first Nigerian to break Afrobeats in the US? Or the most unbelievable one: “Artist X has surpassed Fela’s legacy.”

Such blasphemy, all because of some Instagram highlights, which have been carefully designed to have you, think real progress is happening. Yes, there’s some progress. But nothing is automated, and the results so far, while commendable are little victories. The real win here is when the music hits the Billboard charts. Like I said earlier, a true music businessman will tell you that it takes ‘Time and more strategic work.” Meaning, we have to maximise this time and window, to throw everything in until something sticks. That’s the true progress that we have. Fans are seeing the process, not the victory. But fans aren’t smart to know this; they have limited information on how this process works. Everything looks like a win for them. Afrobeats to the world! Nigerian music is taking over!

What Nigerian music is doing right now in London is commendable. Over there, we have taken over. We are charting, filling up huge venues, and scoring wins. Slowly, London is becoming an extension of Lagos. Only this time, people aren’t bogged down by crushing poverty and our signature anyhowness. There’s societal order and higher purchasing power. Also, there are standards that must be met. We are winning in London. One of my senior brothers in the game even made the declaration one evening to me that “London is the capital of Afrobeats.” I didn’t know how to feel about that. He made some good points about how the city continues to serve as a hub for all of our creative cultural activities in Europe and beyond.

The main challenge for Afrobeats isn’t tied to strategy. It is more basic. What are the defining elements of the music that we are selling? What elements are we stripping and fusing with other sound cultures to create a bridge? That’s where the real problem exists. Afrobeats is a polymorphic sound, made up of influences from everywhere. When you strip it down in all its forms as it appears on your playlist, you will find elements absorbed from larger mainstream and traditional genres, and adapted to fit the Nigerian audience. We bind it all with multi-layered drumming, and our infectious pidgin English and raw melodies that define the sound.

But that is all back home. What holds up when we leave the continent and try to sell it? What are the elements of the sound structure that we can push as a defining selling point of Afrobeats? Is it the drumming? We can find similarities from Caribbean beat structures. How about the melodies? It can be recreated easily with no allusion to its source. How about the lingo? The Nigerian Pidgin English is one of the most crucial elements of the culture, but when our musicians get into these diverse spaces it is discarded.

That’s what we need to address. We need to embrace the elements of the sound that are distinctively Nigerian, and use that as the anchor to push. Anything else and we will continue to flail. Afrobeats is a movement that is made up of numerous moving parts. But to penetrate a new frontier, we have to offer them something beyond enthusiasm and a few singles. We need to sell an element of the sound, just like the Caribbean did with Dancehall?
What are we selling? Ginger?

In this article:
AfrobeatsJoey Akan
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