Afrobeat is a music genre which involves the combination of elements of West African musical styles such as fuji music and highlife with American funk and jazz influences, with a focus on chanted vocals, complex intersecting rhythms, and percussion.
The term was coined by Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti, who is responsible for pioneering and popularizing the style both within and outside Nigeria. It was partially borne out of an attempt to distinguish Fela Kuti's music from the soul music of American artists such as James Brown.
Afrobeat began in Ghana in the early 1920s. During that time, Ghanaian musicians incorporated foreign influences like the foxtrot and calypso with Ghanaian rhythms like osibisaba (Fante). Highlife was associated with the local African aristocracy during the colonial period and was played by numerous bands including the Jazz Kings, Cape Coast Sugar Babies, and Accra Orchestra along the country's coast. Nigeria later joined the Afrobeat wave in the late 60s led by Fela Kuti who experimented with different contemporary music of the time. Upon arriving in Nigeria, Kuti also changed the name of his group to Africa '70. The new sound hailed from a club that he established called the Afrika Shrine. The band maintained a five-year residency at the Afrika Shrine from 1970 to 1975 while afrobeat thrived among Nigerian youth.
Although the term Afrobeat was coined as early as 1968, after making a trip to the United States, Kuti wasn't really making music in the category of Afrobeat. The name "Afrobeat" shows the significance of groove to the music, as opposed to Afrofunk.
In 1969, Kuti and his band went on a trip to the U.S. and met Sandra Smith, a singer and former Black Panther. Sandra Smith (now known as Sandra Isadore) introduced Kuti to many writings of activist such as Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, and his biggest influence of all Malcolm X.
Being that Kuti was interested in African American politics, Smith would inform him on the current events. In return, Kuti would fill her in on African culture. Since Kuti stayed at Smith's house and was spending so much time with her, he started to re-evaluate his music. That was when Fela Kuti noticed that he was not playing African music. From that day forward, Kuti changed his sound and the message behind his music.
Prevalent in his and Lagbaja's music are native Nigerian harmonies and rhythms, taking different elements and combining, modernizing, and improvising upon them. Politics are essential to Afrobeat, since founder Kuti used social criticism to pave the way for social change. His message can be described as confrontational and controversial, which can be related to the political climate of most of the African countries in the 1970s, many of which were dealing with political injustice and military corruption while recovering from the transition from colonial governments to self-determination. As the genre spread throughout the African continent many bands took up the style. The recordings of these bands and their songs were rarely heard or exported outside the originating countries but many can now be found on compilation albums and CDs from specialist record shops.
Big band (15 to 30 pieces: Fela-era afrobeat) and energetic performances
Many jazz musicians have been attracted to Afrobeat. From Roy Ayers in the 1970s to Randy Weston in the 1990s, there have been collaborations that have resulted in albums such as Africa: Centre of the World by Roy Ayers, released on the Polydore label in 1981. In 1994 Branford Marsalis, the American jazz saxophonist, included samples of Fela's "Beast of No Nation" on his Buckshot LeFonque album. The new generation of DJs and musicians of the 2000s who have fallen in love with both Kuti's material and other rare releases have made compilations and remixes of these recordings, thus re-introducing the genre to new generations of listeners and fans of afropop and groove (see Afrobeats section below).
Afrobeat has also profoundly influenced important contemporary producers and musicians like Brian Eno and David Byrne, who credit Fela Kuti as an essential influence. Both worked on Talking Heads' highly acclaimed 1980 album Remain In Light, which brought polyrhythmic afrobeat influences to Western music.
The horn section of Antibalas have been guest musicians on TV On The Radio's highly acclaimed 2008 album Dear Science, as well as on British band Foals' 2008 album, Antidotes. Some Afrobeat influence can also be found in the music of Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon.
In 2009 the music label Knitting Factory Records (KFR) produced the Broadway Musical FELA! As said on the musical's website, the story showcased Fela Kuti's "courage and incredible musical mastery" along with the story of his life. The show had 11 Tony nominations, receiving three for Best Costumes, Best Sound and Best Choreography. FELA! Was on Broadway for fifteen months and was produced by notables such as Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith. Many celebrities were noted on attending the shows such as, Denzel Washington, Madonna, Sting, Spike Lee (who saw it eight times), Kofi Annan, and even Michelle Obama. Michelle Williams, former singer of girl group Destiny's Child, was casted as the role of Sandra Isadore.
From early in the 21st century, a new type of sound, originating in Nigeria, has become increasingly prominent in African popular music.This name echoes Afrobeat, the 1970s fusion of Jazz and traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music which is an important influence, but Afrobeats is a largely different style.
"Afrobeats is not a style, per se, like Afrobeat. It simply means the new sound of Africa, which takes in diverse influences that take inspiration from its African roots and is combined with the sounds of Rap, Reggae/Dancehall, and even R&B. It's an extremely eclectic combination that makes for quite the enjoyable sound."
Afrobeats is most identifiable by its signature driving drum beat rhythms, whether electronic or instrumental. These beats harken to the stylings of a variety of traditional African drumbeats across West Africa as well as the precursory genre of Afrobeat. The beat in Afrobeats music is not just a base for the melody, but acts as a major character of the song, taking a lead role that is sometimes equal to are of greater importance than the lyrics and almost always more central than the other instrumentals. Another distinction within Afrobeats is the notably west African, specifically Nigerian or Ghanaian, accented English that is often blended with local slangs, pidgin English, as well as local Nigerian or Ghanaian languages depending on the backgrounds of the performers.
DJs and producers like DJ Black, Elom Adablah, and C-Real (Cyril-Alex Gockel) for example, have been a crucial part in spreading the popularity of this form of music. Their artistic mixing of beats and sounds allow a younger audience to experience a sound that is somewhat familiar in its influences and yet uniquely African. Their mixing and promotion of popular hits on the continent is also a tried and true method for success. Often what the play in clubs, radio shows, podcasts, etc. are what become popularized both within Africa and abroad.
Since 2012, Afrobeats have gained mainstream recognition outside of Africa, especially within the UK. UK hits have included "Oliver Twist" by D'banj a Nigerian which reached 9 on the UK Singles Chart in 2012, and "Million Pound Girl (Badder Than Bad)" by the Ghanaian British artist Fuse ODG, which reached 5 on the UK Singles Chart in 2014. Afrobeats nightclubs are now primary features of UK's nightlife with clubs opening in most major cities.
Afrobeats has captured the attention of many award shows as well. For example, the BET Awards usually highlights the musical genre of Afrobeats and/or other types of music by having the category "The Best International Act." In the year 2018, the famous Nigerian afrobeats singer Davido won and when presented the award, the audience knew he was from Nigeria. When accepting his awards, Davido says, "My continent has been so blessed to influence other cultures. Let's collaborate everybody." In this statement, Davido tried to show the audience of American celebrities that African artists would love to collab and make their mark in America. In previous years other famous artists have won the category as well, such as the singer Wizkid (Nigeria) in 2017 and in 2016 the DJ Back Coffee (South Africa) won.
According to David Drake, the eclectic genre "reimagines diasporic influences and--more often than not--completely reinvents them." However, some caution against equating Afrobeats to contemporary pan-African music, in order to prevent the erasure of local musical contributions.
"We are moving towards an African majority which is diverse both in its cultural habits and in its relationship to colonial and postcolonial governance, so the shift away from Caribbean dominance needs to be placed in that setting. Most of the grime folks are African kids, either the children of migrants or migrants themselves. It's not clear what Africa might mean to them"
Many first and second generation African immigrants follow - and produce - Afrobeats music. Fuse ODG, a UK artist of Ghanaian descent, coins #TINA or This is New Africa as a means to change perceptions of Africa:
"This movement will shed light on Africa in a positive way and focus on how we can improve Africa. It's not about just plying your talents in the Western world; it's about going back home and helping Africa."
Notable musicians whose music have been classified as Afrobeats:
A music festival that's recognized worldwide is One Africa Music Fest. The festival has four different locations: New York City, Houston, London, and Dubai. One Africa Music Fest showcases modern Afrobeat music and talent.
As stated on the official website, the main focus of the music festival is to help strengthen Africa's position in the entertainment industry on a global level. The festival also wants to create awareness to display the positive side of Africa that people don't usually know about. This Afrobeats music festival promotes collaboration between other artists, businesses and communities.