How Afro-Pop is taking over the world

Emmanuel Esomnofu 26 October 2021

Whether you're already familiar with the genre or not, you'll be hearing more of it in the years to come. Here's the lowdown on its history, present and future

Right now, there are few songs more popular than "Essence" and "Love Nwantiti." These songs by Wizkid and CKay respectively are part of the diverse-sounding, African-influenced music lighting up big arenas and private moments around the world.

Afro Pop's Roots

What is called Afro Pop collects a great number of sounds from all over Africa. Sometimes passed down by tradition and other times a fusion with diasporic experiences, genres like Highlife, Fújì, Jùjú and Azonto has inspired the modern pop sounds of both Ghana and Nigeria.

In the 2010s, the African sonic experience was increasingly coveted in the United Kingdom. Black youths first caught the buzz, enjoying the funkiness and were then inspired to create using the template.

DJ Abrantee named the movement “Afrobeats” after Fela Kuti's explosive genre. Festivals and collaborations soon followed, creating a diasporic link that connected black musicians from Africa with their counterparts worldwide.

"What is called Afro Pop collects a great number of sounds from all over Africa"

“African music has always appealed to foreign audiences,” says Excel Joab, a Nigerian music executive and A&R consultant.

“Because of the lack of documentation, some people wouldn’t know that in the Eighties and Nineties we had international stars.

After Bob Marley's death, Island Records [Marley's label] was looking for a singer who'd perform all over the world and their music would resonate with people. And it was King Sunny Ade [the Nigerian Jùjú master] they signed. Then there’s William Onyeabor, who’s funky synths were quite catchy and exploded in the UK.”

As the Nigerian pop industry formed in the late Nineties, musicians were influenced by the nation’s post-Seventies icons like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Majek Fashek, Ras Kimono, Mike Okri, Chief Osita Osadebe, The Lijadu Sisters, K1 De Ultimate and Evi Edna Ogoli.

From the mid-2000s, acts like P Square, D'Banj and 2Face Idibia became continentally renowned, with the entry of urban TV channels influencing better video quality and boosting their popularity beyond Nigeria. In 2005, 2Face's "African Queen" was the first video to air on MTV Base Africa and four years later, Soundcity TV emerged.

A direct consequence of these advents was increased collaboration among African musicians from various parts of the continent.

East Africans like Fally Ipupa and Diamond Platnumz became familiar to West African audiences while J Martins, Sarkodie and Yemi Alade went far to the east and south of Africa, collaborating with local stars and learning from their cultures.

Naturally, the sounds flowed into each other, with obvious vestiges of influence.

The Rise of Afro Pop (2010 – Present)

Over the last decade, the recognisable texture of Afro Pop globally has shifted between artists and music scenes.

No better was this displayed than in 2015, when a Ghanaian-based Nigerian artist Mr. Eazi got uber-popular with songs like “Anointing” and “Skin Tight.” Producer Juls’ fusion of slowed Highlife chops and contemplative keys was minimalist in comparison to the mainstream sound of the day.

Eazi's success sparked an admiration for this laid-back tropical vibe, which could be heard in Runtown’s “Mad Over You,” Tekno’s “Pana” and Korede Bello’s “Do Like That,” the biggest songs in the country at some point.

Later on, Pon Pon, an expression birthed from the polyrhythmic nature of much African percussion, was popularized through the energetic charisma of Davido, who scored a trifecta—“If” “FIA” and “Fall”—on the Billboard Top 10 in 2017.

"Over the last decade, the recognisable texture of Afro Pop globally has shifted between artists and music scenes"

From 2017’s Sounds From The Other Side, Wizkid’s seeming intent was to bridge Caribbean sounds to Afro Pop.

The project had the Drake-featured “Come Closer,” coming after the Canadian’s remix of “Ojuelegba” alongside Nigerian-British grime legend Skepta. Wizkid’s stellar contribution to Drake’s number one hit “One Dance” further struck Afro Pop’s unique experience into notice.

Around that time, Drake also worked with Burna Boy, another home-grown icon whose music was starting to make its global ascent after “Ye” from his Outside album went viral in 2018. By the time he disagreed with Coachella organisers on his font placement, proclaiming himself an “African Giant”, it wasn’t an ego trip as much as a testament to the power of Afro Pop.

After his loss in the Grammy to Angelique Kidjo in the Best World Album category, conversations were again sparked about the classification of African acts in the Western media. 

Regardless, African music continued to soar. Beyonce’s audio-visual project The Gift, a soundtrack for The Lion King, was created alongside a number of African creatives, including the aforementioned Wizkid, whose contribution on "Brown Skin Girl" got him his first Grammy for Best Music Video, on the same night Burna Boy's Twice As Tall won the Best World Album category.

2020 exceedingly delivered on its potential. A new crop of young artists were mashing diverse influences (emo rap, Afro House, Soul, etc) with greater flair than their predecessors.

The imposing realities of Lagos’ mainland still birthed scions Bella Shmurda and Zinoleesky, while Oxlade, Omah Lay, Fireboy DML, Rema and Tems were some of the prominent artist-poets condensing their youthful experiences into songs.

A-listers like Wizkid, Stonebwoy, Davido, Burna Boy, Adekunle Gold and Olamide released cohesive albums which delved from their established sounds. Debut albums Amaarae’s The Angel You Don’t Know, Teni’s Wonderland and Joeboy’s Somewhere Between Beauty and Magic effortlessly flitted between experimental, melody-driven songwriting and the expansive sampling of classical tropes.

Amapiano, a hypnotic sound birthed from South African House music, became a major phenomenon, taking the world by storm.

Even as it inspires a slew of musicians, as written here, “the trajectory of Amapiano continues to be shaped by inventive on-the-ground acts like Tyler ICU, Kamo Mphela, Sha Sha, Mas Musiq and Vigro Deep.” Albums like The Scorpion Kings’ Rumble In The Jungle and Kabza De Small’s I Am The King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust, which had the star studded hit song “Sponono,” showcases the sound at its most daring.

The success of Focalistic’s “Ke Star” remix with Davido is proof of Amapiano’s star quality, even when paired with hip-hop.

What's Next?   

As the African music industries ready themselves for even greater rewards, the need arises to address some home-grown problems. “The Nigerian music industry has been shaping up.

There have been business executives and entertainment lawyers behind the scenes correcting a lot of things," says Excel. "There used to be a struggle for producers to get royalties, publishing or splits. Or the musicians complaining of being cheated in their contracts. That has changed over the years; there’s a lot more knowledge about the music business these days.”

"As the African music industries ready themselves for even greater rewards, the need arises to address some home-grown problems"

For Dunnie, a Lagos-based artist and producer, there could be more female representation. “There's a problem of tokenism, where labels want to sign an artist and they only sign one woman,” she says.

“But I think we’re generally evolving as an industry into giving more women platforms. However we need more women in the industry so we can have more successful women in the industry.”

Right now, Afro Pop is inevitable. A quick look at the charts and Made in Lagos is highly rated. CKay's "Love Nwantiti" is a genuine sensation, at once the most Shazam’ed song in the world and a Platinum-recipient in France. Burna Boy, Rema, Olamide, Tems and Omah Lay are just some of the African musicians who've sold out international stages in recent months.

The undeniable quality of the music is now amplified by a collective high level of aesthetic inventiveness which is partially influenced by the preceding alté artists who flaunted their bold interpretations of music and film. Meanwhile, producers like Sarz, Juls, Black Coffee and Rexxie are releasing projects and adapting their established sounds across genres and different generations of artists.

Increasingly, African hubs like Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra are witnessing an influx of international investors–from major streaming platforms to record labels–in recent years. The excitement is palpable. 

“The numbers we’re seeing across the board are crazy,” continues Excel. “Afro Pop songs are hitting numbers they’ve never reached before now. The numbers are telling potential investors that Afrobeats is the next frontier for music globally.

Before now it was the Latino music space; they had a great run but we seem to be the new rave. Everyone’s on the lookout for what Afrobeats is bringing to the table.”

Feature Image credit: Rasheedrasheed (Wikimedia Commons)

Read more: 5 UK R&B Artists you need to hear

Read more: The East End club that hosted Jimi Hendrix

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter