Beyoncé, Burna Boy and the many sounds of new Africa

The diversity of music styles across the continent continue to evolve and grow.

Kobby Ankomah-Graham

In the middle of 2019, Beyoncé pulled a Beyoncé and dropped a previously unannounced mystery project from the sky.

The Gift was a soundtrack to Disney’s photorealistic remake of The Lion King. Curated by the artist herself, it featured a mélange of sonic influences, ranging from the R&B and pop that she already dominated, to newer sounds from clubs across Africa and its diaspora.

In the middle of 2019, Beyoncé pulled a Beyoncé and dropped a previously unannounced mystery project from the sky.

The Gift was a soundtrack to Disney’s photorealistic remake of The Lion King. Curated by the artist herself, it featured a mélange of sonic influences, ranging from the R&B and pop that she already dominated, to newer sounds from clubs across Africa and its diaspora.

Acclaimed by both critics and fans, the project caught a wave of interest in new African culture, arguably accelerated by the massive success of the 2018 Marvel movie, Black Panther. Curated by Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther’s soundtrack included South African artists like Babes Wodumo, the self-proclaimed queen of Gqom – an electronic genre that strips classic South African house, kwaito and techno down into something minimal, raw and new.

Gqom broke through the West African dominance of Beyoncé’s project to create space for South African artists like Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly.

Beyoncé, Burna Boy and the many sounds of new Africa

Despite such inclusivity, Beyonce’s Gift still threatened a rift across the African music scene. While fans from countries like Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa celebrated hearing their favourite artists being given a massive platform by one of the world’s biggest stars, others expressed deep disappointment at having been left out.

Polycarp Otieno from Kenyan group, Sauti Sol, wondered why a soundtrack for a film that drew so heavily on Kenyan culture and wildlife – even borrowing Swahili phrases like hakuna matata – used artists from everywhere below the Sahara, except for East Africa. His fellow Kenyan, Vanessa Mdee, summed it up in a tweet: “Our Queen forgot about us. We were not represented by her love letter to us. It hurts. That’s all.”

Artists the likes of Mdee, Sauti Sol and Tanzania’s Diamond Platinumz are among a growing number of East African artists whose notoriety transcends the borders separating Africa’s 54 countries. Representing the more commercial sounds of the region, they share space with artists like Karun, Blinky Bill and EA Wave, whose sounds are among the most original and joyously expansive on the continent.

Inspired by the sound of the legendary Fela Kuti, London-based Ghanaian DJ, Abrantie, coined the term afrobeats (with an ‘s’) to describe a range of sounds emerging from anglophone West Africa and its diaspora. Combining classic West African highlife music with diaspora sounds like R&B, trap and UK funk, it would make an international splash when Oliver Twist – an up-tempo ode to lust by the Nigerian artist, D’banj, cracked the UK Top Ten Singles Chart with a video that had cameos from artists including Kanye West (who would briefly sign both D’banj and the song’s producer, Don Jazzy).

With such diversity and depth of talent, it is understandable why their exclusion from Beyonce’s project would trigger questions as to why sounds from their clubs were not enjoying as much international shine as West African afrobeats.
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Beyoncé, Burna Boy and the many sounds of new Africa
Beyoncé, Burna Boy and the many sounds of new Africa
Beyoncé, Burna Boy and the many sounds of new Africa

A few years later, Skin Tight, a collaboration between Nigeria’s Mr. Eazi and Ghanaian chanteuse, Efya, represented a shift in sound that has since come to typify the genre. Architected by Ghana’s DJ Juls, the song was slower and far sexier than Ghana’s popular up-tempo azonto sound at the time, while maintaining its infectiousness.

In 2014, Nigerian-British grime artist, Skepta, would persuade Drake (the Canadian rapper/singer who is the most streamed artist of all time) to hop onto a remix of Ojuelegba by afrobeats royalty, WizKid, who would return the favour by featuring on Drake’s international smash, One Dance.

Last year, the all-conquering Burna Boy was nominated for a Grammy for his afrobeats-driven album, African Giant. One of its biggest songs – On the Low – used a beat borrowed from the kind of francophone Zouk exemplified in songs like Aya Nakamoura’s hit song, Djadja. It is no surprise then that, besides a new wave of artists like Teni, Niniola, Rema and Fireboy DML, the genre is spilling into francophone Africa through collaborations with artists like Dadju.

Last year, the all-conquering Burna Boy was nominated for a Grammy for his afrobeats-driven album, African Giant. One of its biggest songs – On the Low – used a beat borrowed from the kind of francophone Zouk exemplified in songs like Aya Nakamoura’s hit song, Djadja. It is no surprise then that, besides a new wave of artists like Teni, Niniola, Rema and Fireboy DML, the genre is spilling into francophone Africa through collaborations with artists like Dadju.

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