Afrobeats is African music.
The encompassing term describes Nigerian pop music with local roots stretching from the ’50s, comprising a diverse mix of music from West Africa. These musical styles, cultures, and genres that make up Afrobeats—highlife, R&B, hip hop, fuji, juju, and apala, to name a few—have crossed over into the US and other major cities across the globe. Music made in Lagos has penetrated the global pop music framework, influencing the nature of how mainstream music is consumed around the world.
Afrobeats is on a successful march. Even if you’ve never paid any particular attention to African music, attended any African parties, or had Nigerian friends, you’ve most likely discovered Nigerian pop music within the past few months. From TikTok to Instagram, Afrobeats artists have injected themselves into global pop culture, scoring collaborations with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Madonna, FKA twigs, and more.
Last year, Nigeria’s WizKid, CKay, and Fireboy DML were some of the most streamed artists on Spotify. They also took over summer 2021 and the year-end holiday party circuit. WizKid’s “Essence”—an R&B fusion collaboration with Tems, with Justin Bieber on the remix—cracked the Billboard Hot 100 on its way to becoming the global song of the summer. His compatriot CKay followed suit with the viral hit “love nwantiti (ah ah ah),” while adding the distinction of being the most Shazamed song on the planet. With a platinum certification, “love nwantiti” sits on top of an increasingly recognized conveyor belt of hits originating from Lagos.
“We are just enjoying the music, experiencing the evolution—but we really haven’t fully grasped how far Afrobeats have gone. It wasn’t up until when Burna Boy won the GRAMMY that I said, ‘What a time to be alive… It’s a story of faith,’” says Dunnie, a Nigerian producer with numerous hits under her belt. Dunnie is part of a generation of creators making unprecedented changes to the sound and driving the evolution of the culture.
What does Afrobeats music sound like?
The term ‘Afrobeats’ (not to be confused with the Fela Kuti-pioneered ‘Afrobeat’) represents a large variety of cultures from sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a cultural umbrella, consisting of sounds rooted in different historic movements. The sound is currently a merger made up of local beats, melodies, and languages, mixed and blended with borrowed Western and Caribbean influences. A typical Afrobeats track is a mid-tempo, dance-y pop tune—a tune for all seasons. Perfect for the club, and handy for a solo vibing session.
It’s also all made in a peculiar manner; much of the work is done by the countless producers packed out across studios in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial heartbeat. Producers like Mystro Sugar, LeriQ, and Dunnie spend long periods scouring the world for samples and new takes on music. They import these fragments of foreign genius, and mix them all through a Nigerian filter. The end result has evolved through many years and into what is now a familiar sound on streaming playlists and pop radio.
For this primer, we introduce you to the world of Afrobeats. We explore the sound, its origins, today’s efforts to keep it moving, and what we see in the future.
Beginnings and influences
To discover the true roots of Afrobeats, one would have to create multiple investigations into its composite genres including highlife, juju, fuji, funk, hip hop, and Jamaican dancehall. That said, much of its history and inspiration runs through a Nigerian legend, Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti, who pioneered Afrobeat (without the ‘s’), a style that is inspiring generations to this day.
The difference between Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Over 50 years ago, Fela fused highlife, fuji, jazz, and funk to create a new sound named Afrobeat. Characterized by lengthy compositions performed by large bands and packed full of politically-charged, anti-establishment messaging, Afrobeat continues to wield an influence over today’s music landscape.
Afrobeats contains elements of Afrobeat, but it goes beyond Fela’s work. Today’s leading and emerging generation of musicians grew up consuming a wider menu from the ’80s and ’90s, including Fela—but he wasn’t alone. Nigerian influences stretch to a history filled with diverse genres and homegrown musical heroes such as the Lijadu Sisters, King Sunny Adé, Oliver De Coque, Ebenezer Obey, William Onyeabor, Christy Essien-Igbokwe, and many others.
“The music I make is Afrofusion because I grew up listening to a lot of different sounds,” says Dunnie, who has multiple credits across the culture. Dunnie grew up in a religious house, spending her formative years listening to faith music from church. She also credits secular influences from Orlando Owoh, Ebenezer Owoh, and King Sunny Adé as parts of her early influences. And just like many others, her world expanded in her teenage years, after visiting a friend and discovering the existence of American pop stars. “It was only after I was about to start inn secondary school that I went to greet a family friend and heard Beyoncé. I didn’t know Beyonce existed; I didn’t know Jay-Z existed.”
Family also played a major role in Mystro’s assimilation of music. His father was a local musician who played the drums earlier in his life. “I grew up from a musical family, and my dad used to play the drums,” he tells us. “I didn’t really take a big interest in it until I physically saw my dad. I used to just hear that my dad plays drums, but I had never seen it or attended any of his shows. So when I saw it, I was like, ‘Okay, this is it. I love this. I love what I’m seeing.’ So he introduced me to a lot of music.”
For his colleague, LeriQ, childhood influences were crucial as well. He received abundant music education in the shape of an old turntable, bought by his father. He fell in love with it, moved it to his bedroom, and made it his personal toy.
“It had every kind of record you could think of—from classical music to old Nigerian records, I used to listen to everything.” LeriQ says, over a phone conversation in Lagos. “There was so much music I used while growing up. It was like my toy. I would listen, learn how to move the pin around—that was my thing. Listening to different things—not like I knew what I was doing. But, I was just having fun listening to all the records that I had in my room. It was fun, and I’m sure that it contributed to my sound library. I’m very sure.”
Afrobeats is fusion music at its core. Its elements come from many ends of the earth. Afrobeats artists and producers explore this music, combining new-age foreign sounds with echoes of the past. When today’s creators make music, each record is a callback of some sort, a dip into nostalgia, into the distant past. Today’s music is yesterday’s music—its delivery and production are different, but the underlying sounds are the same, or at least cousins of each other.
This is one of the best times in history to be making Afrobeats. The ease of producing music has never been higher. Today’s Afrobeat stars, who are mostly in their twenties and thirties, are making an evolved sound. They’re making shorter songs, with an expansionist approach to the art, and a wider range of influences drawn from their counterparts in Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The production is designed to fit into the world’s global pop framework, with shorter songs featuring smooth verses and catchy hooks. A random scan through any Afrobeats hits playlist will turn up a variety of genres. Nigerians listen to everything and adapt their sound to include the hottest trends from around the world.
A world of competition and evolution
This could be due to the fact that the Nigerian music industry is the home of hyper-competition. With a population of nearly 200 million people, musicians spring up daily from every corner of the country. Standing out from the crowd is often the difference between achieving any measure of commercial success and staying below water. That’s why the industry is popular for its strong research and DIY culture. Producers cast a wide net across niche and global music movements, seeking the next new sound. Local pop music in Lagos is a fusion of discovered sounds.
To achieve a truly new product, producers fuse these homegrown sounds with borrowed samples from other regions, in a process that has stayed consistent through generations. The final product is always in flux, like a living, breathing entity. To follow Afrobeats is to be in a constant state of change. While local pop music made in the early days (the late ’90s and early ’00s) sounded too close to their source influences from America and the Caribbeans, local artists have continued to innovate, bringing their worlds closer with updated productions.
For example, WizKid’s 2021 “Essence” is processed in the US as R&B. Never mind that the artist is Nigerian, and the lyrics are delivered in Nigerian pidgin English. The world connects with it. The world loves it.
LeriQ explains further: “We go around the world picking up sounds and then bringing them back home, with their ingrained rhythms in our hearts and in our lives. We are Africans. The rhythm is inside of us. It’s not something you can go and learn. Africans don’t go to music school to make music. We are just Africans.”
The combination of that natural African rhythm with external influences gives the final product. “We have assimilated a lot of distant sounds and made them our own,” LeriQ continues. “In some songs, it’s the beats in the instrumentation that they relate to. Then there are synthesized sounds that are coming into our music. My first album had a lot of synth sounds. It wasn’t just guitars and piano. There were little synthesized sounds inside of it, but it was still Afrobeats. Although I use synthesized sounds for Afrobeats, they sound new and different from the normal version that you know. That’s what keeps them saying, ‘What is that? That’s Afrobeats? Oh, nice!’”
The elements that make up a great Afrobeats track
So what makes a great Afrobeats track? Beyond the vibe and the heady escapism it provides, what are the necessary components to make a track truly stand out? Is it the beat? The polyrhythmic drumming that cracks through every record? Or is it the synths? Let’s not forget the synths.
“It’s very groove-focused,” Dunnie explains. “The drums in the beat have to be locked, and then packed with melodies. When you have melodies and groove, you have a perfect Afrobeats record. And sometimes, the singing itself is also key. Afrobeats is a really big genre, and there are different approaches to it. Traditionally, the singing in Afrobeats is very percussive in nature. But you can be percussive like Burna, or also soulful like WizKid and Tems. Either way, it all works—but the core of it is the groove and the drums, which are very hard-hitting.”
“A lot of our drums are actually inspired by hip hop,” she continues. “A lot of producers use hip hop packs, so we have a lot of influence from hip hop, R&B, soul, and dancehall as well… Afrobeats is a concoction of different genres, centered with all of these grooves and the soul of Africa.”
Mystro also adds, “I believe it’s the chords and certain progressions that just make you feel it. They make you feel comfortable. For example, in the studio, I start with my chord progressions, and then I see the face of whoever I’m working with. It’s always okay; they’re comfortable with that. There’s this form of bliss when you get the progression right. And we are very relatable. I know that some people disregard production, but it’s the most important part of everything—it’s what brings the songs together.”
The future of Afrobeats
As Afrobeats continues its march towards world domination, there’s a palpable excitement in Lagos. The scene is flush with cash, as global companies increase their footprint. In the last three years, every major global music corporation has either put boots on the ground in Nigeria, or expanded their service and focus to the culture. Billboard just launched an Afrobeats Songs chart to capture the increasing real estate of the culture.
These moves have taken an effect on the sound. As the connection between Afrobeats and the rest of the world is cemented and consolidated via deals like these, it shows in the music and in the lives of its creators.
“Opportunities! Opportunities! It means more ears,” LeriQ says. And he’s spot-on. Nigerian music now competes at the highest levels. Fireboy DML’s “Peru,” a local freestyle, has now flamed through the UK, spawning a collaboration with Ed Sheeran that blasted it to the top. On TikTok, Nigerian records continue to rank high among the highest-charting records. On the scoreboard, WizKid and CKay have earned platinum certifications in the US within the last six months.
But there’s a feeling that this is just the start. People want more—it’s the Nigerian way to want more. “I see us one day having a GRAMMY category,” Dunnie says. “I know it’s a long shot, and might take us a few years to get there. But with the way we’re moving—and we’re moving in numbers—it’s going to come. What happened with Carribean is going to happen. Other people are going to start doing their own form of Afrobeats, and expressing it in their own way.”
Looking to explore Afrobeats in your own music? Check out exclusive sample packs from Mystro, LeriQ, Dunnie, and more:
April 19, 2022