The beat-heavy, electronic music from Nigeria has been gaining a global fan base and is a point of pride across Africa. It’s also finally helping local artists make real money. But is Afrobeats establishing a path to global domination that other genres can follow, or is an entire continent being reduced to one country’s signature sound?
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Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.
Ciku Kimeria is the editor of Quartz Africa, the guide to the important stories of innovation across the continent’s wide-ranging economies. She is obsessed with novels—she’s written two—and speaks English, Swahili, and French.
Ciku’s Afrobeats picks:
This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org and Soundcloud:
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Bong Chime 1 by FoolBoyMedia
Bong Chime 2 by FoolBoyMedia
Jammin’ – Royalty Free Afro Beat. by 3beatsprod
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PEN SIGNATURE SIGNING 2.wav by ListenTonyBoy
Crowd Cheer II by FoolBoyMedia
Kira Bindrim: When you hear a catchy song you just can’t place, sometimes the best move is Shazam. It’s a music search app that identify songs by hearing them, which means Shazam’s most search tracks are a pretty good indicator of listener curiosity. And on August 30 of this year, one particular song topped Shazam’s charts because of one particular phenomenon. The song was “Essence” by Nigerian singer Wizkid.
Wizkid is a poster child for a genre known as Afrobeats. It’s characterized by groovy percussion and auto-tuned vocals. Afro beats originates in Lagos, Nigeria, but musicians like Wizkid are finding bigger and bigger audiences abroad. Today, Afrobeats artists perform at global festivals, they sign record deals with major labels, they sell out stadiums, and they get high-profile collaborations. Essence already has a remix with Justin Bieber, and Wizkid has collaborated with Chris Brown, Future, Trey Songz, and Drake. But for continental Africa, and Nigeria especially, Afrobeats is also a symbol of an evolution in the domestic music scene, where local sales are still dominated by pirated albums. Through streaming and social media, the genre is finding popularity at home and around the world, which means more Nigerian artists are now able to make actual money off of their music. But is Afrobeats establishing a path to domination that other countries and other genres can follow, or is an entire continent being reduced to one area’s signature sound?
This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: Afrobeats, and what happens when a nation’s music goes global.
I am joined now by Ciku Kimeria, who is the editor of Quartz Africa and is based in Dakar. How is Dakar today?
Ciku Kimeria: Dakar is beautiful today—it’s sunny, it’s hot, I passed by the ocean on the way here, you know. So, yeah, I’m happy. It’s a good day. And how are things in New York, Kira?
Kira Bindrim: It’s actually quite a lovely day here as well. I do not pass scenic beaches on my way into the office. But I did see some pigeons. So, hey, what more can you ask for. So as I just mentioned, you are currently in Dakar, you live there now. And you are from Kenya if I’m correct. And I’d mentioned at the top that Afrobeats itself is originates in Nigeria. So how did all of these things combine to get you interested in Afrobeats as a subject?
Ciku Kimeria: Yes, it’s true. I’m Kenyan born and raised. And I’ve traveled and lived in many different parts of the continent and the world. I would say that my love of Afrobeats came when I was in the US for my undergrad, so between 2005 and 2009. I remember hearing this genre of music that was just so catchy, it was what was played at all the African parties. And that’s when I fell in love with it. At that time it hadn’t yet hit as much in Kenya.
Kira Bindrim: So I’m going to give you a little challenge and the challenge is for you to give me three songs that you think are really emblematic of Afrobeats so we can sort of orient the listener in this particular genre. So what is song number one?
Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, and Femi Kuti
Ciku Kimeria: Perfect. So song number one is “On the Low” by Burna Boy. And Burna Boy, he’s the African giant. So Burna Boy is a Grammy Award-winning African artist. You hear doo-doo doo. This is the way it introduces you into it, you get into the scene. And then after that, you hear Burna Boy’s voice which is huh huh huh, which is amazing. And you just get into the zone and it’s so catchy, it just makes you feel happy and want to dance.
Kira Bindrim: Next song. What is your number two?›
Ciku Kimeria: My next song is by Yemi Alade. It’s “Africa,” and it’s Yemi Alade featuring Sauti Sol—Sauti Sol is Kenya’s biggest band. The thing about Yemi Alade is she’s very pan African. She has a mama Africa vibe, she wears wax print. To me it seemed perfect that she has a song called “Africa,” which is a collaboration with artists from a different part of the continent. And as you watch the video, you see them celebrating just the joy that’s there on the continent ,you see the children playing football on the pitch, you see the beautiful waterfalls that she’s at, you see them celebrating amazing African heroes. So that’s that song just makes me feel very happy to be African.
Kira Bindrim: I’m sure Yemi is unique and singular and I don’t want to compare her to anyone else. But how would you describe her voice for someone who’s not familiar?
Ciku Kimeria: Her voice is that of a songbird, but a very flamboyant, interesting , jazzy songbird, so a songbird with character not just like ooo it’s like OOOOO.
Kira Bindrim: That captures it truly amazingly, beautiful songbird. Okay, last song—what is your number three song for Afrobeats?
Ciku Kimeria: So my number three song is by Wizkid featuring Femi Kuti, and it’s called “Jaiye Jaiye.” Femi Kuti is the son of Fela Kuti, who was the godfather of Afrobeat. This song pays homage to this genre of Afrobeat. So even though it’s an Afrobeats track, it’s really respecting the people who have gone before them. And this song captures that and it’s still an Afrobeats song.
Afrobeat vs. Afrobeats
Kira Bindrim: You touched on this a little bit in describing that song. What is the difference between Afrobeat and Afrobeats?
Ciku Kimeria: Afrobeat is a genre of music that came from the 1970s and the godfather of Afrobeat is Fela Kuti. So Fela Kuti was, he was revolutionary, his music was about politics, his music was about opression, revolution, and so on. I would call it more Afrofunk, Afrojazz. The songs can run 10 minutes long, and they’re best performed live. So it’s not a rush type of music. Afrobeats is highly percussive. Sometimes there’s auto tune, but it’s about dancing, it’s about joy, it’s about joie de vivre, it’s about life, it’s about spending, it’s about partying. So it’s very rare that Afrobeats itself is political. It’s more about, let’s dance, let’s be happy.
Kira Bindrim: Tell me a little bit about the wider music scene in Nigeria, to the extent that you can generalize. It sounds like music is a really big part of the culture, or something that people celebrate a lot. What is the music scene like there?
Ciku Kimeria: When I was in Nigeria, I was in Lagos and Ogun state, but we went for quite a few live music events. So I got the feeling that music is loved, they really value their music. I had a lot of Nigerian music playing everywhere I was, so they’re quite proud of their music. Some of the live music might be Afrobeats, it might be soul, it might be jazz, and even Afrobeat itself, the genre from the 70s, still survives. So it felt like a place where they really love and value music. The economics of it, though, is a bit tricky. Because people listen to music all the time, the CDs being sold on the road. But it might be a bit trickier for people to actually pay for the music.
Kira Bindrim: So if you are a listener of music, or even an artist just trying to make your art, it sounds like it’s a really vibrant place with a growing market of people who are listening to music and looking for a little bit of joy in their lives and relief and dancing and things like that. But if you are an artist who is looking to make money from your music, there are challenges, is that right?
How Afrobeats musicians make money
Ciku Kimeria: Yes. It’s changing bit by bit because there are more homegrown initiatives in the country. But I would say that Afrobeats musicians, for them to go big, they’ve had to go global. And there’s been a few ways they’ve monetized their skills is, one is concerts. So Afrobeats musicians travel all the time and they fill up huge auditoriums. So I remember a few years ago, Davido gave a concert in Suriname, so the smallest South American country, and he had 10,000 people attend his concert in Suriname. Quite a few of the Afrobeats musicians have filled up the O2 Arena in London. And when tickets go on sale, they sell out within minutes for the O2 Arena in London. When I was in Kenya, I saw so many Afrobeats artists perform live. So they really travel a lot. So concerts would be one place they make their money.
The second is record deals and record labels. So as the dominance of Afrobeats became more seen globally, the big record labels came into the continent. So you have Sony, you have Universal, you have Warner Group —all of them are on the continent and signed artists. And so for these artists, they’ve gone global, obviously, because they have huge record deals. And there’s not just global record labels that are doing well—there are a few homegrown record labels. And I should give a shout out to Mavin Records by Don Jazzy. So Don Jazzy is, he’s amazing. He’s a musician, he’s a producer, he’s one of the godfathers of Afrobeats in Nigeria. And if you, if you’ve heard his voice—dorobuchi, dorojazzy—that’s Don Jazzy. And Don Jazzy founded Mavin records. And a few years ago, they got an undisclosed million dollar investment from Kupanda Holdings. So just showing that local record labels also, you know, holding their own.
Other ways that they’ve made money is through the telcos. And with the telcos, the relationship I would say is a two-fer. So it’s through endorsements, but also through ringback tones. The telcos on the continent are the biggest companies in some of these countries. So if you’re a new artist and you get a deal with MTN, you have made it. In Kenya, we’d say you’ve landed. I don’t know what, Kira, you’d say in the US for that.
Kira Bindrim: I don’t think there’s quite an equivalent because getting a deal with Verizon or AT&T is not as big a deal, but I totally know what you’re saying, a huge endorsement can make all the difference.
Ciku Kimeria: Yeah, basically, you’ve landed, people will see you, they’ll hear your view, but they cannot even touch you because where you are, you’re at another level. So there’s that—if you get an endorsement from telcos then you’re super, super big. But also the telcos were amazing because ringback tones were another way that artists were able to monetize. Up to 2017, ringback tones were around, they were making MTN and other telcos around $100 million, just from ringback tones. For the listener who doesn’t know what ringback tones are: when you call someone, instead of hearing the trrtrrrtrrr—no, this is Africa, people want to hear something exciting. So, you know, you’ll call someone and a song will play for you as you’re waiting for the person to speak. And that was $100 million industry in 2017. So those are some of the ways that artists were able to monetize.
The last way was through streaming platforms. So Spotify, all those platforms of the world, but also there’s some local streaming labels, such as Mdundo that’s based in Kenya, that have also helped artists monetize.
Kira Bindrim: It’s sad that ringback tones didn’t just become a global phenomenon. I think they briefly were, but I guess we just don’t call each other enough to continue to be $100 million, or an enormous industry.
Ciku Kimeria: Yeah, it’s nice when you call someone and you hear some nice song playing.
Kira Bindrim: Yeah, I think it totally makes sense.
Kira Bindrim: Because of the budding popularity of Afrobeats around the world, it sounds like there are new mechanisms for artists to actually make money. So they can make money through concerts, which has always been true. They can make money more now from streaming. They are more likely to get record deals from international labels. And the only way that they cannot make money now and forever is sort of local album sales, because that continues to be dominated by pirated actual CDs or even pirated digital albums. Am I understanding all of that right?
Ciku Kimeria: Yes, you are.
Kira Bindrim: What do you think that that’s doing for the genre, as it were, within Nigeria? So in the past, you could be a hugely popular artist, it sounds like, but not necessarily make any money because your popularity was through this system where pirated albums were so popular. Now you can be a hugely popular artist and make a lot of money, theoretically, at least some people can. Is that drawing more interest and attention to it from people who could potentially be artists? What kind of, I guess, results are we seeing from that popularity?
Ciku Kimeria: The result of the popularity of Afrobeats is not just limited to Afrobeats musicians, but is even wider to African musicians. So obviously for Afrobeats musicians, Wizkid has a song where he sings about a place, you know, Surulere—like, he’s talking about his neighborhood. And someone can look and say, ‘He came from my neighborhood.’ People can look and say, ‘He grew up where I grew up, and now he’s a household name worldwide. Maybe that could happen for me.’ So I’m pretty sure it motivates other Nigerian musicians, and especially other Afrobeats musicians.
Nigerian music’s global appeal
But the other thing about Afrobeats is that it’s been a door opener for other genres because other African artists are looking and they’re saying, ‘These Nigerian musicians are doing so well. So there’s actually an acceptance and there’s an interest globally for our type of music.’ For the longest time, African music was kind of relegated to this bucket called world music, which is where everyone who’s not from the US was put in. But now you can see that there’s Afrobeats, there’s other musical genres. People might not know that these are not Afrobeats, but as long as my music got heard, then it’s benefited you. So an example is Jersualema—it’s not an Afrobeats track, but it got huge global appeal. And maybe if Afrobeats had not been that well known globally, maybe it might not have, you know, got into the scale it did. And eventually Burna Boy also did get on a remix for that. So Afrobeats has encouraged a whole generation of musicians from Nigeria, but across the continent, and maybe even globally.
Kira Bindrim: One of the things you’re kind of suggesting is that Afrobeats—obviously, we’ve been talking about how it’s popular globally, and we’ve talked about how it’s popular within Nigeria, but that it’s also quite popular across the entire continent. Is that right?
Ciku Kimeria: Yes, Afrobeats is so huge, that even a few years back, Kenyan artists were complaining that the radios weren’t playing their music because they are playing Afrobeats. That’s how huge Afrobeats has become. And I remember when I was growing up, when we watched music videos, it was always music from the US, the UK—we never had music from any other place. But now, it’s Afrobeats that’s dominating.
Kira Bindrim: I’d never really thought about that growing up, like that world music was this othering of any type of music that wasn’t coming out of the US. And I totally agree that there’s this shift now. And I love the idea that Afrobeats is kind of breaking down that wall.
Ciku Kimeria: Yeah. No, it’s true, Afrobeats is doing that.
Kira Bindrim: In your opinion, why do you think Afrobeats is catching on around the entire world in the last few years? What is the reason that we’re all now really into this genre of music?
Ciku Kimeria: There are a few factors behind Afrobeats’ global rise. One is the Nigerian diaspora. So Nigerian diaspora is huge, they’re spread out everywhere throughout the world. And wherever Nigerians are, there are tightly knit community, but also Nigerians are generally quite successful everywhere else that they’ve gone, and still have the attachment to their culture. So I think it’s amazing that wherever they are, they want to consume Nigerian food, they want to watch Nollywood movies, and they wanted to dance to their music. So they’ve really exported their music to all these places. I mean, once Afrobeats did reach different places, people would hear it and they’d say, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And eventually, we started seeing quite a few collaborations. So I think there’s that element where there’s the Nigerian diaspora that got it well known that it became globally known, but then the fact that now they had collaborations with global styles—some of the Afrobeats musicians had collaborations with global styles—therefore, even further cemented them in the West. And the music is great. So if a song makes you dance, if a song makes you want to hit repeat, most people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t listen to this because I’ve never, I don’t know this place.’ If it catches on, it catches on.
Kira Bindrim: I actually cheated a little bit on the way over here and was listening to the Afrobeats playlist that you put together, which we’ll of course share with the listeners, and it is so freakin’ catchy. Like, it is perfect music to walk around the city to. It is difficult music to listen to on the subway because you really just want to dance to yourself, there is something just—it seems perfectly suited to force your body to naturally respond to rhythm the way that our bodies do without even thinking about it. No matter where you are, you just kind of want to move to it. And I can see that being a big part of why it would catch on around the world. But—sorry, I’m just I’m getting distracted by my own love of Afro beats now.
The thing I wanted to ask you is whether you think social media has played a role in the ability of artists to be discovered, and especially global artists to be discovered, without some of the limitations that came from an industry really decided upon by record companies.
Ciku Kimeria: Social media has definitely democratized, I think, fame to some extent. If you’re a Nigerian artist somewhere in the middle of the country who’s never left the country, that might have limited your chances of getting big. But now you can go, you can put your music video on YouTube, people can share it, and people can discover you. I remember reading that Yemi Alade, she got an email, she got a message from Beyonce’s team for her to be in the Lion King soundtrack. And she thought was spam. She didn’t believe it until it was almost so late for her to be considered for it. Because she’s thinking, ‘Beyonce is DMing me? No, it’s not Beyonce.’ But this has happened. Quite a few people have been discovered online and, you know, made wonderful matches and just gone quite big from that. So the social media has definitely been a great equalizer. And its importance right now during the pandemic is even more because, we’ve talked about how the importance of concerts, there’s not been that much happening now during the pandemic. So social media is what has kept the music alive.
Kira Bindrim: I do kind of feel like if you’re Beyonce, and you’re reaching out to people, you should, like, a special unicorn should bring an envelope to—like there should be something that indicates that this is really from Beyonce, I would not trust a regular email from Beyonce either. Something would be afoot, I would want more fanfare.
Ciku Kimeria: They should have like a ‘verified’ in emails or a ‘verified’ in DMs—like ‘This is a legitimate email from Beyonce.’
Kira Bindrim: A hologram, even just a video—just something to, you know, confirm. I have a question for you, which is: is there anything negative about Afrobeats becoming globally popular, or any sort of unintended consequence of this genre taking off in such a huge way?
Ciku Kimeria: At this stage, I would, I wouldn’t want to say negative because right now we’re just happy that there’s a genre from the continent that’s doing so well. And how I see it is, Afrobeats is a door opener. So maybe some of the challenges might just be the fact that Afrobeats is so huge, there are instances where it might be crowding out other musicians. But for me, as I mentioned, growing up, we never had African music playing. So it’s great that we’re having African music playing. It’s unfortunate that it’s African music playing at the expense of, you know, Kenyan artists, but to me, it seems like this is a step in the right direction. Like we actually wanted to listen to our own music.
Another challenge might be the fact that since Afrobeats is this huge, everyone thinks that any big song coming out of the continent is Afrobeats. But we have like Angolan Kuduro, we have Bongo Flava from Tanzania, we have Gengetone from Kenya, we have Coupé-décalé from Ivory Coast—we have just so many rich musical genres across the continent. And maybe the existence or the fact that Afrobeats is so huge might make it harder for some of them to, you know, to be seen, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Because Afrobeats is so huge, it means there’s an appetite for African music, but because Afrobeats is so huge, it might mean that also people are being directed to go towards a certain type of genre.
Kira Bindrim: Right. So there’s like a potential flattening that happens where everything gets reduced because we have this one genre that is so popular, but the overall attention on music from the continent is higher and that’s probably a net positive thing.
Ciku Kimeria: I believe so.
Kira Bindrim: Do you feel like the path that Afrobeats is carving—you know, some of the things we talked about with record labels coming in and streaming opportunities and social opportunities—that that is replicable for other genres on the continent that could themselves go global? Or is there something unique about Afrobeats that particularly lends itself to that kind of popularity?
Ciku Kimeria: It definitely is. Because as I mentioned before, I feel like Afrobeats is a door opener. And it’s been a door opener in that more people are listening to Afrobeats so they’re more open to other genres. But also it’s a door opener in the collaborations because some of these other genres I mentioned, the top musicians in those genres also have collaborations with Afrobeats musicians. So it’s almost like Afrobeats has opened the door and then now they’re taking other other people along with them. So I think as long as we keep on having these collaborations, then other artists can also be identified. You do see other non-Afrobeats stars getting great record deals.
What is your favorite Afrobeats song?
Kira Bindrim: Okay, I have one more question for you: I want to know your favorite Afrobeats song. So at the top I was asking you sort of like the emblematic ones or you think that would be helpful for the listener. But what is the song that you just, for years of your life that on repeat that you can’t stop listening to?
Ciku Kimeria: Oh my God, I need some time to think. Because at any given point, I have a song that I love, and then another one comes out. Wait, I need to, I need to think. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god—ah, Runtown, “Mad Over You.”
Kira Bindrim: Runtown? R-U-N…
Ciku Kimeria: Yeah.
Kira Bindrim: I got it.
Ciku Kimeria: That’s a, that one was I played it on repeat for so long. And the reason I loved Runtown “Mad Over You” it’s just, it’s celebration of African beauty. It’s just, yeah, it’s the most beautiful—if you love fashion, if you love beauty, just the most beautiful designs. The beat is just simple. This song was —yeah, it was a club banger for a long time. It has a lot of good memories. Yeah, that song. Honestly, that song I partied so much to it like in 2019, 2020—no, not 2020, 2019 before the world ended. Yeah.
Kira Bindrim: This is great. This is gonna send me off into the rest of my day, Ciku. Thank you so much for joining me.
Ciku Kimeria: No, thank you, thank you. It was so nice being here.
Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to editors Ciku Kimeria in Dakar and Alex Ossola in New York, and to former Quartz Africa reporter Yomi Kazeem in Lagos and former Quartz Africa editor Yinka Adegoke for their many contributions on this topic.
If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Please tell your friends about us! Send them our Afrobeats playlist. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.