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Why are African artists rejecting the 'Afrobeats' label?

In the past decade, Afrobeats has emerged as a cultural phenomenon, connecting Black people across the diaspora through its persistent celebration of Africanity. Its recent global popularity has resulted in a form of “musical diplomacy,” exporting African culture to the world. Yet, at the height of its popularity, the genre's forerunners—including Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, and Fireboy DML—are curiously distancing themselves from the label altogether. While there is validity in the discussion around the diverse spectrum of African music, the artists’ comments are rooted in an anti-blackness that warrants interrogation for the advancement of African music and culture. 

It all began with a Burna Boy’s Zane Lowe interview in August 2023, in promotion of the artist’s seventh studio album “I Told Them…”, where the self-proclaimed ‘African Giant’ criticised the genre for lacking “substance.” Following suit, Wizkid expressed his annoyance at being labelled as an Afrobeats artist in a series of instagram-story posts, remarking “Don’t call me that, hoe! I’m not Afro anything, bitch!'” Fireboy also piled on the Afrobeats slander, stating the Afrobeats scene, prior to his emergence, was just vibes and lacked “pure soul and lyricism.”  And finally, Davido as a guest on the Business Untitled Podcast, expressed his preference to being categorised as an Afrofusion artist. 

A closer examination of Afrobeats' history reveals the validity behind African artists' scepticism toward its utility as a descriptor. Afrobeats, not to be confused with Afrobeat pioneered by the late Fela Kuti, incorporates samples from Afrobeat classics, infused with African drum patterns and elements of Pop, Dancehall and Reggae. As Nigerian luminaries like 2Face, D'Banj, and P-Square began gaining traction on the UK music charts and within UK club scenes in the 2010s, this led to the adoption of "Afrobeats" as the catch-all term to describe music originating from West Africa. Meaning, it was more of a marketing label than an authentic representation, crafted to cater to Western audiences. 

The commodification of popular African music for global consumption has also led to the mislabeling of music from other African regions as Afrobeats. South African Hip-Hop artist Cassper Nyovest has been vocal about his false categorisation under the Afrobeats umbrella, sharing his struggle to receive nuanced treatment for his music in Western markets. 

As aptly noted by culture writer Korede Akinsete, when an African artist like Cassper Nyovest is more likely to be compared to Davido, than fellow rapper J. Cole simply because of his ethnicity, it underscores the potential obsolescence of Afrobeats as a blanket label.

While African Artists are valid in advocating for the nuanced categorisation of African music, this doesn’t excuse the anti-blackness that underpins their rejection of Afrobeats. Take, for instance, Wizkid's statement: “Abeg if [you] like Pakurumo Wizkid, don’t download this new album… in fact delete me from [your] playlist and your life”. This remark is problematic because it implies that fans of Pakurumo, alluding to Nigerian music listeners, aren't the intended audience for his new musical direction, despite their significant role in propelling him to mainstream success. Moreover it’s patronising and racist to assume African musical audiences lack the capacity to enjoy complex and alternative sounds compared to Western music fans, when this is far from the truth. 

While Afrobeats songs often reign supreme on the Nigerian music charts, genres like Dancehall, R&B, and Rap have enjoyed widespread popularity in West Africa for years. In fact, it's the fusion of these genres alongside African drum patterns, that led to the formation of Afrobeats as we know it, profoundly shaping Wizkid's artistic journey. Therefore, when Wizkid denigrates Nigerian music listeners, he's essentially demeaning his own roots and identity. From Wizkid’s perspective, even his former self as Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun, before attaining fame, is seemingly dismissed as lacking the intelligence to resonate with his newfound target audience.

"We are a party nation, finding expression in rhythm and emotional upliftment through joyful music. For example, Igbo traditional music, known for its heavy percussion, has historically been used to celebrate significant life events such as weddings, circumcisions, and even funerals."

Burna Boy criticised Afrobeats music for its perceived failure to address societal issues, remarking, "90 percent of these [Afrobeats Artists] have no real-life experience that they can understand. Nobody’s talking about anything. It’s just a great time. But at the end of the day, life is not an amazing time." However, the upbeat nature of Afrobeats does not necessarily imply a lack of depth. Furthermore, the belief that dance music lacks profundity and ignores societal concerns contradicts African musical traditions. As Nigerian music journalist Joey Akan points out, "We are a party nation, finding expression in rhythm and emotional upliftment through joyful music. For example, Igbo traditional music, known for its heavy percussion, has historically been used to celebrate significant life events such as weddings, circumcisions, and even funerals." Thus, the upbeat nature of Afrobeats does not preclude depth. Take, for instance, Omah Lay’s album "Boy Alone," which addresses themes of depression, masculinity, and substance abuse, or Ayra Starr’s songs like "Commas" and "Rush," which focus on self-love and emotional upliftment. Therefore, these artists not only uphold cultural heritage through their dance anthems but also infuse depth and meaning into the genre.

Finally, it is disingenuous for Afrobeats stars to utilise the Afrobeats label as a means of self-promotion in the scramble for crossover success, only to later reject the label after achieving fame. For instance, in a conversation with NME in July 2023, the magazine referred to Wizkid as an "important figure in Afrobeats for over a decade," a designation Wizkid embraced by stating, "I want to feed the people and myself with the finest music that I can make," implying that his commitment to championing Afrobeats remained unchanged since his early days. However, he publicly renounced Afrobeats just eight months later. 

While Burna Boy and Davido may argue that they began referring to themselves as Afrofusion artists as early as 2019, their stance is conveniently inconsistent. None of these artists raised objections to being labelled as Afrobeats pioneers during their album promotional tours or Grammy campaigns. This inconsistency suggests that their rejection of Afrobeats is an unsuccessful attempt to argue for their uniqueness in preserving their musical legacies. Moreover, this stance reinforces their exceptionalist, anti-black attitudes, as these artists imply that their success is in spite of being African artists rather than because of it.

Ultimately: should we do away with labelling mainstream African music altogether? This may not be ideal for both African artists and the sake of the globalisation of African culture. As creative entrepreneur Bomi Fagbemi explains, “being under a unified umbrella allows artists to benefit from easier music discovery and curation, helping to attract new listeners and fans to the region”. It might be pragmatic to retain an umbrella term. Perhaps Afrofusion is more fitting a label; one that aptly acknowledges the diverse sounds across the continent that have converged to shape popular African music. However, this transition must not stem from a place of self-hatred or anti-Blackness, both of which Afrobeats stars have inadvertently contributed to. 

Crucially, labeling popular African music as Afrofusion should not entail the lumping of non-mainstream genres into this category. Rather, this evolution should involve the recognition and celebration of various genres indigenous to the continent, such as Gqom, Highlife, and Bongo Flava. Through this nuanced approach, we can expose global audiences to the rich cultural tapestry of African music while ensuring that each genre receives the recognition and appreciation it deserves.


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