African beats are back, under new management

Nigerian and Ghanaian artists are inspiring a crossover of African rhythms, hip-hop and dancehall. Now Wyclef Jean and Sean Paul are getting in on the act

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The Independent Culture

A new sound is bringing sunny positivity to the charts thanks to the input of African and African-heritage artists. Pop-dance hits with links to Nigeria and Ghana have been enjoying both high placings and longevity – a sign that something significant is taking place.

This phenomenon has acquired a name – Afrobeats – to differentiate the fusion of polished house/R&B production, Jamaican dancehall and African rhythms from the classic big-band Afrobeat purveyed by the likes of Fela Kuti. It is a multifarious scene that encompasses both first-generation British talents and African producers with their increasing ambitions to reach into  global markets.

It has been bubbling up for a couple of years, though this month sees releases from two key players – Nigerian star D’Banj’s “Bother You”, the follow-up to his breakthrough UK hit “Oliver Twist”, while “Dangerous Love” features reggae star Sean Paul, though fans will be excited that it is the latest single from a Londoner of Ghanaian descent, Richard Abiona, aka Fuse ODG.

Abiona’s three releases to date have all been sizeable hits – his party-starting debut “Azonto” spread the eponymous Ghanaian dance worldwide via word of mouth and a viral video, then came Top 10 entry “Antenna”, aided by a remix cameo from Wyclef Jean. Finally, “Million Pound Girl (Badder Than Bad)” peaked at No 5 in January of this year, so there are high expectations surrounding his propulsive follow-up. The ease with which a former Fugees star and now Paul have collaborated with Abiona suggest parallels with western sounds, though you do pick up recognisable Afrobeat rhythms.

Much of this is down to Abiona’s varied upbringing. Born in the UK, he went to primary school in Ghana when his parents returned there, but came back aged 11. During this period, he struggled at first to fit in, imbibing high-life groups from his mum and dad’s heritage at home, while hearing So Solid Crew on the radio and getting into US hip-hop. “[I was] constantly hearing [African music] being played in the house by my parents,” he explains. “I grew up on hip-hop so that’s had a huge impact on me and still does today. But also just being in the UK and listening to the radio and music here like garage, grime and synth-driven dance music.”

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Continental drift: Fela Kuti (ITV/Rex)

 

It was a trip to Ghana in 2011 that set him on the path he follows today. There, he hooked up with a performer from an earlier generation. Reggie Rockstone, also UK-born and of Ghanaian heritage. In the mid-Nineties, he had helped found an earlier Afro-rap fusion – hip-life – that continues to thrive with Reggie himself still a respected player. “Azonto” was inspired by this stay, forging Abiona’s current sound – “a fusion of African percussion and western dance sounds”. 

A London-based DJ, Capital Xtra host Abrantee, has given the name Afrobeats to a melange that owes as much to funky house, R&B and dancehall as it does to hip-hop. On his show you can hear anything from the raw sound of hip-life duo R2Bees to the smoother R&B delivery of P-Square, identical twins Peter and Paul Okoye who are signed to Akon’s Konvict Music label. They have yet to push their recordings in the UK, though have played major live shows at such venues as Hammersmith Apollo.

Another key difference nowadays is that African heritage is becoming as accepted or even as cool as, Afro-Caribbean, so British rapper Giggs can be found collaborating with British-Nigerian vocalist Moelogo. A figure without need of that support is D’Banj, a major star across Africa, whose new single “Bother You” shows a writer progressing lyrically. While his previous hit, released via Kanye West’s Good Music, used wit to highlight his ambition, this single was apparently inspired by best-selling novel Half of a Yellow Sun (the video features exerpts from the movie).

That film, made and mostly funded in Nigeria – reportedly the local movie industry’s most expensive – reminds us Afrobeats has arrived on a wave of increasing confidence in parts of the continent. That nation, Africa’s most populous, has recently overtaken South Africa as the region’s largest economy. This is a story Abiona is keen to promote himself, even appearing on Newsnight to rail against continuing media depictions of Africa as a source of bad news. There, as in many media opportunities, he wore a cap bearing the acronym Tina, which stands for his guiding phrase, “This Is New Africa”.

A thoughtful interviewee, he drops the statistic that seven of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa. “There are a lot of amazing developments in technology, fashion, business, etc., taking place on the African continent that the world could learn from. Also, when I go to Ghana, there is just a general spirit of happiness, music everywhere and people always dancing. Maybe the weather helps but they know how to have fun – and I think that comes across in the music.” This is not to detract from the enormity of the Boko Haram abductions, but, as Abiona says, “there needs to be a balance.”

For the music-makers seeking a wider audience, another concern might be Afrobeats’ immediate future in the UK. Take a sound from an exotic locale, make global waves and tempt huge US names to get on board. Now it starts to sound like the short-lived reggaeton craze or past interest in Brazil’s favela funk. Abiona, though, sees that as looking through the wrong end of the telescope. After all, Africa is a whole continent – everyone else should take notice.

“You have to remember over there it’s not a niche genre,” he says. “African music has a mainstream home in Africa. So I think that the genre will continue to develop and thrive as the continent does – it’s one of many growing exports.”

Fuse ODG’s ‘Dangerous Love’ ft Sean Paul is out on 18 May on 3Beat Records

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