Afrobeats: What do you call it...

25 Feb 2018

The last five years have seen the Afrobeats sound gather ever greater popularity both in Britain and across the globe.

What was once dismissed as a niche underground hybrid of RnB, hip hop and bashment laced with distinctive African melodies has ballooned in influence, and we’ve now reached a point where mainstream pop acts are turning to UK Afrobeats artists to lend some magic to their sound. This year alone Emile Sande commissioned Afro B and Team Salut to rework her fan favourite Babe, whilst One Direction’s Liam Payne jumped in the studio with NSG and producer Jae 5 (and that’s before we even note that Ed Sheeran’s biggest hit to date, Shape of You, is clearly inspired by Afrobeats). Meanwhile for those seeking something a touch more authentic, J Hus has stormed the charts with his unique mix of Afrobeats and rap, and a host of innovative artists from Yxng Bane to Belly Squad to Naira Marley are poised to break into stardom. It’s no longer a question of whether Afrobeats has taken over, but just how far it’s going to go – and what we’re going to call it when it gets there….

Whilst this may appear to be an overnight success story, to portray it as such would do a disservice to the steady work put in by artists, DJs and promoters to build the solid foundations that have enabled the scene to flourish. Back in 2011, Ice Prince and Wizkid were playing live shows in the UK, touring on the back of their respective classic debut albums. These gigs (and the records themselves) combined with increasingly visible hits from the likes of D’Banj, P Square and Sarkodie inspired a young generation of UK based African’s to start to embrace the emerging Afrobeats sound for themselves.

In 2013 Fuse ODG was the first visibly successful result of this, with his run of hits including Antenna and Million Pound Girl showing that there was a thirst for his uptempo Azonto influenced sound in the commercial realm. Around Fuse artists such as Mista Silva, Vibe Squad and Kwamz and Flava bubbled up on the underground, their music more indebted to the dance sounds coming from Nigeria and Ghana than they were anything being made by their UK contemporaries. However, these artists seeded the idea of people MCing over UK tracks in African accents, something only a handful of artists had previously attempted (most notably grime era dons African Boi and Rebler). Once this idea took hold, a wave of artists started emerging on the underground, with acts such as Naira Marley, Timbo STP (and the STP family) and Sneakbo fusing snatches of Yoruba and Twi slang with the slower paced rhythms and street tales of UK Rap and bashment to create a vital new sound.

Whilst DJs such as Abrantee at Capital Xtra and Edu at 1Xtra continued to heavily support African based artists, a new school of DJs such as Afro B and P.Montana began to flourish on digital stations Radar and Reprezent by pushing this fresh UK version of Afrobeats. The years 2015–16 saw an explosion of music that was a hybrid of the grit and realism of UK street tracks with the ear worm melodies and syncopated rhythms of Afrobeats. It was somewhere between rap, RnB, Bashment and Afrobeats and the clubs couldn’t get enough. As everyone from Kojo Funds to Vianni to Ezi Emela pushed out in their own lane, artists were keen not to be seen making anyone else’s genre- and so the name wars began.

Kojo has labelled his sound AfroSwing, because, as he puts it, it’s got an Afro feel but can swing from one vibe to another. Afro B has said in interview that he feels the sound could accurately be called AfroFusion, but he’s settled on AfroWave because it sounds better. AfroTrap has been adopted by French artists such as MHD, who’s sound is more indebted to American trap beats, whilst Lotto Boyzz have named their rendition Afrobbean in homage to their Caribbean heritage. Meanwhile, Spotify have decided to call their playlist Afro Bashment, J Hus refuses to call it anything at all, and P.Montana insists that it’s all just called Afrobeats. If this seems overly confusing, it’s because it is – DJs can and do play tunes from all of these artists back to back with no one batting an eyelid, and the difference in name is a lot more to do with artists’ wanting to own the genre than any massive disparity in sound. So maybe we shouldn’t worry about the naming this scene too much, and instead leave the last word to Afro B, who speaking in a recent documentary got to straight to the heart of the matter: “Is it called Afrowave, Afroswing or Afrotrap? I don’t know, but it sounds good..!”