Most people confuse Afrobeat and Afrobeats but don’t know that the two are predominantly distinct in sound and genre. Music historians have traced origin sounds of Afrobeat in Ghana and Nigeria as early as the 1920s but most people would mark the birth of the genre to the 1960s. As it morphed into a looser style called Afrobeats, it became the No. 1 genre of popular music in the African continent for the past decade — and thanks to support from major American superstars and killer moves created by African dancers, it has invaded the U.S. as well.
“The name is kind of elusive and people get confused by it. I don’t even think just people who are not African get confused by it; I think Africans are also confused by the name. It’s always been contention around the name Afrobeats in general. Some people within the culture don’t even like the name Afrobeats. They don’t think it’s a proper descriptive of the sound. They think that it was just a name that people made in the U.K. and it stuck,” culture journalist Ivie Ani told REVOLT. “Afrobeats is the name people chose to go with and it is very different from Afrobeat.” She added, “People should look at Afrobeat as the genre that came way before Afrobeats. Afrobeats is more so an amalgamation of Afrobeat, hip hop, dancehall, all of the older sounds that we see in Nigeria and Ghana like Highlife and Fuji.”
Afrobeat was first popularized by the late Fela Kuti, a Nigerian legend who is widely acknowledged as the father of the genre. Kuti was a multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer and a human rights activist. He took African harmonic and rhythmic concepts and combined them with many contemporary musical genres to create the sound. As a musician, he traveled to the U.S., where he soaked up the American culture and applied it to his own art. His timeless tracks from more than 50 albums have continued to spread across the nations for generations.
Afrobeat puts together American influences like jazz and funk and combines them with elements of West African musical styles. For example, you can hear the strains of so-called Fuji music in the genre. Fuji hails from Nigeria and has roots to the music that was performed to wake Muslims during their holy month of Ramadan. Another common element in Afrobeat is Highlife music, a Ghanaian genre characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars. In more recent years, Afrobeat morphed into Afrobeats and simply became the new sound of Africa. It has diverse influences that take inspiration from its African roots and are combined with other music genres such as rap, reggae, dancehall, R&B, and hiplife, a musical style that Ghanaians identify as hip hop with a more modern expression.
When speaking about the two genres, Ani revealed a common issue that arises and makes it a lot more difficult for people to differentiate the words Afrobeat and Afrobeats tonally. “When we’re talking about people with West African accents, often times we tend to drop the s after things. You see it a lot in the Caribbean as well,” she explained. “For example, the word ‘artists’ — someone might be referring to the plural version of artist, but they’re dropping the s because of their accent, so they’ll say artist instead of artists. That happens a lot with the word Afrobeats. They’re saying Afrobeat referring to the newer genre Afrobeats, but with their accent, and tone and the way we speak, the s sometimes gets dropped and then you hear them say Afrobeat, but they’re not talking about Afrobeat. I think that is something that people don’t consider.”
Nigerian singer 2Baba, who is known as one of the biggest pioneers of Afrobeats, agreed that there is a huge space between the old and new school music artists across Africa. “Most of the sounds, ideas, philosophy, and even the mannerisms in them were very common and present in the old school sounds, but I think Fela was ahead of his time in so many ways and embodied this the most so naturally that the young minds gravitated towards him more in every aspect, and it was just a no brainer to accept the sound as Afrobeats,” he said.
Though it started in Africa and remains more popular and dominant there than any other kind of music, Afrobeats is not a one-continent phenomenon. It has been adopted around the world and has gained a constant presence on the radio, on TV, in award show categories, social media, and even in nightclubs around the world. Many West African artists have developed global audiences with their hits charting in multiple countries.
2Baba’s 2004 hit single “African Queen” was one of the first iterations of Afrobeats. “I really appreciate the love and respect I get,” the 47-year-old said when asked how he felt about the impact the song made around the world. “There were other songs that my Naija people felt more, but ‘African Queen’ was universally understandable. As an artist, you definitely must believe in what you put out and always hope the listeners will feel what you put out, so the response that I got was what I hoped for and beyond.” He ended up becoming the first winner of the MTV Europe Music Awards’ Best African Act category in 2005.
Other popular Afrobeats pioneers like P-Square, D’banj, Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, and Sarkodie have been consistently making charting records for years and paving a way for newer Afrobeats artist like Tems, Rema, Fireboy DML, and CKay to do the same. They’ve also made the genre a worldwide household name by influencing and collaborating with Western pop music artists like Beyoncé, Brandy, Madonna, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Chris Brown, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and more.
Wizkid stands as one of the first Nigerian artists to top the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart with his Drake collaboration “One Dance” in 2016. His hit single “Essence” featuring Tems gained popularity worldwide and, of course, made its way to the charts as well. In 2019, Nigerian-American singer Davido’s 2017 hit “Fall” was one of the top 100 most-Shazam-searched singles in the U.S., according to Rolling Stone. Two years after its release, the song became the longest charting Nigerian pop song in Billboard history. His latest album, Timeless, peaked at No. 37 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart.
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Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage, who started her career doing backup vocals for Mary J. Blige, has been crowned the “Queen of Afrobeats.” In 2016, she signed a management and publishing deal with Roc Nation and in 2018, she became the first woman to win in the Best African Act category at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Her collaboration with Brandy on “Somebody’s Son” landed her an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding International Song. “I draw a lot of inspiration from a variety of Nigerian music period — Afrobeat, Afrojuju, Fuji, Highlife and Yoruba sounds, to name a few. I grew up with these genres as the backdrop to my childhood, so it’s completely helped me shape how I make my music,” Savage said of her musical background.
A few months ago, Ghanaian dancehall artist Shatta Wale’s latest album, M.A.A.L.I, hit No. 1 on iTunes’ Top 100 Reggae Albums chart. In 2019, he also became the first Ghanaian artist to work with Beyoncé. He was featured on the Grammy Award winner’s hit single “Already” from The Lion King: The Gift album, which landed him a few spots on the U.S. Billboard charts. “Collaborating with an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber can be a remarkable opportunity for any artist,” he said. “Working with someone as talented and influential as Beyoncé can provide exposure, credibility, and the chance to reach a wider audience. Long story short, her team reached out to me and I was like, ‘Whaaaat!!!!! BEYONCE? JAY-Z, the Godfather’s wife? Our queen of queens?'” In 2012, rapper Sarkodie became the first Ghanaian artist to win the BET Award for Best International Act and in 2019, he was announced as the first winner in the BET Hip Hop Awards’ Best International Flow category.
On Tuesday (June 13), the Grammy Awards announced three new categories, including Best African Music Performance. This is a victory for both the Afrobeat and Afrobeats culture because it isn’t just limited to the latter genre but cuts across the highly rooted musical stylings mentioned above like Fuji, Highlife, Kizomba, and more. The breakdown of the category states, “A track and singles category that recognizes recordings that utilize unique local expressions from across the African continent. Highlighting regional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic musical traditions, the category includes but is not limited to the Afrobeat, Afro-fusion, Afro Pop, Afrobeats, Alte, Amapiano, Bongo Flava, Genge, Kizomba, Chimurenga, Highlife, Fuji, Kwassa, Ndombolo, Mapouka, Ghanaian Drill, Afro-House, South African Hip-Hop, and Ethio Jazz genres.”
“It brings me joy to see Afrobeats being embraced globally in the way that it is,” Savage stated. “It’s an ongoing journey, but the growth is definitely something to celebrate and feel good about.”
“The inclusion of Afrobeats categories in award shows reflects the genre’s impact on the music industry and its growing fan base. It provides a platform for African artists to receive recognition and exposure on a global scale, which can contribute to the diversification and enrichment of the overall music landscape,” Shatta Wale added.
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