In a long, winding thought spiral put into words that were posted across social media on Tuesday, British supermodel, Naomi Campbell, called out the organizers of the Grammy Awards for failing to recognize the singularity of Afrobeats. “Recently,” Ms. Campbell wrote. “The genre was categorized into your ‘World Music’ category at the 2020 Grammys. This misrepresentation diminishes an entire genre in which such a high standard of talent has emerged; a genre that has been a force of hope and positivity for many, and a vehicle for artistry on the continent of Africa.” Ms. Campbell is, of course, right in the regard that Afrobeats – or the narrow construct through which all music from Africa is popularly referred to – has provided the global music world many gifted musicians of the highest standard who have shone on the highest stages in recent times.
Ms. Campbell’s impassioned defense of Afrobeats is noble, it most likely comes from a place of concern about the burgeoning music culture in West Africa – although some critics doubt her intentions; and of course, Burna Boy not being awarded a Grammy Award on Sunday. The 28-year-old lost to Beninese singer, Angelique Kidjo, in the World Music category of the American award, but the non-award feels deeply personal because this is a mainstream Nigerian act who released a brilliant crossover project in a year where he put in the work, logged hours in numerous cities as he pushed the gospel of African music forward, and yet seemingly lost out on what was being regarded as the big reward for all his work. It hurts and, truth be said, conversations need to be had at what appears to be a key juncture for African music.
But Ms. Campbell’s request that the Recording Academy create an “Afrobeats Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year and all the subcategories that this genre so deserves” is not the sort of conversation we should be having, at least not yet. Since Wizkid was featured on Drake’s insanely popular 2016 hit One Dance, the interest of popular music samplers from western markets has been turned to music from the motherland and that steadily built up interest in music coming out of Lagos and other cultural hotspots in West Africa, culminating in a successful 2019 that was bookended by the Beyoncé-curated The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack album celebrating some of the brightest lights of African – read West African – pop. As it is, all things Nigerian holds heavy cultural weight and are being amplified across the world and into spaces they won’t have gotten into a decade ago.
As a people, Nigerians have often felt the weight of history on their back; from our earliest days as a nation, we have always burdened ourselves with the imperative to do, to achieve and represent the black race. Even our foreign policy as a nation is hinged on the belief in manifest destiny and maybe it is an overestimation of ourselves, at this moment, that is clouding our judgment because we must admit the elephant in the room: a deficit of value. Nigerians must recognize that music is a business. And that to get unfiltered access to all the spaces that we feel like our talents and stars merit, we must bring money, a lot of it, to the accounts of American gatekeepers and music industrialists. Right now, that is just not the case. And in a case of cosmic comedy, only a little percentage of our home demography pays for music at any level.
The presumed centering of African music as a staple in American culture is a trope that needs to be demystified as the sound spectrum of our music remains exotic in a way that is inaccessible to average American listeners. Other cultural imports to American music have had to endure a long and arduous process of adaptation to American music that has made them veritable American cultural identities after decades of interpolation. Reggae/dancehall can trace an unbroken identity in American markets from the efforts of the iconic Bob Marley to Sean Paul and now Popcaan; reggaeton/ Music Urban can similarly claim a place in American pop culture history courtesy the efforts of stars like Carlos Santana, Selena, Luis Miguel, Daddy Yankee, and others. There has been a documented process for the music to become a part of American culture and receive the acclaim that it does today proving that they are beyond flashpoints. That is why Justin Bieber is comfortably featured on the remix of Despacito, or Drake feels comfortable speaking patois on his songs; these are cultures that have been assimilated into the American consumers’ subconscious and given repeated validation by their biggest stars. Nigerian incursions into Western markets in the past have been little more than tentative dips in the pool rather than wholehearted plunges into the deep end. Juju legend, King Sunny Ade, embarked on an American campaign in the 70s, but that was ultimately short-lived; Majek Fashek also made moves at the height of his career but his music was tinged with reggae influences rather than traditional African instrumentation.
Beyond a long footprint on American pop culture, a proper lack of identity might be one of the most pertinent issues impeding Nigerian music worldwide. In the earliest days of Nigeria to the world, there was confusion on what Afrobeats meant: what was the sound of Nigeria, what were the sonic call cards that made us unique, and who were the sound bases in our industry? All these were questions that largely went unanswered in those early days. One of the flagship releases of the movement, Wizkid’s Sounds From The Other Side, lived up to its name as it barely reflected the nuances and subtleties that made Nigerian music memorable; the project, marketed as a mixtape, drew influences mostly from Island and Caribbean music. Only in the last year, perhaps buoyed by Burna Boy’s originality, have Nigerian artists seemed willing to do what might traditionally be referred to as Afrobeat; prioritizing the heavy drumming and lightly-discordant rhythmic structures that make our tunes famous.
To be truthful, the lack of clamor for more representation is not entirely dependent on quality or visibility alone; demand matters. While the introduction of the internet effectively changed the pattern of music distribution and consumption, making Nigerian pop accessible to a new audience, for a sound to visibly establish itself on the soundscape of a new market it needs active listeners to form a hub in that locale. These conduits are important in establishing a tentative insider’s link with the community and later deepening that bond – an example would be the Nigerian and West African community in London that has made Afrobeats and variations of African music popular in the British capital. Conduits aggrandize the music, the culture, and the cult of personalities around it through several formats: stan accounts, streaming, and critical analysis. The diversity in America- a country with 50 states and 330 million people makes this a more complicated task.
But, as in Afrobeats’ case, even with the advantage of being the rave of the moment, some sort of structure is needed at home to provide anchorage for our biggest stars as they navigate the tempest that is breaking through in American markets. Creators are always going to seek validation and the awards feed their sense of worth but – in Nigeria’s case at least – the artists feel as though they have grown bigger than the celebratory spaces that exist in Nigeria. Concerns can be raised about these events but artists must realize that these local frameworks are the only ones set up to celebrate them for what they primarily are: Nigerian artists. The Grammys’ narrow classification of music from across several continents into a World Music category reflects its attempt to boost the popular appeal and a poor play at authenticating thriving music cultures that need rejigging, but how soon will this come? In a think piece for Uproxx, Ivie Ani writes that artists seeking validation from the Grammys is, unfortunately, “a material consequence of the colonial power dynamics that permeate every scope of society and culture.” In a sense, this is a correct assessment of the issue, but the flip side is that musicians can use their status as globally recognized icons to uplift and create meaningful reward systems at home that celebrate them without subjecting themselves to the strictures of an American award ceremony like the Grammys that actively others their music.
The first stone has been cast in the fight to re-imagine Afrobeats’ place in the larger world and how it impacts American popular culture and it is impressive that Burna Boy has been the one to fire up this public discourse. The other end of the discussion that seems to have been willfully avoided since the early days of the “Africa to the world movement” is what will continue to decide the music culture’s chance of fully establishing itself: how do we balance global domination building respectable local structures? The answer to that question is the key moving forward.