5 Notes From Billboard’s Debut Afrobeats Chart

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Last week, Billboard announced its first try to document the burgeoning Afrobeats movement with a chart dedicated to covering the 50 best performing tracks within the US Market. Yesterday, the chart was released for the first time. Taking a look at the entries, some things stood out. 

Find five of them listed below; 

Nigeria controls Afrobeats

One bugbear of mine with regards to contemporary music is the use of Afrobeats as a name for what should simply be Afro Pop. There are a number of issues with this. One is that it’s a name that emanated from the West and serves as another reminder of how much of our lived experience has been commodified by outsiders. Another is that it’s a corruption of Afrobeat- the sound popularised by Fela Kuti and bears no real link to the contemporary sound. Afrobeats has no definitive sound which threatens the credibility of those who try to frame it as a genre. What we refer to as Afrobeats is a collection of R&B, Pop, Dance and Rap variations with a homegrown flavour. That raised an obvious question with the Billboard announcement: what exactly would qualify as Afrobeats? Would an act like Cruel Santino whose latest release came to polarising effect fall under such a chart? Why does Amaarae’s Sad Girlz Luv Money not make it on this chart where there’s no real delineation between her and say, Tiwa Savage or Tems? Would the Amapiano sound which is one of the more dominant genres on the continent be classified as Afrobeats? To that point, I was surprised that Davido’s Champion Sound didn’t make the chart, making me wonder if its popularity has dipped or its sound does not qualify as Afrobeats? More clarity is sorely needed but this is essentially the risk of seeking to classify things under faulty classification headlines. 

Of the fifty entries on the chart, only one does not have a Nigerian artist on it: Ghanaian artiste, Kelvyn Boy’s Down Flat comes in at #22. That’s some next-level dominance. 

Na Tems dey run tings

 The last decade of the scene has essentially been a men’s club. Acts like Tiwa Savage, Teni, Simi, Yemi Alade, Ayra Starr and Niniola have had different runs at the high table of the industry where the likes of Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Olamide, Rema and Omah Lay have been firmly placed but it seems there’s a new sheriff in town. Tems, whose 2019 hit Try Me laid her path to the big time has the most entries on the list. During her come up, one thing I noted was that while her talent was not in doubt, her output was patchy. That experiment worked as Try Me was the type of hit which belayed her status in the industry and would foreshadow the blitz to come. The decision of her and her team to focus on the States has steadily bore fruit. Her success last year came in threefolds. The success of Essence turbocharged her while the Drake feature took it to the next stratosphere. If Orange was A Place, her RCA debut was a necessary introduction to a market where she was getting prime placement without being centred. With 8 entries, she emerges as the dominant artist on the charts. The interesting thing about her entries is that they cut across her last two releases, last year’s If Orange was a Place and 2020’s For Broken Ears highlighting a solid degree of engagement with her bodies of work as opposed to singles. When that debut album does come, expect to see another climb in trajectory. The greatest honour one can pay her is to note that on a level playing field, she’s beating everyone hands down. 

Burna Boy and Davido need new hits

 Burna Boy has spent the last week telling us he’s got more money in the bank than any of his peers while Davido started the month headlining London’s o2. The last couple of years have seen the Nigerian music industry tiered into the “Big 3” of Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy and the rest. Burna Boy’s most recent release Twice As Tall which won him the Grammy he coveted to earn the bragging rights as the first of the pack to win one in their own right, spawns no entries while his highest entry at #12 is Ye off 2018’s Outside. Burna undoubtedly retains cache as one of the most talented acts in the country (as the excitement over his appearance on the Sungba remix showed) but there’s enough to suggest that outside of his two collabs with Wizkid (Ginger and B D’or) his commercial staying power might be on the wane. Davido on the other hand has clearly needed a recalibration of sorts. Fans last year complained that he had become too available and was starting to lose some of the lustre that made him the Baddest. The 3 entries of his which make the chart are two of his more recent standout features (on Skiibi’s Baddest Boy and Adekunle Gold’s High) and the classic, Fall which pre-2021 was possibly the most successful record of the Afrobeats movement. 

Both Burna Boy and Davido’s solo entries go back at least two solo albums. While this judgement could be viewed as harsh considering both acts are outside album cycles, it does suggest they need to work hard to win our hearts again. 

Proper labels are still the way to go

Labels receive a bad rep on account of their sometimes exploitative practices. That said, they still represent the surest way to make a dent outside of Nigeria. Most of the artists with work on the chart are signed to foreign labels and the scale of investment that tends to come with such labels needs no explanation. Mavin, with 5 entries, is the only homegrown label with a concerted presence.  I’m also old enough to remember when Ezegozie Eze was leaving Universal Music Group and questions were raised about his competency for the role. I know this because I was one of the people asking said questions. (More on this soon) However, since taking over at Empire, Eze has built a roster with Olamide, Fireboy DML, BNXN, Kizz Daniel, and L.A.X earning a decent market share in terms of artist presence and 5 entries on this chart. Props to him for disproving such doubts by proving the doubters wrong in the best way possible: putting in the work and earning cold, hard results. 

Ckay and Kizz Daniel deserve more respect

 You can trust that the question “who earned the first #1 on Billboard’s Afrobeats chart?” is going to make it into a bunch of quiz/trivia nights in the future. If posed 12 months ago, I’m not sure there’d have been many correct takers. It encapsulates how meteoric Ckay’s rise has been and proves once again, that the metaphorical process does pay off. My favourite thing about Ckay’s success is how independent it is of the Nigerian audience because it captures how big the world is and what can exist for upcoming artists. Catering to the Nigerian mainstream has its own perks but if that is not the path sought, it’s reassuring to see that it can pay off as well as it has. Kizz Daniel’s credentials as one of the finest pop stars and songwriters of his generation are not in doubt but his low key nature often detracts from this. This has been a recurring theme all through his career. At the beginning of his career when he was nominated for The Next Rated award, long regarded as the greatest bellwether of potential in this industry alongside Lil Kesh, Reekado Banks and Korede Bello, his name was mentioned as an afterthought. With the benefit of hindsight, he has undoubtedly had the most successful career of that class and is probably one of the most bankable artists behind the Big 3.