‘Afrobeats’ was named when DJs in the UK sought a common term to group popular music emerging from West Africa, and thus distinguish this music from local sounds. This naming was intended to be a pluralization of Fela’s Afrobeat, but the music drew from Fela’s unique fusion of Highlife and funk as much as it did from other genres, like West African Pop and Fuji, that also originated from West Africa. This term was at first not readily accepted, for obvious reasons; the concept of Africa as a single entity, even if only in music, is the kind of ideology we should be moving away from.
In time, we embraced it. It made sense commercially, which is the only way that actually counts, in that it allowed DJs to sell special Afrobeats compilations featuring multiple African acts. Show organizers could put together Afrobeats shows in the diaspora and rely on the support of emigrated West Africans, who would come to enjoy the music of acts like Psquare, Dbanj, Sarkodie, and more, African music’s primary contingent at the close of the 2000s. Fifteen years later, our new vanguard has made a lot more progress in their foreign excursions. Backed by the biggest labels in Africa and beyond, Nigerian artists, making up an even larger percentage of what is called Afrobeats, have made marks in the world, sufficient to insert our music significantly in pop culture. Nigerian stars are performing at NBA halftime shows, selling out iconic venues, and headlining Africa-themed music festivals all over the world.
With these exploits by Nigerian artists falling under the non-specific umbrella of Afrobeats, there have been discussions in recent years in the Nigerian music quarters suggesting that the moniker has run its course. Outside the continent, no such considerations exist, and foreign outlets have continued to provide a platform for Afrobeats as a genre. There are Official Charts and Billboard Afrobeats charts, both dominated, as expected, by Nigerian music. The Grammy Awards announced in June that it would be adding three new Categories, and one of them, you can guess, is called ‘Best African Music Performance’. Recently, the MTV Video Music Awards followed suit in announcing a Best Afrobeats category, and the American Music Awards before both of them, so it appears the trend is catching on.
But while it signifies a greater ‘representation’ of African music, we hesitate to celebrate it because that word is often synonymous with ‘limitation’ in music circles, which might be the case here. Afrobeats has a rough description of ‘music blended from West African and foreign influences’, while the Grammys Best African Music Performance criteria opens up the sonic scope even further—including the percussion-heavy genres of Southern Africa as well as Bongo Flava of East Africa, and more. What that means is that these organizations hold no specific sonic barriers for these categories and will instead rely on a geographical one, one that suggests that all the music emanating from a continent of over a billion people will be similar enough to fit into a single category.
That does a disservice to African music. A much better approach would be to find areas of sonic convergence and instead make those into categories, like Latin music with Latin Rock, Latin Pop, Latin Urban music, and more. But that only solves half the problem. There is still to consider the effects of regional genre categorization in effectively killing the chances of Nigerian artists in getting to the big awards, like Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year. Last year, Burna Boy’s Last Last was snubbed as Grammy Song of the Year even after it became a global sensation. It was inserted into the ‘Best Global Music’ category, created to house indigenous sounds from all over the world, and eventually lost to a song crafted as a traditional composition. A year earlier, Wizkid was put through the exact motions for Essence, which lost out on Best Global Music after it failed to make the cut for Song Of The Year, a category many felt it had a legitimate claim to.
So the pattern unravels; shunt Nigerian Pop songs into a catch-all category because it is Nigerian, and then make it lose even there because it is not indigenous enough. The addition of Best African Music Performance to the Grammys this year, as well as MTV’s VMA Afrobeats category, it narrows the scope that can be selected—Africa is smaller than Global, but it isn’t nearly narrow enough. It is also important to remember that many Nigerian acts create outside the scope of Afrobeats, even as all-encompassing as it is. Burna’s recent singles should make him as eligible for the ‘Best Hip-Hop’ category as any American rapper; it would be unfair for him not to be considered simply because music out of Africa has been preemptively marked Afrobeats.
Ultimately, Nigerian music, even with its influence on American pop culture, is not in a position to demand inclusivity and proper representation of American music awards. We, therefore, owe it to ourselves to tell our own stories, and a good first step would be for our local awards, like Nigeria’s Headies and Africa’s AFRIMMA, to get rid of Afrobeats categories and embrace specific genres, like Nigerian Pop, Highlife, Fuji and more. National recognition of Nigerian genres may inspire foreign music awards; it also enables us to take control of our narrative and ensure Nigerian music fixates permanently in world culture and is not relegated to just another passing fad.