Afrobeats is approaching tipping point.
Not to be confused with the well established sound of Afrobeat (although certainly a distant relation of Fela Kuti’s hybrid of highlife, jazz and funk) the London-based scene has grown to the point that an unsigned track like Kwamz and Flava’s ‘Take Over’ (below) can rack up nearly two million plays on YouTube even without a video (they’ve recently signed to Black Butter). Meanwhile, DJ TJaey’s hyped up Afrobeats remix of the Grizzy and M Dargg road rap murker ‘Look Like You’ can be heard shutting down dancefloors from restaurant raves in Croydon to Ghe20 G0th1k in New York.
Over the last five years artists like Fuse ODG, Mista Silva, Vibe Squad, Kwamz & Flava and Moelogo have laid the foundations for the UK’s Afrobeats scene – and all continue to push out new material on a monthly basis. Now they are joined by a slightly younger generation with laptops, mics, cameras and big ideas, all looking to build on this platform. They’re using social media to spread their music to a global diaspora, and while MCs and producers who’ve grown up in London naturally love to get some hometown props, right now they’re just as likely to blow up on a worldwide scale.
Capital Xtra’s resident Afrobeats DJ Abrantee reckons 2016 is seeing a shift in homegrown talent. “With the UK, the artists are trying to create a whole scene by themselves now. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re trying to build our own scene, creating a buzz for the UK, and international acts are starting to respect what’s happening here. It’s the same as with the grime scene – before grime you used to have rappers trying to sound American all the time. Now you’ve got the UK Afrobeats artists who are sounding authentic, they’re saying, ‘yeah, we’re from Nigeria or Ghana or wherever, but we’re also from the UK and we’ve got our own scene.’ If they keep doing that then international acts will look at it and say, you know what, this is a movement we need to start respecting.”
This new confidence can be heard in the sound of Jaij Hollands, the young star Abrantee tips for big things in 2016. Jaij was born in the Netherlands to Ghanaian parents (hence the prosaic nickname). He moved to the UK in 2007, and started producing for Afrobeats artists a couple of years later. After laying down tracks for the likes of Kwamz & Flava, Mista Silva and Afro B, Holland was itching to introduce his own style to his beats, but unsure of where to start.
“I used to just watch the scene, and be like, I don’t know if I want to go in or not. The scene is hard,” he tells me in a coffee shop at the huge Westfield Stratford shopping mall. Within seconds of Jaij sitting down, a young female fan has come over to tell him how much she loves him, pressing his hand before giggling away. Does that happen often? Jaij laughs. “Ah, a bit.”
“I feel like I should stick to my sound and be authentic – the fans like me making stuff representing my culture”Jaij Holland
“I needed to get ready first. I wanted to be certain I had my own sound before I entered it as an artist instead of a producer. Every time I made a beat I wanted to lay down my own ideas on it. Finally I found this gritty, grimy dark tempo Afrobeats sound, and I decided to stick with that. And it’s just gone from there.”
With his own take on the sound, Jaij is likely to appeal to grime and rap heads alongside his rapidly growing Afrobeats fanbase. His last two singles, ‘Wonder’ and ‘Pinga’ (above), are dark, chugging killers, built from slowed Azonto beats shoved along by nagging synth stabs, the same note pulsing on and on throughout the track and serving as a bed for Jaij’s end-of-level-boss growl. He acknowledges Ghana’s DJ Breezy as an influence, citing his work on Joey B’s track ‘Tonga’ as a jumping off point, and name-checking artists like Skepta. And like Skepta, Jaij sees the benefit in staying true to himself.
“I’m not saying that I’m looking towards getting a label. Right now I’m going with the flow and just seeing what happens. I feel like I should stick to my sound and be authentic – the fans like me making stuff representing my culture. There is a time when you have to water down your sound. I wouldn’t really want to, but I’d probably do a couple of songs where people [could] understand me a lot more. I just wanna do myself to be honest, and get respect from different areas for the authentic sound I make.”
Whilst Jaij’s sound draws links between Ghanaian dance and UK grit, there are artists of Nigerian descent working out their own points of reference between the British music they’ve grown up on and the sound of their motherland. Nigerian North Londoner Mazi Chukz has just released ‘Dem Hail’ (below), a track that finds him sing-rapping over a beat from UK-based production guru Maleek Berry (whose own star is rapidly ascending having turned out a series of hits for Nigerian star Wizkid). Mazi matches Berry’s uneasy minor chords and hypnotic rhythm with spectral vocal sorcery, dropping a melody that sounds like mesmerism.
“I knew I had to merge the sounds I grew up with from my dad with the sounds I loved from here.”Mazi Chukz
“I grew up listening to all the highlife records that my dad had,” Chukz recalls. “Coming to the UK, I loved the grime side, things like So Solid’s ’21 Seconds’ and ‘Pow’ from Lethal B. I loved Kano’s first album, it was the first thing I really took in, it was sick – he had melodies, and when he wanted to he had the proper gritty flows. I knew I had to merge the sounds I grew up with from my dad with the sounds I loved from here.”
Chukz started making music in earnest around 2014 after an injury put a stop to his semi-professional football career. It turns out he came up alongside names that are already familiar on the scene. “We used to have a studio we’d record in in Stratford. Everyone you know out here doing this music – Fuse, Silva, Moelogo – all of us would be in this studio. Every day everyone had a session recording with this producer called J5, who’s now producing for J Hus. This was around 2012, way before I released my first single. We just used to record together and vibe, just have fun, so it’s good to see everyone progressing and doing their thing now. I was always in the scene but I was just low key, working out what my sound should be, making sure I understood it before I put out anything.”
This conscious, examined approach is echoed by artists across the scene. Afrobeats is a liberating, nebulous term, unshackled by tempo constraints, and able to cover anything from Jaij’s moody bangers to Fuse ODG’s euphoric afro pop. This liberation means there is no standard sound palette; no eski click or “ha” crash shortcuts, and therefore no cheap appropriation. Instead, the artists feel it’s vital that they’ve worked out what makes them stand out before they release anything. Just as in grime’s golden age, everyone wants to get love from the scene, but no one wants to sound like anyone else in the scene.
New Age Muzik, a four-piece causing a stir by teaming sweet R&B harmonising with Nigerian percussion, put this desire to be unique right there in their name. As singer Prince tells me, they want to bring something fresh to the table and have no intention of being kept in any sort of Afrobeats ghetto.
“We’re trying to create our own thing. People see Afrobeats as this African thing, and think, well, this is the UK’, so they kind of segregate it. We want to be the pioneers who change up the scene, it’s why we’re called New Age Muzik – when you listen to our sound that’s what you have to think it is, a new age. There are many artists who are doing their thing, so we’ve just got to keep on going, focusing on our sound – the UK sound as well as the African sound. We feel that the fusion of both can relate to almost everyone – we want to go global.”
“The UK scene is popping right now”Camo, New Age Muzik
All of this action is happening almost entirely outside of any mainstream or label support. But while all the artists talk about how they’d like to win a MOBO or get plays on 1Xtra, the fact is they’re building their own kingdoms completely outside traditional channels. They jump on new social media ideas without a thought – New Age Muzik mention a girl hearing their tracks through Periscope, a live video streaming app barely a year old, and it’s this willingness to adapt, and a desire to keep looking forward, that’s enabling the scene to spread from the London suburbs – places like Edmonton, Lewisham and Forest Gate – across the world.
“The UK scene is popping right now,” agrees Camo from New Age Muzik. “We don’t stop creating. We made something just last night. Whether people understand all the language we sing in or not, as long as they’re bobbing their heads and vibing off the music then it can be successful. As long as we keep on providing good music, we can climb the ladder.”
5 Afrobeats tunes you need to hear right now
Combining the road mentality of UK rap with sweet Afrobeats melodies, Belly Squad are likely to do big things this year. A recent Westwood Crib Session showed them as versatile on classic grime as on Afrobeats.
NSG feat. Kilo Keemzo
A massive anthem in Hackney right now, powered by sharp, grimey claps and swirling, wiistful melodies – NSG are swiftly becoming a powerhouse.
Following on from the future R&B of her previous single ‘Confam It’, Emela has dropped a forward-looking Afro-tinged slow jam, collaborating again with her go-to producer Omeiza.
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Ekeno jumped on the Wizkid/Skepta/Drake track ‘Ojuelegba’ and killed it with a vocal that is pure ragged soul.
MoStack feat. Moelogo
Coming from the same camp as J Hus, MoStack similarly erases the distance between road rap and Afrobeats – while his flow is only slightly inflected, he pulls Moelogoe in to deliver the legit Afrobeats chorus that is blowing the track up.
Ian McQuaid is on Twitter