In the last few years, Afrobeats – an innovative fusion of African pop, dancehall, reggaeton and more – has become one of the most innovative pop forms, highlighting the African disapora’s innovation without watering it down. MOVES: The Sound Of UK Afrobeats is the first major compilation to focus on the UK’s Afrobeats artists, and Alex Macpherson spoke to its two compilers – Afro B and Ian McQuaid – about the genre’s rapid development.
Afrobeats, the pan-African umbrella of styles that’s been responsible for the most exciting pop music in the world for most of this decade, is expanding and mutating. Having largely bypassed the mainstream western music industry, its popularity has been driven by diasporic African communities – so it’s no surprise that those communities are blending what’s already a vast mélange of sounds with both local and global influences to create something new. Or rather, not a specific, new, separate genre – but part of an ongoing global conversation as African pop finds sonic kinship with dancehall, soca, reggaeton, rap, French club music and more.
Over the past year, the growth of UK Afrobeats – a movement so young that it’s still very much in the “wot do u call it?” stage, with some preferring the term “Afroswing” and others “Afrobashment” – has been dizzying. Almost every week brings with it a new anthem and a new influence; this month saw the emergence into the mainstream of its first bona fide star in J Hus, whose triumphant debut album Common Sense managed to be a great Afrobeats record, a great rap record and a great pop record all at the same time. A week later, one of the best compilations of the year followed.
MOVES: The Sound Of UK Afrobeats ranges far and wide, from the Congolese house of Omo Frenchie and Naira Marley’s ‘Celé’ to Veeiye’s R&B-influenced ‘Bed Rock’ to NSG’s quintessentially Ghanaian anthem ‘We Dey’. FACT caught up with its compilers, Afro B and Ian McQuaid, to find out what pinning down a genre in such exciting flux was like.
How did you manage to narrow down the songs to just 21 for the compilation?
Afro B: Yeah, it was hard to narrow it down. But me constantly being in the scene, I’ve got a good ear for music, so I just shortlisted it to the top songs along with the artists who’d bring the most attention to the compilation. I wanted to showcase the scene, and also show that there are different types of sound and artist – to show the different ways Afrobeats can be infused with other genres.
Ian McQuaid: We decided we wanted to do an overview of the last couple years, get all the big tunes that had never been out properly, never released or mastered. They’d never been on Spotify or commercially available.
AB: It was a chalenge to shortlist the tracks but also have a variety – a lot of the songs have a similar beat pattern or similar melodies, and we had to work out what would be more pleasing to the ear.
IM: I had always wanted to put a compilation together, and I would have wanted to do one three years ago, really, but no one was giving me the backing to do it. So it’s an accumulation of a long interest. Things fell into place when I formed a relationship with Afro B – his input was essential, he’s got a great sense of tunes.
“The more I kept playing it, the more they got used to it”Afro B
How have you both noticed Afrobeats’ British audience growing over the past five or six years?
IM: That came about through DJing for me. I was playing a lot of African stuff – that was just a natural progression from having been someone who played bashment and rap – I suddenly moved into this new thing and it was like a vortex, it was all around me, I’d go out to the raves and hear more Afrobeats tunes being played.
I started playing bits of people like P Square and R2bees and Sarkodie and D’Banj and Davido and Tekno and more and more UK artists were making it – and in some ways it became a convenience thing. Like, I could actually tweet a UK guy and he’d send me the track in a decent MP3 format and it’d just sound better, whereas the Ghanaian and Nigerian artists have everything in the lowest bitrate possible. It horrifies some purists, but I have been known to play 128kbps rips in a club and no one seemed to have been that fussed about it, but it’s a pain on your ears after a while.
AB: I started off in church. Well, I started off playing football, then my parents stopped me because they wanted me to play keys in church. That’s how I got into the African music. After a while a group of friends started DJing and I was the Afrobeats specialist; I had a residency at a Jamaican club called NW10. It was predominantly dancehall and bashment – it was eight years ago, when Vybz Kartel and Mavado were proper going in – so I brought a different element to the club and that’s where my fanbase expanded. A couple of years down the line, that’s when I started to make music, and I’m here today.
How did crowds first respond to the Afrobeats sound?
AB: The Africans really embraced it. It took a while for the dancehall world to warm up to the sound, but the more I kept on playing it the more they accepted it. There are lots of Caribbeans who are friends with Africans, it’s not like they’re unfamiliar with the sounds we have. So the more I kept playing it, the more they got used to it. But there were some nights where they didn’t like the sound and I’d just create a lot of space on the dancefloor. But you have to start somewhere, right?
But I just liked the music. And I thought, it doesn’t get enough shine and we deserve some shine on the genre, more respect. At the time it wasn’t all that cool to be African, there was a stigma that the countries were poor and all that, but it’s not actually like that.
When did you first start noticing British artists making Afrobeats tracks, and what would you say are the differences between African and UK Afrobeats – if indeed there are any hard and fast distinctions?
IM: About three years ago I put on an act called Weray Ent, who had a tune called ‘Ching Chang Walla’, and around the same time as them Mista Silva was breaking through, Fuse ODG and Naira Marley were first starting out. That’s when I first started really feeling a lot more involved in there being a scene.
AB: From what I recall, I remember Tribal Man, who used to do funky house, came up with a song with some Ghanaian artists called Ruff N Smooth, ‘Fire’. It didn’t really have an impact but that was kind of one foot in the door. More artists started to come up on that.
It was like a hint. I’ve always been into promoting Afrobeats so it was something I could add to my playlists on top of the African songs I was playing already; I don’t think I had any UK songs to play at that time.
That wasn’t a hit – the first hit, I’d say, was a song by Mista Silva called ‘Bo Won Sem Ma Me’. That song and ‘Boom Boom Tah’. Everything started expanding from that. At Represent I had a show promoting Afrobeats and it used to trend on a weekly basis. Why I think it was trending is because I was promoting UK Afrobeats as well – I had a home for them to promote their music, come and freestyle and showcase their talent, so I think that’s why the show did what it needed to.
“It’s a huge scene and there’s talent pushing the boundaries almost every day.”Ian McQuaid
IM: Accepting that the term’s very nebulous and I would hate to put rigidity on a scene I think is made brilliant by how fluid it is – I think you can say the UK sound is distinguished by its fusion of more road rap elements. There’s more of a propensity to mix up someone who might be spitting on a normal rap track with an afro chorus or Afrobeats percussion – speak to P Montana, he’ll say the rhythm is the first thing to distinguish it, that slightly syncopated, more kinetic rhythm, And you know a West African melody when you hear it, but the UK stuff also has a grittier edge, maybe even more nihilistic in some ways. Tracks are possibly less positive.
But inside the UK scene there’s great disparity – you’ve got someone like Sona who makes stuff that sounds like it could have come from Lagos, or Jaij Hollands and GB who are pretty much making azonto bangers like out of Ghana; then someone like Afro B himself, who as an artist can switch between doing really deep Afrobeats tracks for the core audience like ‘Décalé’, which is Congolese sounding, then tunes like ‘Can’t Go Broke’ which is a huge club tune. It’s a huge and broad scene and there’s talent pushing the boundaries of what it can do almost every day.
AB: It’s the way [UK artists] use their own language, too. You can kind of hear the British accent when they’re trying to speak their native language. That’s why it sometimes gets dismissed by people in Africa. I think mainly it’s the accent – and the level of production, in Africa it’s primarily about the level of percussion they use but they minimalise it in the UK.
Between the range of styles within African Afrobeats as well as the way worldwide cross-pollination is happening between different genres and locales, it sounds less like any part of this is a distinct, separate scene – more like multiple scenes bleeding into each other.
IM: It’s an amorphous cultural mass, which isn’t good or sexy for music editors to nail, but that’s a lesser care for me. There are definitely differences in the sounds – you can generalise the Naija stuff as tending more towards the R&B sound, the Ghanaian stuff tends more to a dancehall sound, the UK stuff tends towards the 100bpm rap sound. But inside of that there will be something that doesn’t cohere to those rules in any way.
It’s in constant flux and it’s an absolute bloody nightmare to try to keep on top of it! We don’t know who the big artist is going to be in three months’ time because they probably haven’t recorded a single track yet – particularly in the UK, where things move a bit quicker.
In the West African scene, a tune will come up over a longer period of time – like Davido’s ‘If’ was around for quite a long time before it became this big hit, Runtown’s ‘Mad Over You’ was around since last year and is now absolutely massive. In the UK, Mackareo’s ‘Peng Ting’ has been up on GRM Daily a little under a month and has had nearly half a million views. He’s rated now and doing PAs all around the country on the back of it. It’s incredible, the speed things are moving at. It makes compiling a compilation very hard!
“I think it should just be called fusion, because there are elements of so many genres”Afro B
Is Afrobeats even the right term for it any more?
AB: Well, there’s been many different names, like Afroswing. I call it Afrowave, but secretly I think it should just be called fusion, because there are elements of so many genres. I call it Afrowave because it’s more trendy.
IM: It’s all blurry lines, really. Even the term Afrobeats, which we’ve used out of necessity, I wouldn’t say I would live or die by that name. Afroswing again is not a term I’m overly fond of, but it’s gotta be said, it did actually come from the scene – it’s a name Kojo Funds came up with.
The people most concerned with the actual term for it aren’t necessarily the people actually making or listening to the music. The minute someone names it, I think they’ll kill it.
The growth of UK Afrobeats as a street scene is coincided with grime going fully mainstream – do you see any relation between these events?
IM: I do think there’s an argument you could make, if you were gonna extrapolate a bit, that there’s a generation in Britain now who’ve grown up and have finally seen a big change. Seven or eight years ago, any grime artists who’d come up in the first flush of grime were in the public eye, signed to majors, doing music that emphatically wasn’t from the streets. Skepta at the time, Tinchy, even Tinie Tempah. I don’t think they were forced to do that music or puppets at the mercy of a major, though you do wonder when you see what Skepta was wearing in some of his videos.
But fast forward a few years and this generation growing up now have seen artists make it in the mainstream on their own terms. That does give a renewed sense that it’s possible to make it, to do something authentic, and to be rewarded for being authentic rather than doing some weird-arse record label creep’s idea of what’s going to sell. Because of that, that has definitely emboldened people in, for example, using their own dialect – I think that’s tied to people like Skepta and Stormzy making it and still very much repping their African roots.