The scene: a poorly-lit bar, South London. Young men and women are squeezed tightly in the small space that is the dance floor. Snatches of Jamaican patois can be heard over the reggae and hip hop sounds. The men sport dreadlocks and headbands of green, yellow and red, and a few gold teeth sparkle intermittently in the darkness. The ladies, clad in skimpy skirts and body-moulding blouses, gyrate suggestively.
The Nigerian student moonlighting as a DJ suddenly breaks the flow of American Pop and spins a track from one of the emerging Hip-Hop acts of his country. The sound of Trybesmen’s ‘Beremole’ filters from the speakers and, like a sudden shower of rain, it slowly empties the dance floor of its occupants.
The year is 2001. And it is not a good time to be African. Second generation immigrants are proudly proclaiming their alternative British identity. First generation ones are seeking any others that would have them, and Jamaica, with its domination of the Caribbean identity, welcomes all comers.
Less than 20 years earlier, Fela Kuti had stood on the Glastonbury stage before a crowd of thousands, and infected his European audience with his Afrobeat sound. But no Africans, or Nigerians, masquerading now as ‘Wah-G’wan’ denizens, seem to remember that. None, that is, except the hapless DJ who already regrets his impulsiveness.
Into the future
Fast forward 10 years, and the landscape has changed. The little club hall has given way to the Indigo O2 in Greenwich. Nigerian rapper, MI, is strutting on stage with his trio of lieutenants. Technicolour flashes of animation display a panorama on the cinema-sized screen behind him. White girls cling to the barriers that separate them from the stage, chanting his lyrics in unison.
Afrobeat, spearheaded again by Nigeria, has made a comeback. This time it is not in the form of angry, middle-aged, anti-establishment artists wielding brass instruments and dedicating hour-long compositions to the injustices of a Third World governance. These new Afrobeat ambassadors don bespoke suits, speak with a faint Western accent, and “spit bars” to a hybrid of vocoder-enhanced beats.
DJ Abass, that hesitant disk jockey of years ago, prides himself as one of those who set this transition in motion.
“We were the first generation of Nigerians in the UK who lifted Nigerian Pop. And it was African women (not Nigerian) who even gave it a chance,” he said.
Now a music promoter and media consultant, Abass contrasts the past and the present: “All through the 90s and early 2000s, the Jamaican identity was the dominant black identity in the UK. Now it is African, specifically Nigerian. Everyone in the young urban circuit of the UK and America is in love with our music, our fashion, and our idiosyncrasies.”
Internationalisation of Nigeria
Don Omope, a Nigerian entertainment journalist, chalks this new appreciation of Afrobeat to what he calls the “internationalisation of Nigeria” driven by the gradual identification of second generation Africans with the Mother Continent.
“While before they used to insist ‘I’m British’, now they proudly pronounce their Africanness. The Western world, which has always seen Africa as exotic, has noticed this acceptance and is attracted by it.”
The proliferation of the Nigerian sound has also been propelled by the sheer population of Nigerians living in Britain, estimated by the UK Home Office to be up to three million people.
“Someone somewhere is playing some Nigerian music to your hearing,” says Omope.
Breaking into the circuit
Ropo Akin, music promoter and manager of Cokobar, a weekly Saturday hub for Nigeria-style music, dance and extravagance, says that over the years the race dynamics of the club’s patronage has changed. He, however, attributes it to a collective effort of many proponents of World Music. “Generally, music itself has penetrated race.”
And recent visit to Cokobar, located in central London, confirms that the London night scene has indeed undergone a colour-merge.
Akin attributes his business success to his ability to procure popular venues for the Nigerian acts that he imports and cannot emphasise the impact of that enough. “I started operating in London in 2004, and I have organised events in niche venues but the first time we used the O2, the event got published in British papers.”
Expectedly, “breaking into the circuit” was not an easy feat. “Cokobar had to pay much more than other UK promoters did, as well as sign strict performance bonds. Though we have sold out our shows more often than not, it takes a longer time to sell tickets. The owners of the venues can be assured of Madonna’s tickets selling out in hours, but with us they are going out on a limb.”
Artist manager, Lanre Alade Lawal, operates a different strategy. He targets young professionals of all races. “We market to the world at large. We began with audiences as small as 25 and now we get as many as 450 people attending the shows.
“I wouldn’t use the O2 Indigo; I only programme events in venues in the West End and reputable areas. The audience is diverse and I would put the proportion at about 60 per cent white and 15 per cent African. I get many Asians and Caribbeans too.”
Specifically targeting, as he puts it, “BBC Radio Two listeners” and using the same places where British music is being played, has paid off. Alade has promoted events for artists like Seun Kuti, Keziah Jones, and Nneka, all of whom have debuted quite remarkably in the UK.
From Zero to MOBO
Nigerian-German soul singer, Nneka, is perhaps his biggest success.
“We managed Nneka’s campaign from zero to MOBO Award winner,” he declares with pride. “It took four years of growing an audience.” His motto, Lawal says, is “the highest quality for the cheapest price. We do bespoke stuff for the price of about £15.
Essentially, the business of exporting Afrobeat to the West is a multi-camp one. While Alade Lawal desires the upscale brand of artists like Asa, Akin is a proponent of the popular sounds of P-Square, D’banj, and others whose music has already usurped American and British imports in Nigerian clubs and on Nigerian radio.
In a 2010 article to commemorate Nigeria’s independence, the BBC asked African nations what they had gained from the self-acclaimed “Giant of Africa”. Most of the respondents pointed to music and the notorious outpourings of Nollywood (the second largest film industry in the world).
But while Nollywood, until perhaps recently, has been largely viewed as being synonymous with haphazard, badly-executed craftsmanship, Afrobeat has enjoyed the exact opposite reputation. This distinction is attributed by some to the “brain gain” experienced in the music industry.
Returnee professionals from America and UK degree-holders alike have mixed their cosmopolitan sophistication with African flair to create a thriving industry that the world appears to want a piece of.
Several MTV and MOBO awards, global invitations for shows, and collaborations with foreign artists are ample proof that something is going right. And it is not peaking yet. America, as always, is quick to tap into the revolution.
Six years ago, says DJ Abass, “At the Grammys, Kanye West threatened to call security because I tried to interview him. A few years down, he’s signing up a Nigerian (D’banj) on his record label.”
Acknowledging their roots
International artists of African descent like Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Wale, and Tinchy Stryder are also acknowledging their origins. Others too many generations absorbed, like Beyonce Knowles, are releasing new albums “inspired by Afrobeat”.
DJ Abass says that Nigerian pop is indebted to the UK, which had enlightened and honed the skills of returnee artistes. Omope argues that it owes its growth in the last ten years to Fela and the popularity he has given Nigeria, as well as to Nigerian music promoters, like the duo of Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye, who took the early work of fledgling musicians and introduced it in global arenas like the Grammys.
Industry expert, DJ Abass, may be overly optimistic when he predicts that “in the next 12 months most major international labels will have a Nigerian star,” nonetheless, after a three-decade hiatus, it is Africa season all over again.
So when next you hear Asa’s ‘Be My Man’ on BBC Radio Three, or D’banj and Kanye West’s ‘Scapegoat Remix’ collaboration booming at the Movida night club, appreciate that it is a good time to be African – and that it just might stay that way for a while yet.
Afrobeat carnival featuring PSquare, Wizkid, and Ice Prince comes up at the HMV Apollo, Hammersmith on 28 August, 2011