Here, we’re talking Afrobeats plural, as distinct from Fela Kuti’s bombastic rearrangements of Ghana Highlife – Afrobeat singular. The first wave – probably best represented musically by the Naija triumvirate of P-Square, 2Face and D’Banj/Don Jazzy – was hampered by structural issues: poor organisation, little or no promotion, low production values and clunky attempts to brand itself. On that note, let’s put the word Afropolitan to bed. Please.
Afrobeats came alive in the late 90s when African artists started combining hiphop, dancehall, grime and traditional influences. Soon sounds springing from Accra, Lagos and Jo’burg – to list but three – could be heard on dancefloors all over the world.
The advent of the Azonto dance – along with its variants and extensions like Skelewu – is a galvanising force and is reminiscent of how dances like the Wop once energised and organised the fledgling hiphop movement almost three decades earlier. Yet despite the Afrobeats’ growing popularity, outside the continent the movement is marked by fits and starts.
Wizkid’s late-summer appearance at New York’s Irving Plaza was as good a moment as any to take stock. Starboy, as he is sometimes known, is a poster boy for Afrobeats like few others. At 23, in his exotic footwear and flamboyant jacket and chains, Wizkid has a commanding stage presence and engages the audience with an ease that belies his age. Although he has only recorded one album (Superstar in 2011), his catalogue of infectious hits spans the breadth of the genre. ‘Azonto’ is an EDM grinder, while an older hit like ‘Tease Me’ swings towards R&B. They reflect the many twists and turns the genre has taken since its inception.
Onstage, the impact of some of his monster hits like ‘Pakurumo’ was somewhat muted by the band’s slack interpretation. The audience barely noticed. Wiz played maestro, pulling the instrumentalists along and prompting the audience to fill the gaps. As a crescendo, Wiz pulled rapper Wale onstage, then Akon, the don of global Africa. There was palpable love in the room as Wiz concluded with ‘Kano’, one of his most recent and buoyant tracks.
The size of the crowd at Irving Plaza did not reflect Wiz’s global popularity and musical achievements. Although the audience only filled three quarters of the Main Hall and half of the VIP, the room did not feel empty. Perhaps a lapse in promotion or miscalculated ticket prices may have contributed (again, structural issues) but the smaller audience made for a more intimate show. There is a sense that Afrobeats is still under the radar. The screaming managed to reach Beatles-worthy decibels and behind the glow of mobiles the audience sang, chanted and shouted out every word of every song.
The audience showed where the movement’s at. It was also a glimpse of the style side of the uprising.
Made up of students, street entrepreneurs, young professionals and cutting-edge designers, the – largely female – audience were draped in their Sunday best. Many seemed to be designers rocking their own creations, the cut, the fabric and the swagger reflecting bi-and tri-continentalism. There were London b-boys and African princes. As the animated crowd filed into the street – buzzing with the arrogance of a global outlook – it’s hard to imagine that when we look back on Afrobeats’ trajectory, we won’t conclude that this was the moment the takeover took over.