Opportunities abound with the global growth of Afrobeats.
Imagine your knees skimming across the dance floor while strangers scream your name and cheer you on as loud, rhythmic music fills the room. The emcee asks the crowd, “Is she di winnah?” If you’re lucky enough, you’ll hear a resounding yes—earning you extra party favors, congratulatory pats on the back, and bragging rights until the next community party. The music playing is Afrobeats, and the experience is a rite of passage for young people across the African continent.
More Than Just a Catchy Beat
With roots in West Africa, Afrobeats is a mix of funk, jazz, and traditional African music. Afrobeats is diverse in sound but is distinguished by its harmonious melodies blended with percussion instruments like the shekere (a beaded gourd), gbedu (a large drum), claves (short wooden sticks), and akuba (another style of drum). It can also be identified for its technical style, with songs averaging 115 beats per minute, limited reverb, and 2:1 compression ratios for vocals and drums.
When Drake collaborated with Nigeria’s very own Wizkid in 2016 on 'One Dance,' there were collective eyebrow raises, gasps, and confusion across the African diaspora. The song would go on to be critically acclaimed, dominating US charts for 10 weeks.
The originators of Afrobeats, Fela Kuti alongside drummer Tony Allen, never shied away from unpleasant realities. The goal was never to mask the sounds of civilian discourse—it was to amplify them. When people sang along to Kuti’s “Zombie” and “Shuffering and Shmiling,” released in mid 1970s Nigeria, it was less about a performance and more of an organized protest, demonstrating that dissension is possible through music.
By the time the 2020 #EndSARS riots protesting police brutality in Nigeria, there were already many songs about grievances with inept governance. Songs like “This is Nigeria” by Falz and “Jaga Jaga” by Eedris Abdulkareem conveyed what the issues were at the time. Yet it was “FEM” by Davido, a song demanding police and politicians remain silent so the people could be heard, that underpinned the resistance. Afrobeats has often been misconstrued as escapist, but it has always been political. Even the most popular Afrobeats artists today engage with the genre in distinct and unmistakably political ways. One of the key contributions of Afrobeats is that it provides a new lens to frame political dissatisfaction.
When Afrobeats plays on radios in the Caribbean, festivals in South America, and through the headphones of a casual listener in Australia, the experience is, “spiritual,” says Dede Speaks, a Ghanaian Afro-fusion recording artist. Afrobeats is about being able to live a life of joy—not unlike the goal of political revolutions. The lightness of the music juxtaposes the more grim experiences of many in the African diaspora—but it is hopeful. It encourages people from everywhere to dance, knowing that one day we will be able to do so free of plight, and able to submit fully to the stubborn, longstanding optimism of the genre.
A Sense of Pride and Community
Robert Nishimwe was born in Tanzania and moved to the US when he was eight years-old. He now runs an African music blog called Afro Banta. It isn’t just that this sort of music has, as Nishimwe puts it, “given the world a new sound”—it is that new identities are being crafted out of its rhythms and lyrics. Afrobeats has transformed his lived experience as an immigrant. Until recently, African immigrants in the US would cling to identities that distinguished them from their homes in Angola, Kenya, Ghana, and elsewhere. Or they had parents that were from Africa, but they weren’t African themselves.
With streams of Afrobeats songs reaching billions on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, investors are bound to be listening.
On a typical night in a New York City Afrobeats club, a circle forms around the most enthusiastic legwork warrior. When the song changes, so does the person in the center of the circle.
“It’s the purest form of love,” Nishimwe said. It is similar to a club night in Ghana that Speaks described as influential. Both were reminiscent of parties I’ve attended in the UK, bringing back memories of my knees skimming across the floor in the dancehalls of Ibadan, Nigeria where I grew up. There are the familiar pats on the back, but instead of party favors, now there’s a potential exchange of social media handles. No winner is declared—but there’s an unmistakable feeling of being surrounded by people immersed in the exact same thing as you. African people don’t just want to be associated with Afrobeats, they want to be recognized for being Black—and for being African. The popularity of Afrobeats has instilled a sense of pride among the African diaspora.
Growing Economic Opportunities Bring More Than Money
As Afrobeats became popular in the US in the 2010s, it also created new opportunities. When Drake collaborated with Nigeria’s very own Wizkid in 2016 on “One Dance,” there were collective eyebrow raises, gasps, and confusion across the African diaspora. The song would go on to be critically acclaimed, dominating US charts for 10 weeks. In many ways, “One Dance” was emblematic of the global socio-cultural standing of Afrobeats—and Africans—at the time. Wizkid’s voice barely appeared on the track and only toward the end, almost as if he were an afterthought.
Just one year later, the pair collaborated on another hit single “Come Closer,” which went on to hit platinum status in the UK and gold in Australia. Their second song rang truer to the essence of Afrobeats and the sounds that distinguish it as a genre. Despite the international acclaim and the path it paved for future collaborations, because of its commercial success, it wasn’t what many in the African diaspora recognized as revolutionary.
Today there are Afrobeats clubs, Afrobeat producers, Afrobeats DJs, and Afrobeats singers. With a cumulative 13 billion streams, an African music performance category added to the Grammy Awards, and millions of global listeners, the popularity of the genre is indisputable. Statista projects a whopping $44 million to be made from the Nigerian music industry in 2023—nearly double what the industry generated just a decade ago.
With streams of Afrobeats songs reaching billions on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, investors are bound to be listening. Afrobeats has not only generated profits typical in the music industry, but has also created careers. From radio hosts, composers, heads of record labels, and disc jockeys like DJ Atobz, Afrobeats is creating financial opportunities for individuals and companies and is indicative of the potential of a continent that has historically been overlooked.
“Afrobeats has shown that Africa has something to offer,” said DJ Atobz. Africans are increasingly able to pursue identities and livelihoods that would not have been possible a decade ago.
Pioneers such as Fela Kuti and Shina Peters have given way to younger artists including Asake, Wizkid, and Burna Boy, who have sold out arenas abroad. The international exposure and appeal of Afrobeats is a huge reason why opportunities surrounding the genre have been created and monetized. Streaming, social media, and the internet have augmented this.
Traditionally, the only way to make a substantial income from Afrobeats was to helm a record label or perform as an artist; producers, songwriters, and band members were notoriously underpaid. Salaries were often contingent on live performances and artist brand endorsements. Artists and other Afrobeats entrepreneurs are reinvesting their newfound income. Dede Speaks employs producers and videographers, and is acquiring new musical equipment. She creates a subversive type of Afrobeats, blending in elements of soul, R&B, and spoken word. From her perspective, music is as much a livelihood as it is a life.
Now that Afrobeats has reached a global audience, there are opportunities for niche occupations. Adesope Olajide, Wonu Osikoya, and DJ Loft are a few podcasters who are taking advantage of the streaming era and bringing awareness to the genre while also earning a living. Podcasts and social sites and platforms such as The Pulse, Afrobeats The Genre, and Africa.com have audiences in the millions.
Tapping into the buoyancy of the music has produced more than records, events, and livelihoods, but entire subcultures. Detty December is a month-long party, the name coined by popular Afrobeats artist Mr Eazi, and denotes a time in the year where people gather in Accra and Lagos to engage in debauchery and entertainment—all to an Afrobeats soundtrack. There are concerts, parties, and get-togethers en masse. People who live abroad return to their home cities to embrace nearly a month of unbridled enjoyment. The Lagos economy alone recorded millions of dollars of cash exchanged in December of 2019, right around the time Detty December gained recognition.
A Cautious Road Ahead
As Afrobeats explodes across the globe, it has the potential to become something unrecognizable to its founders, creators, and consumers. The genre is not showing any signs of slowing down in terms of global reach and popularity, which comes with its own unique challenges. When individuals who have no history or understanding of the genre heavily influence Afrobeats artists and producers, the soul of Afrobeats is threatened. If shows are primarily held internationally, there is little monetary benefit for the local communities that inspire the sound. Local organizations, local event promoters, and even local governments are unlikely to reap any financial reward.
The onus is on the African diaspora to do justice to the genre. There are clearer ways to achieve this, such as documenting Afrobeat’s history, involving African creators in the formulation of Afrobeats songs, and developing opportunities for Afrobeats artists, DJs, and producers in the genre. Crucially, creatives must also have an understanding of Afrobeats history and have control over how the music is created, distributed, owned, and performed. After years of internalizing the idea that you come from a place that is subpar, impoverished, and decrepit, it is gratifying to offer up a more accurate narrative. As Fela Kuti put it: “Music is a weapon of the future, music is the weapon of the progressives, music is the weapon of the givers of life.”
Africa is not perfect, but it breeds people brave and hopeful enough to create the sort of future we want into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. We are singing and dancing into new realities, crafting a tune, and watching the rest of the world follow its beat.
Chiamaka Okike is a multi-disciplinary writer and author of the short stories “A Name No Mother Would Give You,” “Songs about Surulere,” “If People Are Art Then Museums Are Graveyards,” and “14 Lasts Forever.” Okike grew up in a quiet little community in Ibadan, Nigeria where on long walks, she cultivated a relationship with words. Okike has served as one of the editors of Isele Magazine’s women issue, has been published in Edinburgh Literary Salon, Brittle Paper, Isele Magazine, and Active Muse. Okike has spoken at various workshops and panels and has been accepted into Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program. Follow Okike at chiamakaokike.com.
Cover photo: Women dance during "Felabration," at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria early Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. Thousands of Afrobeat enthusiasts danced through the night in a cavernous warehouse to commemorate the Nigerian-born musician who died in 1997. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba).