THE (AFRO) BEAT GOES ON
It’s time to don your kente, down some champagne and shimmy away to the Azonto. With Afrobeats about to explode, the Evening Standard explores the scene taking the capital by storm…
The Evening Standard, 20 February 2012
Sunday nights aren’t supposed to be like this. At an hour when most of the city is adjusting its alarms and whinging about back-to-work blues, pockets of nattily-dressed youths start assembling outside clubs in Kensington, Mayfair and Noho. Queues snake around the block, while inside, champagne flows and the music is a vivid cocktail of rap, funky house and sinuous African beats. Then, at 2.30am, the entire club goes stir-fry crazy – a thousand-odd people launching into a hip-gyrating dance best described as the kind of move a crippled giraffe might make if doused in itching powder. The sickie calls tomorrow are inevitable.
Afrobeats Sundays are the spiritual home for fans of Afrobeats: the new musical genre reworking African pop for the grime/dubstep generation. Since launching last summer, the weekly shindigs have mushroomed from 400-capacity clubs to 5,000 devotees pouring into HMV Hammersmith Apollo and the O2’s Proud2. Subsequently, a sound previously confined to family weddings and specialist radio shows is now seeping thick and fast into the mainstream. Afrobeats is now ‘sod-casted’ out of teenagers’ mobiles across the capital, played over the PA system at Selfridges and even on London’s official New Year’s Eve fireworks playlist.
Afrobeats itself is a musical mish-mash: Ghanaian and Nigerian pop, western hip hop, funky house and Afrobeat – the groundbreaking melange of jazz, funk and African chanting pioneered by Fela Kuti in the 1970s (notice Afrobeats’ instantly-modernising plural moniker).
The biggest facilitator of the UK Afrobeats’ scene has been DJ Abrantee, a radio presenter/promoter from Stratford who launched Afrobeats Sundays and has popularised the genre via his weekly Saturday-night Choice FM Afrobeats radio show.
“Afrobeats has had its own following for years,” he explains. “But in the last eight months, it’s suddenly gone, ‘woomph!’. Clubs in places like Peckham have played this music for a while. But I want to bring it to the West End. People told me I could never fill Proud2 with 3,000 people on a Sunday. But we’ve done it.”
Born to Ghanaian parents, Abrantee was responsible for inaugurating London’s annual Ghana Independence Day Celebration. Thanks to his championing of Afrobeats, he’s now in demand himself: jetting to Africa almost-weekly to DJ.
Afrobeats’ biggest stars are African such as Nigerian rappers D’Banj (recently signed to Kanye West’s record label) and Wizkid or Ghanaian hip hop artist Sarkodie. However, home-grown acts such as Vibe Squad, Mr Silva, Donae'o and Olu Banks are also breaking through. Then there’s May7ven. Described as the “African You +1'd this publicly.
Beyoncé” (despite having grown up in Wembley), the Nigerian-born 27-year old regularly plays to the African diaspora across the globe.
“I want to show I’m African so I go overboard on the beads and have fire-eaters in my performance, chanters on stage, snakes, everything,” she explains.
Some revellers show up at Afrobeats events wearing customised versions of traditional African attire.
“Some women really indulge in it, by having traditional clothes such as Ghanaian kente made especially for the events,” says Afrobeats promoter Mylz Boateng. “Many wear dresses in yellow, red and green – the colours of Ghana’s flag. The outfits aren’t really what they’ll wear for church – they tailor it to be a bit shorter than usual!”
Afrobeats fan Shade Alegbeleye, who founded Afrobeats In Da City blog (afrobeatsindacity.tumblr.com), says it demonstrates clubbers are showing solidarity with their parental culture. “It’s a way of saying you’re proud of where you’re from,” she says.
One unmistakably African hallmark of Afrobeats’ nights is the Azonto dance – the hip-gyrating hustle which emerged in Ghana during the early Noughties. Mimicking household chores such as ironing and washing, the dance (which clubbers learn from YouTube footage), is frequently performed by Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan as a goal-scoring celebration.
Another favoured step is the ‘Yahoozee’ (named after ‘Yahoo Boyz’, Nigeria’s notorious internet scamsters), which involves pretending to hold a gun in your hand and swaying it over your head. Popularised by Nigerian rapper Olu Maintain, former US-secretary of state, Colin Powell, caused controversy when he joined in the dance onstage with Maintain during the Africa Rising festival at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008.
“When I started out hosting events, it wasn’t cool to be African,” adds DJ Abrantee. “I used to pretend to be Jamaican. But now I’ve noticed people embracing their African roots. People are now standing up and saying, “I’m African and proud!” Whereas before, it was like, ‘I’m African but don’t tell anyone! Keep it in the family!’”
Afrobeats party-goers aren’t the only ones revelling in patriotic pride. Some of British pop’s biggest names all have African heritage – something they didn’t flaunt until recently.
“Nobody knew that Tinie Tempah [Nigerian parents], Tinchy Stryder [moved from Ghana as a nine-year old] and Dizzee Rascal [Ghanaian mother, Nigerian father] were African,” says May7ven. “But now Afrobeats is popular, they’re coming out and saying ‘My mum is African!’”
Indeed, there’s YouTube footage of Wretch 32 and Chipmunk learning the Azonto, Stryder is a regular at Afrobeats events, while Dizzee Rascal has recently taken to calling himself “the E3 African”.
West African music has actually been in vogue for some years, as evidenced by the Afrobeat-influenced guitar pop of Foals and Vampire Weekend. Shakira brought makossa music to the masseswith 2010’s Waka Waka single, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project has been a roaring success while Beyoncé cited Fela Kuti as a major influence on recent album, 4.
Afro-cool is widening its net, similar to the way that Bollywood permeated popular culture over the past decade. The stage musical Fela! (based on the life of Kuti, who married 27 wives in one ceremony and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997) played at the National Theatre last year (executive producers of the Broadway version included Will Smith and Jay-Z). Meanwhile, fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Dries Van Noten have all embraced pan-African influences, while Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu specialises in dresses in vibrant African prints, available from his St James’s shop.
Meanwhile, the economy in some parts of West Africa is booming (with Nigeria’s ‘Nollywood’ film industry now the second-largest in the world) which DJ Abrantee believes is responsible for the patriotic pride of London’s second/third-generation Africans.
“A lot of people are going back to the motherland and realising that some of the stuff portrayed on TV about Africa being poor is wrong,” he says. “If you go back and realise your auntie or your cousin is living in a mansion, driving in a Bentley, you think, ‘Hold on a minute! I don’t have this in the UK!’ Youngsters are embracing this culture, helping make Afrobeats more popular…”
However, Afrobeats still lacks one important thing: an overground hit single. But with D’Banj’s infernally catchy Oliver Twist released next month, this could change. Even if it doesn’t, the impact of Afrobeats on West African pride has been invaluable.
As May7ven says, “When I was younger, I hid the fact I was Nigerian. My surname [Odegbami] is very long and the kids at school would call me stupid names. Back then, everybody wanted to be Jamaican. But now everybody wants to be African. It’s great!”