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African pop is not new

by Kim Ramstedt

In 2018, I discussed in an essay what African music looks like on big concert and festival stages in Finland and, more broadly, what kind of narratives about the African continent this presents. I noted that, in contrast to many European and American acts performing at mainstream venues and events, African acts tend to represent older generations and more traditional styles of music. One act that at the time was frequently performing at festivals around Europe with a repertoire of African music, appearing twice at Flow festival in 2010 and 2012, was Awesome Tapes From Africa; a white American DJ playing vintage c-cassettes he has obtained on his travels in Africa. While the music is amazing and deserves to be heard, seen within the overall pattern of how African music is represented on big concert stages, the set-up sends certain signals about Europe’s relationship with Africa. Namely, that its modern life is not of any interest, but that it is useful as a source of hidden old treasures to be discovered. Anybody who has grown up in Finland might be reminded of the Afrikan tähti board game.

In 2020, I discussed in another article how the media has reviewed concerts by African artists in Finland. It became important to ask why no Finnish newspaper or music media wrote about Burna Boy’s February 2020 performance in Helsinki. The concert attracted an audience well over 2000 people and was according to my knowledge the biggest ever solo performance of an African artist in Finland. As a concert of this calibre went unnoticed by the media, I decided to search the biggest Finnish media outlets to see which concerts have been reviewed. All the recent reviews of African music I found discussed the artists as representatives of very traditional forms of music. I couldn’t find any reviews of the many contemporary African pop stars that performed in Finland during the same period. Nothing about Davido, Yemi Alade, Sauti Sol or even Fally Ipupa, who are all among the continent’s biggest artists. The main difference between the concerts that were reviewed and those that went unnoticed was the fact that the former had a predominantly white audience and the latter a predominantly Black and diasporic audience.

In 2022, Burna Boy is performing as one of the headliners at Flow Festival and the organisers have asked me to write about the new wave of African and African diasporic artists. The circle is complete. African pop has finally arrived. Progress has been made. Or has it? How did we end up here and what has really changed?

Burna Boy and the Music Industry Hurdle Race

Let us start by celebrating the tremendous success that many artists from Africa and its diaspora are enjoying at the moment. The most prominent force has undoubtedly been Burna Boy, whose recent accolades include picking up a Grammy award for ‘Best Global Music Album’, selling out Madison Square Garden in New York as the first Nigerian headliner, and being the first African artist to perform at the Billboard Music Awards. He is undoubtedly living up to the self-proclaimed title of ‘African Giant’, as his 2019 album suggests.

At the same time, I don’t think Burna Boy would mind the suggestion that he is also standing on the shoulders of giants. As a native of ‘Potacot’ (Port Harcourt), the capital of Rivers State located in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, Burna Boy is following a long tradition of popular music icons hailing from the area, such as highlife legend Cardinal Rex Lawson, reggae star Majek Fashek, and the godfather of contemporary ‘Naija’ pop 2Baba (formerly known as 2Face). Burna Boy, who has also lived in London and is currently based in Lagos, frequently uses Igbo words and phrases in his music, alongside Pidgin and Yoruba, the dominant language of the Nigerian popular music industries in Lagos. Like his predecessors, he has obtained national appeal by staying true to his regional heritage. And like his predecessors, his music is politically charged and he speaks openly about the effects of colonialism and other injustices.

But ‘Oluwa Burna’, as he often refers to himself in his songs, has gone beyond connecting Nigeria and its diaspora with his music. In addition to references to his fellow citizens, like the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who is also often seen depicted on a large gold and diamond pendant around his neck, Burna Boy candidly borrows hooks and ideas from other popular African acts. Ivorian pop band Magic System’s turn of the millennium hit ‘1er Gauo’ echoes in ‘On the low’ and Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo’s 1990s banger ‘Wé-Wé‘ is a clear inspiration behind ‘Anybody’. More recently, Burna Boy’s reference points have further expanded, witnessed by the fact that Diddy executive produced his album ‘Twice as Tall (2020). Not one known for spilling his guts or explaining his music in interviews, Burna Boy lets the music speak for itself, and the message is clear; Burna Boy wants to be a unifying force, bringing together the whole African continent and, according to according to his more recent statements, Black people across the world.

Without understating the talent and ambition of Burna Boy in any way, the recent success of African pop cannot solely be attributed to the work of individual artists. For a star like Burna Boy to have emerged, there have been numerous hurdles that African music has had to overcome along the way. Artists have had to fight against deeply rooted preconceived attitudes and perceptions about Africa and its music. For a long time, the only path for African artists towards the music markets in the US and Europe for instance has been within the Eurocentric category of ‘World Music’. This means that the main selling point of all artists from the second largest continent both in population and in size, regardless of genre or style, has been that they differ from Western, modern, pop music. As such, it has been impossible for African artists to be appreciated and valued on the same terms as their American and European counterparts. It is only during the last few years that the industry has started pivoting away from the category of ‘World Music’ — replacing it with the term ‘Global Music’, as the rebranded Grammy category demonstrates. While the name change does not in itself transform structures or systematic biases, it points towards a change in Western attitudes towards African music.

Which Audiences? What Consequences? Is This Change?

Essentially, what the attitudes and categories that the music industries have upheld shows is that the primary audiences considered, when decisions about contracts and promotion are made, have been predominantly white. The needs and desires of diasporic audiences, who make up a significant part of concert goers, fans and listeners in Europe, have to a large extent been ignored. This, in turn, proves that at the management level, the music industries have not been very inclusive.
Had there been more African and other diasporic representatives drawing up industry strategies, things may have looked different sooner.

These issues are only the tip of a historical, cultural and social iceberg that has blocked African artists from triumphing globally in the music industries. The material effects of how African and other Black musicians have been treated in the European music industries has been discussed for example in a number of news stories, (historical) research projects, and reports from at least the UK and Sweden. The Swedish report, commissioned by Skap, set to be released this summer, clearly establishes that musicians and other professionals of African descent are excluded, exoticized, expected to produce a certain kind of music or to be experts and representatives for genres simply based on assumed racialized identities. They face microaggressions, are frequently belittled, not taken seriously, and are significantly less paid than their white colleagues. If they are not involved in European musical practices, their work is still framed, explained and valued from a Eurocentric perspective, which often misconstrues and askews the music.

Black and African artists in Europe have been pressured to alter their names, appearances and styles of music to match white executives’ expectations and white audiences’ desires. When they call out prejudices and injustices, their concerns are not taken seriously and they can end up being seen as troublemakers. This, in turn, can lead to the questioning of one’s own self-worth and identity and to code-switch and perform certain roles in the music industries’ white spaces. Facing these pressures and challenges in the daily work environment has an impact on artists’ wellbeing and it has caused many artists of colour and particularly Black artists to withdraw from the field of music altogether. Even industry efforts to combat these systemic injustices and inequities (also known as racism), often only pay lip service to concrete change and are seen by those experiencing racism merely as virtue signalling. The UK Music Diversity Report from 2020 shows that while diversity has increased at entry positions, changes at senior level are nominal.

At the moment, it is hard to decipher whether the music industry and media are rethinking their positions towards African pop because white audiences have been turned onto it or because they really want to serve diasporic audiences and actually tip the scales of historical power balances. African pop is not new. There has been a huge market and audience for the music in Europe and Finland all this time. It is disrespectful of the white industry and media to think they have now stumbled upon something new. It’s like travelling across an ocean to another continent for the first time and considering it a new discovery, although it was there the whole time. Hopefully, African pop is not on the path to become another source of appropriation and exploitation for white artists and industries.

 

Kim Ramstedt is a postdoctoral researcher, DJ, producer, and journalist. At the moment, he is working on the Kone Foundation-funded research project Music researchers in society: Advancing social justice through activist music research. In this project, Ramstedt is studying how whiteness and colorblind racism inform discourses and scholarship about music in Finland with the aim to develop new methods for antiracist activist music research.