This piece was created in partnership with Afro Nation. Billboard and Afro Nation recently launched the first-ever official Billboard Afrobeats U.S. Songs Chart, tracking the most popular rising new music in the rapidly growing genre. The 50-position Billboard U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart, which went live last month on Billboard.com, ranks the most popular Afrobeat songs in the country based on a weighted formula incorporating official-only streams on both subscription and ad-supported tiers of leading audio and video music services, plus download sales from top music retailers.
“When I was in school, being African was a diss, sounds like you need help saying my surname, Miss.” Honest yet equally resonant, Skepta’s verse on Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba Remix,” which landed in the summer of 2015, was instantly felt, providing a grounded familiarity in the experience of the first generation child of African heritage. Equipped with a heavyweight feature from Drake that served to hook a new audience to the Afrobeats sound, a bold and biographical opening bar, and a monochrome single artwork which featured a baby Skepta and his dad Joseph Adenuga Senior, the song represented a full-circle moment for the North London-born star of Yoruba and Igbo descent, now empowering his own connection to the motherland as an adult.
The track also represented a pertinent rallying call for a new generation to shift that alchemy of struggle into a positive reality. It’s an unapologetic, and therapeutic, attitude which has propelled Afrobeats forward over the last decade, from soundtracking local West African hallparties to Grammys ceremonies on the global stage.
After chronicling the gradual rise of Afrobeats from the 1950s to the early 2010s, in this piece, we’ll reflect on influential Afrobeats anthems and pivotal moments across West Africa and the wider diaspora – from the riddims which speak to the sense of double consciousness providing a home from home, to the powerful impact of social media and the regularity of artists crossing over to mainstream festival lineups.
Let’s start by taking it back to the summer of 2010 when the world’s biggest football (soccer) tournament, the World Cup, was held on the African continent for the first time, in South Africa. A global audience watching the most popular sport in the world presented a rare opportunity for African footballers on their home continent. It further highlighted the unsung thread where sport and music intersect openly through a goal scored and dance as a form of celebration. A corner of a green pitch transformed into the dancefloor where players such as Asamoah Gyan – former striker for Ghana, as known under the moniker of Afrobeats artist Baby Jet – cajoled his teammates to support him after scoring against Australia.
Gyan introduced a new dance to the world in the Azonto, a communicative, full-body dance workout involving hip and knee movements along with hands, shoulders and arms open for improvising; this would be one of the first viral dance crazes which spoke to this immediate idea of transnationalism in real time between West Africa and the West. It would take its own form of conversation and crossover in popularity with UK Afrobeats star Fuse ODG’s song of the same name, released in 2012 with renowned Ghanaian producer KillBeatz at the helm.
Along with the subsequent release of “Antenna” in 2013, both songs would marinate in the commercial pop sphere, breaking into the Top 10 of the UK charts. The promo for the latter track would result in the Antenna Dance Challenge, created as a unifying prequel to TikTok for young schoolchildren of African and Caribbean heritage displaying their joy in response videos filmed in school playgrounds, as well as university students participating in dance clash competitions across London and the South-East.
Other notable moments of the Afrobeats ascendancy from the early 2010s included D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist,” the first Afrobeats artist to enter the Official Singles Chart UK Top 10, and P-Square’s “Beautiful Onyinye,” after which the sibling duo would then sign a deal with Akon’s Konvict Muzik label and release their fifth album, The Invasion, featuring a guest appearance from Rick Ross. D’Banj’s catchy track and inspired hook had an accompanying music video featuring cameos from Kanye West, Pusha T and Congolese-British comedian Eddie Kadi to reflect the cross-border fandom of a global Afrobeats anthem.
The producers of the scene – GuiltyBeatz, KillBeatz and sibling duo Legendury Beatz, to name a few – regularly shifted the paradigms in creating a sound which paid tribute to their West African roots, but equally spoke to a wider palette informed by club settings where their fans regularly consume music outside of the home. In 2013, the emergence of Juls, a Ghanaian-British producer with the vim of his signature mid-tempo bounce instrumentals, would create the smooth R&B favorite in Mr Eazi’s “Skintight,” featuring Efya. A sweetboy serenade dipped in Pidgin and English, it was one of the genre’s undeniable love songs, with the interplay between featured artists firmly encapsulating that courting tension.
Along with P2J, another London-based producer of Nigerian heritage who emerged from the UK Funky scene in the early 2010s, their breakthrough from a city always open to building new sounds and subcultures have been a versatile foundation for both. Both have produced for several popular artists across the Black Atlantic – including Beyoncé, on her Grammy-winning album The Lion King: The Gift, as well as on albums like Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall and Wizkid’s Made In Lagos.
One part of the most well-known Afrobeats triumvirate alongside Burna Boy and Davido, Wizkid has been holding his own in the scene for over a decade. Affectionately known as Starboy, his rise to global prominence has resulted from a healthy discography with copious riddims including “Don’t Dull,” “Ojuelegba” and his cameo on Drake’s first No. 1 Hot 100 hit, 2016’s “One Dance.” However, his own Billboard breakout, “Essence” featuring Tems, is a versatile singalong anthem primed for a summer party rooftop or hibernating indoors on a Sunday with a cup of hot chocolate.
The assured refrain of Tems’ “You don’t need no other body” lets her man know “there’s rice at home” and no need to look for love elsewhere. The subtle-roar sample from Blackbox’s classic “Ride On Time” evokes the burning passion to keep love flowing. The hit has further cemented Wizkid’s legacy as a global artist, becoming the first Nigerian song in history to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Global 200 in 2021. A subsequent remix featuring Justin Bieber was later released culminating in “Essence” becoming last year’s most-Shazamed song in the U.S. – proving that Wizkid’s star has not only risen, but is shining on the world stage.
In an era where visibility is key and high-quality mobile devices provide a sense of autonomy on the move, established and rising artists such as Amaarae and CKay have used TikTok as a globalized platform to push their respective hits – the “Sad Girlz Love Money” remix with Kali Uchis and “Love Nwantiti” – from West Africa to the world. The former features a whispery, playful catchiness doused in the alternative wave of female empowerment, and the latter is a slow-burn anthem which took over a year to emerge on the charts.
From a cinematic perspective, the 2018 Marvel smash Black Panther – filled with the fictional utopia that is Wakanda and a soundtrack that felt current, with youth-led sounds from South Africa in Gqom on “Redemption” by Zacari and Babes Wodumo – and the Beyonce-led Disney film Black Is King representing the transcendental journey of Black people across continents over centuries, film has also helped reaffirm the idea of communities returning home.
The Year Of Return, a yearlong event initiated by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo Addo, began in 2019 and was specially intended for young members of the diaspora all over the world to engage with their continental roots. It marked the 400-year anniversary of the earliest record of enslaved Africans being forced upon the Virginia shore. That year also saw the Afro Nation festival set up in Portugal and spread to Accra along the coast of the Atlantic, and casually brought online communities into real-time networking to apply their professional creative expertise behind the scenes to push the subculture around the sound holistically. It’s also set to be a defining year for Afrobeats in Portugal, with both Rolling Loud and Afro Nation bringing their festivals to the Algarve for 2022. With previous events in Ghana and Puerto Rico, Afro Nation has the accolade of being the world’s biggest festival centered on Afrobeats music.
In an age where bios with country flags on social media are used to represent and show one’s heritage overtly, Afrobeats music serves as an entry point for people of African heritage to reclaim their identity wherever they are in the world.
Christian Adofo is an established writer, cultural curator and author from North London. His debut book, A Quick Ting On Afrobeats, published by Jacaranda Books, is out now.