How Nigerian Artists are Driving African Culture Through Music

By Kimia Afzal.

Nigerian artists made big waves in 2022 with contagious Afrobeat rhythms being played all year round, but how have they become so culturally significant?

Nigerian popular music, also known as Afrobeat, is a multi-dimensional, percussive genre which fuses Afro-Caribbean genres with western influences. Through a socio-political lens and with the help of social media, Nigerian artists have widely popularised African cultural heritage. By embracing Africa’s optimistic philosophy and love for dance, as well as taking influence from other cultural genres, Nigerian pop music is continuing the legacy of African culture today.

The origins of Nigerian music as a tool for political activism most notably stems from West African Highlife music in the 1900s. Highlife originated in Ghana, during the era of British colonialism and economic instability. While their uprisings were initially unsuccessful, the Ghanaian Ashanti people sought to be free and music was used as their outlet; tropes of independence were weaved into Highlife songs, galvanising African people together. By tying instruments and melodic styles from Akan music, a Ghanaian polyrhythmic genre, with European concepts like the guitar and harmony, Highlife began to spread across Africa. A new socio-political, cultural identity formed, as did the concept of music as activism, with the likes of Ghanaian musician E.T. Mensah performing concert shows with underlying political themes. After Nigeria gained independence in 1960, musicians like the late Nigerian artist Fela Kuti protested corruption in the Nigerian government more explicitly. It is here that Afrobeat was born. Fela Kuti blended Highlife and other West African genres with American Funk and Jazz, compelling people to fight for their right to democracy, an anti-corruption movement which many Nigerian artists push for today.

Most notable in confronting these Nigerian socio-political issues is Burna Boy. Through hits like ‘Collateral Damage’ and ‘Monster’s You Made’, the artist, nicknamed ‘African Giant’, hints at his disdain for Nigeria’s large wealth gap. Specifically, ‘Monster’s You Made’ begins by saying “You know we come from a place/Where people smile, but it’s fake”, referencing Fela Kuti’s song ‘Suffering and Smiling’. Here, like Fela Kuti’s track, Burna Boy suggests Nigerians fearfully brush their pain under the carpet and demonstrate a lacklustre attitude in challenging their persecutors, from policemen to politicians. He and other Nigerian pop musicians are bringing light to African disunity in hopes to raise awareness of political issues, while also bringing the African community together through music.

Alongside Fela Kuti, Rolling Stone ranked Burna Boy in the 200 Greatest Singers’ list, naming him “the ambassador of Afrobeats as a global movement”, emphasising how Nigerian pop artists are connecting the black diaspora and paving a path for other African artists to be successful. Multi-genre DJ Moto, 33, who lives and works in London, explains that the domination of Afrobeat in British charts and trends caused him to integrate more Nigerian artists into his sets, appealing to his diverse audience. In seeing this shift first-hand, DJ Moto is pleased that the world is finally paying attention as he believes that Nigerian pop is “a vehicle of African culture to the world”.

In this new age of social media, the Afrobeat genre’s international reach is giving Nigerians a voice, as well as representing different elements of African identity. An instantaneous cause for many artists’ rise’ to fame is TikTok, where TikTokers’ are overlaying Nigerian pop songs in dance trends and challenges. These viral videos encourage people from all corners of the world to try different traditional Afro-dance moves, like the Gwara Gwara, created by South African DJ Bongz. Subsequently, Nigerian pop artist Rema broke the internet last year with his track ‘Calm Down’, featured in 2.7m TikToks and counting, revealing how the dance artform is teaching the world about African culture.

Rema also remixed ‘Calm Down’ with pop icon Selena Gomez, pushing it to number one in the US Billboard charts. The contagious rhythm merges Afrobeat with Indian/Arabic melodies. For this reason, Afrobeat is becoming culturally appreciated in not just white, western spheres, but in Asia too, with Rema’s track reaching number one in India. Likewise, Burna Boy is experimenting with Latin American influences, showcasing J Balvin, a Columbian Reggaeton artist with a large fanbase, in his heart-warming hit ‘Rollercoaster’ (2022). This integration of two rhythm-centric cultural genres widens the reach of Afrobeat to Latin America, increasing the genre’s cultural appreciation

Popular Nigerian musician Wizkid also pioneers African culture through his music by paying homage to the positive outlook that flows through the Nigerian diaspora. Wizkid developed the catchy track ‘2 Sugar’ (2022) with Nigeria’s youngest sensation, Ayra Starr. The chorus features the lyrics “Shori nonsense ma gbe sunmomi”, translating to “Don’t bring nonsense close to me” in Yoruba, a language spoken predominantly in Nigeria. Like other Afrobeat songs, this reflects how music in Nigeria has positive undertones, as musicians were hired daily to give agricultural labourers motivation to work hard, despite their socio-political hardships. Today, the soulful genre reminds you to be grateful and
remain optimistic, allowing listeners to have a greater understanding of the Nigerian and African ethos.

Drawing from her Yoruba and Beninese roots, Ayra Starr has quickly become a confident, unapologetic voice for Gen Z, championing black female identity. Her Deluxe Album 19 & Dangerous (2022) contains 16 tracks which empower young women to remove bad energy from their lives, be their own healers, and discover their inner ‘Fashion Killa’. Like Fela Kuti’s mother, women’s rights activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Nigerian women have been exploring these tropes for decades, seeking freedom from the shackles of a patriarchal society which controls their voting rights, bodies, and finances. Besides examining her relationship with herself, Ayra Starr also explores her relationships with men in ‘Snitch’ when she says, “If you fuck with me/Then run for your life”. Here, she humanises the modern Nigerian female identity; by putting women on an equal playing
field to men, she empowers women to have a voice and speak up in the face of mistreatment.

As they navigate this white-centric industry, Nigerian artists are creating new spaces and opportunities for African artists in international music charts, while also exploring different dimensions of African identity. The genre is gaining more traction internationally, and with it, African culture is being met with open arms.

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