A Quick History of Afrobeats
A Quick Ting on Afrobeats hardly reflects on moral conundrums. Seemingly obsessed with Black pride and optimism, Adofo’s book embraces a positive outlook and perhaps this is the right attitude to afrobeats.
A Quick Ting on Afrobeats is the latest addition to the growing corpus of the ‘A Quick Ting’ book series commissioned by Magdalene Abraha and published by Jacaranda books. Written by Christian Adofo, this expository book of eleven essays is described as ‘the first book of its kind’ on its cover. It chronicles the emergence of afrobeats from precursor sounds—like highlife, hiplife and afrobeat—and tracks its ascendance to becoming one of West Africa’s major cultural exports to the world. Charting on international billboards, selling out international megatours and winning Grammy awards have been checked on the afrobeats bucket list, these are unprecedented achievements, hence it is important that a book of this kind has been written by this particular kind of writer.
Adofo is a Black British journalist and writer of Ghanaian descent. His parents migrated to England from Ghana in the 60s, in the aftermath of the military coup that destabilized the young nation. The culture they brought along with them inadvertently became part of Adofo’s experiences.
Adofo’s opening essay, ‘My Personal Relationship With Afrobeats’, reminisces about hall parties from Broadwater Farm (north London) to Lambeth town hall (south London). These hall parties, suffused with jollof rice and good old music from Ghana, was attended by close-knit West Africans. Adofo tracks his relationship with West African music from this knot of nostalgia and plots a steady arc about his coming of age, his coalescing identities and the emergence of this new genre called afrobeats which grew in its fame into the African diaspora in the 2000s. This steady arc begins with history. The corner piece is highlife, a popular dance music that spread across West African coastal cities in the 50s and 60s.
Arguably the soundtrack of his parent’s youth (and childhood), highlife ushered in independence from colonial rule and the rebirth of new nations quartered according to the infamous 1884 Berlin Conference. It was in Ghana that this fledging music was christened highlife by the excluded poor who watched hall dances where African elites charged with shepherding their new nations danced in platform shoes.
That optimism was short-lived. Those new nations quickly fell apart to bloody military coups. In Ghana, President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, nine years after the country’s independence from British colonial rule. What followed were countercoups, attendant political unrest, fiscal uncertainties, and eventual economic decline. A privileged and disillusioned few migrated to the West. They took their food and music along with them, trading their ‘Third World’ problems for ‘First World’ problems. Bringing the hall party tradition—and all its aspects small talk, dance and music—to the West may have been a necessary coping mechanism, one that a young and impressionable Adofo observed first-hand and required to properly contextualize his own coming of age.
A Quick Ting on Afrobeats is hardly a quick thing. Call it a reflection on the author’s coming of age and you would be partly correct. It is a shape-shifting thing amalgamating personal narrative and insight on West African music as it pertains to the Black British experience. It gestures for an academic core, with the narrative style oscillating between memoir and ethnomusicology, between archiving and unearthing, but always in the service of finding the self.
In the essay ‘Skanking Era – UK Funky House’, Adofo returns from a column of research-heavy anthropology-leaning essays to become a willing participant and first-hand observer, watching a culture acquire a fresh veneer. A fluid essay about partying and dance in the UK, this section describes how, at its peak, UK Funky House doused tensions around Black identities. Adofo was attending university, highlighted the role of organizations like the African and Caribbean Society in bringing Black students of both African and Caribbean descent together to deliberate about their experiences and to dance. Those heady parties powered by hormones and virile youth are relived in prose that brings to mind the agile prose of Lucy Sante’s essay ‘E.S.P’ and party scenes in Diran Adebayo’s debut novel Some Kind of Black—two writers whose descriptions of house parties are sublime. Dance and music become an epiphany of sort in Adofo’s writing. And not unlike his parents in their hall parties, Adofo and his peers were negotiating their existential personal and collective yearnings in music, in dance and in unison.
AFROBEATS: AESTHETIC OR FIXED GENRE?
‘Afrobeats’ has become the catch-all phrase for contemporary music coming out of West Africa and its diaspora. Adofo’s chapter, ‘Afrobeats (Yes, With An S)’ sheds light on the etymology of this phrase. Although Adofo provided a posthumous profile in an earlier chapter, ‘Fela and the Afrobeat – The Man and the Music’, he struggled to connect Fela’s legacy to the current wave of afrobeats. The chapter about afrobeats appears too late, after the chapter profiling Fela. It also fails to interrogate afrobeats as a catchphrase and the politics of nomenclature.
Instead, Adofo provides insight about afrobeats’ earliest use in the 80s and about how the genre was popularized by the influential UK-based DJ Abrantee. But the intellectual lamp Adofo held up to highlife and other precursor genres of Afrobeats, dimmed at an important knot that he should have explored, if not untied. At this knot lies questions around collective ownership and country tensions. Afrobeats is probably of dual, if not triadic origins. Ghana and Nigeria, two West African anglophone countries and their respective diasporas, made this music—but this description hardly serves the genre’s multiplex birth story. The politics of origin is not new. Highlife music was said to have originated from Sierra Leone and Ghana, but it is more rewarding to consider a wholistic narrative that includes all coastal West African cities and how the music was more an aesthetic than a fixed genre.
Adofo focuses on the Ghanaian and UK narrative of the emergence of Afrobeats. Aside from establishing the large looming legacy of Fela, the Nigerian narrative is exempt. Perhaps a chapter would be too ambiguous for an exhaustive enquiry but there is insight to be garnered in the intersections of Nigeria, Ghana and their diaspora communities. Simply put, Nigerian references are few and far between and even when touched upon, they are subjected to a sketchy appraisal.
Popular Nigerian afrobeats artiste, Mr Eazi has strong ties with Ghana where he schooled and, currently, he lives in the UK. Mr Eazi named his second mixtape, Life is Eazi, Vol. 1 – Accra to Lagos and its sequel, Life is Eazi, Vol. 2 – Lagos to London. Inadvertently these titles chart the direction of cultural phenomena in anglophone West African countries. Take the Azonto dance. Unequivocally, it emerged from Ghana and moved into Nigeria (read Lagos) where it was then appropriated. Azonto would later emerge as a sort of viral dance in the UK, and Adofo documents this in the chapter, ‘Is It Really Everyday Dance?’
Other kinds of dance—Yahooze, Skelewu, Shoki, Shaku, Zanku—receive a short shrift from Adofo, instead of the intellectual rigour he extended to Azonto, hiplife and boga highlife, the diasporan update of highlife in Hamburg, Germany, elsewhere in the book.
The afrobeats story can neither be exhaustively nor convincingly told without the Nigerian story. If A Quick Ting on Afrobeats is marketed as the first book of its kind, then exempting the Nigerian perspective of the afrobeats story or replacing it with a legacy posthumous profile of Fela is egregious.
Perhaps writing the afrobeats story is a complex endeavour coloured by every author’s perspective. Adofo has written the afrobeats story according to a Black British author of Ghanaian descent. In writing his own side of the story, he highlights the role of Ghanaian highlife, boga highlife and hiplife in the emergence of afrobeats. But the triangular coordinates of Accra to Lagos to London are not exhaustively explored.
Thankfully, this book is not the first book of its kind. At least not in the sense that it is the first book written about afrobeats. Jide Taiwo’s History Made: The Most Important Nigerian Songs Since 1999, published in 2020, caters, as its title suggests, to only Nigerian songs. There are also several titles at different stages of gestation. A Quick Ting on Afrobeats will not be the last book of its kind.
FINDING WOMXN ZERO
In his essay, ‘Womxn in Afrobeats’, Adofo sweeps the historical landscape of popular West African music as far back as possible in search of women. Exasperated, he fingers patriarchy as the culprit for the relative absence of women in music. The emerging elite of our modern societies regarded musicians as layabouts and women in this nocturnal trade suffered a worse fate than men.
Adofo quotes renowned ethnomusicologist, John Collins, and identifies Julie Okine as the Woman Zero of West African music. Okine was the first woman vocalist of ET Mensah’s band, The Tempos. But in Liberia, in 1949, Okine had a predecessor, a young lady called Eupheme Cooper, who was with a band called The Greenwood Singers. Songs from this band were included in Songs of the African Coast recorded by Arthur S. Albert.
The song ‘All fo You’ carries American influences on its shoulders. This song was quite popular along the coastal cities of West Africa. Perhaps this popularity came from the hugely popular version by highlife maestro, ET Mensah, whose version in the early 50s is perhaps the best known. The song is, however, traced back to a Jamaican folk song called ‘Sly Moongose’ and recorded by Sam Manning in 1925. This adds a dimension to the history of West African music relocating the Jamaican calypso to its natal land.
Documenting history is not without the inherent bias of the chronicler and every attempt at objectivity creates its own limitations. Regardless of the accuracy (or not) of Adofo’s Woman Zero, this chapter waltzes through Africa’s musical history identifying key female figures like Mariam Makeba, Lijadu Sisters, Christian Essien Igbokwe and Charlotte Dada. The flourishing of women musicians within the Pentecostal Christian church in the 80s is also explored, bringing fresh insight into how religion skewed and undermined cultural attitudes to women musicians.
Afrobeats may have better representation for women singers but the likes of Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade struggled and probably worked harder, than some of their male contemporaries to garner the same magnitude of attention. Amarae and Tems, two rising female stars and affiliates with the alté music scene, have attained their milestones quicker than their older female colleagues. It is not clear if their ascendance reflects the much-needed change in the music industry, but it is a positive outlook and thoughtful on Adofo’s part.
AFROBEATS TO THE WORLD
The book’s final chapter, ‘Homecoming and The Future’, is sprightly with optimism about the future of afrobeats. With Burna Boy’s Grammys from his Twice As Tall album under its belt as its foremost critical acclaim and the dominance of a clutch of songs—Wizkid/Tems’ ‘Essence’, CKay’s ‘Love Nwantiti’ and Fireboy DML’s ‘Peru’—on global musical charts, there are reasons to be joyous.
This joy is particularly meaningful to those residing in the diaspora: Afrobeats provides a portal for accessing black pride and identity, a unique experience that is all but lost on listeners back home in West Africa who utilise the music more for its dizzying dance and escapism.
In Nigeria, there is the possibility of an emerging cultural economy that could be bolstered with governmental support, but the music industry dogs behind the film industry Nollywood in doing things for itself. Understandably, there are unsavoury aspects of funding and patronage in the afrobeats economy. Proceeds from financial crimes often find their way to blend with the music: from direct patronage through praise-singing services to record labels floated to possibly launder dodgy money.
A Quick Ting on Afrobeats hardly reflects on these moral conundrums. All too obsessed with Black pride and optimism, Adofo’s book embraces a positive outlook and perhaps this is the right attitude to afrobeats, a not-so-nascent genre probably making its way into global dominance.
Afrobeats has been a journey more than two decades in the making and Adofo, in 193 pages of crisp prose, takes us through the key players, high moments and iconic songs of afrobeats⎈