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Burna Boy and WizKid’s Grammy awards reinforce Afrobeats as a force in global music

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Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge. Prof Babatunde Fagbayibo is an associate professor of law at the University of South Africa.

In a world that still regards Africa as a backward continent characterised by diseases, wars, famine, corruption and bad governance, Afrobeats is increasingly providing an alternative narrative. Top Nigerian artists, especially Burna Boy, Wizkid and Davido, have emerged as an important source of global Africa with the capacity to change perceptions about Africa on the world stage.

The 63rd annual Grammy Awards were held on 14 March 2021 at the Staples Center, Los Angeles in the US. The event marked the global ascendance of Nigeria’s Afrobeats as two Nigerian artists, Burna Boy and Wizkid – who alongside Davido are arguably the most popular African artists – scooped two awards. While Africans have appreciated Nigerian music for decades, Afrobeats arguably emerged as a global phenomenon following D’Banj’s hit, Oliver Twist, which reached number nine on the UK charts in 2012. Similarly, Wizkid’s collaboration with Drake, One Dance, topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for 10 weeks in 2016.

Afrobeats’ global imprint

Burna Boy won in the category of Best Global Music Album for his album, Twice as Tall, which was described in the Grammy nomination as “a masterclass in the vibe and hustle that have made Burna Boy an international musical force”. Wizkid won the Best Music Video for his collaboration with Beyoncé, Brown Skin Girl, described as “a feast for the fashion-forward and a celebration of black and brown female beauty everywhere”.

These wins were inevitable for a number of reasons. Burna Boy was nominated the previous year in the same category for his 2019 album, African Giant, but lost to veteran Beninese singer, Angélique Kidjo, who dedicated the award to Burna Boy in her acceptance speech in recognition of the latter’s achievements. Furthermore, Nigerian music artists dominated the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) from their inaugural year in 2008 until 2016 when they were halted.

In 2017, Wizkid won the Music of Black Origin (Mobo) award for Best International Act, outshining Drake, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar, while Davido won Best African Act for his hit single, If. Similarly, in 2018, Davido won the Black Entertainment Television (BET) best international act and Burna Boy won the same award in 2019 and 2020.

It is no wonder that top Nigerian artists such as Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Niniola and Tiwa Savage are noted for selling out concert venues like the Apollo Theatre, O2 Arena, Skyway Theatre, Royal Albert Hall and Le Trianon in key cities around the world, especially in New York, London, and Paris. These artists have collaborated with top US artists such as Beyoncé, Drake, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj and Snoop Dog, reinforcing Afrobeats’ emergence as a global cultural force.

Nigerian artists have also collaborated with African big names such as Sauti Sol, Diamond Platnumz, Mafikizolo, Sarkodie, and Youssou N’Dour. It is against this backdrop, coupled with the increasing global influence of Nollywood (which is regarded as the second-largest movie industry in the world), that Oluwaseun Tella asserted that “African entertainment wears a made-in-Nigeria label”.

Wizkid has undoubtedly emerged as a global force, collaborating with top American artists such as Beyoncé and Drake, inspiring many African artists like Nigerian Mr Eazi and South African DJ Maphorisa, and alongside Davido dominating the African music scene for about a decade. Burna Boy is the new kid on the block. Indeed, his Anybody hit from his African Giant album was on US former President Barack Obama’s favourite music list in 2019 and he has a solo track, Ja Ara E, on Beyoncé’s 2019 Lion King compilation.

Like a number of prolific Nigerian music artists, including veterans such as Eedris Abdulkareem and 9ice, Burna Boy was fixated on the idea of winning a Grammy. In Yawa Dey, he noted: “I dey try to win a Grammy to say I don die” (I am trying to win a Grammy like my life depends on it). Similarly, in Level Up, one of the tracks on the Twice as Tall album, he recounts his disappointment at losing the 2020 Grammy Award to Angélique Kidjo stating: “I remember when I couldn’t level up cause the Grammys had me feeling sick”. Singing “Level Up”, “Onyeka” and “Ye” virtually at the 2021 Grammys, he showcased Nigerian cultural heritage as he performed at the National Arts Theatre, used Nigerian costumes and the country’s musical instruments – especially the talking drum – were visible.   

Social consciousness

Like Fela Kuti before him, Burna Boy often uses his lyrics to address social ills. For example, in Monsters You Made, he criticises colonialism and authoritarian governments. Beyond his lyrical contribution, Burna Boy has been an advocate for social justice and Pan-Africanism.

Following the 2019 xenophobic attacks in South Africa that targeted Africans living in the country, he vowed not to visit South Africa again if the government did not take necessary action to address the issue. He threw his support behind Senegalese protesters following the arrest of opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko.

Back home in Nigeria, he set up a relief fund for victims of #EndSARS anti-police brutality protests and released 20 10 20, a tribute to the victims of extrajudicial killings at the #EndSARS campaign at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos in October 2020. Wizkid and Davido also played a key role in the campaign, with young protesters adopting Davido’s song, Fem, as the unofficial protest song.

After Burna Boy was invited alongside Mr Eazi as the first Africans (Wizkid could not honour a 2018 invitation due to visa issues) to perform at the Coachella Festival in the US in 2019, he noted on his Instagram page: “I really appreciate you, … But I don’t appreciate the way my name is written so small in your bill. I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means. Fix tings quick please.” Coachella’s lack of response prompted his team to design and post reimagined flyers that had his name in the spaces of all the invited artists.

While this attracted some criticism, it was seemingly an appropriate stance as he showed that Africa and its people can no longer be relegated to the back burner as Africans can now compete on the global stage.

He undertook an “African Giant” tour in the same year and subsequently released his album titled African Giant, further making a bold statement. In his acceptance speech at the 2021 Grammys, he noted that “Africa is here! We are here! You hear me? This is something fantastic for all Africans of my generation, all over the world, and this should be a lesson for all Africans, whatever you are, wherever you are, you can achieve it.”

The implications of the rise of Afrobeats

In a world that still regards Nigeria as a backward country and, by extension, Africa as a backward continent characterised by diseases, wars, famine, corruption and bad governance, Afrobeats is increasingly providing an alternative narrative. Top Nigerian music artists, especially Burna Boy, Wizkid and Davido, have emerged as an important source of global Africa with the capacity to change perceptions about African people in the global arena.

Similarly, the rise of Afrobeats can potentially contribute significantly to the African unity project. With the increasing collaborations among African artists, and with artists in the African diaspora, Afrobeats provides a platform through which policymakers can sensitise Africa and its diaspora on the imperative of sub-regional and continental cooperation. 

Furthermore, 2021 has been declared by the African Union (AU) the Year of the Arts, Culture and Heritage. The rise of Afrobeats as a global soundtrack is no doubt an essential component of achieving the objectives of this declaration. DM

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