On Yemi Alade and Afrobeats as genre

Yemi Alade, in an interview with Fader, spoke about her career and in response to one of the questions posed commented on afrobeats and the position of other musicians from the continent to it as a genre.

Yemi Alade
Yemi Alade

The idea of afrobeats as a foreign nomenclature produced out of necessity to classify contemporary music that is out of Africa and influenced by western musical traditions and African culture is known and generally agreed upon. The name was used to describe that broad class of music by UK’s DJ Abrantee, who needed an umbrella term to describe the predominantly Nigerian and Ghanaian music he was playing for audiences at the time—2011. Reading the 9 November 2016 interview by Yemi Alade, however, one can be forgiven for thinking the term afrobeats an old name for long existing genre. Here’s what she said:

“What can we do? I was born into a world where afrobeats is the major genre, and [musicians] have all created our own type of genre [within it]. I personally think anyone who is fighting about the fact that we're all in the afrobeats genre is just hitting their head against the wall because you can't fight the truth. If you think you're not of the afrobeats lineage, why don't you just create your [own lineage]?”

Yemi Alade's interview was held in context of her status as the queen of afrobeats. The above statement can therefore be read as the ideas of someone who has assumed some authority. But the statement is factually wrong. The only people born into the world of afrobeats as genre are those under five years of age. Anyone above that has lived in a world where the western-influenced styles of music on the African continent all had unique names: Highlife, Juju, Makossa, etc. To suggest a lineage for the new category, this early in its life, is to assume it has done enough to retain form and be relevant as a description.

Before Abrantee’s necessity-fueled naming, music from the continent had generally been recognized on the under the category of World Music. It is under this, even now, that many acts from the continent snag nominations at the Grammy Awards. (This category was further divided into traditional world music and contemporary world music in 2005.) And as long as the Grammys remain the world’s most recognised musical award, it follows that, as a lineage, African acts are more beholden to world music than they are to afrobeats. Both of these nomenclatures are, however, just digestible terms for a western audience that is often too lazy to investigate the nuances of a continent’s wide and varying artistic cultures. One term isn’t more authentic than the other.

Also, afrobeats isn’t really a style or genre of music. At least not in the order of Cape Verde’s morna, Senegal’s mbalax, Cameroon’s makossa, Ghana’s highlife, or Nigeria’s Juju among others. Not even in the order of Fela’s Afrobeat. Many of these genres share similar roots, but they are also distinguishable. The tendency of the afrobeats nomenclature to flatten these genres is worse for the culture than what would happen if more artistes rejected the name in favour of specific descriptions of their artistic ambitions.

Yemi Alade’s position is clear. She’s a fantastic artiste who runs her art like an enterprise, turning out song and videos, including her latest titled 'Tumbum', at a virile rate. She has become the female face of popular music on the continent by scaling up: collaborating with artistes from other African countries, and becoming more visible beyond her Nigerian base. It is this kind of effort that has made her part of Shell’s ‘Best day of my life’ campaign. But this popularity, however authentic and legitimate, doesn’t translate to a freedom to redefine the practice of the art across the continent. At best, her fealty to afrobeats as genre, an undoubtedly self-preserving choice, is hers and hers alone.

More music from the continent that differs from the mainstream pop/hiphop/R&B influences are now gaining popularity among African audiences. This has lead to the blooming of an alternative genre, which is really just another way of classifying what cannot be easily classified. In Nigeria, Adekunle Gold’s Yoruba-heavy highlife and Falana’s afro-soul are both classified as alternative music. But the divergence in their styles is obvious.

The creation of styles and ‘lineages’ is going to continue as long as there are artists willing to go to uncharted musical territories. This doesn’t diminish the hustle of industrious artists such as Wizkid or Yemi Alade. It just means that the farther we move in time from Abrantee’s classification, the more its deficiencies will be revealed. 

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