The World of Afrobeats

Afrobeats is the sound you heard on pop radio for much of 2016. It’s not to be confused with Afrobeat, the funk-based form that Fela Kuti made famous in the 1970s. (It’s a common error that even a New York Times story recently made.) Afrobeats emerged from Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana in the mid-to-late 2000s, and serves as an African response to post-millennial hip-hop, electronic music, Jamaican reggae and dancehall, and R&B. There are tracks that rely on familiar tropes—Auto-Tuned vocals, English-language lyrics about partying and sex—as well as build upon distinctive traditions like highlife and Afrobeat, resulting in songs that could only be African. It has informed some truly sublime music, like Maleek Berry’s sensuous, hip-swaying “Kontrol,” and WizKid’s “Ojuelegba,” a mesmerizing striver’s anthem about scraping together an existence in Lagos. The latter was featured on The Fader’s best tracks of 2015 list, a sign that Western tastemakers are keen on African pop.

Much of what the U.S. mainstream has heard of Afrobeats so far are watered-down, chart-topping approximations like Drake’s “One Dance,” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” However, it thrives online, gathering hundreds of millions of YouTube views, and turning artists like Yemi Alade (whose “Johnny” has accumulated 75 million views thanks to its colorfully frenetic video), Mr. Eazi, DaVido, and others into virtual cult artists. WizKid has toured with Future, and his most recent album, Sounds from the Other Side, yielded a modest hit in “Come Closer,” a collaboration with Drake. D’banj’s new album, King Don Come, includes a number with Gucci Mane, “EL CHAPO,” that gives Southern trap form a distinctly Nigerian twist. It’s anyone’s guess whether the rise of Afrobeats results in African musicians cracking the Billboard Hot 100, or turns out to be a fad that burns brightly and dissipates. Regardless, it’s a sign of how global music has returned to prominence in America—as if Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” hadn’t proved that already—opening up a new world of Afrobeats to discover.