Dear Quartz Africa, to the many histories Afrobeats. Cheers.
In order to counter The New Yorker feature on Afrobeats, the Quartz does something funnier. It takes a myth and invites us for a discussion. Naw, let it pass. To continuously attribute afrobeat to Fela is really disrespectful. It is disrespectful to a long tradition of experimentation. To ET Mensah for his introduction of the trumpet to highlife. To K Gyasi with the keyboard. To even Fela’s contemporary, Ebo Taylor, who in many ways inspired Fela to take up Afrobeat. Afrobeats is NOT the sound of Lagos. It is of urban youth down from Blitz to Fuse ODG and the streets of London and beyond. Of emergent group experimenting with sound in Tema. Of experimenting with hip pop, crunk and Azonto. Of Kill Beatz. And R2Bees. Of Richie Mensah and Lynx entertainment. Of many others dotted across the shore of the continent.
Enter a night club in Accra. Or Lagos. Or in any other African city. You will hear up tempo, groovy, urban, and funky music with a heavy dose of heavy electronic instrumentation. The entire music may be saved by a catchy chorus. When you hear the music, it is like you are in a godforsaken village with a bus as the only means of transportation. You miss the embarking journey so you wait for the bus to return. In between times, you dance, scream and throw your hands about. The bus is the music’s chorus, your point of familiarity. The music is Afrobeats, a term attributed to DJ Abrantee, a Ghanaian DJ in England.
The African diaspora is not to be left out in the development of Afrobeats. In the opening paragraph of her very defining Afropolitanism essay, Bye-Bye Babar, Taiye Selasi essentially describes how Afrobeats is derived from Afrobeat. The difficulty, and often as the legend is told, is to hint Fela Kuti as the progenitor of Afrobeats even if casually explaining the ‘s’. The myth is palpable on WizKid and Femi Kuti’s Jaiye Jaiye. It seemed as one generation was handing over to the other. This is the trap that Quartz’s recent production falls into, the danger of a single story. Of Fela and Lagos. Afrobeat is played from live instrument, and is heavy on horns whereas Afrobeats is an electronic confluence of influences just like Highlife, Afrobeat and their derivatives.
As the highlife connoisseur and academic Dr Amos Anyimadu has pointed out on my Facebook wall, “there is evidence that Fela first named Afrobeat. However, his inspiration for Afrobeat was very significantly Ghanaian”. Fela’s music is traceable to the brassy dance highlife subgenre. You hear E.T. Mensah with the horn. You hear Kofi Ghanaba’s Afro jazzy flair. Even Ebo Taylor, Fela’s contemporary. If you put him in the Nigerian context, you hear Dr Victor Olaiya. You hear the energy of juju music. In short, Fela is not the start or end of either highlife or Afrobeat. He is only one of the many musicians who experimented with music as evident in the evolution of Fela’s practice over the years. Now with more posthumous fame, he should be our accessory of enquiry. We should be asking if there were more people like him. Who were those before and after him? Also to suggest Afrobeats as a Lagosian invention as the Quartz production did, is a complete erasure of the long tradition of music experimentation in Africa and the diaspora. It erases the many influences of Afrobeats such as African-American jazz and funk, hip pop, highlife, hiplife, azonto, naijabeats and South African Afro house beats.
Dabbling in arts history means participating in a highly contested terrain and sometimes, myth-making. But what we know should not be the end. It should be the pointer to the unknown. We should not silence the past.