Four takeaways from Ayo Shonaiya’s ‘Afrobeats: The Backstory’

The good and not-so-great of the Nigerian pop documentary series

An ongoing conversation has been sparked ever since Netflix premiered their first-ever Afrobeats documentary on the 29th of June, 2022. The Africa-led musical movement has arguably been the fastest-rising cultural phenomenon of the 2020s, therefore it made all sense for the streaming company to acquire Ayo Shonaiya’s work and push it with the resolve they’ve shown so far. With the 12-episode series ‘Afrobeats: The Backstory’ now fully released, sections of viewers have their different opinions.

For those who have limited knowledge of the Afrobeats scene, it’s surely an important reference point. Its deliberate spin around the movement’s birthplaces of Nigeria and Ghana, down to its early to mid 2000s evolution among the UK diaspora, were especially in-depth. However, it’s those based in Africa who experienced first-hand those generation-defining moments who’ve had the most to say about Shonaiya’s documentary. Ranging from well-deserved praise on its novel elements to criticism about perceived oversights, it’s been attended with the depth of reaction that’s only befitting of such an important cultural production.

Here at the NATIVE, we’ve made no small efforts to contextualise this music we so love. Through longform and 1-listen reviews, first impressions, feature pieces, and interviews with influential figures on chosen creative projects, it’s been a recurring mission of ours to centre the basic components of art. By doing that we’re able to demystify the creative process, and enable healthy discussions about its execution. As a result, we’ve asked members of our editorial team to each share their biggest takeaway from the Netflix Afrobeats documentary. Knowing how diverse our interests are, this is one compulsory accompaniment before, during or after watching the doc.

The ‘S’ is important

As someone who has never visited West Africa, I often confuse Afrobeats and Afrobeat. When the documentary starts, Shonaiya’s emphasis on “Afrobeats with an S” communicates one thing: the difference is immense and by the end of the documentary. Now, I can assure you I will never confuse it. The growth of the genre has been like a roaring fire in the forest consuming and carrying everyone with it and the documentary puts it out in the most detailed manner. In short, if you don’t know the origin of the genre, this documentary is your encyclopaedia.

As the documentary explores the rise of Afrobeats, the Nigerian global music phenomenon, the 12 episodes give a perfect blend of Nigerian classics and new generation music, from Afrobeat to Afrobeats. Paying homage to Fela Kuti, Shonaiya is key to ensure his light does not deem, giving him and Tony Allen credits for coining the name of the genre. I love the fact there was a background check and involvement of key players of the genre such as Junior & Pretty, Eedris Abdulkareem, Sound Sultan, Banky W and more. While watching the show there was an immediate emotional connection to the message as an African and also a lover of the genre. It felt like I was in the ’90s when Shonaiya broke down the emergence of Afrobeats. Compiling hit songs, club bangers and invaluable education, Shonaiya drove the point home. Afrobeat and Afrobeats are not the same.

Tela Wangeci

Documentation is important

For ‘Afrobeats: The Backstory’, producer Ayo Shonaiya gathered footage from over 20 years of real time experiences. At the time when memories were being created  Shonaiya was making sure to create a visual representation of these moments. At the time, Afrobeats was still on the come up and no proper structure had been put into place but the clips collected by Shonaiya has given the body of work more meaning and has amplified the storytelling, making the consumption of the documentary a lot easier. The documentary did justice to highlighting the relevance of what is being experienced now and its importance to the future. These footages also gave the documentary a feeling of a memoir, letting the viewers feel even closer to players such as Obi Asika, Keke and D1, JJC, Ayo Shonaiya himself, Don Jazzy, and more.

Wonu Osikoya

Thank you, Ghana!

In early 2017, Nigerian Twitter went into a frenzy after Mr Eazi stated in a now deleted tweet that it’s impossible to understate the influence of Ghanaian music on Nigerian music. Since then, the singer has been in something of a contentious relationship with Nigerian music faithful, even being cancelled – that’s despite scoring more hit songs and heading a successful label services company. In ‘Afrobeats: The Backstory’, Mr. Shonaiya digs into the “5-beat count” that forms the rhythmic basis of Afrobeats, tracing it to the Kpanlogo drum pattern, which is central to Ghanaian folk music and, consequently, Ghanaian urban music. Basically, Afrobeats—aka Nigerian pop in the doc’s context—has, and continues to, crib cues from its neighbour.

If you want to go all the way back, there’s Highlife, which has its origins in Ghana and formed the foundation of the sound for many iconic Nigerian artists, from Celestine Ukwu’s Igbo Highlife, to Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Edo Funk, to Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, and more. In a more modern context, several Nigerian artists and hit songs around the turn of the millennium took vivid influences from hiplife, the Ghanaian originated sound that melded highlife melodies with the bounce of hip-hop. The mid-2010s renaissance that slowed down the de-facto tempo of Nigerian pop—led by Eazi’s banku sound, Tekno’s “Pana” and Runtown’s “Mad Over You”—owes a lot to neo-highlife melodies.

In the docuseries, respected producer JMJ and acclaimed singer Stonebwoy chip in on the influence of Ghanaian-originated music on Afrobeats, offering the sort of nuance that’s already known but doesn’t want to be acknowledged by Nigerians. So, again: Thank you, Ghana.

Dennis Ade Peter

Too many exceptions to ignore

As much as I enjoyed the documentary, it had a number of gaping holes. The most confounding for me was the absence of the Eastern music scene’s myriad contributions. Highlife was well-connected to its origin birthplace of Ghana, but its evolution within Nigeria wasn’t done proper justice to, especially with the 1967 Nigeria-Biafra War, which essentially ruptured its burgeoning fan base across the whole nation and gave way to the rise of Fela’s Afrobeat, and not long after, Juju and Fuji primarily in Southwestern Nigeria.

In telling the Afrobeats story, a deliberate effort must be made to decentralise the importance of Lagos. Shonaiya’s focus on the city brothers Lagos and London was too much of a singular narrative, even if true and well-researched. As a result, the descendants of the Highlife-dominated Eastern scene weren’t given their credit. Ostensibly missing was the contribution of notable figures such as P Square, Flavour, Dekumzy and J Martins who made the sound of Nigerian Pop varied in the 2000s, and in the post-MTV era became early explorers of the East African market.

Emmanuel Esomnofu