At this point, Afropop should be looking beyond the Grammys

The greatest chance Afropop stands at not being a temporary global fad, is by looking inside.

Going into the 64th Grammys Award last Sunday, Wizkid was widely tipped for two gramophones. The Nigerian superstar was nominated in the Best Global Music Album and Best Global Music Performance categories, up against four-time Grammy recipient Angelique Kidjo, compatriots Femi and Made Kuti and a host of other musicians who, honestly, hadn’t scratched his critical and commercial acclaim over the past couple years. Expectedly, the ascendant Afropop community and its many lovers rallied around Wizkid to bring them home.

The results of those categories are no longer speculation. As the world again turned towards America to validate their beloved superstars, the ‘Made in Lagos’ star lost out on both awards, to Ms. Kidjo and Aroof Aftab, stoking the old conversation about the validity of the Academy’s classifications of the music that’s being created outside of the West.

No stranger to international acclaim, Afropop has for long sought the Grammys as a confirmation of its legitimacy among global popular music. In 2020, one of the earliest cultural discussions revolved around Burna Boy’s loss in the ‘Best World Music’ category to Angelique Kidjo’s ‘Celia’, a characteristically brilliant album which paid homage to Celia Cruz while updating Kidjo’s sound with robust Latin influences. ‘African Giant’, however, was a tour-de-force, taking afropop’s sonic backgrounds into deep streams of diasporic history, and executed alongside exciting acts within Nigeria and abroad. At the time Burna was an album into his rebirth, releasing ‘Outside’ to widespread acclaim the year before; his skill across that album and ‘African Giant’ was peerless, signifying the expansive horizons the genre could reach. When he lost, it was obvious that the Grammys didn’t care for diversity as it claimed.

Opinions were shared, but none captured the problems of the ‘World Music Album’ category as strongly as Ivie Ani’s essay, which would be referenced when the Academy changed the category’s name ten months later to “a more relevant, modern and inclusive term.” There’s, however, been no real signifier that the Academy understands those terms beyond their basic connotations.

In recent years the number of international acts who’ve faulted their selections have grown, including Drake, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, Frank Ocean, Diplo and a host of others. If the biggest stars operating within that universe could cancel what’s supposed to be ‘the biggest night in music’, Afropop shouldn’t be excluded from more active conversations about reclaiming our autonomy, especially as we’re being looked upon as the fastest growing phenomena in the global music industry. 

The truth is that the Grammys are an American awards with a value system inherently different from ours. They also have a history of promoting white biases about what African music should sound like, negating the crisscrossing of genres and experiences happening between African artists out in the world. Contemporary Afropop varies in presentation, collected in the retro perspectives of Lady Donli as much as Wizkid’s groovy laid-back songs. Artists like Rema, Black Sherif and Focalistic sound nothing alike, but would no doubt be lumped in such derogatory categories if the Academy nominates them in the future. As expressed in our takeaways to Billboard’s inaugural Afrobeats chart, there are no distinct parameters for which artists could feature on it; with such a slope field, Afropop could slither out of relevance when they’re done milking our current relevance. 

It has happened before. From the 70s, Reggae made incursions into the US and United Kingdom. Artists like Bob Marley took positive messages of love into the biggest arenas and stadiums, while Jimmy Cliff’s appearance in the 1973 film The Harder They Come introduced Jamaican music to cinema audiences worldwide. The latter decades saw more consistent efforts at marketing Reggae to the world. The eighties Dancehall trend continued into the early 2000s, with Beenie Man, Sean Paul, Lady Saw and Shaggy especially visible internationally, collaborating with American superstars at will. Furthermore Hip Hop as a movement was heavily influenced by the anti-oppression themes of Reggae, its most recognised pioneer—DJ Kool Herc—being a second generation immigrant from Jamaica. The charts at the time recognised the genre’s impact, much like everyone who’s scurrying to set up an Afropop chart today, before Billboard’s Reggae singles chart was shuttered in 2020. 

Among the most heated controversies from last Sunday’s Grammy, was the awarding of ‘Best Reggae Album’ to SOJA, a Virginia-based white band with no relationship with Jamaica. Perhaps a decade ago it would have caused widespread outrage, but people now know better than beating what is essentially a dead horse. The choices of the Academy will always project their prejudices, which pays little recognition to musical history or cultural nuances.

In the aftermath of Wizkid’s loss, social media took up the conversation about what the Academy prefers. A number of people pointed out the sociopolitical messages in Angelique Kidjo’s music which was mirrored also on Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall, saying it gave them an edge for their wins. Quite comically, they alluded to ‘jungle music’ being the format for a Grammy win, a term that can be denoted as music that is heavily influenced by traditional aesthetic, a visual interpretation of Africa’s supposedly thick forests being crucial. A smaller number posited that live instrumentation across the song or body of work could also tip the scales. All these, though, are to be taken with a pinch of salt, as mere speculations inspired by looking from the outside. 

The greatest chance Afropop stands at not being a temporary fad, is by looking inside. At this point we should be thinking beyond the Grammys. Given their frequent misgivings, it’s really the grip of neo-colonialism that’s stopping us from sidestepping their annual politics. Every musician and their best friend grew up thinking of winning a Grammy, but our indigenous award shows could elevate to a similar reputation if all hands are on deck. The United Kingdom’s Brit Awards has done well in decentralising the Grammys’ influence, knowing that over the years credible projects from their part of the world have been snubbed for lesser American releases. Which is really no surprise given that at the end of the day everyone’s looking out for their own. 

Here in Nigeria we haven’t given our award shows the deserved respect. In a country riddled with administrative and infrastructural problems, a platform like The Headies should be lauded for its consistency. In 2018 it was a bad look how Wizkid packed more than half the artists nominated by the Headies to perform at his 02 show, leaving the Lagos-held show severely under-attended. Afropop infamously revolves around Nigeria but so far that soft power hasn’t translated into homegrown development. We’re making these big moves in the world without recognising that home, as it said, is where the heart is. No one knows what ‘Made in Lagos’ means for a generation of Afropop acts more than Africans. Sounds crazy but there’s a better chance that a random music lover in Ojuelegba could spend thirty minutes discussing the relevance of “Essence” and MIL in general. 

Quite interestingly, the Headies are going in the other direction. Earlier this year, the Ayo Animashaun-led platform announced that it would hold this year’s edition of the awards in America, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta. The news was met with concerns, but Mr. Animashaun joined a Twitter Spaces chat by the NATIVE and 49th Street. Among other things, he clarified that world-class production was cheaper and easier to access in America and that he was sure the show would again hold overseas but he couldn’t tell the evolution. What I picked was that this year’s event will be a test-run, and how successful it will be depends on the level of cooperation the Headies board receives from Nigerian artists and industry stakeholders. 

In the same vein, there’s the space for more award platforms to step up and reach for similar cultural relevance. Of course it’s easier said than done but we’re seeing international companies pump huge money into Nigeria when they sign artists. That financial leverage can be extended towards other sectors of the entertainment industry, and award shows are a viable means of doing just that. On the part of the Afro Pop audience, we could be more intentional and excited about the groundbreaking stuff that’s being achieved within our local spaces. A number of communities, podcasts, documentaries and other music professionals have been bringing Afro Pop up to the contextual level of music elsewhere, providing crucial information that vivifies the history and evolution of the movement. 

Similarly, TurnTable chart ranks among the most important musical innovations in recent years, publishing weekly chats with statistics from streaming platforms, TV and radio. Last week they announced that they would begin incorporating data from Apple Music, Spotify and Deezer, essentially making their charts a more robust and accurate depiction of the country’s listening patterns. It was an affair that deserved more celebration, but instead we’re fixated on the international charts which always seem to prioritise Nigeria over other African countries and genres, and which surely doesn’t recognise the shifting nuances of what’s popping over here. 

Eventually we have to decide if we’re the real owners of Afropop. A well-referenced Igbo proverb is, “Until the lions learn to talk, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The Wizkid case certainly opens up a larger conversation, and it’ll be a disservice not to recognise that.