Afropop On The Rise: Just when you thought it couldn’t get any bigger, it did

breakout artists, sold out international venues and grammy nods

We’re very well beyond the point of surprise as we witness Afropop incessantly redefining the status quo, breaking the boundaries and peeling off all labels, as its key players garner attention of audiences beyond the home base. The commendation for this steady yet astronomical rise goes beyond the artists creating the music but to all creatives involved in the process, inclusive but not exhaustive of the producers, videographers, directors and most especially this year the DJ’s. From the back of the ever-evolving street pop corner in Nigerian Pop to the genre-defying acts in South Africa’s Amapiano and plethora of others, the power of Afropop aggressively grows stronger with every new release. 

With COVID-19 almost completely out of the way and the scare of live, public gatherings practically non-existent, concerts, parties, clubs, Boiler Rooms and other venues that play a crucial role in flinging the ropes of Afropop far beyond its curbs are bigger, louder and brighter than ever. If the iconic dynamic duo, Major League DJz aren’t rocking the sound waves with the hottest and freshest sounds from these parts in Ibiza, then superstar DJ Uncle Waffles is debuting her Amapiano hit single “Tanzania,” on one of the biggest online music broadcasting and promotional platforms in the world, Boiler Room. Right off the heels of her viral video last year, where she captured audiences with her enthralling dance moves and masterful set, Uncle Waffles set out to display her skills beyond the deck.

As the proliferation Amapiano exceeds its borders, standout acts like Mellow and Sleazy are captivate audiences with their enthralling, Bacardi-infused take on the incredibly prominent sound, championing hood ‘Piano invention that continues to cross borders. Think “Abo Mvelo,” “Wenza Kanjani” and expanding its impact to this year via its music video release, the TikTok-favourite “Nkao Tempela.” It’s just one part of the inventive equation, when you consider the continued presence of Private School Amapiano and the Deep House-led excursions of veteran hands like Gabba Canal and newer faces like Sam Deep.

Recently, ‘Piano luminary Njelic sparked a conversation on the seeming one-way traffic effected by growing international attention on the dance subgenre, where more producers and artists are spending more time trotting foreign soil for gigs. Njelic believes South Africa, being the creative cradle of Amapiano, should be a Mecca for the rest of the world to travel to in order to truly experience the sound and culture around it. It’s a complex take, an idealistic one with its own demerits, but it’s an implicit testament to the strides a hood-originated sound has taken over the last few years. A lot of that, like nearly everything that has helped propel Afropop to global dominance, has been powered by ubiquitous digital tools: Internet, streaming and social media.

Music doesn’t just travel farther than the geographical point of its immediate audience, it does so at its fastest pace yet. Whether an artist travels outside their country to perform or not, all it takes a viral moment to reach worldwide recognition—a phenomenon that’s being aided by globally-viewed virtual performance platforms. Over the course of this year, COLORS Studios shared a batch of single song live sets from a slew of Nigerian Pop artists, including Lady Donli’s breezy “Thunderstorm in Surulere,” Victony’s contemplative “Many Man,” BNXN’s balmy “In My Mind,” Ayra Starr’s cheeky “ASE,” and more. While these COLORS performances were generally compelling, the clear standout was Oxlade’s helium-tinged voice and gyrating dances for his rendition of “KU LO SA.”

To those who’ve been unto the singer since his show-stealing feature on Blaqbonez’s “Mamiwota,” Oxlade’s voice is one of the most captivating in Nigerian pop and his on-stage presence is a joy to behold. Given a global platform and armed with a great song, those parts of his abilities were greatly amplified, helping him jump out as the latest viral superstar in Afropop. With help from TikTok, the singer’s movements seeped into pop culture through reverent and playful mimicry, and in a few months “KU LO SA” gradually grew into an international hit song. This path to popularity is reminiscent of CKay’s “Love Nwantiti,” and Amaarae’s “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY” remix assisted by Moliy and Kali Uchis, two already popular songs which went on to top international charts after they hit TikTok. Oxlade, like his counterparts, is on the cusp of further breakthrough as he contributes to the expansion of Afropop conversations using his infectious vocals.

And when the stars are not delivering ground-breaking performances on music platforms, they are gathering their fans from across the world and selling out some of the biggest concert venues and redefining live performances forever. In a pinch-me Afropop moment, Grammy-winning Nigerian singer Burna Boy performed to a sold out crowd at the prestigious Madison Square Garden in New York, that late April night coming just over three years after his Coachella line-up outburst. During his engaging and memorable MSG show, Burna Boy premiered “Last Last,” a then-new single ahead of his sixth studio album, ‘Love, Damini’. The song, a riveting track about failed romance and coping mechanisms quickly became a national smash, which was expected considering how much its songwriting conversed with Nigerian pop culture lingo.

What many didn’t envisage, though, is how huge of a global hit “Last Last” would become. Even as its housing album came out with several big name features—Ed Sheeran, Khalid, Kehlani, Popcaan and more—the song remained its commercial lodestar. For the second year in a row, Nigerian pop had submitted a veritable candidate for stateside and worldwide song of the summer, and it’s perhaps more impressive that it happened without a feature-based remix.

To be plain, features have been and remain an important tool to the spread of Nigerian pop, but it’s remarkable that they’re aren’t a do or die option to improve a song’s reach. Even before Justin Bieber eagerly jumped on the remix of Wizkid and Tems’ “Essence”, it was already a cultural needle mover. In fact, it reiterated just how drawn non-African artists are to the sounds emanating from these parts. If Destiny Child’s Kelly Rowland isn’t remixing Ayra Starr’s “Bloody Samarittan,” then Selena Gomez’s melluflous vocals are gracing Rema’s “Calm Down” garnering the young Mavins Records signee several plaques and certifications. While the long term effects of international influences on Afropop can be debated, there is undeniable benefit for African artists and their crossover to global audiences. 

Coupled with the features, African artists continue to etch our sounds into the soundscape beyond Africa while maintaining the nonpariel elements that make it ours. South African DJ, Black Coffee, alongisde his son, Esona Tyolo, scored production credits on “Texts Go Green” and “Currents” off Drake’s dance album, ‘Honestly, Nevermind.’ On the subject of dance albums from some of the biggest names in the music industry, BET award winner Tems and dexterous producer P2J snagged performance and production credits on “Move” from Beyoncé’s ‘RENAISSANCE.’

Beyond that, a slew of African creatives graced the soundtrack for the highly anticipated film, ‘Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever.’ Leading up to the release was Tems’ formidable cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” for the films trailer alongside her writing credits on “Lift Me Up”, performed by Rihanna and an exceptional rendition by Ghanian superstar, Amaarae, on “A Body, A Coffin” for the prologue. This was followed up by some of the greatest talents in Afropop on the film’s soundtrack, including: Burna Boy, DBN Gogo, Sino Msolo, Fireboy DML, CKay, Rema, Young Stunna and Bloody Civilian -who learnt of her involvement before the release of her debut single “How To Kill A Man”– to name a few.

With or without international recognition, African artists are constantly breaking the boundaries and redefining the status quo and with notable mention are the younger generation of artists like Mellow and Sleazy and Mavins Records signee’s Ayra Star and Rema. Ayra Starr continues to witness groundbreaking success with innovative chart topping hits like “Rush”  off ’19 and Dangerous: Deluxe’ and “2 Sugar,” standout track from Wizkid’s fifth studio album, ‘More Love, Less Ego.’ And with every new release, the starlet showcases maturity with her braggadocious lyricism and euphonious vocals. Her record label partner, Rema, from one concert venue to the other broadens the scope of his already trailblazing debut album ‘Rave and Roses’ with noteworthy tracks like Aj Tracey-assisted “FYN” and “Oroma Baby.” However, worth notable mention is indisputably one of the biggest, loudest and most relentless breakthrough acts of the year, Asake

While he was thrown into the limelight this year with back to back hits—“Omo Ope,” “PALAZZO” and “Terminator”Asake has been in the music scene for years now. Two years before memorable one-liners like “I just blow, but omo I know my set” off “Peace Be Unto You (PBUY),” Asake had inserted himself within Nigerian music conversations with popular street-pop hit, “Mr Money.” Following the success of such tracks and stellar visuals directed by industry key player, TG Omori, to accompany them, Asake announced his debut album, ‘Mr. Money With The Vibe.’ Every year, Nigerian pop ushers in several candidates to the mainstream, Asake’s run offers a standout cut from the group this year. With a stack of smash hit singles under his belt, conversation was steered around if his debut album -being a full body of work- would live up to expectations.

Undoubtedly, ‘Mr. Money With The Vibe.’ outlived the expectations of many. The 30 minute 12-track project, fit for today’s consumer with a low attention span, provided a mix of Asake’s typically catchy, upbeat productions and more slower-paced tracks like “Nzaza” and “Muse.” He also reinforced his versatility with tracks like “Dupe,” a house-influenced track, serving as an appreciation for his tumultuous journey thus far. Employing Yoruba, Pidgin and English, Asake with every release, including standout features like Tiwa Savage-assisted “Loaded” and Fireboy’s “Bandana,” has proven to be an unstoppable force.

From the sound waves in Nigeria to the airwaves in Johannesburg, acts like Prince Kaybee, Musa Keys, Focalistic, Kabza De Small and others are broadening our sonic palettes one ‘Piano track at a time. “Kancane,” a marriage of captivating cadences, heart-thumping and mellow rhythms, taps into the finest elements of Afropop, Amapiano and soulful house. 9umba 9umba’s hypnotic, hip-gyrating track, “uMlando,” which enlisted an all star cast including Young Stunna and Sino Msolo or Pabi Cooper’s “Banyana Ke Bafana” featuring Amapiano heavyweight, Focalistic, amongst others or Kabza De Small’s “Eningi” off ‘KOA II Part 1.’

One thing these artists are constantly doing is building a community of minds alike by tapping into their unique sounds and perspectives, making the genre an ever evolving one not slowing down any time soon. Beyond the country, they tap into artists who provide a fresh perspective on the already groundbreaking tracks. A perfect example are Musa Keys and Loui who enlisted Victony for a remix on their hot track, “Selema (Po Po).” The trajectory of Amapiano continues being shaped by other ground breaking acts like Tyler ICU, Virgo Deep, Mas Musiq, Mr JazziQ, Dali Wonga, Ami Faku and the likes as they drive the infamous lush keys and log drums to cult success. 

Also taking the South African house-influenced sounds to a whole new levels by merging with R&B are acts like Venom and Shishiliza for their outstanding work on Love is Pain.’ Promotional singles “Sondela” and “Vuka” which had the streets in a chokehold, built anticipation for the project – a perfect blend of mellow Amapiano soundscapes with jazz and soul sensibilities. Not only did the duo manage to draw the legendary Mr Selwyn out of retirement, they brought some contemporary rappers like Loki on board with industry legends like the late Riky Rick in an eclectic sonic palette. Doubling down on mentionable R&B projects this year is Ria Boss’ ‘Remember.’ The soulful Accra-based musician delivered a project on her sorrow, love, and frustrations with life in a way many other artists could not afford, in a live performance. The album boasts of exquisite productions as well as stellar vocals from the artist and the Ghanaian band, The Musical Lunatics.

While the musical year started off on sour notes with the Grammy snob for Wizkid’s genre-defying album,Made In Lagos,’ with only a few days left till the year end, we’re now wrapping up with four Grammy nods split evenly between Burna Boy and Tems. It goes without saying that 2022 has been another outstanding year for the proliferation of the burgeoning Afropop scene. African creatives in the music scene are sustaining the momentum as they go head-to-head with their international counterparts. One thing’s for certain, they won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE

Nwanneamaka couples her creative interests with her individuality, using words as a vessel for her expression.