Asake, DJ Maphorisa & Nigeria’s quest to adopt Amapiano

More culture vulture vibes

The first time I listened to “Dupe”, the fifth song on Nigerian singer Asake’s new album ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’, it sounded instantly familiar. In a group chat, a close friend and music industry guy Honour Aghedo described the song as “Fuji X Cele X Piano.” He was almost spot on: Asake’s delivery has owed, and will always owe, a lot to Fuji music influences, and if you’re remotely familiar with the praise and worship mode of the Celestial Church of Christ, the horns and stacked vocal chants of “Shout Halle!” will hit different.

The one thing Honour got wrong in his breakdown of the songs elements was the Amapiano part. Immediately after I read that text, it clicked in my head that the combination of the drumbeat pattern and lush keys for “Dupe” is cut from Dream House, a dance music subgenre currently spearheaded by South African producer Sun-El Musician, alongside affiliate collaborators like Claudio and Kenza. Beyond tracing its sonic origin, another song began to hum in my head: “We Were Here” by South African singer and Sun-El affiliate, Simmy.

Now, I’m not going to imply plagiarism because there’s a tiny bit of variation, but it’s impossible to ignore the percussive similarities between “Dupe” and the Sun-El-produced “We Were Here”. Full disclosure, I’d listened to ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’ two weeks before its official drop, giving it two full spins via a PR link before deciding to save further listens for release night. That feeling of familiarity crept up on me a few times during those initial listens, but only became clearer on further listen after the album’s release.

Since ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’ came out a week ago, Asake’s reverence has taken another leap forward. Already, you could define the singer’s year as an epic breakout run that’s not only impacted Nigerian pop, but also deeply influenced it. The addition of an album that many would describe as truly special has undeniably knighted Asake as a generational talent in the making. There are many reasons to praise ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’, a project packed with songs that boast infinite replay value, in large part due to Asake’s powers as a resonant lyricist and a songwriter with a gift for choruses that take up real estate space in your head the moment you hear them.

There’s also the sole producer factor: Magicsticks, the man behind all 12 songs on the album. Nigerian music has seen a couple of awe-inspiring artist-producer pairings on a single LP, from Shina Peters and Laolu Akins on the Afro-Juju classic ‘Ace’, to 9ice and ID Cabasa on street-pop classic ‘Gongo Aso’, to Dagrin and Sossick on the street rap classic ‘C.E.O’, and more. (Full disclosure: 9ice and Dagrin had one guest producer each on their album, but the point still stands.) The chemistry and splendid execution on ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’ puts Asake and Magicsticks in that same category.

Listening to Magicsticks’ work on Asake’s debut LP reminds me of the work of highly revered neo-impressionist painter, Ken Hong Leung—it’s colourful, richly layered, sometimes purposefully cluttered and always instantly captivating. The sonic canvas for this album is littered with groovy choices, none more prominent than the log drum and percussive ticks of Amapiano, so I get why the default thing to do is attribute every SA dance-influenced track to the producer’s affinity for ‘Piano tricks. Six of the twelve songs are ‘Piano-indented, and if you count “Dupe”, that’s seven tracks indebted to the influence of South African Dance Music.

Magicsticks isn’t the first producer to mine the influences of dance music from South Africa and successfully translate it into a Nigerian context. In fact, he’s definitely amongst the upper echelon of soundmen in this current Omopiano/Fujipiano/Naijapiano (or whatever you want to call it) wave, but being able to locate specific stylistic precedents on more than a few of his helmed songs, strips his craft of some of its mystery.

As soon as the “Dupe” situation clicked on release night, I realised how indebted ‘Mr Money’ penultimate song, “Sunmomi”, is to Vigro Deep’s “Slender”, and I couldn’t stop hearing direct influences of Mellow & Sleazy’s “Bopha” and Felo Le Tee and Myztro’s “66” on phenomenal lead single, “Peace Be Unto You (PBUY)”. It was heartening, though, to hear Asake reference 9umba, Mdoovar and Toss’ star-studded smash hit, “uMlando”, on album highlight “Joha”.

The day after ‘Mr Money with the Vibe’ was released, South African DJ and artist DBN Gogo expressed worries about the trajectory of Amapiano via a written post on her IG stories, evidently inspired by listening to Asake’s album. “We in big trouble if we don’t start moving collectively and forcing our way into the right doors,” DBN Gogo wrote, who feared that Amapiano is “gonna be taken right from us.” She even goes on to admit the excellence of Asake’s debut, but also implies the narrative reengineering that could take place by a great project from a Nigerian pop act featuring recreated inventions of an inherently South African sound.

Bandile Mbere, one half of superstar twin Amapiano DJ/producer duo Major League DJz, reposted DGN Gogo’s post to his Instagram as a way of agreeing with her sentiment, while also crowning Asake the biggest Amapiano act right now. With his album, Asake furthered the conversations about the adoption and appropriation of Amapiano across African pop, and it’s turned out some interesting takes so far.

On the Monday-premiered episode of Podcast and Chill, media personality MacG, alongside co-host Sol Phenduka and in-studio colleagues, discussed the co-opting of ‘Piano, especially with regards to its Nigerian iterations. “I don’t mind if we call it Amapiano even if it’s not from SA, if they respected the craft and the artistry of ‘Piano,” Sol says. “But they don’t, it’s watered down,”MacG quickly retorts. “We need to gate-keep Amapiano as much as we can now, so that it grows as a South African brand,” a colleague behind the camera offers.

While Sol doesn’t agree to the gatekeeping idea, citing the recent smash success of South African rapper K.O’s Afrobeats song, “SETE”, there’s a consensus agreement on authenticity and respect for what the sound is. In this situation, gatekeeping can’t work, while authenticity and respect are complex ideals. Amapiano emerged from South Africa’s township, incubated for about half a decade before its mainstream acceptance in 2019. What’s even more impressive is how the subgenre, an intoxicating and hyperlocal blend of Kwaito, Deep House and Jazz, has continued to sonically evolve and mutate into smaller dimensions. With its ongoing history and deep cultural significance to South Africans, it’s understandable that gatekeeping is an option, and those even in support of continued adoption would like respect and authenticity to be undebatable ideals.

Recently, respected South African producer, DJ and record label executive DJ Maphorisa gave props to Asake for “Sungba”, the smash hit off the singer’s semi-eponymous debut EP from February, which received a Burna Boy-assisted remix. “Shout-out to the Nigerians who doing ‘Piano, we fuck with you niggas,” Phori said during an IG Live, a bold endorsement from one the subgenre’s key play. At that, it’s a bit ironic, considering MacG and his colleagues went on to discuss widely held sentiment that Phori is a gatekeeper within the South African Amapiano scene, in that same episode—which elicited sarcasm-tinged rebuttals from the producer/DJ on Twitter.

Yesterday, Maphorisa was again at the centre of Ampaiano appropriation talks, but this time, he was facing the ire of a Nigerian pop superstar and his stans. Seeking to set the record straight, Phori quote replied a tweet stating that “Davido brought Amapiano from South Africa two years ago and made it a successful genre in Africa”, noting Kabza De Small’s “Sponono” from the summer of 2020, which featured Wizkid, Burna Boy, and himself—as his rap alter ego Madumane. It was supposed to be an innocuous reply, but it seemed to backfire right before our eyes.

If you’re familiar with Wizkid FC and 30BG, the stan bases of Wizkid and Davido, the intent of the original tweet is clear as day. You see, Wizkid just returned with his first single in nearly two years, “Bad to Me”, and its musical dalliance with Amapiano is a big part of its appeal. Since this was Wiz’s first time dabbling into the sub-genre on a solo basis, the tweet was meant as a detraction to the singer by an ardent Stan of a rival superstar, who even expressly adds that Wizkid is benefitting from a trend Davido helped jumpstart.

Two hours after Maphorisa sent out his tweet, Davido hopped on Phori’s tweet to accuse the producer of “never” liking him, indirectly validating the sentiments of his Stan. Immediately, a large side of Nigerian Twitter went into a frenzy, with takes on which Nigerian artist jumped on ‘Piano first or made it popular in Nigeria and West Africa. To be candid and definitely dismissive, the entire topic and its motives are downright asinine. To demonstrate, during the heat of the inane conversation, Nigerian singer May D restated a claim he made three months ago, that he was the first Nigerian artist to tap into Amapiano, clearly referring to “Get Down”, his Oskido-assisted HOUSE song from years ago.

In the last two-plus years, a lot has been said about the influence of Amapiano on Nigerian pop, how the widespread adoption of another South African Dance music sub-genre is a repetition of recent history, and Nigerian music’s penchant to cannibalise influence or, even worse, rewrite the narrative. I even wrote an essay detailing why Nigeria shouldn’t be aiming to own Amapiano. A lot of that essay revolved around consistently giving credit to its originators and finding wholesome ways to adopt, but this conversation on who popularised ‘Piano is a damning plot twist I didn’t see coming.

One of the pillars of urban Nigerian music is co-opting sounds from near and far, and turning them into distinct iterations that the local audience can enjoy and identify with. A downside of this that rears its head too often is, it turns into appropriation and stealing. It’s already happened with highlife-indented pop, which has roots in Ghana and is the basis of the “Afrobeats” sound, making this current conversation a potential catalyst for Nigerian pop’s cannibalisation of Amapiano.

This time, though, instead of claiming wholesale ownership of the sound, it is uncannily readjusting the narrative framework through which Amapiano should be viewed. It’s no longer about who originated the sound and continues to push it forward musically, it’s about who’s at its commercial forefront. Afropop revolves around Nigeria, so we know how that will go.

I have a theory: Nigerians have fully accepted “Afrobeats” as the descriptive tag for the music that comes out of the country, a catch-all term that ignores all nuances and sacrifices cultural integrity for commercial prominence, which means many of listeners and even artists can’t fathom fully respecting Amapiano as a cultural lodestar and not a sound to just rip, take advantage of, or score points of off. How else do you explain Afropiano? What, even, is Afropiano?

Perhaps an investigation into what Nigerian artist helped start the Amapiano craze—whether it was Mayorkun’s “Of Lagos” or Niniola’s “Addicted” or Rema’s “Woman”. Maybe it would be an avenue to figure out which Amapiano-fuelled Nigerian songs have been the most impactful—whether it’s Rexxie’s “KPK”, Goya Menor’s “Ameno” or Davido’s “Champion Sound”. But even dignifying those ideas would be neatly laying out the Nigerian pop’s standing as something of a culture vulture, a bully hell-bent on imposing its will just because it can.

Those accusations won’t go away until Nigerian artists and music listeners start treating its musical and cultural imports with respect. As this whole Amapiano thing goes to show, that may not be happening anytime soon.

Editors note: The original version of this article included the word colonise which has now been changed to adopted