Why we should look at sampling as a legitimate means of creativity in afropop

On the importance of being in support of artists when they directly tap into the precious past of African music

Over the next week in a three-part series, The NATIVE will be breaking down the different unseen facets that go into making a song: songwriting, song sampling and sound engineering, in  a bid to pronounce their place and importance in creating a functioning ecosystem in the music industry.

Contrary to what many people might think, musical creativity doesn’t emanate from thin air. In fact, the hallmark of the some of the most creative artists, is the ability to let their influences feed their imaginations. Take Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the composer/singer/vocalist who could only pioneer Afrobeat due to a myriad of sonic muses, which ranged from Jazz and Funk to Highlife and Yoruba Folk music. In a way, musical creativity is a nod to the idea that nothing is new under the sun, and innovation simply evolves from music that already exists.

As a way of explicitly paying homage to influences, sampling in music is a legitimate form of creativity. It involves taking from the past—whether immediate or further back—and flipping the elements so that they fit into a modern context. It’s not so much tracing over something which already exists, as much as it is re-imagining and remodelling a blueprint, or a portion of it. Sampling gives artists and music producers the leeway to artfully wear their inspiration on their sleeves.

By virtue of being a wide-ranging genre with various styles of music, contemporary Afropop songs typically incorporate elements from older forms of African music. Recent sonic shifts in the mainstream—like the tempo-reducing, highlife-inspired Banku sound, and the South African variant, GQOM, which is a Techno-infused descendant of Kwaito music—are impressive examples of the integral role the past plays in present-day African music. Beyond taking stylistic cues from the past, though, sampling is far more specific in practice.

Where a popularised sound with roots from the past is subject to proliferation, what’s intriguing about interpolating words and melodies from pre-existing music, is that it can’t be duplicated verbatim, since the source material can be manipulated to fit into the artist’s sensibilities. On “Manya”, his smash hit with Mut4y, Wizkid co-opts melodic elements from V.I.P’s classic Hiplife banger, “Ahomka Womu”, adding a playful edge with his buttery vocals. For “1AM”, the lead single off his recently released EP ‘Nasty’, Kida Kudz also samples “Ahomka Womu”, using the recognisable guitar melody as the musical foundation for his flashy raps.

Considering the backlog of great African music that exists, and the wealth of options in which they can be interpolated, sampling ought to be more of a mainstay in afropop than it is. At that, artists and producers creatively mining older artists and older songs is subject to public reception, which isn’t always welcoming. There’s a perception that afropop artists who sample regularly lack originality, but since we’ve established that sampling is legitimate way of being creative, that is clearly far from the truth. What makes this flawed position even more frustrating is that the reception can be quite selective, and it’s often based on the sampling artists’ persona and not necessarily the quality of the music being put out.

In early 2019, Nigerian rapper Falz released his fourth studio album, ‘Moral Instruction’, a socio-politically inclined project that tries to invoke the spirit of Fela Kuti in as many ways as possible. For its cover art, Falz employed the services of Lemi Gharioukwu, the illustrator behind the covers of over a dozen Fela albums, and the music is packed with a host of Fela samples. Despite the mixed reactions to the award-winning rap album, the general consensus is that Falz did a fine job in sampling Fela for a socially charged body of work.

Unlike the near-unanimous acclaim Falz has received, Burna Boy’s affinity for sampling Fela has been met with mixed reactions, even spurring unnecessary and reductive comparisons. Recently, the afro-fusion singer has been stationed between the crosshairs of ignorant and malicious listeners who regard his paying homage to African music legends like Fela and Angelique Kidjo as stealing. Burna’s well-intentioned and well-executed sampling, is usually put in a negative light due to his perceived arrogance, a trait that doesn’t go down well with Africa’s conservative society, who places a premium on humility.

There’s also the argument that Burna’s interpolations aren’t always potent, since he adjusts borrowed lyrics and melodies to fit his own agenda. For “YE”, arguably his biggest hit song yet, Burna interpolates a vocal melody section from “Sorrow, Tears & Blood”, a slow-boiling track Fela composed after the historical, bloody army raid at his residence in 1977. In the specific section Burna samples, he declares his desire to live an unbothered and enjoyment-filled life, pulling a 180 on Fela’s lament on the fear of Nigerians in starting a political revolution. While samples can serve as thematic cues, “YE” shows they don’t need to be straightforward, and artists reserve the creative right to reinterpret them in a way that fits their narrative and persona.

Recently, the legitimacy of Burna Boy’s chances at winning Best World Music album at the Grammys was questioned by some, after losing to Angelique Kidjo’s ‘Celia’. The basis for their argument was that Burna had sampled Ms. Kidjo on more than one occasion. Some of the takes even bothered on the idea that Burna had stolen the idea for his smash hit, “Anybody”, so it made sense that he lost to Ms. Kidjo. Apart from the innate silliness of this perspective, it is worth noting—again—that sampling does not invalidate the creative work of an artist. With the nous required to flip past musical or lyrical samples into something new, distinct and compelling—as Burna has done time and again—sampling is everything but stealing.

As an eternal form of art, music is meant to inspire subsequent generations, and it us up to artists and fans to pay homage to the musical heritage they inherited. Sampling provides an avenue for interaction between the past and the present, where older music gains a refreshed level of reverence and newer music pushes the bounds of creativity forward by looking back.

In addition, sampling also helps with musical and, sometimes, personal identity. On “I THINK”, a standout cut off his 2019 album, ‘IGOR’, American rapper Tyler the Creator sampled “Special Lady” by Nigerian disco singer, Bibi Mascel. While the production and lyrical sampling plays into the song’s romantic theme, it’s a reminder of Nigerian music’s precious past, as well as silent nod to Tyler’s Nigerian origins. With just over twenty years of existence, contemporary Afropop is still in its development stages, and it is continuously shedding its hip-hop parody look for a more rounded and fitting identity as a genre with distinctly African music influences. An increase in sampling will only strengthen this identity, ensuring that the music is always rooted to its origins.

Featured Image Credits: YouTube/Breakfast Club

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Dennis is not an interesting person. Tweet Your Favourite Playboi Carti Songs at him @dennisadepeter