Hindsight is 2020: How the coronavirus pandemic affected Afropop

A year that advanced the cultural significance of music across the continent

Human beings are wired to be busy. The only time a person is truly idle is that window between birth and being cognisant of your environment. Once we start becoming properly aware of what’s happening around us, there’s a drive to be busy for most of our waking moments, whether the reason is as frivolous as staving boredom or as weighty as finding and chasing different purposes. It’s why we often get restless when we’re forced to be still.

For many of us, 2020 was the ultimate year of stillness—and by extension, restlessness. For the first time in over a century, the entire world had to deal with the effect of a viral pandemic, one that required rigid confinement measures and an unprecedented degree of stillness. At first, it seemed like most people were taking the Coronavirus pandemic in stride, using isolation as a tool to take a break from regularly scheduled program. Part of that was the idea that everything would be back to the busy normal within a few weeks of adhering to these measures. That, obviously, didn’t happen and the uncertainty peeled away all that optimism; many were anxious to no longer be still.

That anxiousness played an integral role in making 2020 a year of reckoning for civil liberties. A year when dissenting voices against racism banded together, from across America to Colombia and Papua. A year when African youth from Nigeria to Uganda tried to hold the system accountable for state-sanctioned brutality and bad governance. In addition to the long-term circumstances behind them, these wider socio-political manifestations of restlessness were also aggregations of personal concerns.

There are some occasions where life imitates art but, for the most part, art is a reflection of life. Creativity doesn’t emanate from thin air, it is a by-product of personal experiences, lived realities, and the environment around these situations. The accessibility of music, both as a creative form and in its instant reach through technological advancement, made it the perfect medium to capture the nuances of the effect of a pandemic-wracked year, both in the moment and in its aftermath.

It’s almost impossible to parse any piece of 2020-related music without its relation to the Coronavirus pandemic, and that also includes music that wasn’t creatively informed by the realities of its stillness. When The Weeknd and Dua Lipa released albums in March of 2020, during the first weeks of lockdown, they were not only acclaimed for masterfully wielding nostalgia to create great dance-pop records, they’ve also been lauded for helping to embolden the trend of pop artists mining ‘80s-rooted sounds—Disco, New Wave, Synthwave, Electro-pop and more—for projects that were both euphoric and soothing during a time of despair. This followed through with well-received ‘80s pop-inspired albums from Lady Gaga, Jessie Ware, Roisin Murphy, and more.

In South Africa, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small entered the year on a triumphant high, after their trio of joint albums in 2019 as Scorpion Kings helped push Amapiano into the mainstream. Gearing up to headline an arena-sized concert, they released a ‘Scorpion Kings Live’ album, but as soon as it became evident that the concert wouldn’t be holding during a pandemic, they quickly pivoted and shared a new project titled Once Upon A Time in Lockdown’. Not only was it a marker of the times, it also pre-empted the prolific tear Amapiano would go on to have, both as the most prominent sound in South Africa and as an influential, widely adopted part of Afropop.

That Dance-oriented styles were a significant part of popular music, both on an international and continental scale, is undoubtedly interesting, even if not entirely novel. Disco and House, foundational genres in the modern terrain of Dance music, were first popular amongst, and championed by, queer communities during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. During a period of shameful stigma, constant misinformation and flat-out discrimination, the shiny and visceral sounds of those genres offered moments of joyful solace on dancefloors, away from the judgemental, peering eyes of the rest of the world.

With a different context and even though dancefloors were shuttered across the world, Dance songs and albums offered joyful solace to a world uncertain of what would happen next. In Afropop, Amapiano’s dominance was starting to get pronounced, but in the country of its origin, it was elevating from mainstream pride to national treasure. With seminal releases like Kabza De Small’s ‘I am the King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust’, Tyler ICU and Nicole Elocin’s “Bella Ciao”, Soulful G & Soa Matrix’s “uThando”, Reece Madlisa and Zuma’s ‘Ama Roto’, and much, much more, new classics were inducted into the ‘Piano hall of fame, and the smash hits only came in thick and fast.

While navigating through varying levels of government-mandated restrictions, South Africans still found their way to groove communally, but even in total lockdown, the groove never stopped. The Channel O lockdown parties, where guest DJs would play live sets and invited artists would perform to audiences at home, became a weekly staple, featuring a healthy dose of ‘Piano DJs and artists; twin producer/DJ duo Major League DJz kick-started the Balcony Mix sessions during lockdown, a platform that initially started as guests and sometimes curated guests only, and is now growing into a global presence; producers and DJs increasingly took to Instagram Live to play unreleased songs and exclusive mixes, which inevitably fuelled the culture of leaks that’s now a part and parcel of Amapiano and, in general, South African Dance music.

Producers and artists being highly productive in Amapiano began before 2020, but the pandemic and the increased attention from an idle audience, looking to be engaged totally opened the floodgates for a dam that had already been broken. That avalanche created a precedent that’s undeniably made ‘Piano the most prolific genre in South African music today, and even Afropop as a whole, a ripple effect that’s extended from Pretoria to Dar Es Salaam to Accra. On a few occasions during those months in 2020, when I’d go down to the mall in my Lagos mainland neighbourhood, I remember hearing the skull-rattling percussions of Mapara A Jazz’s “John Vuli Gate” and the chest-caving drums of Focalistic and Vigro Deep’s “Ke Star”, even before its hugely popular remix with Nigerian pop superstar Davido.

For better and worse, one of the true barometers of a sound’s impact on Afropop is its popularity within Nigerian Pop. The argument of who brought ‘Piano up west may have only happened recently, but it’s a conversation that’s been brewing for over two years prior. During the pandemic, it became increasingly obvious that more Nigerian artists and producers would be adopting Amapiano elements for the foreseeable future. Nigerian pop has regularly been defined by the relationship it has with its external influences, and its dalliance with Amapiano only emboldens that factor, so much so that it’s a vital part of the historic breakout run currently unfolding before our eyes.

For what it’s worth, the Amapiano relation wasn’t the only remarkable part of the COVID-19 year for Nigerian music. In fact, there was so much going on that it could described as some of the busiest months, packed with highlights and indelible moments. For one, 2020 was the year of Omah Lay’s ascendance into national and continental superstardom, a rise that was fitting for the times and feels preordained in retrospect. Here was an artist who laid out the complexities of his life over two EP’s within nine months, cushioning solipsistic details within the tender tenor of his voice and the vibrant and soothing patter of his music selection.

In a year marked by aloneness, the emotional candour of Omah Lay’s songs—matched with his refined song-making abilities—made it the relatable soundtrack for a generation of young people who wanted escapist music as much as music that sounded like a perfect companion to the toll of the times. While the singer’s debut EP, ‘Get LayD’, was created pre-pandemic, it’s impossible to divorce it from the social context it was received in, which makes it all the more significant.

Even though not hugely pronounced, introspection has always been a part of urban Nigerian music, from 2Face Idibia’s “Only Me” to Burna Boy’s ‘Outside’. But the arrival and ubiquitous reign of Omah Lay helped to amplify that tenet, and it’s played an integral role in the growing prominence of emotionally-charged songs and projects from some of the marquee names in the younger vanguard of Nigerian pop.

Across Nigerian music in 2020, there was welcome coincidence—like how Ladipoe’s “Know You” perfectly captured lockdown blues even though it was created way before—and there was welcome, sometimes spontaneous, intentionality. To the latter point, perhaps the most consequential effect of 2020 on Nigerian music is how it emboldened the significance of multi-song projects. Within a nine month span, listeners received by a barrage of new projects from a diverse range of artists, and it was also the first time that five of the biggest artists of their generation released new albums in a calendar year—all within about five months of each other.

In June, Burna Boy released his Grammy-winning album ‘Twice As Tall’, a contemplative and conceited bounce back after momentarily reeling from losing in the same category earlier in the year. In late August, Tiwa Savage dropped ‘Celia’, an album with personal motifs and one eye on legacy, which might be her best rounded full-length till date. Just over a month later, Olamide released his second project of that year, ‘Carpe Diem’, a delightful album packed with gleaming pop gems that shone brighter in the heart-rending aftermath of the #EndSARS protests.

Wizkid’s long-awaited ‘Made in Lagos’ also came out in late October, after the End SARS protests, soothing the hearts of young Nigerians with sauntering jams, and also playing an indelible role in the global reach of Nigerian pop through the world-reaching success of “Essence” months later. Rounding out that run, Davido made a quick turnaround from his sophomore album to release ‘A Better Time’, which led off with the iconic “FEM”, and reaffirmed his standing as an apex pop superstar.

All these are not counting the myriad of awe-inspiring project drops that came in thick and fast, a list that includes The Cavemen.’s new age highlife cult classic ‘ROOTS’, Odunsi the Engine’s internet stop moment with the psychedelic trap EP, ‘EVERYTHING YOU HEARD IS TRUE’ and its penultimate banger “body count”, rap veterans M.I Abaga and A-Q linking up virtually for the pandemic time capsule, ‘The Live Report’, Tems’ instantly striking and soulful debut EP ‘For Broken Ears’, and much, much more.

In the last two years, it feels like there’s an album or EP release that’s an event every other week and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to trace it back to 2020, when artists had excess time to create beyond the trappings of a singles-focused terrain. From Teezee to BOJ to Falz, several Nigerian artists have admitted to being inspired by the stillness of lockdown, busying themselves with creative endeavours that would push them beyond what we’d normally expect from them, only releasing those projects recently after months of fine-tuning.

Speaking to OkayAfrica, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest admitted that he was working on another album before the pandemic rerouted his efforts to making another project that would end up being his fourth studio LP, ‘Madina to the Universe’, which came out in late 2021. “Niggas ain’t doing shit, so you have time for reflection, and that’s where it came from,” he said. Fellow Madina native Kirani Ayat admitted a similar creative trajectory for his new album, ‘Aisha’s Sun’. “When the pandemic happened, I went through a shift and it changed my perspective on my music,” he recently told The NATIVE, adding that the pandemic-effected free time helped him create music with a distinct feel and deeper personal meaning.

While Ghana wasn’t exactly hit with the same back-to-back superstar album releases bug as neighbouring Nigeria, it clearly thrived during lockdown. There was KiDi’s ‘Blue’ EP, which spawned the massive hit “Say Cheese”, Kuami Eugene packed ‘Son of Africa’ with colourful highlife-influenced pop bangers, Darkovibes successfully transitioned from being part of an irreverent rap group to a solo star with ‘Kpanlogo’, Stonebwoy delivered a Ghanaian dancehall opus with ‘Anloga Junction’, and Amaarae rose well beyond pre-release hype and became an international star with her magnetic debut LP, ‘The Angel You Don’t Know’.

In what was arguably the best viral moment for urban African music in 2020, drill music from Ghana rose to international recognition. Clips from the music video of Yaw Tog’s “Sore” drew continental and global attention to the Asakaa drill movement in Kumasi, intensifying the spotlight on a phenomenon that was already enjoying local support. Influenced by the rise of Pop Smoke, the deceased Brooklyn drill pioneer, the drill scene in Kumasi—and Ghana, in general—wasn’t the only nascent drill scene on the continent, but its success served as a gateway to other hotspots for drill music across the continent, from Abuja and Kigali to Cape Town and Nairobi.

It doesn’t take a keen observer to realise that Afropop discourse is almost always centred on what’s happening in the West and Southern regions of the continent, which is understandable because they house the countries that serve as the most recognisable music hubs across the continent. East Africa and the much smaller Central African regions are often omitted from these wider African music conversations, but there’s been an uptick in internal validation over the last few years.

Still a favourable region for African artists, there’s a growing reverence for home-grown acts within East Africa, a trend from the previous decade that was brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. In Kenya, the Gengetone period reached its commercial peak after slamming its way into the Kenyan mainstream in 2017, galvanising young people to embrace the music being made by its own generation of artists. In that period, Shrap also emerged as the gospel of the Kenyan youth, and drill music is serving as a point of unity. In mainstream pop, Sauti Sol released ‘Midnight Train’ just as people were getting used to the restrictions, but of further consequence, members of the band took on personal creative projects during the lockdowns and shared the results across solo projects.

The alternative side of Kenyan music also got its due, whether that’s through the global recognition of its metal scene via Duma’s acclaimed self-titled album, or the electronic scene growing its reputation as one of the most inventive on the continent. As far as electronic and alternative music in East Africa, Uganda might be the closest thing to a Mecca, in large part due to its Nyege Nyege affiliations. The same declaration can be made for Tanzania, but more for how Bongo Flava has remained the dominating Pop sound of the region, which was only further stamped in 2020.

Diamond Platnumz consolidated on his superstar and star-maker status during those months, pulling out his own hit singles and helping to catapult singer Zuchu to near-instant stardom via his WCB Wasafi imprint. After leaving Diamond’s label to go solo, Harmonize released his debut album, ‘Afro East’, and opened up his own label that helped bring singer Ibraah to local and regional stardom. All of the feats of a pandemic year continues to translate to fruitful times and, along the line, it’s increasingly evident that East Africa will no longer be ignored in wider conversations about inventiveness and impact in urban African music.

The thing is, there hasn’t been any time when Afropop has never not been busy, but a global pandemic will either serve to diminish its productivity or intensify its importance to the everyday lives of its primary audience. The latter is what happened, and it has carried over, even as we’ve re-adapted back to the new normal. We might never be as idle and still as we were at the height of the pandemic, but it was a period that continues to have a lasting effect, both on artists’ perception on the importance of their music and listeners’ relationship to it.