Exploring the dialogue around Beyoncé, 'Black is King' and Burna Boy.
Complex and with a huge amount of history behind it, Afrobeat – distinctively written without an s and not to be confused with Afrobeats – originated in the 1960s and 70s, pioneered by the prominent Fela Kuti, AKA the father of Afrobeat. Although beginning as a blend between a combination of West African music styles such as Fuji and Highlife music, from Nigeria and Ghana respectively, Afrobeat also has American funk and jazz influences: with a focus on chanted vocals and complex intersecting rhythms. Studying at the London School of Music in 1958, Kuti fell into the jazz scene and took this influence with him when he returned to Nigeria. It was this experimentation with contemporary genres of music which characterised the much newer Afrobeats sound.
Gradually over the last decade the definition of the Afrobeats genre has transformed, and it is now a melting pot of many genres: anywhere from variations on Hip-Hop, UK R&B, and Dance to name a few. In fact, UK’s first ever Official Afrobeats Chart launched last month, which I think is long overdue. The chart currently features artists from a diverse selection of different genres, including NSG, Davido, Burna Boy, Donae’o and Darkoo. Though some of the artists listed may not be Afrobeats artists first and foremost, it indicates progression in the music industry and a transition to the genre being more respected and acknowledged for it’s impact.
"Afrobeats is a huge, culturally rich and respected genre that deserves to be recognised for its vibrancy and the talent behind it."
But with it’s recent rise in popularity, new audiences taking interest and variations of the genre being created, comes the dampening down of its success as well as the failure to acknowledge the depth and history of the genre. The New York Post recently published an article titled ‘Beyoncé-endorsed Burna Boy makes Afrobeat go international’, a click-bait statement implying that Beyoncé’s influence alone has given rise to the popularity of the genre.
Whilst it is true that Beyoncé has had an impact on the genre due to her reach – especially following her recent Black Is King Afrobeats inspired visual album – to claim that she ‘[made]’ Afrobeats known across the world is insulting to Fela Kuti’s legacy and the countless number of Afrobeats artists carrying the genre. On the visual album, Beyonce herself explains: “I worked with a diverse group of very gifted directors, actors and creatives from all over the world to reimagine the story of The Lion King. The narrative unfolds through music videos, fashion, dance, beautiful natural settings and raw new talent.” “But it all started in my backyard. So from my house to Johannesburg, to Ghana, to London, to Belgium, to the Grand Canyon, it was truly a journey to bring this film to life,” she continues.
Yet it begs the question, can African-Americans be guilty of cultural appropriation just as other ethnicities can? The complexity of race and colonialism means that this issue is a wider conversation that requires nuance. Beyonce however, indicates her appreciation for the genre and it’s history through her eagerness to learn. On Beyoncé’s keenness to learn the history and the meaning behind everything shown in the film, Black Is King co-director Ibra Ake says “that was probably the most interesting part about collaborating with her, how much she wanted to know and understand.”
“And another thing was just how respectful she was. I wish all directors and producers of culturally-sensitive material treated it with a level of seriousness that she did. There were so many conversations about what things meant. If it appeared in the shot, she wanted the meaning of what it meant, the history of it, even if it’s like a mural, she wanted to know who painted it. I’ve never produced something and had to also be an archeologist at the same time.”
The New York Post article is an example of a greater issue where Afrobeats is at risk of being stripped of its meaning. Therefore, is of great importance that writers and critics show good discernment and approach topics like this with sensitivity. Afrobeats is a huge, culturally rich and respected genre that deserves to be recognised for its vibrancy and the talent behind it.