African pop music storms the world stage

Burna Boy at the Coco Festival AO Arena Manchester

For years, African pop music had been languishing in the world music section, well away from the mainstream charts. But, thanks to the internet, in the last few years artists from the continent have gone global, racking up massive international streaming figures in a trend that has now been recognised by Billboard with a designated chart. Richard Assheton reports from Lagos for The Times, London.

Helped by collaborations with western superstars like Beyoncé and Drake, and by growing diasporas, African artists have started selling out stadiums in Europe and the US, and winning a raft of awards.

YouTube has said 70 per cent of the views of the top 25 sub-Saharan artists’ songs come from outside Africa, describing the growth as a “global phenomenon”.

Nigeria, which spawned Afrobeats (not to be confused with the 1970s genre Afrobeat, also from there and popularised by Fela Kuti), continues to dominate. CKay’s Love Nwantiti became the song most searched for on the app Shazam last year — and went to number one in India, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. Wizkid’s Essence also became the first African song to be certified platinum and hit the Billboard top 10, and Davido’s Fall became the first to hit 200 million views on YouTube. Wizkid and Burna Boy both won Grammys last year.

One star is Tiwa Savage, who was born in Lagos, moved to London when she was 11 and then moved back to Nigeria to pursue her music career. Afrobeats is more popular in the UK than the US, with Ed Sheeran’s remix of Fireboy DML’s Peru reaching number two in the top 40 this year. But the US is catching up: streaming in the US doubled year on year from 2019 to 2020.

Billboard, the magazine that organises the US pop charts, said its new Afrobeats chart would list the top 50 songs in combined streams and downloads from March 29.

Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s senior vice-president of charts and development, said the move would further help in promoting Afrobeats to a global audience.

“As with much of the world, Afrobeats has grown tremendously as a genre in America and we are proud to showcase the top songs and artists with this new weekly ranking,” he said.

Bolaji Alonge, a Nigerian music journalist, said: “Afrobeats has grown so rapidly that you can hear it on local radio stations around the world. It is now in a big way part of the playlist of humanity. One of the standards for Nigerian artists now is winning the Grammys or who can put up a sold-out show at London’s O2 arena. The stakes have never been this high.”

“We are witnessing the evolution of Nigerian music in our very eyes, it’s a culmination of sounds created, maintained and modernised by generations,” he added. “So Billboard’s recognition of Afrobeats is long overdue.”

Obi Asika, founder of Afro Nation, a festival that has partnered with Billboard to launch the chart, said: “There is still so much more potential within the scene and the community that has grown around it and I believe it is vital that with Billboard we now have a US chart that reflects this growth and provides a platform for emerging artists from every continent to showcase their talent to new audiences.”

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