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More breakthroughs, less crossover: Afrobeats is here to stay, on its own terms

Burna Boy (center) has been nominated for the Grammy award for best global music album in four of the last five years. This year, he was among the nominees for the inaugural best African music performance prize and was the first Afrobeats artist to perform on the Grammy prime time telecast.
Kevin Mazur
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Burna Boy (center) has been nominated for the Grammy award for best global music album in four of the last five years. This year, he was among the nominees for the inaugural best African music performance prize and was the first Afrobeats artist to perform on the Grammy prime time telecast.

Earlier this month, the Nigerian superstar Burna Boy made history as the first Afrobeats act to perform during the prime time, televised ceremony of the Grammy Awards. The singer graced the stage accompanied by R&B legend Brandy and rapper 21 Savage to perform his song "Sittin' on Top of The World." It was a fitting choice to usher in Afrobeats to music's biggest night, considering the new heights the genre is reaching in America's music industry.

In a new report on how U.S. and global listeners consumed music in 2023 compiled by Luminate Data, the evidence was clear: Global music — with Afrobeats and K-pop leading the way — is the fastest growing genre among both U.S. and global listeners, with on-demand streaming up 26.2% in the last year. And stateside musical institutions have started taking notice. The Recording Academy debuted a brand new category specifically to honor music from the continent: best African music performance.

From Burna Boy to Sade, King Sunny Ade to Miriam Makeba, African-born artists have been nominated and won Grammy Awards before — often in the best global music album category — but the creation of an entire category dedicated to the continent marks the new level of impact.

The award is a signal to American audiences that music by Africa's new wave is not a niche, fad or trend — it's a culture that's here to stay. Though Afrobeats often gets used as an umbrella term to describe the musical phenomenon coming from the continent, the extent of the diversity of sounds underneath that catchall is what's ensuring its longevity and its success stateside.

"We've been doing this for such a long time and it's a long time coming," Ayra Starr beams. "It's a new game now."

The 21-year-old Afropop singer reps Benin and Nigeria, and was one of five inaugural nominees in the category, along with Davido feat. Musa Keys, Tyla, Burna Boy and Asake & Olamide. "I'm so glad I'm part of the generation that is showing the world what Africa is," the Sabi girl says via Zoom from her Lagos studio.

Her nominated song, "Rush," which sits at 325 million Spotify streams and counting, signifies how African music is changing the American soundscape. The track blends elements of American pop culture she grew up on with the music of where she's from.

"There's some elements in here, in the beat, that are very '80s pop, American pop, too. And then there's some elements in here — from the kicks to the snares and everything — [that are] very Afrobeats. When you hear the chords, the chords are very almost R&B-ish," she says. "It translated so well internationally, but at the same time, I wasn't singing in English; it was a very African song."

Heran Mamo, a hip-hop and R&B reporter at Billboard magazine, has been tracking the explosion over the past few years. As a child of Ethiopian immigrants, African music has been part of her life since she was born.

Mamo says even though Afrobeats artists have popped up on U.S. Billboard charts in recent years, it has mostly happened by collaborating with an established Western act. For example, Drake's 2016 hit single "One Dance," which featured the Nigerian star Wizkid, scored the Canadian rapper his first U.S No. 1 as a lead artist.

But chart appearances like that were few and far between. According to Mamo, that changed during the 2020 pandemic — when the world felt smaller and more connected by way of our phones — and then in 2021 — when we finally got back outside. She noticed African artists were impacting the U.S. in ways they never had before.

"It wasn't until the song 'Essence' [by] WizKid and Tems," notes Mamo. "You couldn't escape that summer without listening to that song." The discovery of the track internationally was slow and steady, but once it hit, it became an anthem for the long-awaited return to the turn up. The single was commended as a cultural bridge for African music in the states. Rolling Stone awarded "Essence" the No. 1 song of the year in 2021, noting its staying power more than a year after its initial release.

After this, African acts were breaking through without crossing over: No need for changing languages or relying on a feature from an established American star. Now, African artists are regulars on the Billboard charts and festival lineups. In 2022, Billboard established a new chart to track Afrobeats hits in the U.S. Burna Boy, one of the emergent superstars, made history as the first African artist to sell out a U.S. stadium in 2023.

"He's someone that I feel like his music translates so well because there are familiar elements to it that can draw you in, but then the unfamiliar elements can excite you at the same time," Mamo says, describing the hip-hop influences that Burna blends with his Afrobeats sounds.

She points out that newcomer Tyla, who took home the first-ever African music performance Grammy this year for her viral hit "Water," fuses genres of her homeland in a similar fashion. The production of Tyla's songs blend amapiano, a piano- and percussion-heavy form of house that originated in South Africa, with elements of pop stars like Rihanna: "That's very R&B, pop centric. But obviously with the log drums, the production is more amapiano-based."

This mixing of traditional African drum patterns with contemporary styles is one reason the music keeps growing. To Ayra Starr, this chemistry is a nod to the fact that Africa's new generation grew up being exposed to both.

"The only time I would see a teenage pop star was ... I had to watch Disney," Starr says. "And it was not even Black pop star, there was no Black [pop stars] like me. And I remember, I was, like, 'I want to show African girls that we can do this, too. And I'm doing that. And it's such a big deal for me and also for the people I'm inspiring."

This renaissance is also changing the image of Africa along the way.

"For so long, people have, you know, negative images associated with Africa," Mamo explains. "They think about poverty. They think about government corruption. And so what really made me happy about this explosion of African music, especially Afrobeats, is it was bringing a more positive image to the continent."

But the new spotlight shines on a fraction of what Africa has to offer. This year's Grammy nominations in the new African music performance category included artists from only three of the continent's 54 countries.

"Harvey Mason Jr., who is the CEO of the Recording Academy, he says it takes time for them to really study the music and make sure, 'OK, there is enough interest so that we can support to have a whole new additional category'," Mamo explains. "The continent is too vast to be limited to one category."

Africa currently has the youngest global population, and even with comparatively limited industry resources, youth culture — music included — has bloomed in all corners of the continent; "It's not just Afrobeats, but Afropop, Afrofusion, alté, amapiano, kizomba, Ethio-jazz, Ghanaian drill," Mamo says.

Mamo is encouraged by the progress, but wants even more. She's dreaming of one day covering "something like the African Grammys" in a similar fashion to the Latin Grammys. But Ayra Starr is using her Grammy nom as the battery in her back to think of even more limitless possibilities.

"I feel like the more we collaborate and the more we work together, we're going to bring up different sounds," she says. "I feel like that's where Afrobeats is going — just collaborating with other African artists and making the genre bigger than any other genre in the world."

Audio story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Audio story edited by Ciera Crawford

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sidney Madden
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.