What’s Ahead for African Music & Culture – Billboard

African music has steadily been making inroads in the U.S. music market, with world music — which includes Afrobeats, K-pop and more — seeing the most growth compared to other genres according to Luminate’s 2023 year-end report that was released last week. The all-encompassing umbrella saw a 26.2% increase in U.S. on-demand audio streams, resulting in a total of 5.7 billion for the year.

Throughout the 2020s, so far, heavy-hitters like Burna Boy, Wizkid and Davido have headlined stadiums, emerging superstars like Tems and CKay have earned radio smashes and skyrocketing acts like Rema and Tyla have scored Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits. Next month, the Recording Academy will give out an award in the best African music performance category for the first time, after the American Music Awards and MTV Video Music Awards started giving out their own Afrobeats awards. And as much as genres like Nigeria’s Afrobeats and South Africa’s amapiano have been breaking out of the African continent, a lot more needs to be done for them to be fully integrated in the mainstream market.

Approximately 15 music executives from LVRN, YouTube, Spotify, COLORSxSTUDIOS and more — as well as creatives including filmmakers and music producers — came together at Florida’s Joy Miami Studios last Friday to discuss the future of African music and culture during a “Road to AFRICON” roundtable conversation, which was hosted by the media and entertainment brand Amplify Africa. SKN The Divine also performed following the hour-and-a-half-long conversation, including the first live performance of his single “OMG.”

The roundtable was the first pop-up event Amplify Africa hosted this year ahead of its fourth annual AFRICON, a multi-day conference and celebration of African culture, innovation and entrepreneurship held in Los Angeles that features panels discussing ways to achieve the brand’s goal of uniting the global Black diaspora as well as immersive experiences, from an all-Black marketplace to the AfroBall Gala.

Road to AFRICON 2024 Miami

Road to AFRICON 2024 Miami

Courtesy of Amplify Africa

Amplify Africa CEO/co-founder Dami Kujembola kicked off the conversation by asking about the challenges facing African artists who want to break into and thrive in international markets. Other participants included: Timi Adeyeba, COO/co-founder of Amplify Africa; Buku Ibraheem, music and culture global brand marketing manager at Beats by Dre; Adam McFarland, program manager, Black music and culture at YouTube; Tunde Balogun, president/co-founder of LVRN; Jonas Weber, CEO of COLORSxSTUDIOS; Ade O’Adesina, film producer and director; Taylor Webster, music lead publicist at Metro PR; Len Brown, senior manager, awards at the Recording Academy; Heran Mamo, R&B/hip-hop reporter at Billboard; Prophet EJ Newton, singer-songwriter and founder/lead pastor of Great Grace Miami; Walshy Fire, DJ/producer and member of Major Lazer; Abiola Oke, CEO/founder of Adisa Consultants; and Kimmy Summers, artist partnerships lead at Spotify.

Ibraheem cited “translating their cultural impact to people who are not part of the culture.” She argued that brands tend to focus on numbers, from artists’ Instagram followers to their TikTok engagement, and as she pitches African artists for major marketing campaigns, she’s proving that their “cultural impact supersedes that. You can’t necessarily put a number on that.”

“The hard part is drawing a linear line from impact to culture, because it’s not a linear line,” added McFarland. “It makes sense to us because it’s a lived experience, and we’re able to quantify it based on what we’re seeing. But if it’s not your lived experience, and you’re not seeing that, then you can’t quantify that.”

Ibraheem led the launch of the 2020 Beats x AMBUSH campaign and pitched Burna Boy as the lead talent to Yoon Ahn, Korean-American fashion designer and founder/creative director of the Tokyo-inspired streetwear brand AMBUSH. “If I can prove to the company that not only can [the artists] draw awareness, but they can help us move units, then it gives them opportunity for us to do bigger launches,” she said.

She also explained how brand partnerships should work in both parties’ favor. The November 2020 launch of Burna’s Beats x AMBUSH campaign arrived three months after the release of his fifth studio album Twice as Tall, and the clip spotlighted the track “Way Too Big.” “As a marketer, how do you partner with talent in a real way and have them become brand ambassadors of your brand?” she said, adding that it’s more valuable for brands to “show up as an active participant” in an artist’s ecosystem, like assisting with their album rollouts, “versus just renting them out.”

Some executives compared the U.S.’ rather slow recognition of Afrobeats to the country’s gradual acceptance of one of its homegrown genres: hip-hop. Arising in the 1970s among New York’s Black, Latino and Caribbean inner-city youth, hip-hop transformed from a cultural movement into a commercially successful global phenomenon. In 2017, hip-hop became the most dominant genre in the U.S. for the first time since Nielsen Music started tracking sales in 1991. Hip-hop, which notably celebrated its 50th birthday last year, has maintained its position as the No. 1 U.S. genre since then. Similar to hip-hop’s ascent, Afrobeats has been steadily gaining traction from the global Black diaspora, and it’s only a matter of time until mainstream (read: white) audiences fully catch on.

“It took America a long time to fully give hip-hop the money that it was supposed to get. Now, hip-hop artists are cashing out. So I think it’s [up to] us [to be] a little patient, but also push forward and know that we’re going to have to kick some doors down,” said Balogun, whose company manages Grammy-nominated R&B stars like Summer Walker and 6lack as well as internationally renowned Nigerian acts like Davido and Spinall. “I tell my friends, my people at the labels and investment [firms], like, ‘Yo, you have to almost be willing to lose money to go into a new market and be first and really put your foot down, because you’re going to have to try some things out that other people aren’t.’”

COLORSxSTUDIOS, the Germany-based music performance platform, invested in the continent by hiring a fully local crew to work on multiple productions in Nigeria. That included Oxlade‘s viral “KU LO SA” performance in 2022 that played a pivotal role in transforming the song into a global smash, later receiving a remix from Camila Cabello. Oxlade previously told Rolling Stone that his COLORS shoot was originally supposed to be held at its main Berlin studio, but due to visa clearance issues, he was unable to travel. COLORS then flew to Lagos to shoot him as well as Ayra Starr, Victony, DBN Gogo, BNXN and more as part of its partnership with Spotify RADAR Africa, which aims to help African artists get discovered around the world and expand their audiences outside of their home markets. In his COLORS THREE SIXTY FM episode, Oxlade showed tremendous gratitude to the COLORSxSTUDIOS team — especially sound engineer Paul Lorton, whom he later tapped to mix the studio version of “KU LO SA” — for “taking out time to fly to Nigeria to come shoot Afrobeats artists. We Nigerians are forever grateful for putting us on the map.”

Weber explained during the “Road to AFRICON” roundtable discussion that one of the main reasons COLORS worked with Spotify on spotlighting African artists in their native continent was to avoid visa issues, like the one Oxlade ran into.

“Our studio, as many of you know, is in Berlin, and we have pop-up studios. But for us, it was always like, ‘OK, how can we be where stuff is happening?’ One of the things we believe in is you just have to be where [African music is] at,” he said, applauding the platform’s efforts in producing more “on the ground” performances. “I think our responsibility is, ‘Do we bring our own crew or do we work with local talent? How do we empower them? How does the money stay there? How do the rights stay there?’ That’s when you think of economic sustainability and making [Africa] less dependent on other continents. It’s definitely something we have always tried to commit to. For example, with Lagos, we had a full Nigerian crew. In Kenya, it was a full Kenyan crew. We don’t have to talk about it, we just have to do it. And I think if more do that, more money stays within the local hubs and more investment goes into creativity.”

Continuing to build up the infrastructure of the local African music industry to where it’s “self-sustainable,” said Adeyeba, continues to be a long-term goal.

“The issue is we’re asking the European, American, Western world to take us in. Can we build Africa to the extent where an industry that has so much power and financial resources is going to an artist like Burna Boy first?” wondered Adesina, who has helped artists elevate their storytelling through visual mediums and is credited as a consultant on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. “Africa is going to become even bigger where we’re not begging the people on this side to take us in. It’s going to happen.”

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