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Opinion: What, Truly, Is the Substance of Afrobeats Music?

Opinion: What, Truly, Is the Substance of Afrobeats Music?

Burna Boy performs on stage

The Nigerian music industry is not exempt from lack of depth, in its case, with its lyrical content. Afrobeats artistes, too, are in need of better songwriters, and this has been a mainstream discourse for a few years now.

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera

The widespread success of Afrobeats music has been so remarkable that the global gaze has been set on the Nigerian music industry, so much so that even the “new cats” like Ruger, Rema, Asake, and Fireboy, are taking on world tours and dominating international stages. Perhaps this is why Nigerians have become carried away by this “ingenious” invention of theirs that has the world on its feet dancing, with ears nailed up, listening for more. Recently, Burna Boy has come under fire for his comments in an interview about his then-forthcoming album, I Told Them, where he said most Afrobeats songs lacked substance, and that many Afrobeats artistes lack real-life experiences, hence, these artistes sing about nothing.

Burna has been lampooned by Nigerian lovers of Afrobeats, as well as by notable music journalists. The journalist, Joey Akan took to Twitter (now X) to analyse song lyrics by artistes like Shallipopi, and Odumodublvck as examples of music with substance. Dami Ajayi, the poet and cultural essayist, tweeted, “Beats me how a superstar of a genre can miss the whole point of his genre in a condescending rant about his colleagues. But call it album promotion.” Ajayi’s tweet suggests that the reason for Afrobeats is not what Burna criticises it for, but rather, that Burna’s comment is merely an exercise in derision.

No doubt, Burna has made a habit of disrespecting Nigerians time after time, and more recently, his penchant for big talk which he never matches with action, casts him in the light of a hypocrite, narcissist, or both. But this time around, he does make a point. Two things have occurred to me recently. The first is that Afrobeats is indeed an enjoyable genre of music. Secondly, Afrobeats is mostly enjoyable because of its renaissance sounds, and the unique fusions being made by its artistes (including Burna Boy) and producers at this time, which is as good as the best of what is obtainable anywhere else in the world. 

Afrobeats Superstar artistes. What is the substance of Afrobeats?
Davido, WizKid, and Burna Boy, are considered the “Big Three” in Afrobeats music and largely the Nigerian music industry

In recent times, music from Nigeria has towered in commercial success and global recognition. The same cannot be said for Nollywood or for Nigerian literature (poetry from Nigeria would have had equal success if the poets had not caved in to external influences too early). These industries share similar problems: a deficit in output that meets the mark of substantial quality, with artists whose art is steeped in depth and philosophy, and who produce art that truly mirrors their immediate society. We can all agree that a large part of the problem is that utmost priority is not being placed on depth or on art that is able to make a difference, as opposed to trends. For example, writers who want to do something different in Nollywood are often frustrated when their vision does not align with what the executive producers want, and directors do not seem to have enough concern for excellence either. C.J. Obasi, an independent filmmaker whose movie, Mami Wata, has made waves globally, even premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and many world reputable festivals, was one such director who had to scale through the hurdles of rejection for having a different idea from what is mainstream.

(Read also – Painting a New Way of Seeing Africa: In Conversation With the Filmmakers Who Took “Mami Wata” Global)

The Nigerian music industry is not exempt from lack of depth, in its case, with its lyrical content. Afrobeats artistes, too, are in need of better songwriters, and this has been a mainstream discourse for a few years now. Afrobeats as a music genre, however, happens to have the grace that Nollywood or books by Nigerian writers do not have; that music is first and foremost about sound. A combination of sound and silence is able to convey specific feelings to its audience; lyrics are born from the need for verbal expression and conveying messages beyond emotions. A message is effective among members of a specific society if it resonates with the collective consciousness of its citizens, and the specific kind of message an artiste is able to relay is tied to his motivations and the direction in which he hopes his music will steer society.

Afrobeats as it originated from Fela’s Afrobeat music was for the purpose of activism, but its renaissance and rise to global status about 25 years after his death is more to seek fame and for artistes to clamour for material gratification for their arts, as the global attention to music widened in the wake of music streaming era.

One cannot be a Reggae musician without espousing history and humanity, and speaking up against oppressive social forces, or be an R&B artiste without a focus on romance and sensuality, nor a rapper without espousing a flamboyant personality, which employs poetry to tell its stories and express itself, and so on. It has been said often that Afrobeats is about the “vibes,” as most things are currently said to be about in Nigeria. Nigerians just want to dance, make merry, and forget about their problems. We are a society that adopts escapist approaches to our problems. The economic situation goes bad, we seek greener pastures outside; politicians steal us dry, we make memes about it. Afrobeats is largely a genre of music we created, not to make sense of our condition, but as a coping mechanism – a means to an end. This is not to say that there has not been any meaningful Afrobeats music. But the conscious artistes are often those who have been deeply inspired by music from other genres. Jesse Jagz is first a rap and Reggae artiste, Fireboy is deeply influenced by RnB and Soul, and Aṣa is primarily a soul artiste. These are musicians whose musical content is largely independent of the renaissance of Afrobeats, but benefit from it by infusing the new sound into their artistry. Afrobeats music primarily reflects good moods and emotions, and as has commonly been said, is about the vibes. It is not a substantiated genre of music like RnB which makes one think about sensuality, or Blues, which makes one think about love, or Reggae, which makes one think about activism. This should be expected from an art form from a society where artistic consciousness is relegated, in the place of survival.

(Read also: Aṣa’s Experiment With “V” is a Timely Evolution of Craft)

It would be easier to crucify Burna Boy if his music was about nothing, too. But it is not. As an artiste, Burna’s music espouses a level of artistry many Nigerian artistes envy, and can only aspire to. He has in the past, conveyed reasonable messages in top fashion through his music, because of his brilliance with fusing different sounds and sensibilities across various genres and from different eras of music. Surely, his statement about Afrobeats could be better phrased as he is also an Afrobeats artiste (as Afrofusion is only a bridge that allows him to fuse to other sounds), but he is largely right that the music is often about nothing. Afrobeats has given the world one of the best sounds at the moment, but it does not yet have enough lyrical substance to be regarded in the league of music which keeps abreast of specific messages in its own right.

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The assertion that Afrobeats lacks substance is also not peculiar to only Burna Boy. In one session of Afrocritik’s Twitter space on this subject, someone mentioned that most music lovers, if they would admit to themselves, have friends who have said the same thing over and over again. I agree with this. And it begs the question of whether the statement is only generating heat because Burna Boy said it. Burna has always had a controversial relationship with Nigerians, largely due to his questionable personality. He had ridden on the back of the tag of the “African Giant” and of the image of a Pan-African advocate he created for himself, and afterwards has been found wanting on the fronts of activism in Nigeria, especially during the 2020 “End SARS” protests, and previous elections where he refused to take a stand. 

(Read also: “Na God Go Punish Una!” Concert Culture in Nigeria is a Slippery Slope For the Progress of Nigerian Entertainment)

In “Thanks” off Burna’s new album where he features J. Cole, he complains about being under-appreciated by Nigerians. Hence, the tension between Burna and Nigerians is one of unfulfilled expectations. Nigerians expect him to back his self-imposed image with exemplary actions. He expects Nigerians to welcome and receive him with nothing but utter love and reverence, which Nigerians have seemingly refused because he has been found undeserving. As such, Burna Boy has often tried to get back at Nigerians in his own way, one of which is hitting them with a hard truth, one that he delivered on the verge of releasing his new album. 

 Told Them album byBurna Boy. Is it an album with substance? Afrocritik
Cover art for Burna Boy’s new album, I Told Them

Some have painted Burna’s comment in the light of him putting down his country for the sake of promoting his album; others consider his words as utmost disrespect and declared they would never listen to him again. What Burna Boy has betrayed is Nigerians’ expectation of him, they expect some form of loyalty from a countryman. That is the bigger problem, not whether Afrobeats has substance or not; we know the truth deep down. Nigerians have become so emotionally fastened to the global recognition of Afrobeats music that some of us tie our identity to it. It is, after all, the only positive thing for which Nigerians are known globally. Nigerians basically have nothing going for them, and more so, internationally, where they are regarded with suspicion. For this reason, many are unable to view Burna’s statement objectively. Burna’s statement as a single person shouldn’t be so important as to cause an outrage. But obviously, Afrobeats seems to be the only thing many Nigerians proudly identify with, and there lies the bigger problem. Nigerians have to rise beyond being emotionally tethered to this appealing reinvention of Afrobeats which sadly, but truthfully, is mostly about nothing.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi.

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  • A very good enlightening piece, however many Nigerians like to bandwagon on things without critical thought, generally lyrical content has never been of much significance to millennials. And this has reflected in the music. A good example is ojapiano good sound but it’s almost criminal the lyrics to the song. The problem is not what he said but who said it

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