Joey Akan from Afrobeats Intelligence analyses the global impact of Afrobeat music against the backdrop of the Grammy Award won by Burna Boy and Wizkid, and Afrobeats: The Backstory- the upcoming documentary set to premiere on April 2nd, 2021 at the Filmhouse Cinema in Lagos, Nigeria
The Afrobeats story is getting told. The culture is crossing the threshold of bit-part storytelling, into advanced narrative-driven projects documenting the rise of a genre on the cusp of being a global powerhouse. ‘Afrobeats: The Backstory,’ a nine-part documentary featuring the origins of the African sound culture is set for premiere over the Easter holidays. The production is set to tell the origins story, so to speak, of Afrobeats—its birth, its exponential rise and how it came to be one of Africa’s biggest international exports. Produced by culture broker, entrepreneur and filmmaker, Ayo Shonaiya, the film is supported by streaming giants, Boomplay Music, who are moving beyond putting money in the pockets of creators, into supporting an industry in need of documentation.
The world is grooving to the music made in creative silos all across Lagos, West Africa’s creative hub. Afrobeats—once a 90s pipe dream, nursed by an emerging generation with a hangover for hip hop music, reggae, and traditional local sounds—is currently considered within the framework of global pop culture. Burna Boy has a Grammy award inked beside his name. Wizkid has one for his efforts at collaborating with Beyonce. Davido has two gold certifications, earned from singles drawn from a local creative pool. And when you travel all around the world, playing every dance circuit, every mall, everywhere music provides joy, you’ll find a Nigerian song right at the centre of it all.
This explosion of our sound culture has been a decade-long journey with numerous actors. The culture has provided a long stream of heroes, working to advance the music. From artists to producers, businessmen and fans who also double as evangelists, the story of Afrobeats’ creation and advancement often feel like a maze. You can dig right through the history of the sound, and find yourself wandering through different eras and generations, without a clear picture of sweat, tears and celebrations that birthed the music, and sustained it through the years. A clear portrait of Afrobeats has never fully been painted. And in cases where attempts have been made, it has fallen flat in execution, and ultimately, impact. The problems of cultural narrative building have been a plague to previous efforts. The elements don’t come together, there’s a lack of access to the custodians of these experiences, or the weight of such a task can often be overwhelming.
These problems can be confronted easily with just the right personal and a dash of industry politics. But the perennial boogeyman between a big-budget storification of Afrobeats and a wholesome documentary of the culture has been a lack of funding. For years, Afrobeats music has been powered by an industry built on survival. While art can provide immense joy, and paper over the cracks of our humanity, it is money that can sustain creativity. For decades, Afrobeats artists and their storytellers have relied on shoestring budgets to harness and exhibit magic. Bootstrapping is a common feature in Lagos’ creative spaces, and every penny sent into the process, is tasked with providing a million more. Scarce resources make for limited expression. A naira note can only stretch within the confines of its intrinsic value. And every year, it witnesses a steady decline in that value.
Due to these bottlenecks, we have sat and watched the culture fall prey to misinformation, half-truths, embellishments, and outright lies designed to create a false sense of history, uplift villains and muddy the world’s understanding of the heart of Afrobeats. But no more Afrobeats: The Backstory has Ayo Shonaiaya as a worthy curator, and Boomplay, picking up the tab as an investment into the scene.
Apart from bankrolling this documentary film, Boomplay, with its 56 million subscribers, is a fitting partner to the Nigerian music industry. Since its arrival in 2015, the music streaming giants have galvanized the music space by providing a flexible platform to support Afrobeats. As the largest music streaming platform in Sub-Saharan Africa, the company has powered several activations across Africa. In Nigeria, it has put lifesaving muscle behind experimental and legacy projects led by artists and industry professionals. They’ve supported Fela Kuti’s annual Felabration, Tiwa Savage’s sprawling ’49- 99′ release, Burnaboy’s African Giant album release event, and several other album release events. In 2019, Boomplay also launched a nationwide campus tour, rewarding artists, and bringing premium music to students at reduced costs. The platform has also powered several talk shows and projects for upcoming artists. And even as support for the Afrobeats: The Backstory, Boomplay will also launch a playlist.