Afrobeats finally has its moment of global breakthrough

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It must have been in September that I heard that CKay’s “Love Nwantiti (Ah Ah Ah)” had become the most Shazamed song in the world. I immediately tried imagining revelers in Accra or Lagos raising their phones to the speakers trying to identify the Afrobeats track, but that couldn’t be it. In this part of the world, we’ve known CKay and his song for almost two years. So, had America pulled off an “Essence” yet?

For a very long time, Afrobeats were designed to be the next big thing in world music. Drake knew this when he dropped her Afropop club jam “One Dance” in 2016, just like Beyoncé when she enlisted the continent’s biggest stars for her inspired album. Gift. The two had one thing in common: Wizkid.

The Nigerian superstar has spent most of a decade charting a global path for Afrobeats – a catch-all term for West African pop music – selling international gigs, gaining Grammy and stream attention. monthly that number in the millions. But even after all this success and support from the biggest names in music, “Essence”, starring newcomer Tems, was a turning point in his career.

Despite the constant rise of Afrobeats and the countless doors this phenomenon has opened in recent years, there has always been a ceiling on what an African artist or song could achieve on the international stage, especially the elusive American charts. It seems that in 2021, that cap has finally been broken. Twice.

In September of this year, Billboard announced that it had found its “most global hit to date.” The track in question was “Love Nwantiti” (which means “little love” in Igbo) by the relatively unknown Nigerian singer CKay. So how did a newcomer from West Africa find his way onto the charts and phones of people around the world? For context, the song arrived on CKay’s 2019 EP CKay the first, where it wasn’t even billed as a lead single: “The label I signed to at the time didn’t even take the song seriously as a single, because it wasn’t a club record. . It wasn’t quick, ”CKay revealed in an interview with HipHopDX. But even when the song became popular with local audiences, the song’s rise was modest. “” I love Nwantiti ” [had already] exploded in Nigeria and many other countries last year, ”the 26-year-old told Rolling Stone. “So I didn’t expect him to explode again. Fortunately, I was wrong.

As with “Love Nwantiti,” Wizkid’s “Essence” marinated for a while with local audiences before having a second life in 2021. The song was originally released in 2020 as part of Wizkid’s Made in Lagos album, a sublime work containing vibrations from start to finish and leaving no room for jumps. In fact, like with “Love Nwantiti”, “Essence” was also not to become the album’s flagship hit. In a recent interview with Complex, Wiz admitted that he preferred “Blessed” assisted by Damian Marley and “True Love” produced by Juls to “Essence”. In Ghana, where Wizkid spent most of the last year, judging by the explosive loudspeakers of passing cars, hairdressing salons or notorious Accra parties, initially the most popular. MIL The tracks were the most rhythmic “Ginger”, with Burna Boy, and “No Stress”. For its native audience, one of the key factors in a successful Afrobeats song has always been its ability to dance. This was true of Fuse ODG’s viral Azonto movement – even before the virus was a thing – or the almost divine influence of dance performances by Nigerian actors like Naira Marley and Zlatan Ibile. So a slow burner like “Gasoline” becomes the the Afrobeats anthem was quite unexpected.

But of course, as the hype settled around Made in Lagos, the touching and sultry “Essence” proved to have a lot more stamina than the album’s bangers. Maybe it all comes down to timing. As the world optimistically emerged from the standstill, the “Time is essential” hook, which Tems passionately moves, felt more meaningful than ever. By the summer of 21, “Essence” was all over TikTok and Instagram, even making the soundtrack for celebrity stories like Kylie Jenner, Kevin Hart, and Alicia Keys. For a while, I really felt like Wizkid’s track was gearing up to become ‘The Song of the Summer’, but before that happened it needed help becoming the afrobeats export. highest in America to date.

In the US, Afrobeats was stuck in between, surviving as more than an underground genre but never quite found that moment, that crossover blow to really break into the mainstream. As with the re-emergence of Reggaetón in 2017, after years of flirting with the American pop landscape, the Afrobeats needed a “Despacito”. Enter Justin Bieber. Like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s world-conquering “Despacito” five years ago, which propelled Reggaetón to unprecedented commercial success, Biebs has become Wizkid’s secret weapon.

When I first heard Justin Bieber on the “Essence” remix when it came out in August, I was not thrilled. Sonically, it sounded like an unnecessary addition to a perfect song; Wizkid and Tems really “didn’t need another body”. But once I got over Bieber’s grimace singing in Pidgin (West African English Creole dialect) and the longer runtime, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the well-calculated A&R strategy of the Wizkid team. Sure enough, upon its release, the remix reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 – the first time Wiz cracked the charts as lead artist – and it also became the first song with Yoruba language lyrics from the Nigeria to debut on the Global 200 chart. It was clear that Afrobeats had finally broken America’s language barrier and cultural disconnect when Wizkid became the first African artist to be RIAA Platinum certified for song in early October.

And while Wizkid focused on a remix featuring an international superstar to create a global Afrobeats hit, CKay made his piece a global hit by deploying various remixes to infiltrate a global audience, one corner of the world at a time. If you search for “Love Nwantiti” now, you will discover official remixes from East Africa, North Africa and South Africa, as well as versions in French, Spanish, Italian and German, all containing worms of acts in the corresponding regions. It’s this barrage of international remixes that provides perhaps the simplest explanation for the song’s vast reach on video-sharing platforms like TikTok.

By now, we all know TikTok can be a game-changer for artists, who can use the app to speed up or even launch a career. For African artists, TikTok – and the internet in general – has become the great equalizer, allowing them to bypass control of the traditional music industry and elevate their culture and communities to new heights. And if anyone can talk about it, it’s CKay. Through several choreographies created for the song, “Love Nwantiti” has gone organically viral. Currently, over 3 million videos have been created under sound on TikTok. And since September, it has remained the most Shazamed song in the world, ahead of “Stay” by Kid Laroi and Justin Beiber and Elton John’s “Cold Heart” remix with Dua Lipa. As of this writing, “Love Nwantiti” is featured in 160 countries, is number 1 on the worldwide YouTube charts and number 3 on the UK singles charts, beating Drake and Billie Eilish. Within weeks, another Nigerian song had done the unthinkable.

While their journeys were unscripted, somewhere between the pandemic, the popularity of TikTok, and well-timed remixes, “Essence” and “Love Nwantiti” simultaneously perfected the formula for an international chart-topping single. . At the base of it all, Wizkid, Tems, and CKay crystallized the Afrobeats into the global genre that we always knew it could be if given the chance. Always in flight, the songs are another reason to believe that African artists are setting their own table on the global music scene. And that’s just the beginning.


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