Over the past few years, the Afrobeats music genre has enjoyed meteoric success as the sound has found an international following beyond African borders. This is thanks to artists such as Wizkid, Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy. When I listen to Afrobeats, the rhythmic, auto-tuned melodies enchant and evoke a sort of summery feeling. As a West African, Afrobeats feels culturally relevant, as it uses West African pidgin English, which I grew up hearing around me.
Although often confused, “Afrobeat” and “Afrobeats” are two different genres (albeit with multiple similarities). The Afrobeat genre was started by Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. According to Professor Sola Olorunyomi, “Fela’s Afrobeat has also tapped into a myriad of sources ranging from basic Nigerian traditional rhythms, highlife, jazz and Latin elements, over a structure that is essentially a criss-crossing African rhythm”. Highlife refers to the blend of Ghanaian jazz and African musical traditions that emerged during Ghana’s colonial period in the 1950s. The Afrobeat genre has a pan-African character. Interestingly enough, Fela Kuti was an activist and through his music he discussed topics relevant to his African audience. In Kuti’s song “Why Dey Black Man Suffer”, he says, “Our riches take them to their land / In return they give us their colony / They take our culture away from us.” As the song progresses, it explores the British colonization of Nigeria and the ensuing loss of culture due to this oppression.
On the other hand, Afrobeats genre refers to general African popular music including “African and Western music, juju, dancehall, soca, Naija beats, house and hiplife, a Ghanaian version of hip -hop”. Nowadays, “Afrobeat” and “Afrobeats” are used interchangeably. For the purposes of this article, I will simply refer to “Afrobeats” to encompass music originating from the African continent.
Like Fela Kuti, Black people have pushed melodic boundaries and introduced new types of music throughout history. Various genres have been influenced by black people, ranging from jazz, country, house and techno. Black creativity is reshaping and regenerating music globally.
Recently, black influence has played a role in the so-called Korean Wave. “Korean Wave” is the name given to the craze for Korean culture. This is best exemplified by the medium of K-pop, where Korean artists draw inspiration from R&B and hip-hop to create their greatest hits.
This connection is not something new; K-pop has often borrowed from black music. Sometimes this cultural borrowing is interpreted as problematic. You could say that some K-pop groups indulge in a certain kind of black cosplay and take advantage of it. For example, some performers indulged in blackface, uttered racial slurs, and used black hairstyles to mimic black culture.
On Twitter, South Korean rapper Penomeco’s song “Bolo” sparked discussions about the emerging hybrid genre of Afrobeats and K-pop. The song is obviously inspired by Nigerian music, as the word “bolo” is a Nigerian pidgin for a person who is a “fool” or a “silent person”.
I immediately listened to the song to better understand the discussion that was happening on Twitter. The flow and the auto-tuned vocals were reminiscent of the songs I grew up with. I liked it… to a certain extent. Closer inspection of the lyrics revealed the character of the song. There is a hint of Nigerian pidgin with the phrase “Make I see you carry body”. Later in the song, the two artists sing “Omalicha” in reference to a woman with the “perfect body”. For context, “Omalicha” is an Igbo word for “beauty”. In the song, the YDG star artist also says “It’s dancehall,” which I guess refers to the type of song he’s thinking of doing.
From my perspective, the conglomeration of dancehall and Nigerian pidgin evokes a certain appeal for a manufactured “African culture” that does not exist, simply because black cultures are not a monolith. It is also important to recognize that Penomeco reveals influences on his music – he states that Nigerian artists are a major source of inspiration.
I realized that I had mixed feelings because I was having a hard time deciphering whether it was cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation. I have endeavored to research Twitter in order to find an answer to my internal debate.
Users were amazed to hear this music for the first time. User @Oskwamz tweeted “South Koreans are now doing afro beats [flushed face emoji].” Black Twitter also had conflicting opinions regarding the song. Another user (@_najthehumansaid) commented, “They better not forget to credit black people for their music.”
Some were impressed by the international appeal of a local phenomenon. User @4chibuzor tweeted, “Im impressed. Yoruba, Igbo and Pidgin English. Naija spreading the influence of Afrobeats. Good music by the way. Others drew on their own experiences with racism to inform their reaction to K-pop Afrobeats: “It’s crazy how racist the developed world is towards us but I LOVE cutting the shit out of us!”
Many on Black Twitter believe Africans should save Afrobeats before it’s ‘too late’. User @loveiceprincesz tweeted, “It’s 2023, what Wizkid has done for afrobeats will be forgotten because everyone is now vibing to BTS’ current biggest song ‘afrobeats’. gatekeep afrobeats today [thumbs up emoji].” This tweet talks about the fear that afrobeats is no longer belonging to black people and becoming an international genre. I can understand where this user is coming from. As black people are exploited for their music while serving “as a ‘central creative resource’ in industry and culture”.
While I can appreciate that perspective, I think there’s a certain irony in trying to keep Afrobeats. First, when exactly will it be “too late” to save Afrobeats? Who makes this distinction? Moreover, it is normal for artists to look beyond their artistic boundaries to innovate their own music. Afrobeats is, in essence, an amalgamation of various genre types from both the African continent and beyond. User @EmmanOwoniyi points out “the irony of trying to keep afrobeats down” because, as user @Hasan_eat pointed out, “If other genres had taken over, afrobeats wouldn’t exist.”
After exploring opinions on the Black Twitterverse, I still don’t have an answer as to whether Penomeco’s song is cultural appropriation. I also find myself more confused about whether or not Africans should keep Afrobeats.
Although I don’t have a complete answer, I have come to understand the complexity of this question. I also think this discussion needs to be approached with nuance and grace. Ideally, in a world of mutual respect and fairness, music will be free to cross borders and enrich the lives of friendly strangers who don’t necessarily share the same cultural background.