The State of Music in Africa
Words: Tshiamo Seape
The scope and breadth of the African Renaissance is greater than you know. The speed of creativity on the continent is outpacing our imaginations and any surprise at the accomplishments of the countless brands, artists, and musicians is, at this point, an insult. From South Africa, we move through the continents and across the ocean to the new homes of African creative output in the U.S. and Europe.
The South African music scene is full of dynamism with our electronic artists are flourishing like no other. The popularity of gqom is particularly telling of the strides electronic music has taken with regards to local-centric sounds. Distruction Boyz, with Omunye and Shut up & Groove, have captured the imagination of a nation and produced the songs of the Summer, while DJ Lag has made New York and London his home with a number of successful tours under his belt, and Black Motion continue to prove themselves a preeminent international act.
What is most rewarding to see is that authenticity, and identity has not been erased in favour of trying to appeal to a foreign audience. The most celebrated acts remain distinctly South African.
Identity is playing a big role in the musical renaissance of many artists. Musicians and performance art duo, FAKA are their persona as much as the music. Music is expression, and music paints identity. Through their artistry, they are subverting traditional notions of what artists in South Africa should sound or look like and in turn paving the way for future artists who will subvert and reinvent the creative landscape.
The weight of having to conform to established genres like hip-hop has the yielded mixed results for the local rap scene, however. While the leading figures in the game have provided a credible blueprint to follow, it often stifles the creativity of the followers – leaving a scene that has become somewhat reactive and generally indistinguishable with only a few standouts.
Our hip-hop industry is plagued by an identity crisis that inhibits our best talents from really shining and creating legacies that last longer than catchy choruses and staccato hooks.
As always, there are exceptions. Kwesta, despite a feature from US rapper Wale, managed to keep his sound undiluted and in doing so delivered one of the hottest tracks of 2017 and quite possibly the new national anthem, Spirit.
Another rapper who has managed to maintain his roots while finding success is CSA Radar alum, Youngsta. The King of the West Coast has been selling out shows and has most recently come away with Lyricist of the Year honours at the SA Hip-Hop Awards.
In his response, Ian McNair – music journalist and publisher at Platform Magazine – articulates the sentiment further.
While I think it’s difficult to decisively declare what condition the music landscape is in at any moment – because it always depends on what metric you’re measuring on – I think most can safely agree that it’s been a relatively successful year on two sides: 1. the economic success of dumbed-down, pop-ified trap and hip hop, and 2. the scope of the landscape’s openness to more interesting, non-West-centric sounds. It’s difficult to divorce the trying conditions for the non-wealthy (globally) from the ability of the music economy to sustainably support non-derivative, boundary-pushing musical forms (locally). As a result of these difficult conditions, many safe bets have been made by headline artists, for sure, but at the same time, from my limited perspective, it seems the music economy’s missing middle is pushing artists who might have tread the line into more exploratory, bold territory, and some discerning listeners into even more exciting terrain..
It is clear that at least where Hip Hop is concerned, the challenge is no longer finding success but tempering that with authenticity and originality. If we, as fans, cease to deify this new crop of artists and instead ask for more challenging music then perhaps they will respond in kind and usher in a new golden age of music that is being experienced by their alternative and electronic contemporaries.
Once we move beyond South Africa the trend of rapid success is felt tenfold. So many, now household names, are coming forward to carry the flags of nations on an indomitable rise. Sarkodie continues to dominate the Ghanaian rap industry and maintains his godfather status. Artists like Davido have reimagined afrobeat for a modern and international audience and turned it into something so ubiquitous it is moving closer and closer into the realm of pop. French Montana, Drake, and a slew of other prominent artists have all taken cues from Africa as a means to set themselves apart in an increasingly congested musical landscape.
Afrobeat is the sound du jour and foreign artists are flocking to get a piece of the pie. Wizkid captured 2017 with his Drake collaboration that seemed to come out of nowhere to critical and commercial success, albeit with slight criticism for Drake’s seemingly endless appropriation of styles not his own.
Stories like this should be taken with a grain of salt. Like DJ Lag, and to a lesser extent Black Coffee before, local (African) audiences have a tendency to discount the merit of homegrown talent until they take their sound overseas and serve it back with foreign labelling. This is a trend that needs to end. We need the pride to take ownership of what is ours.
“It’s all over that side. Places like the U.S., and recently Europe, are no longer at their peak – they’re done and it’s our time. When you look at what those artists are doing, they’re all looking at us, and now the biggest Afro Beat songs come from Drake” – Sho Madjozi (Recording Artist).
Collaboration will continue to grow as the west continues to mine Africa for its creative resources. While their markets continue to saturate and access to global sounds continues to increase the natural progression of local sounds to Western ears.
We as a people and as a continent have been in the background for far too long and the last two years have seen an unprecedented recognition by foreign properties of the talent and marketability that we have been producing for years. As the creative exchange continues we can expect music across the continent to grow and transform in ways we never imagined.