If you hadn’t already grasped it, afrobeats has arrived. Keep up. Over the last decade, the fluid style of music has captivated audiences across the Western world – particularly in London, where the term was first coined, and New York, which like the UK capital has a high numbers of West African immigrant communities.
Now the genre is getting some recognition. Earlier this week, The Official Charts Company (OCC) announced the birth of the Official UK Afrobeats Chart, set to be published weekly. Initiated by the popular festival-provider Afro Nation and launching on BBC 1Xtra and The Official Charts Company, the Afrobeats Chart will be compiled using “UK sales and streaming data from over 9,000 outlets, incorporating audio and video streams, downloads and physical sales”.
To get things started, the inaugural list – which lists the top 20 “afrobeats” artists” of the last 12 months – throws up some confusion as to where this chart might be going. The chart consists of a plethora of acts – including J Hus, Young T & Bugsey and more – but many of which sit within the pocket of afro-swing, as opposed to solely afrobeats. Upon its release, social media users noted that the “real” afrobeats artists, such as Fuse ODG and Tekno, sat at the bottom of the chart. This is a metric driven chart, of course, but raises questions as to where afrobeats is heading – and how it is perceived on a mainstream level.
The phrase was coined little over a decade ago and vocalised formally by DJ Abrantee in 2012. Afrobeats derives from the likes of Nigerbeats, juju music, hiplife and highlife melding with Western sonics such as rap, hip-hop and funky house. Not to be confused with afrobeat, there’s a distinction and update in afrobeats. “There’s a younger feel to it,” founder DJ Abantree asserted.
Despite the differences, afrobeats is constantly paired with its predecessor and has faced scrutiny from West-Africans in England and beyond. This muddying of the waters between the two musical styles confuses the histories and trajectories of both sounds.
In 2017, Nigerian megastar Burna Boy articulated his concerns with the conflation, stating that “I know what afrobeats is – afrobeats is not what you’re hearing today; it’s not that.” With one of the biggest names in the game outrightly rejecting the term – alongside peers and African musical publications including OkayAfrica – we see that the new chart is vulnerable when it comes to gaining the respect of the communities it seeks to represent.
On British soil, afro-swing has gained traction towards the end of the last decade as an established musical genre. Articulating the characteristics of afro-swing in 2018, acclaimed author and teacher Martin Connor said that it incorporates “Jamaican music in the rhythm” and melds with percussion and melodies from African sounds. British DJ and singer Afro B denounced this form of music being labeled as afrobeats because of the usage of aspects from dancehall and R&B.
One of the biggest acts within the Afrobeats Charts Top 20, J Hus, is also classified as an afro-swing pioneer, with Not3s and Yxng Bane in close proximity. The Official Charts Company – knowingly or not – erase these developments by not including afro-swing in the chart’s name and fail to acknowledge the unique elements of West Indian genres that are infused in afro-swing. They are crucial in their distinction.
The OCC’s statement announcing the chart briefly acknowledges afro-swing but uses the term afrobeats in reference to Kojo Funds – an act who has previously stated that he classifies himself as the former. Olive Uche, Audiomack’s Content Strategy Manager for Africa, believes that both afrobeats and afro-swing deserve their own appreciation. “Properly labelling sounds and genres allows the mass to see the vastness of the scene and understand that there’s range within the music,” she tells NME.
It’s more frustrating once you realise that The OCC already have strong examples of doing this appropriately with other musical groupings. The Jazz & Blues Albums Chart incorporates projects from the varying forms of music, which allow room for clarity on both sides of the spectrum. Jazz, being a derivative of blues, is still a legitimate and pronounced genre in its own right; this is similar to the way in which afrobeats and afro-swing share their unique offerings. This approach ought to be adopted for the new Afrobeats Chart.
The UK has been one of the most welcoming regions in the Western hemisphere when it comes to afrobeats. This is ultimately down to West-Africans on the ground helping to shift nightlife and radio over the span of 15 or so years. Platforms such as Choice FM and cultural moments like the meteoric rise of D’Banj’s track ‘Oliver Twist’ have helped to open the door for African-inspired foundations.
It is, at its core, an ambitious and laudable move to honour this influence. Yet this chart needs to accurately reflect all of the sounds that it encompasses and name them accordingly. Failing to do this is a disservice and undermines the good-intentions of The Official Charts company, Afro Nation and BBC 1Xtra. The term “Urban” is beginning to be removed institutionally for its inaccurate labelling and ambiguous definition; the Afrobeats Chart and its missteps in precise representation feels like it’s cut from the same cloth.