“You don’t play with music”
How Afrobeats can be used as a political tool for good
It’s no secret that Afrobeats is on track to become a dominant genre globally. In the past year alone, hits such as CKay’s “Love Nwantiti” and Wizkid’s “Essence” featuring Tems have had success that has transcended African borders (beyond the usual diaspora audience). Essence alone broke into the top 10 songs on the US Billboard Hot 100 while also topping the Billboard World Digital Songs Sales chart, becoming the first Nigerian song to do so. Naturally, international collaborations have followed, with Justin Bieber featuring on the Essence remix while Ed Sheeran was recruited for the remix to Fireboy DML’s smash hit Peru which peaked at number 2 in the United Kingdom singles Charts. The role of social media must be acknowledged for its contribution to the growing popularity of Afrobeats with songs like the aforementioned Love Nwantiti as well as Ghanaian-American Amaarae’s Sad Girlz Luv Money (which led to a remix with superstar Kali Uchis) both going viral on TikTok. Mainstream recognition of the genre has led to the establishment of a Billboard Afrobeats chart for the top 50 most popular Afrobeats songs in the US, the first-ever official chart for Afrobeats Music in the country — a reflection of the fact that ears are tuned into the genre, now more than ever. This success is more than just digital streaming numbers though, it translates to real-life fans. Take Nigerian heavyweights Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy, who have all sold out the O2 within the last year with the latter also selling out Madison Square Gardens this year. In light of this growth, which many refer to as “Afrobeats to the World”, I think it’s important to explore the potential that Afrobeats’ success has for African people politically on both a domestic and international level.
The political impact of music is well documented, from the use of the song “We Shall Overcome” in the civil rights movement to Bob Marley’s 1978 One Love Peace Concert. In fact, Afrobeat, the predecessor to the much loved Afrobeats genre was explicitly political in nature with the genre’s pioneer Fela Kuti, using his music to speak truth to power. Fela’s music explored themes ranging from political corruption (Authority Stealing) to the faults in the international world order (International Thief Thief). He used his platform to hold those in positions of power to account and amplified the voices of dissent on the ground. This came at a cost though including having his residence the Kalakuta Republic raided and his mother thrown from the building. Artists today have also used music to question those in power, a notable example is Burna Boy (who credits Fela as one of his influences) who released the track 20.10. 20 in memory of the Lekki Tollgate Massacre. Even Naira Marley, whose music is generally appreciated for its sonics rather than lyrics has had his run-ins with authority with his tongue in cheek “Am I a Yahoo boy” which was released in response to being made the “poster boy for fraud” which led to him being arrested by the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) the following day. However, the tangible impact of these songs has been limited and it doesn’t seem as though much has actually changed, but it is an example of the potential that music has. The way that the Nigerian government responded to both Fela and Naira Marley is evidence that this music reaches those in power and indeed has the potential to bring about a political response. The question is who is willing to bear the inevitable backlash.
Aside from holding domestic governments accountable, Afrobeats has the potential to empower many and improve their living conditions. On an obvious level, success as a musician can propel individuals to superstardom, no matter their background. Take Wizkid, who sings about his humble beginnings in Ojuelegba and is now one of the leaders of the genre. As well as this, Afrobeats artists also give back to their communities, for example, Davido donated almost half a million pounds to Nigerian orphanages after raising money through social media. But aside from this, there’s also opportunities for those who are not in the limelight, from music video directors to choreographers to make better lives for themselves. Figures such as superstar director T.G. Omori have referenced their journey, coming up in the “trenches” and how their fortunes have changed thanks to their craft. Afrobeats provides a medium for people across all socio-economic backgrounds in Africa to share their stories and benefit from it financially. It’s clear that Afrobeats has potential for political change on a domestic level, whether that be through challenging those in power as well as citizens (as Sauti Sol did in their song Tujiangalie) or by acting as a social mobility tool, changing the circumstances of those in the industry, from the musicians to the directors.
Not only does Afrobeats have the potential to make political change on a domestic level, but it also has the potential to have a political impact globally on multiple levels. Firstly, Afrobeats can be used as a soft power tool for Governments to better their countries’ international perception and gain favour on the international stage. Soft power is an international relations concept coined my Joseph Nye which describes the use of noncoercive power to effect change on a global stage and the role of governments in supporting Afrobeats through funding and infrastructure is key. In post-independence Ghana, Nkrumah set up the Arts Council of Ghana Law to support homegrown traditional music and highlife and to hinder the dominance of foreign music. This initiative included training programs for highlife musicians in Ghana and abroad which was instrumental to the growth of artists such as Teddy Osei and Ebo Taylor who were important figures behind the sound gaining popularity globally. In today’s context, schemes like this would contribute massively to the development of artists in hotspots such as Nigeria and Ghana. This would inevitably have a further positive impact on these countries’ perceptions internationally. We have seen in recent times through initiatives such as the Year of Return in Ghana and Homecoming in Nigeria, that many people have been drawn to visit African nations even if they’re not part of the diaspora. Things such as culture, music, and arts have positive impacts on how nations are perceived on the international stage and how they are interacted with, whether they are allowed to host global events such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup which was held in South Africa. These intangibles lead to material differences such as providing opportunities for citizens that may arise through increased tourism (granted, this may come with its own problems). However, there are also less obvious benefits this has for Africans at home and worldwide. Thanks in large part to one-sided media coverage, many people in the western world associate Africa solely with poverty and conflict and it’s not uncommon for Africans abroad to be faced with ignorant questions regarding life on the continent. The spread of Afrobeats has the potential to change the narrative. Rather than squalor and suffering being the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of Africa, instead, they may think of the biggest stars and songs from the continent. In the United Kingdom, this change over time is very evident. As British-Nigerian rapper Skepta notes in the Ojuelegba remix, “when I was in school being African was a diss” but things have changed since then with African culture & stars of African descent gaining more prominence in the United Kingdom from sports (Anthony Joshua) to music (Dave) and film (Daniel Kaluuya). These days you won’t have to look hard to find people who aren’t African singing lyrics in Yoruba, Twi, or pidgin — a true testament to the fact that Afrobeats has truly gone global. This global spread of Afrobeats can be mobilized to the benefit of Africans at home and worldwide but it requires effective policy and support from governments to provide a stable infrastructure for the industry to flourish as well as the grassroots initiatives which we have seen spring up. A combination of this will see Afrobeats have a positive political impact on a global scale.
It’s hard to deny that Afrobeats is going to take over. The only question is how can this success translate to better conditions for Africans worldwide. On a domestic level, appropriate and sustainable infrastructure will help empower those involved from musicians to videographers. Without a doubt, governments also have a role in providing resources and policies to empower these musicians like Nkrumah did. On a global scale, governments can utilise Afrobeats as a tool in the soft power arsenal to strengthen reputations globally while also improving the esteem of Nigerians in the diaspora. There’s no stopping the “Afrobeats to the world” movement. In the internet era, it’s almost impossible for us to gatekeep the sound and the accompanying culture even if we wanted to. Considering this, it’s of the utmost importance that, as is unfortunately often not the case with black art forms, the originators are celebrated and financially compensated.
We cannot let Afrobeats go to the world without lifting Africans with it.
 Not Just Ok: Wizkid and Tems’ ‘Essence’ Shatters New Record on Billboard World Digital Song Sales https://notjustok.com/news/essence-new-record-billboard-digital-sales/#:~:text=Nigerian%20superstar%20singer%2C%20Wizkid's%20Essence,week%20ending%20July%2024th%2C%202021.
Pitchfork:Two Nigerian rappers were arrested by the government for scamming but did they do it https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/two-nigerian-rappers-were-arrested-by-the-government-for-scammingbut-did-they-do-it/
Leader Live: Afrobeats Singer Davido Donates 444–000 Nigerian Orphanages https://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/19927297.afrobeats-singer-davido-donates-444-000-nigerian-orphanages
 Afrobeats Intelligence Podcast: T.G Omori https://open.spotify.com/episode/20kiLwpNE2Q9DMlgLK93LI?si=dcae17bbd9e448da
 Joseph Nye, Soft Power. Foreign Policy, 1990.
 Christian Adofo, A Quick Ting On Afrobeats. London:Jacaranda Books, 2022.