Wizkid recently released a late summer remix for his outstanding single Gasoline, which stars North American pop superstar Justin Bieber. This update to the mid-tempo monster hit ranked # 1 on the Billboard R & B / hip-hop Airplay and is currently America’s most searched song on the Shazam app; two new exploits for the genre and contemporary African music as a whole.
Thanks to the internet, Afrobeats traveled far and wide. Having started its journey as an imitation of American hip-hop two decades ago, Nigeria’s political climate was crucial to its evolution at the time. The Afrobeats sparked what has become the country’s longest democratic period.
In March 1998, General Sani Abacha – then head of the Nigerian military state – orchestrated a political maneuver that would convert him into a “democratically elected” president; part of this agenda was the “March of 2 Million Men” and a music concert featuring some of Nigeria’s best musicians.
There was outrage against the musicians who chose to perform. However, the harsh socio-economic environment, typical of late 1990s Nigeria, may have rigged the moral compasses of those who decided to play the devil’s banquet.
The Rise of the Alaba Boys
Without a doubt, Nigeria’s cultural industry was in a coma at the turn of the millennium. Music production flows were disappearing as international record companies were kicked out of the country for lack of viable businesses. The resulting gap was filled by the home of the music pirates at Alaba Market, a suburb of Lagos; and the struggle against them was in vain. No musician and their teeming catalogs have been spared by music pirates who then evolved into music distribution and marketing companies.
When we say distribution, we mean marketers, when we say marketers what comes to mind is Alaba, and when we say Alaba, we mean piracy.
The first Afrobeats albums by boy bands like P-Square, Maintain, Plantashun Boiz, Def O Clan, Boulevard, Artquake and Remedies were released by the “Alaba boys”.
Rapper 2shotz, affiliated with Trybe Records – one of the pioneering record companies of contemporary Nigerian music – in an interview over a decade ago on music distribution in Nigeria said: in mind is Alaba , and when we say Alaba, we mean piracy.
Looking back, you would think it was reckless that the music be “legitimately” distributed by the so-called pirates; but with a government totally accustomed to the practicalities of supporting cultural production, Nigerian musicians have been left entirely to their own devices, ergo the mighty arms of pirates.
The Highlife Flavor crooner, in a recent interview with ace broadcaster Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, recalled his defining moment in 2005 when the owner of Alaba-based music Obaino, Chris Obaino, offered to market and distribute his album.
The album, N’abania, was to become his first album for which he had to wage a small war to receive the agreed royalty advance of 3.5 million yen (€ 7,190), which remained unpaid several months after the album’s release. “It was a terrible experience. The song is everywhere. The CD is everywhere. No Obaino call. I went to Lagos to see it, not at all, ”says Flavor.
After several attempts to meet Chris Obiano, Flavor skipped a queue of artists, broke into Obiano’s office, and insisted that he be taken care of. He was kicked out of the office and completely beaten by Obiano’s sidekicks who saw Flavor’s legitimate request as an affront to their boss. In Flavor’s eyes, Obiano was a big [the] the music industry at the time. In his own words, “Obiano was like Apple music back then.”
Music blogs are breaking Alaba’s hegemony
How did the Afrobeats reverse the grip of pirates posing as traders? The simple answer is a decade and a half of Internet proliferation and appropriate technology.
Following the arrival of GSM technology in Nigeria, Internet and smartphone technology have become commonplace. With the proliferation of budget smartphones and affordable internet, the yoke of Alaba’s distribution monopoly has been broken. Music ripped from compact discs could be distributed through the appropriate file sharing smartphone technology. This has encouraged the proliferation of music blogs like Notjustok (launched in 2006), Jaguda, Naijaloaded and so on.
These blogs, initially interested in showcasing emerging music, have become platforms for downloading new music, with the African diaspora’s renewed interest in the emerging genre. Although illegal, given the enactment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it was consistent with the spirit of peer-to-peer file sharing on the Internet at the time.
In addition to offering new music, blogs tabloid-type gossip, which spawned community participation and led to the emergence of polarizing fan groups on the internet who have become a vital part of Afrobeats in the social media space.
Independent musicians quickly grabbed hold of this possibility, going directly to music blogs to distribute their music and sometimes paying fees in the process.
The emergence of streaming
The Swedish online audio platform Soundcloud was launched in 2007, the same year that DRB Las Gidi – a collective of like-minded musicians often considered the pioneers of Alté music – was formed. While this seamless mix of funk, hip-hop, R&B and Afrobeats has been cult on Soundcloud, it has since spread to mainstream streaming platforms over the years.
Nigerians didn’t know they needed streaming until they got it.
The Spinlet music app, originally developed by two Finnish brothers in 2006, was acquired by Nigerian investors and launched as the first streaming app in the country, followed closely by Deezer in the same year. At present, there are no less than 13 streaming platforms available in Nigeria. Among them are Apple Music, Spotify, Youtube Main (by far the biggest platform), YouTube Music, Tidal Music, Audiomack, Boomplay Music and NotJustOkay’s Mino Music.
For Jide Taiwo, veteran cultural critic as well as author and content manager at Boomplay Music, the emergence of GSM internet technology and affordable smartphones have been catalysts for streaming. “Nigerians didn’t know they needed streaming until they got it. He withdrew the Alaba model because it was becoming difficult for the artists themselves. It also gave a new experience for consumers and artists […]», He said during a telephone interview with The Africa report.
This is particularly appropriate when thinking about the arrival of Boomplay Music in 2015, nearly a decade after the rise of internet blogs and their breach in Alaba’s monopoly.
Owned by the Transsion group, which also produces budget smartphone brands such as Tecno, Infinix and Itel, the Boomplay Music application is pre-installed on these products. This has provided a ready audience for their growing catalog of local and urban African music content. This audience has grown steadily to currently reach 50 million monthly users.
The rise of singles as an independent entity from the EP or LP album cannot be entirely dissociated from the Alaba model, where interlocking playlists produced by DJs were a staple. Naturally, internet blogs allowed singles to flourish as they were a direct response to the problems of distribution, curation and canonization.
Is streaming the ultimate solution?
Pioneering streaming platforms like Boomplay Music have also taken advantage of trends in this industry. “Singles are like bait the size of a byte to curl up people. Instead of listening [a] 60 minute album, you can listen to a song from 2 minutes to 47 seconds… It’s easy for platforms to retain users if you are able to deliver a solid single, ”says Taiwo.
While streaming is responsible for the viral explosion of Afrobeats in the world, it is not entirely without problems, especially on the African continent: the main ones are the low penetration of the Internet, the accessibility of subscriptions and the high cost of the Internet.
Last year a Nigerian musician based in the UK Mr. Eazi lamented about the fact that less than 2% of its digital revenue comes from Africa, where 90% of its fans are based. This fact underlies the fallibility of streaming as the ultimate solution for music distribution, especially in Africa.
Nigerian music critic Udochukwu Ikuagwu also agrees. “I doubt streaming will take over completely as Afrobeats artists are now preparing for merch [Merchandise] and Stan culture. Which is not new… Fuji and gospel have shown this model… Afrobeats artists will continue to sell CDs with tickets or merchandise for their shows and tours. They will continue to do media tours and give CDs to fans on promotion. They will always sell products with CDs during campus tours, street gatherings and carnivals. “
It goes without saying, especially since the sale of physical Afrobeats CDs, alongside those of the locally dominant Fuji and gospel genres, continues in the poor suburbs of Lagos and other parts of the country where the standard of living and Internet penetration remain insufficient.
The Afrobeats continue to innovate on their own terms while maintaining local relevance. The consensus is that the two-decade-old genre has performed well, even by hip-hop standards.