Afrobeats viability and its possible replacement of dancehall

Afrobeats artist Burna Boy and his band, The Outsiders
Afrobeats artist Burna Boy and his band, The Outsiders (Photo credit: Twitter (@burnaboy))    

In 2008, I spent three months in London partly due to an art show that I had there, and to give myself enough time to drink in the cultural offerings. During that period, I attended a dance at Kings Cross in London’s West-end. It was a massive session which featured more than half a dozen sound systems. Two of these sound systems had Jamaican origins and of the remaining four, two were British based while the other two identified as Ugandan and Nigerian respectively.
To cut to the chase, the two “African” identified sounds made mincemeat of the others and it was the first time that I had experienced such an infectious beat. It felt like dancehall and reggae, but it was sweeter. It mixed well with the 1980s and 1990s Jamaican dancehall, but it was headier, and it had the crowd in an absolute frenzy. That beat is what is being heralded today as Afrobeats.

Afrobeats development

According to the bredrin with whom I was touring, this beat had been developing since 2002/2003 and he was certain that this was the beat of the future. He intimated that if Jamaicans did not wake up this African-infused, Jamaican-influenced rhythm would soon displace Jamaican music. He opined, further, that Jamaican musicians had been missing the mark as instead of developing on what worked, they were too quick to want to imitate the American Hip-Hop sound. In the process, we had been abandoning Reggae and Dancehall, especially 80s-90s dancehall which had begun to be picked up by the Latin Americans and being reproduced as reggaeton. He stated at the time that the members of the African diaspora had also been consuming Jamaican reggae and dancehall and were not only producing their own Jamaican-influenced reggae but was also infusing the African rhythms onto Dancehall which was being presented as Afrobeat.

Fast forward to the recent revelation that Billboard had ditched its Reggae Digital Sales Charts and had joined forces with the music festival and global Afrobeat’s brand Afro Nation to launch the first-ever US chart for Afrobeat’s songs. My response is simple enough “It has been a long time coming.”

The African Diaspora

The African population is more than 1.2 billion and its diaspora population is over 140 million with 56 million residing in Brazil alone and another 47 million residing in the USA. In the circumstances, it makes absolute economic sense that Billboard would want to focus on those areas where a critical mass of population resides. After all, music is a big-money business and within the music fraternity, it has been the general view that not only is African music in the ascendancy, but also that it is taking the space of dancehall music as dancehall seems to have lost its way as the output from most of the current practitioners in the genre is indecipherable from American Hip-Hop and certainly lacking the energy and brashness that was generally associated with dancehall.

Billboard, in their release, stated that the US Afrobeat songs chart goes live on Tuesday, 29 March 2022, and will rank the 50 most popular Afrobeat songs in the United States, “Based on a weighted formula incorporating official streams on both subscription and ad-supported tiers of leading audio and video music services, plus download sales from top music retailers”.

The fact is that Billboard’s executives are responding to the trend-lines drawn by the Afrobeat as it has grown tremendously as a genre in America but when it comes to dancehall itself, “People are afraid to give it a chance,” the singer Kranium says. Then he reconsiders, “They kill it even before they give it a chance.”

According to Sean Paul in an article published by the Rolling Stones magazine, “There are several challenges facing a dancehall singer hoping to reach the American market. The first and biggest is the way we speak. Most of us sing in patois, which evolves every year, so you can’t write it down in a textbook, you can’t teach it to someone unless they live it.”

Underlying problems with Jamaican music

Jaxx, the producer, points to another underlying problem: the Jamaican market’s lack of robust infrastructure for international distribution. According to him, “In America, there are major labels that you can bring your artiste to and then you have a platform while no parallel institution exists in the Caribbean.” For his part, New York-based Ricky Blaze has lamented that, “We don’t have a Def Jam Jamaica. It’s very hard for a record to make it far outside of Jamaica without a mainstream label behind it,” adds Linton TJ Records White, who produced “No Games” for Serani.

There are also often constraints on the travel of dancehall artistes, themselves, most of whom may face complicated border control measures when attempting to enter the US. According to Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, who has produced for Sean Paul and Vybz Kartel, pointing to the 2010 crackdown against Jamaican dancehall singers during the Dudus Coke Affair, “Most of the frontrunners in dancehall had those issues in recent years, which strained the entire industry.

The other unspoken fact is that Jamaicans in the diaspora do not buy Jamaican dancehall music, making the genre largely unattractive economically.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.

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