On Sunday 14th March 2021, Burna Boy won his first Grammy. Conquering the Best World Music Album category with his latest album, Twice As Tall, he became the first Nigerian popstar in this contemporary wave to take home one of the prestigious gramophones trophies for an original body of work. Alongside Burna, Wizkid snagged a Grammy win in the Best Music Video category for Brown Skin Girl, his collaboration with Beyoncé off The Lion King: The Gift. It was a heady night for Afrobeats.
Awards don’t necessarily validate Afrobeats, but Wizkid and Burna’s win is a reward for more than a decade of hard work. And it will, invariably, inspire the next generation of would-be superstars from the continent. That includes the artists behind some of this month’s highlights. Check them out below.
Rema – Bounce
Rema continues to push outside the box of Afrobeats. Since breaking through on an international level with his 2019 track Dumebi, the 20-year-old has consistently created music that avoids comparison with anything that has come before it, often pairing his penchant for left-field beats with Bini and pidgin slang taken from his hometown, Benin City.
On Bounce, he lets his polished, youthful voice express the depth of his lustrous desire. “Chop my money /Nothing concern me,” he chirps over a fizzing beat produced by Don Jazzy – the African music mogul who signed Rema to his imprint Jonzing World. As the static effect that makes the opening seconds of the jaunty song memorable thicken towards its end, Rema switches cadence, showing the vibrancy that makes the prospect of his debut album, set for later this year, a tantalising prospect.
Yaw Tog – Sore (remix) ft. Stormzy & Kwesi Arthur
Since Stormzy teased a remix of Sore at last year’s UPP Fest in Ghana, we’ve been patiently waiting for the rework, which will inevitably boost Yaw Tog’s profile overseas. The remix doesn’t disappoint, carrying a new verse by Yaw Tog that reflects the gritty energy of the asakaa scene while bragging about his burgeoning status. “Came as a fool and I turn to gold,” Tog raps over the Chris Rich-produced song. “Mama, see I made it, I’m gold.” Despite the absence of the Life Living Record artists who guested on the original song (because of his decision to not sign to the label, he claimed in since-deleted tweets), the feel-good aura of the track carries over into Stormzy’s verse that references Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, before Accra-based popstar, Kwesi Arthur sees things out with a dexterous, high-energy verse that offers salutations to Kumasi’s vibrant culture.
WeTalkSound ft. Kemena – Soweto
Every Valentine’s Day for the last four years, WeTalkSound – Nigeria’s largest music and creative community boasting rappers, singers, poets and visual artists – has put out an album to celebrate the season of love. 2021’s instalment, LOFN 4: A Collection of Love Stories, is the collective’s most well-rounded body of work, with tracks that incorporate hip-hop, Afrobeats, soul, and spoken word. Producer and singer Kemena shines with Soweto, on which he tells the story of a woman he can’t seem to stay away from, nodding to Nigerian pop of the early 2010s with sweet puns and clever linguistic improvisations. Soweto sees Kemena in an exuberant mood, showing a pleasant contrast to the spaced-out introspection of Bond, his 2020 album that mined personal drama for some of the best alt-pop out of Nigeria last year.
Ruger – Pandemic EP
The last time Nigeria had an eminent eyepatch-wearing musical talent was with the career of Baba Fryo. A luminary of the galala style, his music was inspired by reggae and dancehall and dominated popular Nigerian music for much of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Like Baba Fryo, the eyepatch-sporting artist Ruger is also inspired by dancehall. But while galala music was characterised by discordant drum patterns that made for abrasive songs, Ruger relies heavily on tonality, subsuming hi-hats and dancehall sentimentalities into song structures that are slick and expertly engineered. His debut EP, Pandemic, presents a thesis on the present of Afro-dancehall. He’s blurring the edges between the ferocious lyricism of dancehall and Afrobeats’ infectiousness on Ruger and creating an intimate, immersive atmosphere on Abu Dhabi, while lines like “Ruger is the pandemic, Ruger is the lockdown” were made for maximum virality.
Niniola – 6th Heaven EP
Last year, Niniola released her sophomore album, Colour and Sounds, a grandiose project that cemented her position as one of the continent’s most formidable artists working with house music. 6th Heaven, Niniola’s new project, digs deeper into her ballad-singing side, seeing her pour out her reflections on love and betrayal in a mix of confessional type R&B tracks and stirring soul numbers.
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Davido and Drake
A few years ago, the mere sight of a Nigerian musician in the same room as an American rapper was enough to send the Nigerian Internet into overdrive. With Afrobeats reaching an international audience, the impulse to over-celebrate these sorts of feats has dialled down, but a video of Davido and Drake linking in March has Nigerians licking their lips at the prospect of the duo working on music together. Come for the good vibes between both men, and stay for Drake admirably trying, and failing, to say “e choke.”
The music of Coming 2 America
Whatever you make of Coming 2 America, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1988 classic, just know that the music doesn’t disappoint. There are two versions of the soundtrack. One features American acts like Big Sean and Megan Thee Stallion alongside the likes of Davido and Tiwa Savage. The other version, Rhythms of Zamunda, is a compilation of songs inspired by the movie, and it achieves a nice balance of acts from across the continent, avoiding the regional stereotyping that the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album and Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift were critiqued for. On Rhythms of Zamunda, there’s the grooving highlife of Igbo brother duo, Umu Obiligbo, in tandem with Larry Gaaga, Fally Ipupa’s Soukous, as well as De Mthuda and Njelic’s electronic thrums.
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Iyanya – Kukere
Afrobeats’ alternate history is written with viral dances, from the galala to the azonto, and, more recently, the zanku. Often these dances are birthed from Lagos’ needy communities, but the etighi, popularised by Iyanya’s Kukere, was an exception, inspired by the cultural dance of the same name from Calabar in Nigeria’s South-South.
At the time of Kukere’s release in 2012, Iyanya was a down-on-luck R&B singer who had seen his debut album, My Story, tank commercially. It was a humbling experience for the singer after winning the inaugural edition of Project Fame West Africa, one of the subregion’s most storied music competitions. Following a visit to Calabar where he witnessed the etighi dance, he was inspired to write a song to celebrate it. Bolstered by a fairly simple dance scheme, Kukere became the biggest Nigerian single of the year, winning in the Best Pop Single Category at the Headies awards ceremony and giving Iyanaya’s career a new lease of life.
Read February’s Best new African music roundup here