Nigeria’s Afrobeats superstars take on the world
Mr Eazi could not believe it when an invitation arrived to perform with US Grammy Award-winning artist Lauryn Hill at a concert in New York. He was not particularly popular in Nigeria, but in 2015, the part-time singer had put out a song called “Skin Tight”, a fusion of Ghanaian high life music and Nigerian chord progressions, which was streamed heavily by African diasporic communities in the UK, US and Canada.
But Mr Eazi, whose real name is Oluwatosin Ajibade, was committed to his Nigerian start-up business, a company selling second-hand phones. He had even secured venture capital for the project.
When he applied for a visa at the US embassy, he asked them to confirm Hill’s invitation was real. It turned out it was: Hill had heard Skin Tight through her son, who found it on a music streaming app. She even knew Bankulize, a Mr Eazi song from a mixtape released in 2013. The embassy confirmed the invitation, and by July 2016 he was ready to be a full-time star.
Mr Eazi’s story reflects how Nigerian music, predominantly the Afrobeats genre, has been spreading around the world, and attracting international record label interest and investment. In the past few years, Universal Music, Warner Music Management, Sony Music and Atlantic Records have all signed Nigerian artists and pushed them to markets outside Africa.
Nigerian musicians and those of Nigerian heritage — from King Sunny Ade to Fela Kuti to Sade — have long enjoyed international acclaim. Several international labels (EMI, Decca, PolyGram) had local offices and released records in Nigeria and West Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
“Nigerian music has always been internationally viable,” says Temi Adeniji, senior vice-president, international strategy and operations at Warner Music Group, which struck a partnership deal with one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent record labels, Chocolate City Group, to promote their artists in other music markets.
The investment in Afrobeats is nothing compared to any other pop genre
Today, the formula is more potent than ever. On the one hand, there is an enthusiastic Nigerian diaspora with disposable income that is keen on maintaining cultural ties with home. Afrobeats is a way to stay connected. They spend money on, stream, share, support, and promote the genre. And a global reach is provided by the internet and innovations in music streaming.
For example, Temptation, a track by Tiwa Savage featuring Sam Smith, is uploaded by an artist in Lagos. A Nigerian student studying in the US receives a push notification on Apple Music, Spotify, Audiomack or Deezer as soon as new Nigerian music is uploaded.
Prompted by nostalgia or excited by sounds of home, she plays it, then plays it for her friends, hosts a games night in her dormitory with students from other countries, plays it again, makes TikTok videos with it, lays it over her Instagram stories and asks her Twitter followers whether they have heard it.
“It’s not like we are getting any massive radio support,” says Mr Eazi, speaking from London, where he is now based. “The investment in Afrobeats is nothing compared to any other pop genre. It [Afrobeats] is not going straight to [UK radio station] Radio 1, it is not going to [US radio station] the Hot 97.”
Instead, diaspora communities act as trendsetters, listening to Nigerian music in such high numbers that other demographic groups and music markets are catching on — in the same way that Rita Ora, Hill and executives at record labels caught on to Mr Eazi.
Tiwa Savage, aka the Queen of Afrobeats, has just released her third studio album, Celia, internationally with Motown, Island Records and Universal Music Group. She has performed in concerts in Australia and Malaysia and has had “people not of African descent singing my song word for word”.
“It was my dream to be internationally successful, but did I have a specific plan for it? Absolutely not,” says Ms Savage. The fact that her and other artists’ music is accessible to potential fans has made overnight global recognition and success possible. But if Nigerian music is not alone in this, what is special about it?
“It’s the quality of the music,” says Mr Eazi. “It’s pop music in every sense. Nigeria is a melting pot, we are very exposed even within Nigeria.”
He recalls going to his village and hearing local music. “You’ll hear a Yoruba song and the chords, as if it’s a [US] pop or R & B song,” he says, referring to the fusions in Nigerian music and the proclivity of its producers to experiment with sounds from elsewhere while retaining a Nigerian core. Afrobeats is at once local and global.
“The renewed interest in Nigerian artists should be distinguished from interest [of international labels] in operating in Nigeria,” says Ms Adeniji. “The former is driven by the adaptability of Nigerian artists [experimenting with trends from different parts of the world, while still retaining the core essence of the Nigerian beat], which makes the music globally appealing with very attractive revenue potential outside the continent.”
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Read the rest of the report at ft.com/nigeria-60
The latter, she says, is driven by Nigeria’s young population, promising economic indicators and low streaming penetration, meaning there is room to grow.
Nigerian music may be popular internationally, but it has yet to become a commercial success. According to a PwC report published before the Covid-19 pandemic, recorded and live music revenue was worth $34m in 2018, up about 7 per cent on the previous year.
PwC projected the music market would grow by 5.2 per cent a year over the next five years and earn $44m in 2023, although those numbers may be revised as a result of the pandemic.
Piriye Isokrari, chief executive and founder of Aristokrat Records, which launched Grammy-nominated star Burna Boy’s career, thinks the Nigerian music industry is held back by several factors.
Although it benefits from music-mad fans across the world, that market has weak economic power and paying for streaming services is not always affordable for Nigerian consumers, who often seek to get music for free.
There’s nothing that has proven that Afrobeats is here to stay globally
Secondly, the aspirational and entrepreneurial spirit of young Nigerian musicians can count against them in working collaboratively to build the industry, according to Mr Isokrari.
To him, the Nigerian music industry is artist-centric: “Eighty per cent DIY, mom-and-pop shops”, where the typical artist entrusts one other person to be his booking agent, business manager, publicist, marketer, personal manager and more. There is no legal, accounting knowhow, bookkeeping, support, no expertise at negotiating tables.
That means artists depend heavily on live music ticket sales, performances and endorsements. Their energies are not directed towards developing streaming numbers, selling recorded music and building careers through labels. Copyright laws are weak, and structures to collect on publishing income do not function properly.
Yet there is “so much natural talent” — whether artists, producers, or writers — breaking through “despite this fragmented environment” that Ms Adeniji declares herself to be “bullish on the viability of the Nigerian music industry, especially if . . . solutions tailored to the local realities are implemented”.
Though signed to international record labels that help sell her music, Ms Savage says she is already thinking about how to diversify her income, a task made more urgent by the inability to perform live because of the pandemic.
“We haven’t proven the viability of the market yet,” concludes Mr Isokrari. “We are an emerging market. With emerging markets, people [investors] come in and don’t want to break the bank. There’s nothing that has proven that Afrobeats is here to stay globally.”
Five Nigerian artists with global impact, by Ria Hylton
Multi-instrumentalist and Afrobeat pioneer, Kuti spoke truth to power in the 1960s and 1970s with a new genre. He died in 1997, and today has 558,764 monthly Spotify listeners.
The Afrobeats’ queen sang and wrote for leading R&B stars years before taking centre stage with 2013’s “Kele Kele Love”. She has 1,238,753 monthly Spotify listeners.
One of the best examples of an R&B crossover artist, Wizkid was thrust into the limelight in 2016 by featuring on US superstar Drake’s “One Dance”. He has 4,361,225 monthly Spotify listeners.
2018’s “Case” introduced Teni’s uplifting, mid-tempo take on Afrobeats to the world, garnering her a substantial streaming audience. She has 330,281 monthly Spotify listeners.
He fused dance hall, reggae and rap, attracting a global audience to a genre in which he reigns supreme. He has 9,760,826 monthly Spotify listeners.
This article is part of , an FT special report published in the Financial Times on Thursday 29 October and online at.
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