Some of Africa’s biggest music stars look set for success on a global scale having been handpicked by US singer Beyoncé to appear on her Lion King-inspired album.
While Nigerian stars like Wizkid and Burna Boy have already broken through to the mainstream in the UK and US, their collaboration with the superstar in The Lion King: The Gift is bound to give their careers a bigger boost.
The 14-track companion piece to the Disney film is filled with sounds akin to music currently rocking the continent. Beyoncé, who curated and produced the project, has called it a “love letter to Africa”.
“I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa, and not just use some of the sound or my own interpretation of it,” she told ABC News.
“I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa.”
Dilution or a new direction?
From lyrics in English, Swahili, Pidgin English, Zulu, Xhosa and Yoruba, the project incorporates several genres from Afrobeats, pop, R&B, hip-hop, and the South African version of house music known as Gqom.
“A lot of the drums, chants, all of these incredible new sounds mixed with some of the producers from America, we’ve kind of created our own genre”, Beyoncé told ABC.
African acts featured include Nigeria’s Tekno, Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi and Tiwa Savage, as well as Cameroon’s Salatiel, and South Africa’s Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly. Several African producers also have credits on the album.
Alade said some artists claim to want to pay homage to their roots but are “all talk and no action”. This is not true of Beyoncé, she told the BBC.
“For someone of that calibre to dedicate time and effort to Africa, it goes to show our worth,” she added.
Afrobeats is perhaps the dominant genre thriving outside the continent – and in particular the UK. Along with Afropop and Afrofusion, these sounds are taking over playlists and dance floors across the world.
Beyoncé’s new project is a savvy attempt to blend “pure Afrobeats, mainstream pop and R&B sounds” for a non-African audience, said Nigerian broadcaster Adesope Olajide, popularly known as Shopsydoo.
He said this is more accessible and “soothing” to such listeners.
“It eventually becomes a sound that is not Afrobeats in its purest form but the best of sounds that a Beyoncé audience will be able to digest,” Shopsydoo told the BBC.
“I know a lot of people are thinking: ‘Maybe she’ll steal the sound and create her own’ but I don’t believe that. [She’s] involving these guys and girls, sharing her fan base with them.”
But not everybody is onboard.
When the album was revealed, many East Africans shared their disappointment at being left out. Many of the film’s characters, after all, have Swahili names and animators for the original 1994 film reportedly based the setting on Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
“We were not represented in her love letter to us. It hurts,” Kenyan singer Victoria Kimani said on Twitter.
As much as we celebrate with our fellow Africans …. The obvious exclusion of Kenyans / East Africans on this Soundtrack is Depressing…. The movie was based on KENYA 🇰🇪
— VICTORIA KIMANI (@VICTORIA_KIMANI) July 16, 2019
That’s fine …. Our Queen forgot about US. WE were not represented in her love letter to us. It hurts. That’s all . https://t.co/LVTCOjnkUZ
— VICTORIA KIMANI (@VICTORIA_KIMANI) July 16, 2019
‘The smartest people collaborate first’
Prior to featuring on Beyonce’s latest album, some of these artists were already well on their way to global recognition.
Wizkid’s US breakthrough came in 2016, when he featured on Canadian rapper Drake’s hit song One Dance, becoming the first Nigerian artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the first song to hit one billion plays on streaming service Spotify.
This year also saw Mr Eazi and Burna Boy perform at Coachella in the US – one of the most famous festivals in the world.
Meanwhile Tiwa Savage, who already had a management deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, signed an international recording deal with Universal Music Group in May.
Fellow Nigerian Tekno signed a deal a distribution deal last year with Universal Music Group Nigeria and Island Records, and Yemi Alade has been touring across Europe.
International features are mutually beneficial for global stars and African artists, said digital marketing director Kareem Mobolaji.
“Americans and others are paying more attention now. The likes of Wizkid have shown how their presence on songs can help increase sales and listening across Africa and indeed all over the world.”
So for Shopsydoo, Beyoncé will also gain by working with the African stars.
“It’s a bigger platform for the pop and mainstream world to recognise African artists”, and also a “brand-new following for Beyoncé by collaborating with some of Africa’s pop culture icons”, he said.
“The smartest business people are those who reach out to collaborate first.”
Spotlight on the industry
“Afrobeats and Afropop are undeniably the fastest-growing black genres in the world outside of hip-hop,” broadcaster Shopsydoo told the BBC.
“It justifies the rush for African pop stars by international record labels.”
Digital music distributors TuneCore said World music, the category under which African music is mostly classified, is one of the fastest-growing music genres with a 57% increase in 2018.
Music streaming in Africa has also seen 146% growth – the fastest worldwide.
But piracy, distribution challenges and the legal structure around contracts and records plague the music industry in many African countries. Artists themselves with surely be watching the changes most closely.
“This [Beyoncé feature] will attract more major labels into our music and signing more of our local artists,” says Kareem Mobolaji, of marketing company Inglemind Concept Digital.
International record labels like Universal Music Group have already expanded to the continent with offices in Nigeria, Kenya, Ivory Coast and South Africa.
Sony Music, meanwhile, has bases in Nigeria and South Africa. Warner Music Group, which has a presence in South Africa, also recently partnered with Nigerian record label Chocolate City.
“The talent on ground is burgeoning and blooming and the international market is yearning for more,” Universal Music Nigeria’s general manager, Ezegozie Eze Jr, told the BBC after the company’s Lagos office opened last year.
“Nigerian artists have already demonstrated that they can sell out international venues. Their music is being played on high rotation on radio stations and clubs across Africa, Europe and the rest of the world and now is the time to take it to the next level.”
Beyoncé’s African ties
Fans of US-born Beyoncé have been sharing a 2009 clip in which the singer reveals on stage that her ancestors were Nigerian, before performing the country’s national anthem:
Beyoncé’s interest in the continent has been evident over the years in her photo shoots, music videos, lyrics, performances and fashion choices.
She frequently supports African designers – sporting the work of South African creators Afrikanista and MmusoMaxwel in Johannesburg last year, and Senegal’s Sarah Diouf more recently:
Beyoncé also referenced the Yoruba deities Oshun, goddess of fertility, and Yemoja, goddess of the water, in her 2017 Grammy performance and an underwater photoshoot while pregnant.
Artists featured on The Lion King: The Gift say Beyoncé’s support for their talent underlines what African audiences have known all along.
“I feel like this is a great moment and there’ll be more to come,” Yemi Alade told the BBC.
South Africa’s Moonchild Sanelly, a huge Beyoncé fan who has long dreamed of such a collaboration, agreed.
“At this point I have ticked the box of my lifetime and I have just started.”