After "Ghanaians Killed Azonto," EL Wants to Push Afrobeats Forward

An interview with celebrated rapper and producer EL, who won Artiste of the Year, Producer of the Year and Best Music Video of the Year at last year's Ghana Music Awards.

EL strolls into the OkayAfrica offices on a cold winter morning rocking a wide brim hat, camo pants and a 'Slayer' tee-shirt.

The celebrated Ghanaian rapper and producer—who won Artiste of the Year, Producer of the Year and Best Music Video of the Year at last year's Ghana Music Awards—is in the greater New York City area to work on music and cement his future releases.

EL, who heralded the global azonto music craze of the early 2010s with his production on tracks like "U Go Kill Me" and "Obuu Mo," had a big year in 2016 with the release of his second album Elom and the Best African Rapper (B.A.R.) 3 mixtape.

We caught up with him to see what he's got going on for 2017 and more.

What brings you to the United States?

EL: I'm out here to try and further the afrobeats agenda. Trying to make a few contacts here so as to strengthen ties between the Western world and West Africa, and Africa in general, in terms of the music that we make. I'm trying to solidify a place for artists who are trying to break through the diaspora to the world as a whole.

Are you working on new music here?

Well, in terms of my own music I've been working on a crossover sound which I think is very new. I'm a producer as well, so I find myself experimenting a lot. I get bored a lot with most of the stuff that's always recycled, you know? So I challenge myself a lot to come up with a new sound. It's a great, massive venture but that's what I've been working on, a crossover sound which is gonna be revolutionary.

What are the influences on that new sound?

Well, the influences from that new sound are the big sounds, both from West Africa, Africa as a whole, and big sounds from the United States as a whole. I'm trying to merge those two sounds together, because I'm a hip-hop artist and hip-hop is predominantly from the West, in my opinion. Or rather, it's not from the west but it's been shaped a lot by Western influences. So, I'm trying to make sure that we get that consolidation of the two sides, and that balance going.

Some of your songs became anthems for Ghana's Azonto dance craze of the early 2010s. If you had to say, where is Azonto right now in 2017?

I think Ghanaians actually killed Azonto. Ghanaians killed Azonto because we didn't know how powerful it was. Ghanaians had no idea. Azonto is a sound journal that has gone the furthest. Talk about highlife, talk about hip-life, Azonto music went the furthest in terms of music from Ghana.

But, in my opinion, Ghana has destroyed it. Ghanaians didn't give it the attention it deserved and Ghanaians shut it down. So, it's basically non-existent, virtually non-existent right now. People do it, but it's not given as much attention as it previously used to in its prime. It's still there but it's not as powerful as it used to be.

So you blame the Ghanaian music industry?

I think the music industry in Ghana played a big role in not helping the art forms, the music and basically just helping art grow. The industry is still budding, it's still growing but the pace is the problem and there's no infrastructure to help upcoming artists.

Artists suffer a lot to make sure that their music is heard. Not just in Ghana, but on a global scale. We need to work on that. It's up to people like me to work on that. That's why I'm out here. We need more structure. We need more infrastructure. There's no laws. It's just very unorganized right now.

What does the term afrobeats mean to you?

Well, afrobeats was coined by the late, great Fela Kuti and the like. One thing about music is that it's evolved a lot. It changes and different elements are ripped away and other elements are added to it and it's evolved into something else but the name basically stays the same.

It's an invisible transformation most of the time and it's grown into this sound that today we call afrobeats. And we accept it because we don't know what else to call it. (Laughs) Some people have come up to give it a name by themselves because they realize that it's metamorphasized to something totally different. But I think afrobeats is just a type of rhythm, first of all, and it originates mainly from West Africa. People have called it afropop, afro-fusion, different types of things, but still afrobeats.

Do you call your music afrobeats?

Oh, yeah. I am part of the afrobeats pool and I think it's understood by most people. When you say afrobeats today they know exactly what to expect or they have a general field of expectation for what they're going to hear. So I'm definitely in that afrobeats pool. Maybe one day I'll evolve into a point where it's gonna be called something else. You never know.

It keeps changing. I remember when Davido dropped "Dami Duro," you hadn't heard anything like that before. It was very different but it was still afrobeats and from there it evolved into something even more different. The name stays the same but it keeps evolving.

Going back to your new music, who are you working with? Are there artists that you're featuring?

I've been thinking about it for a very long time. I'm not a very big feature artist. I produce most of my stuff and by the time I realize it, I've made the beat and recorded three verses I am like "Oops, damn, I could've put this guy on here but it's so good, let me just keep it." And that's the cycle.

Are there budding Ghanaian artists that people should be looking out for?

There's Medikal, there's Ko-Jo Cue, A.I, WorlasiThere's so many more, watch out for them.

Plans for 2017 and the future?

I'm just out here. I'm in Newark, I'm in New York City, I'm in Ohio, I'm in Washington, running around trying to make sure that those who come after EL and EL's contemporaries don't have a hard time making sure that their music is appreciated and felt. And so that they're given a chance on a global scale, because there's so much talent coming from Ghana. I can't speak for other African countries but from where I'm from there's so much talent that I think the world has to experience. So, let's give it a chance and see how far we can take it.

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Hugh Masekela's New York City Legacy

A look back at the South African legend's time in New York City and his enduring presence in the Big Apple.

In Questlove's magnificent documentary, Summer of Soul, he captures a forgotten part of Black American music history. But in telling the tale of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the longtime musician and first-time filmmaker also captures a part of lost South African music history too.

Among the line-up of blossoming all-stars who played the Harlem festival, from a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder to a transcendent Mavis Staples, was a young Hugh Masekela. 30 years old at the time, he was riding the wave of success that came from releasing Grazing in the Grass the year before. To watch Masekela in that moment on that stage is to see him at the height of his time in New York City — a firecracker musician who entertained his audiences as much as he educated them about the political situation in his home country of South Africa.

The legacy Masekela sowed in New York City during the 1960s remains in the walls of the venues where he played, and in the dust of those that are no longer standing. It's in the records he made in studios and jazz clubs, and on the Manhattan streets where he once posed with a giant stuffed zebra for an album cover. It's a legacy that still lives on in tangible form, too, in the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music.

The school is the place where Masekela received his education and met some of the people that would go on to be life-long bandmates and friends, from Larry Willis (who, as the story goes, Masekela convinced to give up opera for piano) to Morris Goldberg, Herbie Hancock and Stewart Levine, "his brother and musical compadre," as Mabusha Masekela, Bra Hugh's nephew says.

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