Photo courtesy of Noel Cymone Walker.

How Afrobeats’ Global Rise is Changing Carnival’s Rigid Genre Conventions

The runaway popularity of African music at Caribbean carnivals has even the soca purists excited.

It's 5:30 in the evening on a Sunday in Kingston, Jamaica and masqueraders are revelling down Waterloo Road, on the last lap of their day-long Xodus Carnival road march chanting "Are you done talking, tell me baby are you done talking." The song, "Fall" by the Nigerian superstar Davido echoes through the streets for what feels like the hundredth time that day. Revelers in feathered backpacks stop to bust a sweet whine to the tune.

West African afrobeats hits, like "Drogba" by Afro B, and "Soco" by Wizkid, have been making their way into Caribbean carnival celebrations for years now—pushing crowds into frenzies alongside popular Jamaican dancehall and Trinidadian soca tracks. Though soca has strictly dominated carnival in the Caribbean for the past three decades, afrobeats has, in recent years, defied restrictions and brought new sounds to the annual celebration.

"Afrobeats drum patterns, tone, and lyrical content is fusing with the current state of soca music and some of the dancehall that exists," says Ryan Alexander, more commonly known as DJ Private Ryan. The Trinidadian DJ is known for producing the most sought out carnival playlists: "DJ Private Ryan Presents Soca Starter," and Soca Brainwash carnival fete.

Photo courtesy of Noel Cymone Walker.

"When you look at a song like 'Lebeh Lebeh,' it's not an original track," he says about the 2017 dancehall track by Jamaican artist Ding Dong. "Lebeh Lebeh" is a remake of the afrobeats record, "Mad Over You" by Nigerian singer, Runtown, and one of the most prominent songs heard on the 2018 and 2019 carnival road.

"Some Jamaicans didn't even realize that," Alexander continues. "Because Ding Dong literally took that song, sang that over, put his spin to it, and added a dance. That's how it was born."

Because of this, afrobeats has tapped into the two groups that trek to Caribbean carnival the most: soca gatekeepers and foreign (aka "farin"—which is how Caribbeans refer to foreigners particularly from the US) tourists who can't establish the differences between soca, dancehall and afrobeats music anyway.

"When you go to Europe, the UK, and certain places in North America, the distinctions aren't drawn as hard as they would be within the Caribbean," says Kamal Bankay, chairman of The National Carnival Committee in Jamaica and director of Xodus Carnival Band. "When you're in the Caribbean you make a distinction between bashment or what they call a particular style of dancehall or soca, calypso, or wuk up from Barbados, etc. The further and further you get away from the Caribbean, the more that the lines eventually cease to exist and people just say Caribbean music and it becomes carnival music," Bankay continues.

But how did West African pop music get in this mix?

Despite colonial restrictions forbidding the enslaved to sing songs and utilize drums, Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean proved resilient and innovated ways to preserve West African traditions using percussion instruments out of bamboo and steelpan. Trinidadians extended use of call & response and repetitional phrase at an identical pitch in songs became known as calypso. The blending of East Indian chutney sounds and calypso later transformed into "the soul of calypso" better known as soca.

Photo courtesy of Noel Cymone Walker.

Africans were later introduced to Calypso in the 1940s when the style became the first Caribbean sound internationally sold, reaching London and imprinting on the West Indians and Africans in the UK. Soon after, reggae, made famous by Bob Marley and his peers, became wildly popular on the African continent. Overtime afro dancehall, afro-reggae, and afro soca were born.

In retrospect, Caribbean people, especially Trinidadians, haven't been as open to playing additional genres at carnival with local gatekeepers attempting to protect their biggest cultural event from outside infiltration. What drives the genre is what limits it from reaching charting global status as afrobeats has now accomplished. Soca is almost too strict to Carnival.

"On a listening basis, Soca is like EDM. EDM is festival music. You just can't listen to EDM like that," says Kwesi Hopkinson aka Hype Hoppa, the head of Scorch Limited Entertainment company in Trinidad responsible for the prime carnival fete, Scorch Duck Work. He believes that soca's close association with carnival has to do with its party energy.

"If you haven't been to the festival or a part of it, you may not get it. If it's your first time hearing some of the faster songs, it's going to be strange," he says.

Afrobeats, however, did strike the Trinidad carnival crowd in 2018 with songs like Davido's "If" and "Fall", Afro B's "Drogba (Joanna)" and in the past there was "Bend Down Pause: The Carnival Remix" by Machel Montano, Wizkid and Runtown. But some also suspect that the genre specifications were ultimately undetected and that may be why certain songs advanced. "I don't think people realized that it is afrobeats," Hopkinson resumes. "They don't know it's afrobeats they're listening to because it's so similar to soca. The beat is so similar that it's really easy to transition."

Due to afrobeats' newfound popularity, however, some believe it does have the potential to deepen and develop Trinidad's carnival restrictions on a more regular basis.

Photo courtesy of Noel Cymone Walker.

"If I had to speak on behalf of Trinidad and Tobago, afrobeats is so similar to the music that we know and we love that it will easily emerge in our society," reflects Jules Sobion, commander-in-chief and CEO of Caesars Army Limited, a Trinidad event production company which host Caesar's Army AM Bush, a weekend carnival frenzy where attendees gather at 3:00 am to get doused in paint and water while dancing. "I just think that we are very limited in what we know and what we experience," Sobian continues. "So ideally, we are not prepared to jump outside of the box or go experience other culture's music. It's a learning curve that hopefully the next generation will now start to pick up on. But afrobeats is an innovation. We just need more persons or entities to be the catalyst."

For 2019, the Trinidad carnival parade did not play much outside the box of soca. But in Jamaica, which happened on April 28, was a great infusion of afrobeats that has officially become apart of the country's carnival: one reason why some choose to attend the newer carnivals over traditional affairs.

"Afrobeats has been warmly welcomed to the shores of Jamaica for a couple years now," says Andrew Bellamy, co-founder and managing director of I LOVE SOCA Jamaica Cooler Fete. "The similarities in musical construct between reggae and afrobeats make it super easy for Jamaicans to love it. It is played regularly on our radio airways and as such is regular part of our events and by extension will be a part of our carnival."

"I was recently in Africa and it was while I was on that trip where I truly learned of the genuine love of Africans for reggae and some dancehall and it had me thinking of it was possible to export a brand or product there," Bellamy continues. "...I believe in a few years, every carnival will have to infuse afrobeats and dancehall (whether it be on a small scale) as the Caribbean continues to become one big famalay."

The only thing missing now is a Caribbean-style carnival in Africa in which all the carnival entertainment leaders agree that they are tackling in the very near future.

(Photo by Joseph Okpako/WireImage via Getty)

Listen to Wizkid's Surprise New EP 'Soundman Vol. 1'

Wizkid treats fans to new songs featuring Chronixx, DJ Tunez and more—just ahead of 2020.

Wizkid is back. The Nigerian pop star surprised listeners early this morning with the unannounced release of a new EP, Soundman Vol. 1.

Though Wizkid has released a couple of singles this year, fans had been awaiting a new drop and more extensive project from the artist. With it being so close to the end of the year, it didn't look like we'd get a new body of work from the artist till 2020, but he proved otherwise when he took to Twitter at the wee hours of the morning to quietly share streaming links for the new project.

He also announced that a second EP, Soundman Vol. 2, would drop sometime before his highly-anticipated upcoming album Made In Lagos (MIL).

Keep reading... Show less
Image courtesy of Trap Bob.

Trap Bob Is the 'Proud Habesha' Illustrator Creating Colorful Campaigns for the Digital Age

The DMV-based artist speaks with OkayAfrica about the themes in her work, collaborating with major brands, and how her Ethiopian heritage informs her work.

DMV-based visual artist Tenbeete Solomon also known as Trap Bob is a buzzing illustrator using her knack for colorful animation to convey both the "humor and struggle of everyday life."

The artist, who is also the Creative Director of the creative agency GIRLAAA has been the visual force behind several major online movements. Her works have appeared in campaigns for Giphy, Girls Who Code, Missy Elliott, Elizabeth Warren, Apple, Refinery 29 and Pabst Blue Ribbon (her design was one of the winners of the beer company's annual art can contest and is currently being displayed on millions of cans nationwide). With each striking illustration, the artist brings her skillful use of color and storytelling to the forefront.

Her catalog also includes fun, exuberant graphics that depict celebrities and important moments in Black popular culture. Her "Girls In Power" pays homage to iconic women of color in a range of industries with illustrated portraits. It includes festive portraits of Beyoncé, Oprah, Serena Williams and Michelle Obama to name a few.

Trap Bob is currently embarking on an art tour throughout December, which sees her unveiling murals and recent works for Pabst Blue Ribbon in her hometown of DC and during Art Basel in Miami. You can see her tour dates here.

We caught up with the illustrator via email, to learn more about the themes in her work and how her Ethiopian heritage informs her illustrations. Read it below and see more of Trap Bob's works underneath.

Keep reading... Show less
Solo C.Plenty.Dreams cover artwork detail.

The 20 Best South African Hip-Hop Songs of 2019

Featuring Solo, Yanga Chief, Hanna, A-Reece, Indigo Stella, Shane Eagle, Priddy Ugly, Flame and many more.

The general notion is that South African hip-hop had a dull year. Maybe 2019 didn't have as many mega hip-hop hits from SA rappers, but it doesn't mean there weren't some great tunes.

2019 saw the new wave—featuring artists like Flame, The Big Hash, Indigo Stella, and more—dominate and demand every fan's attention. The older generation didn't sleep either, as strong songs from the likes of Solo and Stogie T make our list.

OkayAfrica contributors Sabelo Mkhabela and Mayuyuka Kaunda keep their ears to the street and sift through every release to bring you the 20 best South African hip-hop songs of 2019.

The list is in no particular order.

Follow our MZANSI HEAT playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Keep reading... Show less
Ethiopia's Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed Ali poses after being awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony 2018 at Oslo City Town Hall on December 10, 2019 in Oslo, Norway. (Photo by Erik Valestrand/Getty Images)

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Accepts Nobel Peace Prize Amidst Wave of Protest

The leader, who has been called a 'reformist' has been met with criticism from those who believe his efforts have not brought about tangible change.

Following the announcement of his win October, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed formally received his Nobel Peace Prize during the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway on Tuesday for his efforts to "achieve peace and international cooperation."

During his lecture, Ahmed addressed the ongoing quest for "peace," which he has been credited for fostering between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea following two decades of hostility between the two nations.

"For me, nurturing peace is like planting and growing trees," said Ahmed in his speech. "Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and good will to cultivate and harvest its dividends." Ahmed was praised by chairperson of the Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, for representing a "new generation of African leaders who realise that conflict must be resolved by peaceful means."

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox