Op-Ed

It Will Take More Than an ‘Authentic African Sound’ for South African Artists to Blow Up Globally

It will take more than that.

Last week, in a move that got various interpretations, South Africans were scratching their heads on Twitter trying to figure out why the country's musicians fail to break in markets like the United States and abroad.

This came after Burna Boy released his latest album African Giant. A fittingly titled album, it trended in different corners of the world upon release, shooting straight to number 1 in various countries. Pitchfork, The FADER and The Atlantic are some of the reputable publications that wrote in-depth reviews of the album, which boasts features from US and UK stars such as Future, YG, Jeremih and Jorja Smith alongside fellow African giants M.anifest and Angelique Kidjo.

Burna Boy is having his moment right now. But he's only just one of many Nigerian artists who are enjoying attention from the U.S. at the moment. The likes of Wizkid, Davido and Tiwa Savage are slowly gaining notable traction in the US and UK.

South Africa has refused to miss out on the current scramble for Africa by the west, which is looking at the continent for "inspiration" and, more recently, collaboration. South African artists such as Black Coffee, Nasty C, Sjava, Petite Noir, Sho Madjozi, AKA, Cassper Nyovest have all been on major international platforms, scooped some awards and collaborated with major US artists. But none of them, except for Black Coffee, have come close to making their mark in the States the way Nigerian artists have.

South Africans, in their analysis, have cited different reasons for South African musicians' failure to break internationally—lack of unity and lack of originality were two of the most cited.


For instance, YouTube vlogger @anarchadium tweeted a thread offering his two cents on the issue. "SA hip-hop doesn't have much to offer the world when it comes to originality but they are the most pressed about international support. It's very weird to me." He further added that artists such as Sjava and Sho Madjozi won BET awards because they "all have something very uniquely South African to offer." Which is the most prevalent reason given by most South Africans.

Such reasoning, however, is an oversimplification rooted in either ignorance or oblivion. In 2011, D'Banj got signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D Music label and released the hit "Oliver Twist" the following year. The song's video was treated to a cameo from Kanye West himself. D'Banj had released "Mr Endowed Remix," which featured Snoop Dogg in the same year. The Nigerian duo, P-Square weren't resting either, collaborating with T.I. and Rick Ross at around the same time.

Nasty C. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

While vintage SA artists such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba achieved international success in the '70s, '80s and '90s, in South Africa's contemporary scene, it has been mostly hip-hop and alternative artists who have shown interest in penetrating the US and UK markets. Alternative bands like BLK JKS and Tumi and the Volume carved their own lanes in the European scene in the 2000s. In the mainstream, however, there were no hip-hop artists playing on the same field as D'Banj and P-Square.

The late rapper HHP got close. Apart from collaborating with various African giants (Naeto C, Nazizi, M.anifest etc.), HHP managed to feature Talib Kweli, Nas (ahem), Asheru, Raheem DeVaughn and others in his songs. But he never got a co-sign from Kanye or any mega star.

Read: Nasty C's Leap of Faith Into Unlikely Superstardom

Jabba's music was authentically (South) African, especially according to the standards of ministers of originality. Jabba blended his hip-hop with kwaito and rapped a majority of his lyrics in his first language SeTswana.

So, if all it took was being "originally African," as many people suggest, Jabba would have achieved bigger success in the States.

Almost since the early 2000s to present day, the hip-hop artists who achieved mainstream success were making quintessential South African music—Skwatta Kamp, Jozi, Teargas, Khuli Chana, Pro, Cassper Nyovest, AKA, Emtee, Kwesta and many others.

When Sjava dropped his sophomore album, Umqhele, last year, he was already a BET award winner and had appeared on the Black Panther soundtrack. His album, however came with not even a single major US feature, and it didn't shake the world the way African Giant did.

Sjava. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

The most consistent South African music outfit in the US has been Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The acappella group, which now consists mostly of the original members' sons, has managed to sell out venues and scoop Grammy awards regularly for decades. When I interviewed Sjava in 2017, I asked him why he felt the west seems to only see Black Mambazo, but not artists like him and many of his peers. His response:

"What you must remember is that Black Mambazo have a manager in New York. We still don't have that, so they have people who will submit for them. We aren't on that level yet. They don't even know we exist. That's why [when we are featured on projects like] Black Panther, it's like you are new. There's levels to it. But I really appreciate them because they're showing us that it's possible."

Almost anyone who has a vague understanding of the music industry is aware that the game is more business than music. Left-field festivals may do a lot of searching, which is why niche artists like Muzi, FAKA and Yugen Blakrok have managed to perform consistently on stages at boutique festivals like Afropunk. In the mainstream, however, as Sjava implied in his response, it takes having teams dedicated to breaking an artist in their foreign country of interest, especially competitive markets like the US and the UK. Even the left-field artists need a base abroad. For instance, Yugen Blakrok recently signed to I.O.T Records, the same label the Cape Town alternative rap band Dookoom were signed to. Petite Noir and Muzi are the same.

Muzi. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

That's what Nigerian artists got right. Last year, when we interviewed Nigerian DJ and producer Kiddominant, he attributed the success Nigerian artists enjoy globally partly to hard work. "I think, as Nigerians, we work 10 times harder than the average African," he said. "Trust me, it's in our DNA, we are hustlers, man. So it's the extra mile artists are going pushing their music. And also the fact that in places like the UK and the States, the population of Nigerians there is very high. So we share our music with people around us, eventually, it spreads out."

Nigeria has a huge number of artists in the diaspora, too—the likes of Skepta and Wale among others. Nigerians used that as further leverage—Wizkid has worked with Skepta and there are a few other examples.

Nigerians are able to capitalize on the momentary exposure they receive through features, interviews and awards. South Africans, not so much. Which is why most of our artists have only achieved moments—interviews on Sway, getting hand-picked by Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar for soundtrack albums. However, there hardly ever is a follow-up in the form of setting up shop in the foreign regions they wish to conquer.

It's not by coincidence that Nigerian artists are dominating the US. Coincidences in the music business are very few and far between. The reality is that songs hardly ever land on radio and popular Spotify playlists organically based purely on their merit. They need to get plugged by professionals with connections, resources and expertise. Booking agents are required for artists to consistently play shows abroad.

Black Coffee. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Black Coffee is a great example. Last year, during a press event in Joburg in which he was sharing progress about a streaming app he is working on, the house DJ and producer revealed he had a company that handles his social media just for his American audience. "The tweets go out in the evening in South Africa, but you need to understand that it's morning in the US at that time," he said.

There are definitely more of such professionals behind Black Coffee, ensuring he has a presence in the regions he doesn't physically live, but plays frequently in. Gqom, the popular house genre born in the townships of Durban, became popular in some parts of Europe through indie labels who released songs and projects by the Durban producers. Sadly, the artists didn't benefit much financially, but for the genre to make a dent in the UK, there had to be a channel of distribution in the country.

If it was all about an "authentic African sound," the rapper Nasty C wouldn't have gotten praises from T.I., Stogie T wouldn't have gotten praised by Black Thought for his God's Eye EP after his appearance on Sway last year. It took those artists being on the US radar for their talents to be recognized. It's up to them to get more aggressive in their business for those little nuggets of attention to translate to them being stars in the US.

Shane Eagle. Photo by Sabelo MKhabela.

The expansion of artists like Nasty C and Shane Eagle into international markets disapproves the simplistic outlook that African artists need to sound a certain way to stand a chance of succeeding in the regions they gain inspiration from. Recently, when Sway was in South Africa, he told Metro FM in an interview that he feels Nasty C stood a huge chance of succeeding in the US.

"Nasty C to me," said Sway, "represents the new generation of sound where it's more of a fusion, but then he pays homage to where he's from at the same time, and I think that's great." He added: "Nasty C to me is special. Get behind that kid. He's the one that can really cross all geographical boundaries. He's the one who can initially blow up big in the States."

With his upcoming album confirmed to have production from No I.D. and a T.I. feature, the project could kick off his global domination. An authentic African sound does give artists an advantage, but it doesn't guarantee anything. If it did, Sjava would be where Burna Boy is. And HHP would have probably worked with Kanye West in the early 2000s.

That is all.

This piece is part of Sabelo Mkhabela's South African hip-hop column. He's happy to debate you on Twitter: @sabzamk

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The last time we spoke to K.O., he revealed that one of his goals for the year is to launch Skhandaworld, a newly launched imprint founded by the South African emcee. The up-and-coming rapper Loki was a top priority as he is the first signee under the label.

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Angelique Kidjo performs onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

'Take Africa Out of It and There's No Music for Y’all,' Angelique Kidjo on Success, ‘World Music’ & Championing New African Talent

OkayAfrica caught up with the legendary Beninese singer following her recent Grammy win and her feature on the collaborative electronic track 'Milambi.'

Last month, Angelique Kidjo won her fourth Grammy in the 'Best World Music' category. But it wasn't quite like every other year she had been nominated for the award. This time she shared the nomination with fellow African act Burna Boy, the first artist of the continent's current afropop scene to earn a nomination. While there's no question that Kidjo, who won for her 2019 album Celia, was beyond deserving (this was by no means a Kendrick-Macklemore scenario), Kidjo made the conscious decision to dedicate her award to Burna and urged viewers to pay attention to the wealth of new talent coming from the continent. "The new generation of artists coming from Africa are going to take you by storm and the time has come," said the artist.

Her vocal support for African talent isn't new though. As Kidjo notes, she gave a similarly memorable speech when she won four years ago for her album Sings, and she sounds fierce and impassioned as she speaks about it over the phone. After all, Kidjo has always been notably forward-looking in life and in music—experimentation doesn't scare her. Her latest work is on a futuristic, electronic project from Swiss DJ and producer Pablo Nouvelle and she expresses excitement about the novel methods in which African artists are creating and amplifying their music.

We caught up with Kidjo following her latest Grammy win and the release of her joint single with Nouvelle, "Milambi," to discuss her support of the new crop of talent emerging from the continent, fame, the controversy around the 'Best World Music' category, and remaining true to her identity in a Western-oriented music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Grammys were a big moment. Why did you decide to dedicate your award to Burna Boy and acknowledge the new generation of up-and-coming African artists?

I'm always in contact with my continent. I go back on a regular basis, and that's where my source of inspiration is from. Throughout the years going back and forth, I've been seeing the entrepreneurship of the young generation coming up. When I started music—there was none of that. You just went to the studio, and you found people to help you do your music. Now you can be a self-producer. I have nephews and nieces, and I'll just say "Ok, what's new? Let me listen to the new stuff." And I just realized that the rest of the world has no clue about what's happening in Africa.

Four years ago, when I received my Grammy for the album Sings, I said "Brace yourself, because Africa is coming. You have to open your heart, your mind and ears to listen to what is going on and what is coming from the new generation of my contient"— I said that four years ago, and the time has come because [with artists like] Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and many more from Nigeria, and Sho Madjozi from South Africa—you have so much happening culturally in Africa. I have the feeling that sometimes people just completely turn their head away from Africa and I just wonder how one could possibly turn their head away from where they come from, because Africa is the cradle of humanity. Culture comes from there—there's no music on this planet that doesn't have Africa in it.

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Is this why you've chosen to work with a lot of younger artists from the continent like Yemi Alade most recently?

I'm so proud of this new generation of musicians that are using the technology to tell a positive story about Africa. It's no longer about our suffering. Everybody suffers. So, why should people be focusing only on our suffering and not seeing just the human beings that we are, and how joyful we are? Then suddenly, you realize that joy becomes political because if your society, your people are perceived as joyful, then a leader cannot complain anymore that something is wrong. Beyond all that, [I do it] to pay tribute to the entrepreneurship of the young generation. They aren't waiting on help from anybody. If you are famous in your country and on your continent, there's nothing that can stop you. You have billions of people that will love you, so why should the rest of the world look aside when you're passing by? They should pay attention.

That's why I use my platform to bring the attention of the media to this new generation coming. They don't want to be caught by surprise because I've been telling them to pay attention. If something happens, and they don't pay attention, at least I've done my work.

I do think it's really amazing how new artists have been able to gain traction and put their music out despite their not being a lot of support by African leaders for creative industries. Do you think that African governments, and the folks with money should invest more entertainment?

I think they should because we create jobs. People make money, and it's not only the artists. There's also the people helping them make videos, or cut tracks—music creates jobs.

I think we have to educate our leaders and our business people in Africa. Who can carry their brand better than us? Who are the best ambassadors of our cultures, our countries and our continent? It's us artists across different forms of art, from painters, to storytellers, to people in theatre and movies. Every form of art is about telling the story of ordinary people and the people that have come before us. How do you know about your own history, if not for the elderly people that tell you the story of who you are?

In order for us to tell our story, we need to have a voice. We need to say it through different mediums. Music is one of them. We shouldn't let anyone else tell our stories anymore. That time in history has passed. We have new narratives, we have proof of how entrepreneurial we are. Africans can make money in Africa and anywhere else. The world is open to us—the world is ours. No one can stop us.

So many African artists look to you as an inspiration and a model for longevity in the music industry. I'm wondering which artists served that role for you when you were first coming up.

There are many, many of them. I would say it started with traditional musicians because I was a very curious child. I come from that background of traditional musicians telling me stories through songs. [Growing up] my brothers were playing music, my father brought the instruments for them, and freed a room in a crowded house for them to rehearse. I heard every genre of music in the '60, '70s and '80s through them, but my role models start with traditional musicians, both male and female. [But at a certain point] I noticed that every album that would be brought home had just men on the covers. I was like, "Okay, so women don't sing? They can't do albums too?" Then you had Western women start coming in and I was like, "Okay, at least some women are making it through [in the industry]."

Then Miriam Makeba came and Aretha Franklin came. The day Aretha Franklin came, the singer of my brother's band—who had such a fucking ego, you couldn't even put it anywhere—said "there's no song I can't sing." [But] Aretha came and he couldn't sing. I'm like, "What? A woman is whooping your butt. I like that."

So, there have been strong men and women as musicians that have informed the music that I make today. The only way I could absorb it and make my own music, and become a role model to others today is because I am proud of my culture. I know where I come from, I'm not trying to copy anybody because everybody copied what we have. There wouldn't be any music in America without the input of enslaved people that came from Africa. The blues came from slaves. It doesn't matter how hard the slave owner wanted to dehumanize us—they even took the drum away from us. But we had many ways of celebrating culture. We had many ways of celebrating our humanity—singing was one of them. We sing our pain to lift it up. We sing our joy to share it with people. That's what African music is. The essence of what music is comes from that place. We've seen it all, we've been through hell, yet here we are prevailing still.

"I have to be able to sing my songs till I die."

You've always championed African culture and identity, whether it's through singing in Yoruba, or representing Benin through various endeavors. Did you at any point, ever face pressure from the industry to tone down your "Africanness" to appeal to certain audiences?

They have a saying in my country, that "the advisor is not the payer." [It's about] what you do with the advice people give you. I'm always listening, I'm always ready to sit and hear constructive criticism. But if you want to critique for the sake of criticizing me—I've heard some journalists say that I'm not African enough in France because my music sounds too Western. I said, "What is the music of the West then? Tell me." Take Africa out of it and there's no music for y'all.

For me, I respect everybody, particularly the differences because there lies the genius. We all don't think the same.

People said, "Why don't you show your titties?" I'm like, "Well, I don't feel like showing my titties because my titties ain't singing. My voice is not in my breasts." You've got to be somebody, and I am African. I come from a rich culture. Why should I change to look like what? What do you want me to look like? I've never ever allowed anyone to say to me, "You can't do this." I have fought some producers that try to change my music. I say, "If that's the case, you take the microphone, you sing, it's not mine, I'm out of here." You have to stand for something. If you are afraid of not making it, then you become a fool to somebody.

People will say what they want to say. If I want to dress differently, I do sometimes. When I received the NAACP award, I wore a suit. A well-tailored suit, and I kill it too in a suit. It's not what you wear, it's who you are.

I always say, if anyone wants to work with me, I'm open. The bridge I'm trying to build, everybody's welcome on it in the respect of each other's differences. My strength might be your weakness, and then I supply. My weakness might be your strength. It goes both ways. I don't have the answer to everything, but one thing I know is that if we stop bitching at each other and blaming people for all the things that aren't good in our life will be better off because when we start doing that, what do we do? We create fear, and fear is dangerous.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy surrounding the Best World Music category at the Grammys. Many believe that it doesn't truly encompass the diversity of music coming from the continent. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Don't underestimate the recording academy. They have been thinking about it way before this. It's a conversation that we're going to be engaging in. Africa is not a country, it's a continent. The Latin Grammy exists. We should have the African Grammys too, because it's a continent, because it's vast, it's huge. So, it's a conversation we started having because the academy is also realizing this, and they are, at least, having that conversation. Right now, if you look at the "French Grammys" coming up, there's not one person of African descent [represented]. Not one. They just completely ban what is called "world music" out of it and we're in the 21st century. So, I think criticizing is one thing, finding solutions is another.

Let's work with the recording academy and find out how we can help to come up with something that works for everybody. That's all I'm about. I'm always about solutions. The thing is that we also need to recognize that we cannot be discriminating when it comes to culture. If we don't speak to each other, and we're always blaming and pointing fingers, there's no conversation possible anymore. We should have an open discussion about this and be creative about it. That's all I say.

Speaking on shifting genres, you recently worked with Pablo Nouvelle on his new project Eliso, I saw it described as your "maiden venture into electronic music." What was that experience like for you?

I started with electronic music. If you ask David Byrne, he would tell you that my first album, Logozo was completely electric, but African electric. So for me, working on this album brings me back to the beginning and, I'm not done doing that. I'm going to do it more.

So, we can expect a lot more of this electronic sound that you've already been working on?

I'm not saying anything.

We can't have a hint?

No, nothing, because I always follow my inspiration. If my inspiration changes a little bit, I have to change [my direction].

You just go with whatever feels right?

I have to be able to sing my songs till I die. All my songs, if I can't sing them, with just my voice and a guitar, it means it's not good. When writing a song, less is more because if you add too much stuff, then you kill the song. You're overstating it. Do the minimal. If it feels good to you, and you can sing it in your sleep, wake up dancing to it, and you can feel it in every beat in your body, it's right.

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Twice As Tall World Tour. Flyer provided by Atlantic Records.

Burna Boy Announces 'Twice As Tall' World Tour Dates

The Nigerian star will be playing shows across North America and Europe this summer.

Burna Boy is hitting the road again.

Following the celebrated release of African Giant—which came with nominations at both the Grammys & BRIT Awards and a trophy for Best International Act at the BET Awards—the Nigerian star will be embarking on a long run of shows that will take him across North America and Europe.

The Twice As Tall World Tour will kick off in May in Atlanta, and will see Burna Boy playing concerts across the US, Canada, Norway, France, Portugal, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and more locations.

You can check out the full tour dates for Twice As Tall World Tour below and revisit Burna Boy's performance for Okay Acoustics.

Tickets are available now.

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Sarkodie "Bumper" (Youtube)

Watch Sarkodie's New Music Video For 'Bumper'

A dance-heavy clip for the Ghanaian star's turn-up single.

Sarkodie comes through with the energetic new dance video for "Bumper."

The new track is a high-octane affair that sees the Ghanaian star rapper delivering some standout rhymes and flows over an afro-fusion leaning production from Nigeria's Rexxie.

The new video for "Bumper," which was directed by Monte Carlo Dream, follows a group of dancers as they show off their moves inside a barbershop.

"Bumper" comes after the release of Sarkodie's latest album, Black Love, which features the likes of Donae'o, Idris Elba, Efya, Mr Eazi, Stonebwoy, Tekno, Maleek Berry, King Promise, Kizz Daniel and several other artists.

OkayAfrica spoke with the artist in November, following his win for Best International Flow at the BET Hip Hop awards. "[The album] is just about love amongst black people and it's 90 or 80 percent based on relationships," he said.

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