Men dominate most musical genres. Whether it’s the cohort of emcees, singers and producers topping the charts or those making the decisions behind the mic, afropop is no exception.
Depending on who you ask, the torch-bearers of the contemporary movement born in the early 2000s (and often called afrobeats) will vary, but what is accepted is that its roots have been shaped by the Nigerian music landscape, a scene that has continued to lead the sound. Fast-forward and a small contingent of male “UK afrobeats” artists have tried their hand at ‘breaking Africa’ where a career in afropop is understandably more lucrative, but for the most part have been unsuccessful.
More recently, cosigns from pop culture icons have helped to pique international interest in the genre. In 2015, Skepta recruited Drake for the remix of Wizkid’s hit, ‘Ojuelegba’ and a year later Drake and Wizkid broke Spotify streaming records with their ‘One Dance’ collaboration.
With renewed interest in African music the spotlight has been firmly focused on Wizkid and Davido – Sony RCA’s latest signees and ready-made superstars on the continent – as well as relative newcomer Mr Eazi, who’ve all released EPs or popular singles over the past few months.
Yet despite the buzz surrounding afropop’s current wave, not enough attention is given to women in the scene. Their experience has been quite different, particularly when you consider that the most visible women in afropop at the moment have succeeded where most male artists have fallen short – breaking into Africa. Originating from Britain and the USA, these women in diaspora have been able to import their talent and brand to find success in the African market.
Take Tiwa Savage, the London-raised singer-songwriter who first gained recognition when she relocated to Nigeria releasing ‘Kele Kele Love,’ her no-bull 2010 debut about not settling for a lack of commitment. Four years earlier, her first shot at fame was making it to the final 24 on X Factor UK. Given her status as a relative unknown when she stepped onto the Nigerian scene, Tiwa walked away with nominations at three of the country’s biggest award shows - one of which she lost out to another of the year’s flourishing rookies by the name of Wizkid.
However, Tiwa’s achievements come as no surprise when you bear in mind that she was already an accomplished songwriter by 2009, with credits for Babyface, Monica, Mýa and Fantasia Barrino’s Grammy-nominated song ‘Collard Greens & Cornbread’ following her deal with Sony /ATV Publishing.
A move set to disrupt the Nigerian musical landscape was in motion by the summer of 2012 and Tiwa was at the epicentre. Recruited by acclaimed producer and future Kanye West collaborator, Don Jazzy, to his newly-formed Mavin Records, the five-piece leveraged their A-list pull, top in-house production and of course, songwriting to undermine the competition.
With a style and repertoire of choreography that was overtly more risqué than notoriously conservative Nigerians had seen from one of their own, Tiwa attracted a number of critics who questioned her choice of skimpy outfits and sexy dance moves as a ploy for attention – a plight she still faces today.
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In spite of the haters, Tiwa has secured herself as a fan favourite and afropop’s leading lady with a string of R&B hits that include ‘Love Me (3x)’, ‘Oma Ga’, ‘Ife Wa Gbona’ and ‘My Darlin’ as well as the Don Jazzy-assisted smashes ‘Without My Heart’ and ‘Eminado’ (a feat that didn’t gone unnoticed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation who scooped her up for a management and distribution deal in 2016).
Back in Britain, around the same time Tiwa Savage was making her debut, another female artist was plotting her ascent. For Tottenham native, Seyi Shay it was a chance meeting with respected Nigerian artist Sound Sultan that inspired her to set her sights on the African music industry.
Seyi has had her own experience in the spotlight having spent time in two girl bands: the first, Boadicea managed by All Saints and Sugarbabes mastermind Ron Hart and then From Above, the quintet established by former Destiny’s Child manager (and Beyonce’s dad) Mathew Knowles. Attracting a host of opportunities due to their high-profile connections, From Above starred in their own MTV reality series, presented an award at the 2011 MTV EMAs and supported Queen Bey on tour.
Leaving the five-piece behind, Seyi continued under the management of Knowles and signed to Sony where she worked with artists such as Justin Timberlake, Beenie Man and Bryan-Michael Cox. But it wasn’t until ‘Loving Your Way’ her first solo single for the Nigerian market that she began carving out her spot. Keeping the momentum going she released ‘No Le Le’ followed by the Del-B produced hit, ‘Irawo’ which propelled her career.
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Seyi Shay’s music is a cross between R&B and pop. Coupled with her London roots and sultry visuals, for obvious reasons she often draws comparisons to Tiwa Savage. A quick look at the afropop landscape will tell you that women are outnumbered, an occurrence that’s not limited to the genre alone, but it does mean that people habitually pit female artists against one other as if there’s only space for one or two – just look at the lack of collaboration between females in afropop.
Landing with a solid reception and bolstered by its video release, Seyi’s 2014 single ‘Murda Remix’ featuring Patoranking and Shaydee even gained a spot on the BBC 1Xtra A-list. The Wizkid-assisted ‘Crazy’, the first of their two colloborations, was next. By 2015, she’d inked a deal with the Island Records UK, who were most likely in search of an avenue into the African market and an artist with the capability to bridge the gap between the West and Africa, following the success of Fuse ODG and D’Banj. A recent single with fellow Londoner and fast-rising afrpop act, Eugy appears to be a nod to exactly that meeting of two demographics.
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Then there’s Victoria Kimani, the Los Angeles born singer who grew up between the States, Nigeria and her native Kenya. Although still relatively unknown to the casual afropop fan, her musical résumé reads like a boss. Not many can say they’ve released a mixtape hosted by hip hop legend DJ Whoo Kid, an accomplishment she achieved as part of the duo Club Embassy, while signed to LA Laker Ron Artest (now known as Meta World Peace). By the following year, the group had parted ways to embark on solo projects leaving Kimani free to collaborate with an impressive list of names such as Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Green Lantern, Mario Winans, Cassie, Timbaland and even Chris Brown.
Kimani’s tour de force came when she remixed the popular single ‘Oleku’ by Nigeria’s Ice Prince, catching the attention of his label bosses at Chocolate City who signed her. Calling on prolific beatmaker, Chopstix and packaging Kimani as a fresh and sassy one-to-watch, her rebellious debut ‘Mtoto’ (meaning child in Swahili) was a daring attempt at hooking African audiences with her bubbly blend of soul, R&B and pop - bursting with colour, provocative routines and suggestive lyrics.
Monopolising the airwaves with this sure-fire hit in a place where radio stations and music television remain valuable currency meant that the first lady of Choc City had arrived. Kimani followed up with ‘Prokoto’ featuring Tanzanian stars Ommy and Diamond Platnumz and ‘Show’, the Tekono-produced track that had took a while to cut-through but it’s noteworthy that it received heavy rotation in clubs across Lagos, particularly when you’d be hard pressed to hear more than a handful of singles from females artists being played on the dancefloor.
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Few artists from the African diaspora have crossed over into African markets and reached the pinnacle of success – that also depends on whether you’d even count D’Banj who lived in London for a time before returning to Nigeria where he rose to stardom under Mo’ Hits.
As the popularity of afropop continues to grow outside of Africa, the balance between marketability and authenticity will be key, as is usually the case when a genre emerges from the underground into the mainstream. But if the goalposts are to be shifted to appeal to a wider fanbase, then it’s not just men who can translate afropop for the masses. Artists like Tiwa Savage, Shey Shay and Victoria Kimani can adapt their style to flow over R&B, reggae or hip-hop beats.
Afropop is a relatively new genre that’s still burgeoning and there are women, particularly those from the diaspora who have contributed to its growth. They’ve preserved, honed their craft and battled misogyny to succeed where many male artists from the UK and US have missed the mark to attain a level of stardom in an African market. Perhaps there’s something to be said about that #BlackGirlMagic.
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Words: Nonny Orakwue
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