Live Report: Afro Nation 2019

Live Report: Afro Nation 2019

Inaugural festival leaves a lasting impression...

Selling out your first festival within hours of it going on sale should be a good thing. But Afro Nation director King SMADE, real name Adesegun Adeosun Jr, logged on to Twitter to see people predicting a disaster.

The fact that the Portugal-based festival was a) a debut outing for the brand, b) advertised almost exclusively on Instagram, and c) promising pristine beaches, beautiful sunshine, and a line-up that looked too good to be true, led some to believe that the whole thing was, well, too good to be true.

Twitter was ablaze with Fyre Festival comparisons. Conspiracists ate up public dropouts from IAMDDB and NSG as further evidence for their theory. People put off purchasing resale tickets for fear that they’d be buying into a monumental flop. Someone’s uncle went to the effort of prophesying visions of a fatal incident.

SMADE said the coincidence of ticket sales opening shortly after the one-two punch of Netflix and Hulu documentaries about fraudster Billy McFarland’s tragicomic disaster perhaps didn’t help. But, he was happy to add while surveying the bubbling audience ahead of WizKid’s Sunday night headline slot, those who hadn’t shared his belief in the project were the ones missing out now.

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A scroll through social media then – full of regrets and exasperated emojis (along with some pride and encouragement) being posted from back home – would appear to confirm he was right. He had overseen a resounding success. And he hadn’t even had to spend his marketing budget.

Conversations with attendees throughout the weekend elicited a uniformly positive response. There was broad recognition of the important role this black-owned event was playing in bringing together the African diaspora and putting music from the continent on a platform the world could take notice of.

An 85% majority of the crowd was from the UK, with the bulk of the remainder travelling from France, Germany, the US, and West Africa. Around 86% of attendees were female, and the roads leading to the festival site at Praia Da Rocha were peppered with impromptu Instagram fit shoots: a wash of neon two-pieces, diamante-flecked mesh dresses, and dashiki prints.

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With just one main stage for performances and a smaller beach party space at the other end of the bay, the site felt compact but not cramped. It also meant that timing clashes were all but non-existent – a major plus for a line-up so stacked with stars, both established and rising.

Buju Banton sent the sun down on Thursday, and barely paused for breath as he delivered an unrelenting hour of roots, lovers rock, and dancehall before closing out with a brace of sing-alongs in the form of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Murderer’.

Burna Boy’s headline slot was marred by sound issues (he was barely audible for his opening salvo), but it almost didn’t matter as he had a few thousand people in front of him singing every word back. The crowd-sung choruses of ‘Location’, ‘On The Low’, and an encored ‘Ye’ hung in the Algarve air, while ‘Killin Dem’ sent sand flying as the African Giant led his devotees in a flurry of kicks and twists.

His reappearance the next day for another rendition of ‘Ye’ during Mist’s energetic late evening slot (the two had spent the day hanging out on a yacht off the coast) caused a rush to the stage and confirmed the track as the festival’s unofficial anthem. Mist’s studio sparring partner MoStack, however, proved disappointing, and – with a set performed almost entirely by his backing track – highlighted the need for the UK’s rising rappers to learn some stagecraft if they’re truly going to capitalise on their successes elsewhere.

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However such a criticism couldn’t be levelled at J Hus, who, after coming out as Friday’s surprise headliner, spent the majority of his set ensconced in the front rows belting out every note with his eyes squeezed tight and his heart bursting in his chest.

There was an audible crack in his voice as he told the crowd “I’ve realised so much about my life in the past few months and you lot are the most important thing in it,” before launching into ‘Bouff Daddy’ and beating his chest to the words “everything’s different because I’m free.”

The UK was well represented elsewhere by Yxng Bane’s pop chops, crooning south London producer-cum-performer Maleek Berry, and Not3s – who is an undoubted talent with bags of charisma, but perhaps needs more output under his belt before taking on top billing.

The same might be said for Octavian, who showed a handful of bonafide hits (‘Hands’, ‘Move Me’, ‘Little’, and ‘Party Here’) but appeared strained when it came to commanding such a big late-evening crowd. But these slight programming missteps, aside from the fact that NSG chose to drop out entirely on account of their early slot, were largely inconsequential – and no doubt offered invaluable experience for those artists still finding their live feet.

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Meanwhile, stageshow veterans like Kranium, Busy Signal and Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti, who played to a sparse but adoring crowd for the festival’s final sundown, revelled in the occasion.

D’Banj invited a woman up from the crowd to dance alongside him and – forget #AlexFromGlasto – ended up giving over the stage to let her flex for another two tracks. Davido’s Saturday headline set provided a slightly odd spectacle as he took his backing band to task: constantly jetting of on tangents, stopping songs, and playing duet with the rapturous crowd.

DJs including P Montana, Untouchable, Distruction Boyz, Obi, Semtex, Tim Westwood, and Charlie Sloth spun a blend of hip hop, kwaito, afrobeats, dancehall, gqom, and UK rap to keep the crowd well entertained between sets.

And Eddie Kadi’s hosting was a riot throughout too: cracking jokes, conducting sing-alongs, and bringing volunteers up from the crowd to compete in dance-offs. Indeed, this was a festival as much about dancing as it was music; even the bag check queues on the way in were fun, as you’d invariably be swamped by incoming groups singing and dancing in unison to an NSG or Koffee track being belted out by a DJ on the adjacent main stage.

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The occasional sound blip, a lack of water stations in the Algarve heat, poor sustainability measures, and lacking crowd control as people moved on to afterparties represented teething issues – but little more than that.

SMADE and the Portuguese organisers were open about this, admitting that in many ways this first outing had been a learning opportunity – with things such as reusable cups on the ambitions list for next year, when the event (inevitably) scales up in size. These niggles are exactly what you might expect of a team putting on their first festival-scale do; and, perhaps more to the point: those in attendance seemed largely unfazed, such was the celebratory mood in the air.

As WizKid closed out the weekend with a burst of fireworks, thousands of voices singing “oya soco soco,” and the triumphant wave of a Nigerian flag there was only one question in the air: “Who’s coming to Ghana in December for the next leg?”

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Words: Will Pritchard (@wf_pritchard)

Photo Credits: Andre Machado (J Hus), Kieran Sandhur (All crowd shots)

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