Young West Africa's New Musical Wave


Ann Daramola

February 26, 2017

I don't remember where I first clicked on the link to Odunsi the Engine's Happy Hour featuring ├śKUNTAKINTE. The Stream is ephemeral like that, sweeping moments of discovery up into its steady pour of information. You can try to get that moment back, and likely fail. Our software has yet to automate the mathematics required to triangulate those moments. In any case, clicking on the link to the tune was, for me, like opening the floodgates to an onslaught of intricate and meticulous sound from young Nigerians and Ghanaians. Adrift on Soundcloud's algorithm, I was bounced from one song to another, sometimes disappointed, sometimes pleased, and other times completely blown by what I was hearing.

I had discovered what I inititally called Young Naija sounds and as I live-tweeted my journey, attracting many young Nigerians and Ghanaians, I realized this movement was just a natural evolution of the English-speaking West African music scene. Odunsi has just turned 20 years old, and many of his peers are fresh out of high school. Thanks to the internet and lowered barriers to entry, though, they are well on their way into carving out a niche of highly experimental music that, depending on who's writing about it, they are calling New Age or New Wave.

This nomenclature wouldn't have been my first choice, and there is already of genre of music for each of those labels; however it's not the malnamed 'afrobeats' which is the popular term for West African popular music of the past decade and half, and not to be confused with the 'afrobeat' genre of music, which is the genre of music of West African popular music from the 1970s. Needless to say, the namespace for West African music was getting rather crowded, and the hubris of these young artists gives us the name New Wave. Or New Age. Woreva. This isn't about me, a displaced Nigerian in diaspora, but about how I see the music, the artists, and the political moments that propels them to create from my far away perspective.

The Music

There is no argument here: the music of Young West Africa is as heavily influenced by Black American culture, or at least the exported, mainstream hip hop of the last 15-20 years, as it is with the music indegenous to the West Africas. This isn't to diminish in away the accomplishment of the Nigerian and Ghanian entertainment industries, but to mark how music is an efficient vehicle for culture, and to give credit where credit is due. As internet access becomes more widespread across the Africas, the tide of culture is starting to flow in multiple directions. Sounds from afrobeats and other West African and Caribbean musical artifacts are slowing making their way into mainstream Black American music and culture. Drake's One Dance is most notable, featuring Wizkid on an afrobeats-style track, and recently, Nigerian songstress Tiwa Savage signed with Jay Z's Roc Nation. All of the movements prominent markers of the shifting winds of cultural influence, but they are just the surface. Young West Africa's underground movement is taking roots in places that have no idea of what a Drake does or who Jay Z is.

Thanks to streaming music services like Soundcloud, Spotify, YouTube, and others, we have access to soundscapes from multiple political and cultural contexts at the touch of a button. Depending on the platform, the discovery algorithms are able to bring the listener to the most similar songs. Of the big three: Spotify, YouTube, and Soundcloud, I've found Soundcloud offers the most relevant songs. Young West Africa is listening to these sounds, picking up influences from all over the Africas and bringing it into their art. What results is work that is a fusion of sounds, and very self aware. These young artists are Sensitive About Their Shit because they realize the influence it's having, thanks to the internet freeing them to move these artifacts faster and wider.

In her 2014 single, "Life", Efya, a twenty-nine year old Ghanaian singer-songwriter sings about "music today" and the central role it plays in her life.

Music out of Young West Africa didn't just show up one day. While the influence of Black American culture infuses these emerging works, the indigenous sound is unmistakeable, steeped in West African beats, and laced with the rich history of sounds in which Black American music has its roots. The complex beat arrangements, layered compositions, unrelenting horn sections, and seductive bass lines coupled with traditional African languages and local pidgin English come together to form a rich tapestry of art.

The Artistes

These young creators are savvy. The internet moves their works quickly, and they are hungry enough to stay creating and maybe even a bit addicted to the energy they're putting forth. Not only is their sound increasingly sophisticated, but their packaging and promotion reveals an understanding of the moment at which they are creating. Releases are accompanied by beautiful cover art, or highly produced Youtube lyric videos, or both. If their hustle is tight enough, there might even be a short film to go along with the music. By creating more ways for their music to touch down, these artists are pushing West African cultural production to the next level. And they know it.

The industry is maturing, giving room for enterprising people like Evans who runs Official VI Music, a record label and artiste management company in Ghana. He represents several Ghanian talents, including Adomaa, Akotowaa, FRA!, Robin Huws, TheGentleMan, and Tronomie the Anomaly. In December 2016, Evans and his crew produced the first VIM Concert to give his artists the visibility they need to get their art seen and heard.

Along with budding record labels, the scene is peppered with writers blogging and archiving the music and its people. Harmattan Rain announces itself as "your guide to dope African indie & alternative music and beyond." Baroque Age is taking the conglomerate route, with several subsidiary initiatives underneath its banner.

These new wave is not just music. The fine and performative arts are also finding fresh air and new vibes as technology brings the West Africas closer to each other. nKENTEn is a collaborative effort to document this, and Exodus, the "Design School for Nigeria" is pioneering new ways to solve old problems through design thinking.

Wherever you are, the new musical and art age of the Africas is truly an exciting thing to witness. I hope you're paying attention. We at Afrolicious certainly are.