By Meron Demisse, Lincoln Ajoku
Before there was jazz, soul, R&B, rock, or hip hop, there was the beat of African drums. All 8 billion of us on this planet have our ancestral roots on the African continent, and the same is true for many of the most widely consumed sounds and rhythms that move us.
Music from the African continent continues to ascend to new heights, rapidly growing in prominence and popularity. Afrobeats is now one of the continent’s greatest cultural exports, with its instantly recognizable sounds often heard on street corners, shopping malls, sports stadiums, runways, and clubs around the world.
As a blend of west African music, jazz, and funk sang in English, west African, and pidgin languages that originated in Nigeria in the 1990s and early 2000s, Afrobeats has become one of the defining musical genres across Africa and globally. It follows in the footsteps of African music from earlier eras, such as highlife from Ghana and Nigeria in the 1950s and soukous from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 1960s.
These and other African musical forms have gained prominence in recent decades, gaining widespread listenership through the efforts of African musicians. In the process, these musicians have helped promote regional and cultural integration by influencing musical styles across the continent.
With new partnership models, continent-wide advocacy and promotion, and leveraging digital platforms, Africa’s music could drive economic growth and continental integration.
Legendary performers such as ET Mensah, George Darko, and the Oriental Brothers International Band were key drivers in expanding the reach of highlife music. Likewise, the popularity of soukous has been propelled by famous artists, including Kanda Bongo Man, M’bilia Bel, and of course, the dynamic Papa Wemba. The unforgettable Manu Dibango is credited for popularizing makossa globally. And Fela Kuti was at the vanguard for Afrobeat music with its strident demands for economic and social justice.
Fast forward a few generations, renowned artists such as Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, and Yemi Alade are extending the prominence and recognition of Afrobeats across Africa and globally. Afrobeats and other emerging musical forms from Africa, such as Amapiano, are gaining popularity and can serve as models for further economic and cultural integration on the continent.
Amapiano, the isiZulu term for ‘the pianos’ is a muscial genre which originated in the townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa in 2012. It combines local music influences with jazz and house music. It is increasingly transcending borders and entering the African and global mainstream, led by popular artists such as the Scorpion Kings, DBM Gogo, and Lady Du.
Amapiano songs now regularly trend on social media and have garnered more than a billion streams to date on platforms including Spotify and Apple Music. It is even influencing music powerhouse Nigeria, where several artists have recorded hit songs using Amapiano influences. These developments with Amapiano are helping to grow the music industry in South Africa, whose revenues in 2022 are estimated at 2 billion South African Rand ($117 million.)
The cultural impact of emerging African music genres such as Amapiano has room to achieve even greater economic impact. A recent report by Afreximbank (pdf) shows that music contributes only 0.1% of the GDP of the entire African continent. The Afreximbank report finds that while African musicians are enhancing their reputations on the global stage, they “still lack sufficient recognition and representation in the global market.”
While the contribution of music and other elements of the cultural economy to the GDP of most African countries is low, especially in comparison to other regions of the world, there are signs this could be starting to change.
There are potential opportunities for the music industry’s expansion in the region by leveraging new partnership models to secure support from the private sector and government. Collaborations with other sectors, including tourism, fashion, and sports, can yield further benefits for the cultural economy as a whole in Africa. This, in turn, could facilitate employment growth in the music sector, creating jobs for youth. While musicians and the private sector are driving much of this activity, governments in the region also have a critical role to play in growing the music industry across African countries.
Some recent examples of these types of collaborations led by governments come from Morocco and Zimbabwe. In Morocco, the city of Essaouira is renowned for its music festivals, architecture, history, and beaches. The promotion of Essaouira as a music and tourism destination is a result of partnerships between local and global agencies—led by the Moroccan government and the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which designated Essaouira a Creative City for Music in 2019 and the Creative Tourism Network.
Earlier in 2022, Zimbabwe launched a five-year music strategy, which aims to ensure a sustainable music industry in the country as part of overall plans to enhance the visibility and standing of Zimbabwe’s cultural economy.
Equally important is the need for strategies to advocate, promote, and grow the African music industry. For instance, after a successful locally-led lobbying campaign, Congolese rumba was included on the Unesco heritage list in December 2021. In Zanzibar, for two decades the Sauti za Busara festival has been a platform for developing new artists and sustaining diverse music styles, with the event committed to spotlighting women and up-and-coming artists.
Well-planned regional events will also become important in driving cultural and economic impact. For instance, a collaborative contribution by Senegal, will host the eighth edition of Africa’s pre-eminent music awards ceremony, the All-Africa Music Awards (Afrima), in January 2023. This event includes collaboration between the private sector and government, with Senegalese President Macky Sall pledging greater support to the awards, citing Afrima’s role in engaging youth in the cultural economy and in promoting tourism.
A diverse array of artists from across the region are now using digitization to reach new audiences and markets. Part of the success of genres such as Amapiano can be attributed to streaming and social media platforms. Digital technologies, including mobile and e-commerce platforms, offer another potential area for the music industry to contribute to further economic and cultural integration in the African region.
With mobile phone subscriptions at 46% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, and internet connectivity surpassing 50% in countries including Egypt (at 71%) and Ghana (at 53%), musicians have a key digital platform through mobile phones for the distribution of their music.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), one of the legacies of the covid-19 pandemic was the acceleration in the shift to e-commerce and digital platforms for cultural economy activities which includes music. Estimates are that revenue from digital music streaming in Africa will grow to $500 million annually by 2025, up from $100 million in 2017.
Diverse musical genres have historically served at the forefront of cultural and economic integration worldwide, and Africa is no exception. While platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, and TikTok are popular for streaming music from African artists, questions arise about the economic dividends per stream captured by the artists.
Here lies an opportunity for musicians, artists, the private sector, and governments to drive economic growth from Africa’s music sector. Investing in Africa-led and locally-owned streaming platforms could potentially address some of the bottlenecks around earnings.
Additionally, innovative financing programs from agencies such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) and governments could stimulate economic activity and fuel job creation within the music industry. And as a medium-term intervention, governments can collaborate through platforms such as the African Union to pledge funding and other interventions to increase the contribution of music to the region’s GDP.
Since that first drumbeat was sounded until the present day, diverse music genres from across the African continent have served to entertain and inspire globally. They have served as the marching rhythm for social change while gaining greater prominence at home and abroad. And with the right collaborations and investments, the impact of a growing and more dynamic music sector will reverberate across the African continent.
In the years ahead, these actions will strengthen the foundation for greater integration and prosperity and serve as a blueprint for other sectors of the cultural economy in Africa.