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Q&A: Afrobeats is ‘one of Africa’s biggest cultural exports’

Spotify’s chief executive for sub-Saharan Africa answers questions on the on the essence and evolution of the trendy music genre Afrobeats from Lagos to everywhere else.

Photo- Grammy-award-winning Nigerian musician Burna Boy performs at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Indio, California, USA [Amy Harris/Invision/AP]

By Al Jazeera Staff

In 2022, songs classed as Afrobeats, the trendy genre that has kept millions on their feet in the last dozen years and spurred the introduction of an African music category at the Grammy Awards only two weeks ago –  cumulatively reached 13 billion streams on streaming platform Spotify.

Since 2017, listenership has grown by 550 percent, with streams coming from all over the globe.

The milestone is an acknowledgement of the road travelled by Afrobeats, a loose grouping of many sounds within Africa with influences by the Black diaspora, that has now spread from dancefloors in Lagos to elsewhere in West Africa and beyond the continent.

Al Jazeera spoke to Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy, MD for Spotify in Sub-Saharan Africa on what this means for the continent and the company’s plans to further push African acts to new audiences.

Al Jazeera: How has Afrobeats influenced the music scene in Africa and around the world in recent years?

Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy: It’s fair to say that Afrobeats is probably one of Africa’s biggest cultural exports right now, and it is definitely influencing the music being made both on the continent and elsewhere in the world. By its very nature, Afrobeats is an amalgamation of sounds, which is lending itself beautifully to fusions with other musical styles, as well as collaborations with artists from the continent and around the world.

The most streamed Afrobeats song of all time on the Spotify platform is Rema’s Calm Down collaboration with Selena Gomez, for instance. But if you look at Davido’s collaboration with an Amapiano producer like Focalistic, for instance, you can see how the music is really crossing borders and breaking boundaries.

The recent introduction of an African music category at the Grammys is probably also, in large part, due to the massive popularity of genres like Afrobeats and Amapiano across the world right now.

Beyond just influencing the music, however, we are also seeing the impact that genres like Afrobeats are having in exporting other aspects of culture, from fashion to food and even language.

Al Jazeera: In your opinion, what distinguishes Afrobeats from other music genres and what are some of its unique characteristics?

Muhutu-Remy: I think the answer is in the name really- the beat is the thing that distinguishes Afrobeats. That unique 3-2 or 2-3 rhythm forms the basis of the music, and then it’s layered with various musical influences like hip-hop or R&B and then the lyrics which often incorporate West African languages like Pidgin, Yoruba, and Twi. It’s not just music for the sake of music, it’s culture, too.

Al Jazeera: What is it about Afrobeats that has made it so popular globally and appealing to a wider audience?

Muhutu-Remy: The African diaspora and the desire to connect with some part of home has played a part in how this genre has spread, but its popularity also has a lot to do with its feel-good nature. Most of the music classified as Afrobeats is up-beat and is associated with good times and celebrations – think weddings and clubs.

The genre is also constantly evolving and its fusion with other genres from across Africa and around the world – like trap, UK garage, reggae, among others – means that it appeals to people across the world, growing its audience even further.

Collaboration is another important driver of the genre’s growth – we’ve seen Afrobeats artists collaborating with big international names like Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Selena Gomez to name a few, which, coupled with the power of streaming, is allowing Afrobeats artists to connect with audiences across the globe.

Al Jazeera: How has Spotify been part of that journey, in promoting Afrobeats and African music generally?

Muhutu-Remy: Our newly launched Afrobeats site, which tells the story of Afrobeats, is just one example of how we are doing this.

Streaming provides a global platform so that artists can find audiences anywhere in the world. [We have] various artist support programmes such as EQUAL, which is aimed at raising the profile of talented female artists, RADAR our programme aimed at supporting emerging artists, and Fresh Finds which is aimed at independent artists.

Spotify playlists, like Amapiano Grooves and African Heat as well as Spotify features like the Made for You hub also help to drive discovery, enabling listeners to find music that they love, and artists to connect with new fans.

We’ve also announced a number of new features which will allow fans to not only see where and when their favourite artists are performing, but to also buy tickets and merch, giving artists the opportunity to earn multiple income streams.

Spotify also works with artists and their teams on a number of different projects to help market their music in a way that drives discovery and enables them to thrive. This includes the use of our billboard in New York’s Times Square, which has featured a number of African artists. Beat School, a three-part video series, which explores various African genres with local artists, Music that Moves a documentary about the rise of South Africa’s amapiano, and Spotify Talks which hosts discussions with local artists like Kenya’s Them Mushrooms.

Al Jazeera: What are some of the challenges that African artists or the Afrobeats genre face when entering the global market?

Muhutu-Remy: The world has really sat up and taken notice of Afrobeats, so a lot of the challenges of the genre being unknown, are starting to dissipate for artists looking towards that global stage, and streaming has had an important role to play here.

But, for emerging artists, independent artists or women who are finding their feet in an industry that is still very male-dominated, there will be challenges which is why we are so committed to providing programmes and support that will help artists grow their audiences and build their careers.

Another aspect I think is important to focus on is the business aspect of being a career musician. For many creatives, this may not be their strong suit, so learning the skills, finding mentors and choosing teams that are able to help them navigate the business aspects of the music is very important.

Al Jazeera: Are there any upcoming Afrobeats artists or producers that we should keep an eye on?

Muhutu-Remy: Our EQUAL artist for June, Qing Madi is definitely one to watch. At only 16, she’s already combining Afrobeats with Soul and R&B and breaking new ground.

Our Nigerian RADAR artist for 2023, Ria Sean is another one to watch. Women played such an important role in the origins of Afrobeats, and going forward, we’re going to see more and more women standing alongside the giants of the genre.

Al Jazeera: How do African listeners compare in their music listening habits to other global regions in terms of genre, artist, and consumption patterns?

Muhutu-Remy: One thing we noticed from our Wrapped data released last year, was that many of our key markets in sub-Saharan Africa saw an increase in streams of local music, so that is a really promising trend.

Our data has shown us some really interesting patterns around Afrobeats specifically. For instance, one would think that Nigeria is the biggest consumer of the genre, but in fact, both the USA and the UK are out-streaming them. South Africa, while not a top 10 market for Afrobeats, is, however, seeing massive growth and streaming of the genre has grown by over 2,000 percent since 2018. When it comes to growing markets, we’re seeing markets like Mexico, The Netherlands, and India loving Afrobeats.

This interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.


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