How the global boom of African music is resonating with electronic artists in the diaspora
It’s an exciting time to be both a new and old fan of African music, but how does it feel for African artists raised and working in the diaspora? As producers and consumers, these artists have a unique vantage point on this cultural shift. Jessica Kariisa speaks to Nazar, Hagan, Juba and Chief Boima and asks: what does music from “back home” mean today?
In the early 2000s, there was a small, unassuming stall on the second floor balcony of Kampala’s Bugolobi market. Stocked with computers, scanners and other electronic devices, it was helmed by a young man who, for a small fee, provided digital services to the neighbourhood’s residents. Apart from his regular clientele, there was a contingent of pre-emptively homesick Ugandan migrants who, nearing the end of their trips back home, would ask this man to burn CDs of local music for them to take back to cities like London, Boston or Washington D.C.
The music on these CDs conjured up the equatorial nation’s warmth during winter, soundtracked gatherings with their countrymen and women, and educated their kids — born and raised “outside” — on the culture that their names and faces betrayed, but of which they had otherwise shaky connections to.
When requesting the CDs, if they weren’t specific about what they wanted — say, if they asked for whatever was on Ugandan radio — migrants might end up with a Rihanna or Sean Paul single, taking up precious space that could’ve gone to local artists; like Bobi Wine, Jose Chameleone or Blu 3. After a draining voyage across the ocean, the last thing they wanted to hear was Western radio fodder. They wanted to hear the African artists they could only hear “back home”.
Today, a request for such a CD would be quaint, if not ridiculous. Access to African music has exploded in the last two decades. A quick pass on Spotify or YouTube yields countless Ugandan music playlists organised by year and genre, and with the influence of Nigerian artists on global pop and South Africa’s amapiano and gqom tearing up clubs internationally, the Western visibility of music from the continent has reached unprecedented levels. The pendulum of cultural influence has swung so far the other way that if you made a mixtape of American radio hits today, there would be African pop on it.
It’s an exciting time to be both a new and old fan of African music. The former can indulge in the giddy rush of discovery while the latter can revel in having an authoritative voice. But how does it feel for African artists raised and working in the diaspora? The in-group nostalgia that sat apart from the mainstream, and for many served as early influences, has given way to a world in which contemporary African rhythms are ubiquitous. As both producers and consumers, these artists have a unique vantage point on this cultural shift.
On this, we speak to four artists of African origin living and working in the diaspora — Nazar, Juba, Hagan and Chief Boima — about how their relationship to African music has evolved over the years, how it’s affected their art, and what it means for the future.
“I draw inspiration from so many different countries, not just from Africa, so it’s hard to put yourself in a box — which is a good thing, because it means that the sound is always evolving” — Hagan
A viral Twitter thread by a 20-year-old Liberian-American catalogued the throwback hits that as she put it, “had the African community in a chokehold”. The list was composed of Sub-Saharan classics that transcended borders: Magic System’s ‘Premier Gaou’, (Côte D’Ivoire), Awilo Longomba’s ‘Karolina’ (Democratic Republic of Congo) , 2face’s ‘African Queen’ (Nigeria) and Brenda Fassie’s ‘Vulindlela’ (South Africa).
Also on the list were Liberian and Ghanaian songs that didn’t have the same level of Pan-African success, but resonated within the specific communities that the young Twitter user grew up in. The thread’s virality — and the lively debate it sparked for all the songs it didn’t include — speaks to the resilience of micro-communities and the nostalgia that African diaspora kids hold in music that never left the in-group.
British-Ghanaian artist Hagan, whose bassy club music has been released on labels like Gobstopper and One Level, had a unique level of access to this music from his uncle. “Within the UK’s Ghanaian community, he was classed as one of the top DJs,” he says. “They would meet up for various events like christenings and birthdays, and he would always have fresh music because he was the connection between the Ghanaian musicians and radio DJs. I was taking in those sounds even if I didn’t want to.”
At the age of 16, Hagan began supporting his uncle on the road, playing short DJ segments on his own. This early training sharpened his understanding of rhythm. When he started making music as Hagan, the incorporation of the sounds he heard growing up into the genres that were blossoming in London came naturally. “Throughout this period, I was building and strengthening that connection between some of the rhythms that I would hear in Ghanaian music with Nigerian music and other West African music,” he remembers.
"I also went to a Ghanaian church, and a lot of the rhythms there were very similar to the rhythms we were playing in the hall parties. By the time I was in university and UK funky was happening, I started to identify the rhythms that I would hear as a child in UK funky. I wanted to add my own spin to the genre and see if I could incorporate some of the elements I heard in my childhood.”
You can hear that effort on his 2011 debut EP ‘Deep In The Village’. On the closer, ‘Talking Drum’, the percussion tracks onto concurrent loops: an outer one of standard UK funky, and an inner loop that fills in the spaces with cowbells and syncopated beats, taking the genre’s myriad influences back to its African sources.
“When I discovered kuduro and kwaito, I no longer felt the need to listen to so much American or European music. I felt like it was an injustice that the whole world didn’t know about it. The music made by the local artists, with their rhythms, was so much richer” — Nazar
African music provided a sense of community and belonging to many, but for some, not being able to engage in their own process of discovery only furthered the disconnect they felt from the continent. Before the advent of streaming services, social media and YouTube, the transfer of culture through music typically occurred through narrow and inefficient channels.
There were the nostalgic sounds passed on by adults, music that usually spoke more to an older generation. There were intermediaries, like Hagan’s uncle, who had direct lines with the music industries back home. Then there was the costly endeavour of travel. But all of these options required at least one middleman. By the time the music reached the ears of an African kid in the diaspora, the sounds might be outdated — or worse still, the listening experience was limited to however much the intermediary had available to them, adding to that disconnect.
Angolan artist Nazar spent much of his childhood in Belgium, and remembers this disconnect keenly. As a child, African music didn’t resonate. “African music was always playing in the background, but I wouldn’t question myself about it that much, and my relationship to it was quite indifferent because I was young and I would associate it with my parents,” he tells us. “They loved this music, and I couldn’t see what was so special. Like the way some French people look at Jacques Brel or Variété Française, it was the same thing for me. It wasn’t regarded as cool.”
It was only after Nazar moved to Angola in the early 2000s at the age of 14 that he finally began to see himself reflected in the music. “When I started getting music from Angolan teenagers, that’s how my relationship with African music started to become more interesting, and it pushed me into wanting to make music,” he stresses. His 2020 debut album for Hyperdub, ‘Guerilla’, uses kuduro music to confront the traumatic memory of Angola’s civil war.
“When I discovered kuduro and kwaito, I no longer felt the need to listen to so much American or European music,” he continues. “I felt like it was an injustice that the whole world didn’t know about it. The music made by the local artists, with their rhythms, was so much richer.”
"There are also a lot of artists coming out of East Africa who have an East African feel but also a genre non-specific electro side to them. Because of their origins and their references, you can always integrate that with African polyrhythms” — Juba
When GSM technology arrived in Africa in the early 2000s, it paved the way for easier access to the internet and smartphones. In Nigeria, by 2010, mobile phones were the primary avenue to get online and nearly 30% of people had regular access to the internet.
The rise of music blogs in the mid-2010s and increased usage of YouTube were the first signs of a sea change for listeners of African music abroad. In London and New York, Ghana’s Azonto and Nigerian Afropop were making the digital leap to Western shores faster than they ever had before. And in time, access quickly shifted; from the occasional song or album, to a slew of albums and compilations available on streaming services and websites.
British-Nigerian DJ Juba is based in Berlin. She started her career playing Afrobeats. “In 2009, 2010, as a teenager, I started hearing songs like Olu Maintain’s ‘Yahooze’, Wizkid’s ‘Don’t Dull’ and Davido’s ‘Dami Duro’,” she remembers. “Hearing them in school, among my West African peers, was probably the most impactful moment for that music, because it really was coming of age. We could finally associate a level of coolness with our cultures that we weren’t able to do growing up.”
One of the most popular digital platforms for Nigerian music, the now-defunct iRocking.com, had a tagline at the start of its videos: “Anytime, Anywhere”. For fans of Afrobeats in the diaspora, as the 2010s came to a close, this couldn’t be more true. “After university, we were going to Afrobeats parties at African venues,” Juba says, “but then you could go into a commercial club and hear ‘Joanna’ or some of the early Burna Boy songs being played. That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, this is really crossing over’.”
“That’s why I threw myself into this industry wholeheartedly — because I found that space and I was like, ‘this is a beautiful thing’. I wanted to take the club that I was a resident DJ of, and recreate it in the rest of the world” — Chief Boima
Meanwhile, in the underground, Chief Boima, a Sierra Leonean-American DJ, cultural activist and one half of the transatlantic duo the Kondi Band, was playing parties that connected the dots between Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa with the club sounds of the US and Europe. A scene formed with like-minded souls like DJ /rupture and Matt Shadetek — who founded the Dutty Artz collective, of which Boima is affiliated — and it came to be known as ‘global bass’.
Boima recalls a sense of wonder at the speed of exchange and its impact on scenes abroad. “I saw stuff like moombahton being made in Mauritius. That direct connection was crossing over to their mainstream dancehall,” he says. “I saw the same thing in Brazil when I lived there. All of a sudden, some internet trend would be oriented into the local funk; it’s like, ‘Wow, the internet has made it into real life’. That was surprising 10 years ago.”
Though this exchange had yet to bleed into the mainstream sounds of the US and Europe, seeds were planted in the diaspora by internet-first scenes like global bass, Afrobeats and gqom — and offered a peek into what the future might hold.
In 2016, Nigerian Afropop star Mr. Eazi told CNN, “This is an amazing time for African music. Because of the internet, Africans are exposed to the rest of the world without travelling. Afrobeat is now urbanised, the internet has made everything well-packaged.” Within a few years of his declaration, major labels began opening offices in Lagos and Johannesburg, and the streaming services soon followed. The floodgates were officially open.
This explosion of access repositioned the conversation around African music from the margins to the centre. It has been, and continues to be, dominated by music from Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, and to a lesser extent South Africa; but in a Pan-Africanist way, it’s also carved out more space for other diaspora artists.
Nazar is optimistic about the range now afforded to African artists, and hopes to see a flexibility reflected in his own work. “I’ve always looked at DJ Lag’s trajectory as something inspiring. I admire his professionalism, his work rate and that he’s not afraid of dreaming big just because we’re Africans,” he says. “Even though I make kuduro music, I’ve done tracks with [South Africa gqom artist] Citizen Boy, and it just came naturally; without me having to think, ‘oh, now I’m doing gqom’. And, you know, I still dream of being able to make beats for American rappers.”
Nazar regularly tours across Europe. He’s shared the bill with DJ Lag twice, the first being at Poland’s Unsound Festival in 2018. Most recently, he played at Berlin’s CTM Festival this January. That being said, the cultural specificities embodied in Nazar’s music are often lost on many non-Angolan listeners. He finds himself having to do more explaining than he would like.
“I had a show right before the pandemic in Amsterdam, where I was talking for an hour before,” he remembers. “The same crowd went to the show, and it was actually one of my best shows, because I feel like they could finally understand the whole thing. I’m not very fond of talking too much about my art — I’ve always wanted to be one of these artists where the art speaks for itself — but I feel like it’s still needed for me to express what goes behind it.”
Boima isn’t too concerned about specificity lacking in the mainstream — as long as there’s a healthy underground. “We as humans will create the specificity in our personal and intimate connections, and I think that clubs allow for that,” he says. “That’s why I threw myself into this industry wholeheartedly — because I found that space and I was like, ‘this is a beautiful thing’. I wanted to take the club that I was a resident DJ of, and recreate it in the rest of the world.”
Juba, whose DJing has recently been taking cues from techno, sees the ascent of Southern African genres as a useful way to make connections between the Afrobeats she came up playing, more niche African sounds, and the American and European electronic genres she’s regularly exposed to. She explores these threads and their linkages on her monthly radio show Afroelectronik on Cashmere Radio.
“My music, I think, has become a bit darker,” she says. “Through living in Berlin and engaging with more club scenes, I’ve started to incorporate more acid and house sounds into my music. In doing that, the perfect bridge genres tend to be amapiano, gqom, kuduro or Afro-Angolan house. There are also a lot of artists coming out of East Africa who have an East African feel but also a genre non-specific electro side to them,” she continues. “Because of their origins and their references, you can always integrate that with African polyrhythms.”
If cultural specificity is a viable goal for the underground, the ability to move without a label any more limiting than “pop” is what Hagan sees as the future of much of the African music crossing over. In this way, artists like himself can more freely engage with their varied influences, rather than being limited to whatever some person in power has decided it means for music to be African.
“You want someone to listen to your music and say, ‘Yeah, this is a Hagan sound’, not ‘This is Afro-whatever’,” he says. “I draw inspiration from so many different countries, not just from Africa, so it’s hard to put yourself in a box — which is a good thing, because it means that the sound is always evolving.” Hagan’s most recent work, the four-track ‘Forward Focus’ EP, was released last October, and he has new music due out this summer.
In 2018, Spotify launched in a handful of African countries: South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. In October of that year, it also launched the Afro Hub, where all its playlists for contemporary African music were organised, including African Heat (its most popular), a “classics” playlist and a number of regional and genre-specific ones like Tanzania’s Bongo Flava and Afro R&B.
Today, the page boasts a similar format. There’s an amapiano playlist and Kenya’s Gengetone right at the top, but there are also more esoteric additions: one named Gone Abroad, another titled Internet Famous. The former includes Nigerian TikTok favourite CKay and, puzzlingly, DJ Snake; the latter has the simple description, “iykyk” (or, “if you know, you know”).
By late 2021, Spotify had successfully launched in 40 more African countries, leaving the Swedish company fewer than 10 countries away from total penetration of the continent. Listening to its Radar Africa playlist, highlighting “the most exciting new artists on the rise from the African continent & diaspora”, it’s striking how similar it all sounds.
Outside of Nigerian and South African languages, it’s dominated by English, and the range of genres is limited. Rather than showcasing the diversity of the continent, it seems more interested in showing how different parts of the continent can sound the same, or at least evoke the same mood.
The underside of greater access and visibility is that when it collides with a profit-driven economy, a community becomes a market. Listening becomes ‘engagement’, a metric understood through views, followers and comments. Our connection to our musical culture gets mediated through a corporation that’s gunning for more paid subscriptions rather than through people we know.
“It’s a new form of exploitation,” Boima tells us. “The old way is usually when some white, middle-class male, who’s trusted by hipsters with disposable income in the Global North, positions themselves as an authority and says, ‘Boom, this is cool’, and it blows up. But now, people are uploading the music themselves. The intermediary is cut out of the picture. The forms of exploitation have transformed over the years, but they’re still fundamentally about empire, white supremacy and capitalism.”
Even within the framework of making money, distribution is far from equitable. The cost of data on the continent remains prohibitively high. In 2019, in the Americas 1GB of data accounted for 2.7% of a person’s income on average. Across Africa, that number jumped up to 8%. What we’re calling visibility on the global stage is limited to those privileged enough to afford enough data on a regular basis to upload their music, shoot videos and travel abroad.
For African artists in the diaspora, these challenges don’t have to be diminishing. They can be opportunities to build bridges. Nazar acknowledges his privilege, but feels hopeful that it can have a positive effect on the music as a whole. “Having a European passport has had a profound impact on my career,” he says. “I can be around for shows, while many of my peers in Africa are stuck with visa issues and all these obstacles. It’s not always because they don’t have the means.
“They also haven’t spent enough time in Europe to know the labels and how the industry works,” he continues. “Because I grew up idolising artists who always had these shows around the world, and became big without compromising their art, I want to try to do the same with kuduro. We can’t all be in the same category, but we are all African artists.”
If anything is clear about this moment, it’s that however much changes, the spirit of the community lives on for Africans in the diaspora, searching for a piece of home.