Afrobeats has a narrative problem. For years, the story of the genre – and every African artist within it – has revolved around the golden ticket of crossing over from the fringes into global mainstream music. Afrobeats’ recent explosion has only served to anchor this anecdote that many artists also follow in their music: beat the odds, make it to riches, fame, and Western approval. But what if that’s already happened?
“It’s happening,” says King Promise. “I don’t think it’s done, but I think we’ve broken down those barriers to get it done.” I’m on the phone with the Ghanaian singer picking his brain about the crucial moment Afrobeats – what is sweepingly understood to be popular music from the West African region – finds itself in right now. Promise is the right person to ask about what happens after going global. Since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with his hit single “Oh Yeah,” he’s been at the forefront of a thriving music scene in his home country. His sophomore album 5 Star, which dropped in July, shows just what the genre’s new generation is capable of, with its reactionary hybrid sound and far-reaching pop appeal.
This shifting tide isn’t about hits, it’s about overhauling sensibilities. Within a decade, Africans have gone from the world’s outliers to its vibe makers – and it’s because of our music. Just 10 years ago, Burna Boy winning a Grammy, Wizkid selling out two dates at London’s O2 in 12 minutes, Tems having a solo No. 1 entry on Billboard’s Hot 100, and Beyoncé going to Ghana for a Shatta Wale feature would have been unimaginable. “So much more is possible than we were previously told,” says Promise about this swift succession of accolades. “Going global hasn’t diluted or intruded on the realness, the authenticity of our sound.” The movement now finds itself in uncharted territory, piecing together a success story that unfolded quicker than anyone expected, hoping to turn it into something enduring and positive.
“The current atmosphere of African music is huge, very welcoming, and loud around the world,” shares Gyakie. For the Afro-fusion singer and daughter of legendary Ghanaian musician Nana Acheampong, the future of Afrobeats is about legacy-building. “My dad played a vital role in the music industry, and I’m looking forward to doing something that will also leave a legacy behind.” Her breakout success speaks to just how dramatically the tides have shifted in favor of rising African talents.
Streaming was the best thing to happen to African music. Gyakie’s breakout success is a testament to that. In 2021, with the hit single “Forever,” the then-22-year-old showcased a stunning voice that would make her an international star. Virality, global stages, and a Nigerian remix – that now stands at 33 million streams on YouTube – quickly followed. And this is with the African streaming market in its infant stages. Few artists have been able to really bank on seemingly unpredictable global streams. But as the continent emerges as the new frontier for streaming platforms – Spotify, Apple Music, Boomplay, and Audiomack have already bet on the market – more African artists will be able to turn numbers into success. Because music piracy is so rife, creators are still lacking the ownership that would let their music fully thrive. The digital scramble for Africa could help artists take the reins of their creative output and shape an ecosystem where they can sustainably monetize their work.
A side effect of the streaming boom will hopefully also be that Afrobeats brings African consumers back into focus. “For a while, a lot of artists were catering to trends to get their point across to the world – whether that’s switching to singing in pidgin because that sells or doing English hooks. That’s not the case anymore, authenticity is the case now,” says King Promise. “One of the main goals of my album was to make music that cuts across, that you don’t have to be from Ghana to get it. But I always need to put some tunes on there as well that are just for my people at home.” If the past decade was marked by Afrobeats’ entry into world music, with the increased support from streaming numbers at home, the next chapter is much more daring: becoming a major genre of popular music in its own right. And it’s already happening, just this year Billboard launched the US’ first-ever Afrobeats chart.
There are so many ways this amorphous genre could go from here. Despite being so new to the global consciousness, Afrobeats has stopped trying to sound definable, instead, we’re seeing it become even more fluid. More than just “feel-good African music,” Afrobeats – or Afropop as it’s progressively being called – keeps coaxing audiences from curiosity to acceptance. By continuing to diligently incorporate elements R&B, hip-hop, and dancehall elements, the genre is finding magic in its own oft-criticized disparities.
King Promise’s 5 Star is an excellent exercise in this. Just a few years ago, this project might not have existed under the conventions of Afrobeats. Across 15 tracks, the album traverses hip-hop and R&B influences, homages to highlife, and Afropop bangers. “I’ve been cultivating my thing, making music that I love and trusting that it will translate,” he explains. The closing track “Run to You” – an album highlight featuring Chance the Rapper and co-produced by prolific Ghanaian producers Killbeatz and GuiltyBeatz – is grounded by a stripped-back rock melody with gospel elements. Supported by some of the sound’s most prolific producers and an international cast of feature acts, 5 Star demonstrates the depth and distinction of music emerging from the continent.
But as fast as the sound is progressing, the industry hasn’t quite kept pace. Unfortunately, the structures around artists haven’t evolved as much as their commercial appeal and global popularity. The West African music industry has a history of contractual disagreements, missteps, and exploitation. And when foreign majors are gradually dominating the ecosystem, homegrown labels struggle to establish themselves. In recent years, some of the world’s biggest labels and distributors like Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMPIRE have set their sights on the continent, signing top African artists and entering deals with local labels and streamers. Yet too often when star artists emerge from Africa the focus is to grow outside, foreign investors often mean the entire business is left behind – areas like management, legal, and publishing.
As more artists get signed there is an effort to position themselves strategically and nurture the local industry rather than take the juice out of it too early. When King Promise signed to Sony Music Entertainment last year it was as a partnership between his own Ghana-based imprint, 5K Records, and the major label. “The only thing holding us back is us. We can take it so much further,” he says. “You know how hot the market is right now? And as much as we’re in demand and all the things that come with that, the most important thing’s the music and that it does something for our people here.”
And there’s one area that’s crucially lacking. As it currently stands on the world stage, men are hogging Afrobeat’s limelight. “I think what is holding back female artists has to be lack of confidence and the fear of not being heard. The industry is male-dominated and the competition is super tight,” Gyakie tells Highsnobiety. Still, for those paying attention to the scene, it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the women taking the world by storm. Artists like Gyakie, Tiwa Savage, Tems, Ayrra Starr, Moliy, Ria Sean, Deto Black, and Amaarae – to name a few pushing past the limitations of conservative societal standards. Afrobeats’ newfound global scope and greater connectivity means women artists no longer have to cater to whims of of local industry gatekeepers. By being unapologetically themselves and embracing their sexuality, the girls are cultivating a more dynamic African music industry for the next generation.
Bolstered by these trailblazers, Afrobeats has shattered every glass ceiling imaginable. All the measures of international success have been achieved by a few and now more African artists (that don’t necessarily make Afrobeats music) can expect to get their flowers as a result. Afrobeats’ success story might have steamrolled past its interests at home, but it’s precisely this constant look outwards that has given the sound so much dynamism. As going global becomes the norm and no longer the exception, there’s hope that artists and the business at large shift their focus back to the continent, on developing a local industry that is more inclusive and has the potential to shake up the world standing on its own feet. “We’ve got to move together,” Promise agrees. “Moving in a pack makes it easier than moving individually. Let’s not be about, ‘Oh, I did it first and I’m the only African ever to do this.’ So what? If you’ve done it and no one followed you, you can’t be proud of yourself.” It’s been a labor of love to take it this far, but now that Afrobeats has beaten even its own expectations, its next destination is anyone’s guess.