The emergence of the polyrhythmic sounds of what today is known as Afrobeat has been on a steady incline since the late 2000s. As the king of Afrobeat, Nigerian-born Fela Anikulapo Kuti first established this style of music by incorporating sounds of jazz, funk, soul and African juju. But to listeners, Afrobeat music was more than just its distinct African sound; it was a political movement that bolstered black empowerment. Fela was known as a strong social, cultural, economic and political commentator about not just the Nigerian government, but narratives on ‘Blackism’ – nationalist ideologies surrounding the 1960’s black power movement in the United States (Botchway, 2014; Collins, 2004; Olanlyan, 2004). Fela’s music was used as a weapon to protect against Nigeria’s federalist regime and postcolonialism (Sithole, 2012); the lyrical power that emerged from Afrobeat highlights the genre’s inherently political and anti-establishment messages (Gendreau, 2009; Sithole, 2012). Today, fans of Afrobeat look to Fela’s music in bridging the gap between black tradition in Africa to the spread of African nationalism across the globe, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom.
This convergence between native African sounds and Western music, however, came with a cost. African beats were borrowed, commoditized and sold by U.S. producers to Western listeners who consumed the genre as a generic, digestible and monolithic style of Afrocentrism (Akinsete, 2019). Hip hop and rhythm and blues (R&B), for example, thus became avenues to express collective oppression, black aspirations and cultural consideration in the U.S. (Henderson, 1996). With Afrobeat, Fela ‘purists’ are fighting to filter Western and Euro-centric pop culture pressures from soiling the genre by labelling it ‘Afropop’ or ‘Afrofusion,’ instead of more appropriately calling it Ghanaian or Nigerian pop music (Akinsete, 2019). Maintaining a piece of African heritage, as it is expressed through music, remains a relentless effort in preserving black culture from white popularization. Thus, the drive to reinstate cultural art and narratives as symbolism of black power became a force that emerged to avoid the “constant burden of performance under a Western gaze” (Akinsete, 2019, Okay Africa).
But the portrayal of black representation in the U.S. diverges from what was happening in the U.K.; representations of black British culture fell in the shadows of black empowerment in America at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, Britain’s school curriculum held little to no information about cultural black history (The Guardian, 2013). Differences in how British black identity and power is represented through music, and specifically Afrobeat, is thus an interesting comparison. More specifically, this qualitative research seeks to answer the following question: how do British individuals within the African diaspora understand representations of black identity in Afrobeat?
The global theme that emerged surrounding Afrobeat was a negotiation of narratives over representations of African identity. Afrobeat, or simply African music, has transcended historical themes from post-colonialism to the celebration of black identity. However, participants expressed how Western influence on Afrobeat attempts to dictate their assumptions of what “Africanness” is, suggesting a continued struggle of assertion over representations of one’s black identity.
Theme 1: Power over and protection of representations of African identity in Afrobeat
One key finding that emerged was the dominating Western narratives of what “Africanness” is supposed to be. In reference to the Grammy awards, one participant notes: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>. This in turn led to the commoditization and accessorizing of black identity being catered to white consumers, which led to feelings of disempowerment: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>. However, with the popularization of black music, another participant observes that “it’s cool to be African” again. But this comes at the expense of white acceptance and a disregard for perpetual underlying racial issues: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>. Amidst this cultural appropriation, the maintenance of cultural authenticity to protect black identity was a recurrent theme: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>
Theme 2: Dichotomous experiences between native Africans and African Americans
A divide between narratives emerged between native Africans and the global African diaspora during Ghana’s Year of Return in 2019 to commemorate the beginning of slavery. Interestingly, one of the participants used the term “us”, even though British, in referencing a separate experience in the U.S.: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity> Beyond this dichotomous experience, another discrepancy exists between the narratives that Afrobeat historically represented to what lyrics are representing today: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>. Not only are there different experiences occurring simultaneously between native Africans and the African diaspora, but the historical context of Afrobeat is also removed from modern day Western consumption. Despite this change in narrative, Afrobeat today represents celebration of black identity: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>.
Theme 3: Connecting through cultural transcendence and shared identity
Despite Western monolithic perspectives of black identity, it enhances connection and a sense of community between native Africans and the African diaspora across the globe: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>. Afrobeat also provides an avenue that connects historical narratives of Afrobeat to contemporary Western listeners: <quotes from participants were removed to ensure anonymity>.
The underlying narratives surrounding Afrobeat were multi-voiced. Firstly, Afrobeat was deemed as simply African music; the name Afrobeat was observed to be more of a term created as a digestible concept for Western ears. Additionally, original narratives of political, social commentary during Fela’s time are no longer present in modern Afrobeat. Instead, it is about celebrating black identity, without lyrical hints of post-colonialism and anti-establishment. This narrative seeks to separate black identity from an incessant struggle not only from the perceptions of white individuals, but individuals also within the African diaspora. Moreover, the participants identified with the U.S. experience of being black, despite different historical contexts within black empowerment. Despite this dichotomy, the message is about celebrating black identity for what it is, not for what it represents.
However, an interesting juxtaposition arises; while participants note the importance of separating narratives of black identity from the Western gaze, there continues to be a struggle to assert power and representations of black cultural authenticity. Since its global ascendance, a negotiation arose to maintain native African heritage while transcending representational boundaries of black communities (i.e. native Africans and the global African diaspora). This supports the existing research and commentary about African music being a commodity to Western listeners as a generic style of Afrocentrism (Akinsete, 2019). This study reifies the continual attempt for black communities to escape socially constructed discourse from non-African individuals and reinstate their identity and culture through avenues, such as music, that symbolize power.
Social representations of identity are closely linked to insights found in this research. Social representations are meaning-making infrastructures that allow individuals to classify others (Moscovici, 1973) through legitimizing myths (Sidanius et al, 2017). As abstract thoughts of what Africanness means become inseparable from the reality of the Western gaze, black individuals become categorized into cultural stereotypes and cemented in historical contexts (Moscovici, 1961). A discrepancy of what it means to be native African and a part of the African diaspora outside Africa is highlighted in both White and African-American contexts. Despite these diverging narratives, contemporary Afrobeat continues to bridge the gap between black tradition in Africa to the spread of African nationalism.
While it is difficult for minorities to escape such myths based on Western perspectives, individuals can shift their identity and re-categorize to satisfy various needs and cultural practices (Brewer, M.B. et al., 1996; Brewer et al., 1991). Future considerations for research should explore African myths of black identity, and how these are reinforced or dispelled in Afrobeat. Understanding and deciphering cultural representations may help to dispel myths and ways of deconstructing social representations through culturally symbolic art forms. It may also help to address the problematic monolithic representations of black individuals. Research should also consider examining social representations in traditional African music, as opposed to limiting the genre to Afrobeat to examine any similarities or differences.
This current study hopes to offer insight into how British Africans who listen to Afrobeat understand representations of black identity amidst the gaze of Western listeners. It further highlights the importance of empowering black individuals through music and other avenues of artistic expression to maintain a sense of power over their narratives, as well as de-construct and obliterate monolithic generalizations of Afrocentrism.