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As African pop crests again, women are leading the second wave

Ayra Starr's second album, <em>The Year I Turned 21</em>, is a global-minded symphony of influences, and part of a recent wave of young women charting their own course for African pop.
Mikey Oshai
Courtesy of the artist
Ayra Starr's second album, The Year I Turned 21, is a global-minded symphony of influences, and part of a recent wave of young women charting their own course for African pop.

When the emergent Nigerian singer Ayra Starr visited the British digital radio station Kiss Fresh in March, she was asked to whom she wanted to give flowers for International Women’s Day. Starr named three fellow artists — Tems, Tyla and Tiwa Savage — known to fans of modern Afropop as its most consistent guest star, its fastest-rising newcomer and its trailblazing millennial forebear. Taken together, the list can be seen as indicative of not only a breakthrough moment for the music, but what it took to get here. “It makes me emotional, because when I started, I got criticized for dressing too sexy, or my lyrics were a bit too risqué,” Savage said a few months later on the same platform, reflecting on the sour, sexist reception she’d often seen during her own 2010s rise, when she faced backlash for videos like “Wanted” and saw some banned from TV for indecency. The enthusiastic reception Starr had received as a femme-forward “sabi girl,” then, felt promising, an omen of a less patriarchal and more uncompromising future coming into view for Africa’s rapidly expanding pop movement. Or, as Savage put it: “Seeing it now, seeing someone like Ayra, I’m like … yeah!”

Ayra Starr’s new album, The Year I Turned 21 (released May 30), is the latest landmark in an ongoing Afropop evolution. It is among the sleekest records the genre has ever produced, unbelievably self-assured yet acutely aware of the wider world. Along with Tyla and Tems, Ayra completes a triumvirate of young women currently seizing the Afropop stage for themselves, while making fewer concessions to Western presentation. Much early Afropop suffered from an identity crisis — a need to honor tradition, and at the same time an overwhelming appetite for success beyond local borders — that found it zealously integrating the dominant sounds of American music, sometimes at its own expense. Now, a few decades removed from the need to validate the sounds of home or to explain themselves, this trio has carved out space atop the global pop ranks on their own terms.

Afropop has made its greatest international strides, commercially and creatively, in the last decade. The founding of the Nigerian label Mo’Hits in 2003 began the evolutionary process in earnest, and within a few years the most prominent African stars were catching the attention of artists in the States: In 2011, the Mo’Hits rapper D’Banj signed with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, while the more R&B-forward duo P-Square signed with Akon’s Konvict label. Their calling card tended to be a chintzy synth-pop sound, heavily influenced by the T-Pains and Flo-Ridas of the American Top 40. But in the end, the industry maneuvering didn’t move the needle much for the music, which remained a curiosity. In their wake, a form known as Afrobeats came to prominence, its very intentional “s” far from the only thing separating it from the sounds of Fela Kuti. Led by Tiwa Savage, the prodigy turned global ambassador Wizkid and the Atlanta-born, Lagos-raised architect Davido, the music that became the bedrock of the style affixed African rhythms to the familiar sounds of hip-hop and R&B. The first generation to grow up under the easement of that influence — the synergist Rema, the siphon Fireboy DML and the Ghanaian-American futurist Amaarae — found freedom in its sprawl, becoming pickier about the wells from which they drew and, over time, moving closer to home musically.

The American breakthrough for Afropop coincided with the cultural crossover of other foreign-language pop from South America, Puerto Rico and South Korea, with each genre seeming to have its own big bang. For K-pop, it was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” powered by the virality of nascent YouTube border-crossing. For Latin pop, the metastasizing success of “Despacito” and its Justin Bieber remix built on a latent reggaeton genealogy lingering beneath the surface. Somewhere between the seed-planting of the former and the overnight propagation of the latter is “One Dance,” Drake’s massive 2016 hit with Wizkid. The song funneled Afrobeats through UK funky and dancehall, and you could make no more honest case for an introduction of Afrobeats to the world — with its vibrant, all-encompassing sound and globalist vision, two things it had in common with Drake, who became one of its earliest and most consistent adopters. In the wake of “One Dance,” a trade route was established, others followingDrake’slead. The late ‘10s brought expanded influence for Davido and Wizkid, who honed their sounds down to the most useful components. Producers like the Nigerian British P2J and the British Ghanaian Jae5 started a cross-cultural exchange, crafting variations of prevalent Afrobeats styles for British rappers like Dave, J Hus, Skepta and Stormzy. Both also produced for the self-proclaimed Afro-fusionist Burna Boy, the first Afropop artist to really synthesize the diaspora into anything like a singularity.

The genre’s eruption intersected with the rise of the streaming economy, and as broader tolerance for foreign pop rose alongside it, stars from within and without seized the moment. By 2019, Burna Boy had amassed enough juice to complain about his place on the bill at Coachella: “I am an AFRICAN GIANT and will not be reduced to whatever that tiny writing means,” he said on Instagram. The album he released that year of the same name set a new benchmark, earning a Grammy nomination for best world music album. (He would win the following year for Twice as Tall.) The same summer as African Giant, Beyoncé took her musical machine to Africa for her Lion King soundtrack project, The Gift, which spanned rap, Afrobeats and gqom, a house subgenre originating in South Africa. Wizkid and Tiwa Savage were in attendance, leading a cast that largely featured Nigerian and South African performers. P2J, among the architects of Beyoncé’s African transformation, pointed in particular to the track “Brown Skin Girl” as a turning point for an inevitable Afropop takeover, calling it “a big moment for Africa” and saying the album would “change the face of music.” Still, it has taken some time for the actual brown skin girls to be the faces of that charge.

For many years, Tiwa Savage was holding it down in an Afropop boys’ club. She was far from the only woman excelling — artists like Simi and Teni did much for the cause — but there were times where she seemed to be the only one gaining traction — hence her “Queen of Afrobeats” title, a claim that often felt uncontested. She has always been aware of her position and the pressures of it, operating between two different masculine cultures, but there has also always been an eager audience for her music. “Afrobeats is very male-dominated, so most of my fans are female,” she told Vogue UK in 2018. “Women identify with my music, with my lyrics, and I really use that to my advantage.” It is a demographic shift that has helped change the rules of engagement for the women coming up after her: What once felt like a fight for attention has now shifted toward one for individuality. “Obviously Afrobeats is experiencing a huge wave that has helped me and a lot of artists,” Amaarae told Vulture last year, after the release of her sensual and adventurous sophomore album, Fountain Baby. “But I want the freedom of the vision that exists outside of this pocket.” With her own style-bending songs, Amaarae has contributed greatly to these efforts; though she has not become a star befitting her output, she’s helped make a way for others.

At the forefront of the current wave is Tems, who emerged during the Afropop boom of the early pandemic. She provided the signature sauce of the atmospheric Wizkid hit “Essence,” which proved to be a major genre milestone and personal springboard. Then came collaborations with Rihanna (contributing to the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack), Drake (co-featuring on Future’s Hot 100 chart-topper “Wait For U” and the Certified Lover Boy cut “Fountains”) and Beyoncé (in a guest spot on the club-conquering album Renaissance), earning her an Oscar nom, a Golden Globe nom, a Grammy win and the highest ever chart debut for an African artist. Last year, her single “Free Mind” set a record for most weeks at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart by a woman. In that song’s peace-seeking psalm, her appeal comes very clearly into focus: Tems makes a feel-it-in-your-chest soul music rooted more in African and English traditions than the American ones so often pulled from by her predecessors. She is so clearly hewing in one direction it is difficult to misclassify her as anything else.

The Nigerian singer has been quite diligent about identifying her music as just “R&B,” and with good reason: Her simmering songs are not in conversation with the diaspora in the same way. They are self-contained — not just laid back, as much Afropop is, but interior and slightly removed. (“Everyone I asked for advice was like, ‘The only way you can do this is Afrobeats. It’s not that your music is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t fit in Nigeria. Nigerians don’t like this,’ ” she said in an Interview magazine conversation with Kendrick Lamar.) The true differentiator in her sound is a tonal one: “All the other girls had these sweet, high voices,” she told The Cut earlier this year. “And my voice had bass.” There are few greater illustrations of this than “Love Me JeJe,” the single from her new album, Born in the Wild (out June 7), which reinterprets the 1997 Seyi Sodimu song of the same name, in touch with the classic but wholly in service to the younger singer’s instrument.

For quite a while, media overwhelmingly siloed the pop of the continent to the music of West Africa, and designated it all as Afrobeats. (“It’s not all being properly categorized,” Amaarae has noted. “We’re all being lumped into this one umbrella.”) Even now, as I write this, the broader Afropop label feels like its own too-slippery catch-all. The harsh truth is that those distinctions don’t matter to the average American, who has little conception of Africa as a continent, much less its cultural nuances at the nation and city levels. But there is at least something to be said for the latter term feeling more inclusive than the former, if not more accurate. With her ascent over the last few months, Tyla has pushed that door open wider. “They never had a pretty girl from Joburg / See me now and that’s what they prefer,” she sings on “Jump,” from her self-titled solo debut (March 22). The South African singer had already been honing her craft in plain sight when “Water” spawned a viral dance challenge on TikTok and catapulted her to stardom. Winning the inaugural Grammy for best African music performance, the song set the stage for a quantum leap.

In embracing the log-drum-powered sound of amapiano, a house music hybrid born in South Africa, Tyla has become its greatest envoy. You may have heard its distinctive rhythms pulsing through West African pop, thanks in large part to Asake, a breakout star of the 2020s who adopted its wobble into his street-rap variant. The shuffling music Tyla makes feels more homegrown — a centrist turn from the creations of amapiano DJs in South Africa like Uncle Waffles and Felo Le Tee. Her songs are sweat-soaked but subtle, often sensation-driven, her vocals possessed by the breathlessness of intimacy and motion. It may sound simple, but she performs a certain ethereal perfection, exuding the ease of a sunbather, and the effect on her songs is as apparent as the difference between a real tan and a cosmetic one. She moves through reveries like “Safer” and “ART” with sylph-like grace, and the songs often seem to have the illusory, mystifying charms of a perfume commercial.

Ayra Starr's trajectory runs nearly parallel to Tyla’s. A teenage prospect who started uploading covers online before being spotted by Afropop royal Don Jazzy, the Mo’Hits co-founder, and signing to his second-act label Mavin Records, Starr’s breakout song, “Rush,” also went viral on TikTok, and was among the songs competing with “Water” in its Grammy category. She is one of a few artists working who has actively embraced the Afrobeats title, and her songs do feel more distinctly in the lineage of an artist like Wizkid, intuitively embracing the growth potential of global expansion. “The generations of African artists who worked to this extent for people like me to be able to be global with this sound worked for this,” she told Elle, when asked about internal criticism of the sound’s international dilution. “The genre’s not being diluted, it’s becoming mainstream.”

There may not be a more compellingly all-inclusive sound than hers: As if attempting to honor the long Afrobeats history of wholesale integration that has made it so difficult to define, The Year I Turned 21 bears out all of that potential. If there has ever been “world music,” this is it. There are African forms like highlife and amapiano mixed in with Latin pop and dancehall, the self-described Afrobeats-R&B hybrid “Last Heartbreak Song” and a song literally called “Rhythm & Blues.” Starr finds points of triangulation between Brazilian pop star Anitta and R&B maven Coco Jones and Jamaican producer Rvssian and Latin trap artist Rauw Alejandro. Her mellow, sultry voice is limber enough to flex in nearly any direction.

What is perhaps most glorious about The Year I Turned 21 is how seamless it all feels. Starr has said she thought of the album as a TV show, and though that pseudo-concept isn’t actively pushed in the listening experience, it has an unbreakable continuity. There is no disconnect between the rap swagger of “Bad Vibes” and the jazzy sway of “Orun.” She is as comfortable repurposing Wande Coal’s “You Bad” (on “Jazzy’s Song”) as she is nodding to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” (on “Control”). Everything fits. Where K-pop maximalism sometimes leads to acts wearing their influences on their sleeves in mismatched layers, like a child trying to dress himself for the first time, this album makes those decisions naturally, without a second thought. The music feels in pursuit of an enlightened state, unwilling to strain itself. On “Goodbye,” across a sashaying lounge rhythm, Starr sounds emancipated, in full strut, with Asake in tow. “Lagos Love Story” embodies its beachside romance, turning Lagos into a Shangri-La. Through her, you can hear an Afrobeats ideal, and how such a thing interacts with the vision of the modern Afropop star.

Ayra Starr, Tyla and Tems each feel like surefire hits in a time when fame is difficult to quantify, and all three artists releasing pivotal career albums in the span of three months is a good-sized crack along African music’s glass ceiling. For many years, women in hip-hop circles faced the same obstacles, and the parallels are unsurprising given the masculine ideology in both cultures. But for the moment, we are seeing just what kind of sprawl a diversity of perspectives can bring to a genre. How you categorize the music matters far less than who is allowed to make it pop.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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