CULTURE: AFRICA & THE ALTERNATIVE MUSIC SHIFT
In Nigeria, Ghana, or better yet most of West Africa a song is not a hit unless there’s a dance challenge involved. Cliche gimmicks like viral dance videos, recycled beats, repetitive lines, and cheesy references to food are 95% of the music out right now. Who then are the remaining 5%? And where can they be found?
The 5% are closer than you may think. Alternative music is nothing new to the West African music scene. The West African “alternative” scene has been steadily growing over the past decade and includes the likes of Asa, Nneka, Brymo, Omawumni, Waje, Darey, and Blackmagic. Whether it’s the soft soulfulness of “Jailer”, the rawness of “Heartbeat”, the sweet intro of “Good Morning”, or trumpets and mix of rap in “Repete” that catches you one thing these songs have in common is their intriguing eclectic sound. Though they’re all timeless pieces of music, it can be said there songs that happen to be ahead of its time and too sophisticated for masses leaving some in a niche market or with stagnant fame due to the environment not being conducive for sounds outside of "Afrobeats/pop".
However, through the power of sites like SoundCloud, the emergence of alternative music in Africa has resurfaced. A new crop of alt-musicians are spearheading a refreshing movement with an interesting spin and invisible borders. Musicians have become able to share music and connect with the continent despite not being based there directly. These invisible borders within African alternative music has brought forth the likes of WurlD, Kahli Abdu, Lady Donli, and Nonso Amadi all who live outside of Africa but find themselves with a fast growing following based back home. While others are making waves from afar artist like Odunsi, Adey, $pacely, and Nxwrth are based on the continent and amongst the many creating a totally different sound of their own quite different from the confines of current African music. With the breakthrough of these eclectic artists, the audience for these musicians vary and come from all walks of life.
In no way are we saying these alt-music listeners don’t indulge in the current mainstream music. However, their libraries contain a plethora of sounds outside from the big name chart toppers and smash hits. Despite the 3,120 miles distance London-based Nigerian songstress Lady Donli is storming the web with her single “Ice Cream” featuring Nigerian musician Tomi Thomas. I caught up with Lady Donli and Ghana-based producer Nxwrth to discuss music identity, the power of the web, and the state of alternative music in Africa.
OLIVE UCHE: It’s safe to say Africa is experiencing a bit of sound shift at the hands of "alternative or new wave" artist and producers coming from Nigeria, Ghana, Canada, US, and the UK (i.e: Odunsi, Adey, Tay Iwar (Nigeria), Nxwrth, $pacely, Magnom Beats (Ghana), Nonso Amadi (Canada), WurlD and Kahli Abdu (US), Juls, Maleek Berry, Tomi Agape, and yourself included changing the soundscape of music in Africa and the African diaspora. Why do you think that is? And how do you feel being among the many bringing a different sound to the scene?
LADY DONLI: I think alternative music has always existed. Pioneers like Asa, Nneka and Blackmagic brought in a new dimension of sound to Nigeria. However, this sound has always existed, it's just taken people more time to catch onto it because it isn't typically "African". I think people are tired of the norm these days and that's why there's been a shift. Music is interesting in the sense that, there's so much of it. When the industry becomes overpopulated with one specific sound, people go out in search of new sounds and I guess that's what's happening right now. Platforms like Soundcloud have also really helped with music discovery, so I guess it's been a win win. I'm happy to be a part of something I think will become revolutionary. It's only a matter of time.
OU: With the growing popularity of "Afrobeats" (using ever so loosely) as an artist do you feel it aids in the stopping other sounds from surfacing?
LD: Not particularly. Music for me is about expression, so whatever I make will express the way I'm feeling at that particular time. I think that's what music should be about. Regardless of the growth of Afrobeats, artists will still represent themselves however they deem fit and although Afrobeats is popular, there are so many other genres of music. As I said, the music industry is literally an oyster you need to tap into. So no, I don't think it's stopping other sounds from surfacing, the question is are African audiences ready for those new sounds?
OU: With the rise of alternative music in Africa. Does it make the process of making music easier? (i.e: pressure of conformity or that it will be well received). How do you go about writing songs? And does this shift give you a liberty to write candidly (i.e: a style or topics)?
LD: Well no, the process will always be hard. Enjoyable but hard because regardless, you want to put out the best possible piece that you can. As a creative, you're never really done with the piece, you just hope that when you put it out people will appreciate the work you've done. That fear never really goes away. I write music depending on my mood, it can be really random, it can be just me trying to get things off my chest. I don't particularly have a process. It's whatever seems natural at the time. I've always written candidly, so the shift hasn't particularly influenced my writing style. However, these days I'm trying to add a bit of Hausa to my music, just so it goes back to my roots. I think it's important to show people that side of my identity
OU: Do you make music with an African audience in mind?
LD: Sometimes I do, but mostly I don't. I make music in hopes that it will cross borders. It would be nice for my music to be major in Africa because that is home.
OU: Who do you feel dictates the sound? (i.e: producers, artist, dj, etc.)
LD: Hugely depends but I think the DJ. They decide what people hear at the clubs, the shows etc. They're very important to the music culture.
OU: Do you feel there is a responsibility for African musicians to push the "culture" through their work?
LD: I don't think so. As I said earlier, music is about expression. No one should be forced to do anything it takes the brilliance away from creativity. Let people make what they feel, if they'd like to push the "culture" then by all means let them. If they'd rather push some other agenda than they can and should.
OLIVE UCHE: African music production is expanding. You and I could count on our hand the producers changing the soundscape of music - Adey, Odunsi, Juls, and yourself included. Why do you think that is?
NXWRTH: Well, all the producers you named have curated their own sound and can still be considered “African” music with an Afrobeats style.
OU: Does the title “Afrobeats” limit the way artist or producers create music?
NXWRTH: It actually depends on the mindset of the producer because with Afrobeats you can find a bit of Techno, Dubstep, but the main genre is Afrobeats. You can find elements of Hip hop with 808’s in the beat. So, it depends on the person doing it. I just can’t call it Afrobeats.
OU: For some time Nigeria has been reigning supreme when it comes to music. However, there’s been a gradually shift and influence of Ghanaian sound and slang in songs. Why do you think that is? What does that do for Ghana?
NXWRTH: Definitely, music is always regenerating itself. I see it as we are trading culture. It’s a good look for Ghana.
OU: Who do you feel dictates the sound? (i.e: producers, artist, dj, etc.)
NXWRTH: I would go for the producer. At the end of the day it’s the beats that generate the whole song. So, whatever the beat is--that makes the song.
OU: You’re known for being experimental. A lot of your work is trappy but still has a Ghana feel. How much has outside sounds influenced your work and music there?
NXWRTH: A lot, a lot. I really love Trap music! But where I’m from, Trap music is not a big thing so I’m trying to integrate it and create my own sound. Like, Africans are starting to feel the Trap shit but that’s not our main thing so I’m trying fuse it with Afrobeats and create a new sound.
OU: I came across your work on SoundCloud while searching for new music. From there I came across a plethora of Ghana-based musicians like $pacely, RJZ, Kwesi Arthur, and Ground Up Chale changing the soundscape of music in Africa and the African diaspora. Why do you think that is? And how do you feel being among the many bringing a different sound to the scene?
NXWRTH: It feels good because it’s like we’re actually now being heard. And that’s what we’ve always wanted. It’s actually happening. That’s the point of the whole thing. People are actually catching on to the new wave and type of sound so that’s good.
OU: Earlier in the year, Mr. Eazi found himself at the center of controversy when he took to Twitter to express him thoughts on Nigeria’s usage of Ghana’s music style and lack of recognition. What’s your thoughts?
NXWRTH: It's true. But, with the Nigerians they push the sound more but Ghanaians not as much. I feel like Ghanaian artist don’t support each other the way Nigerian artist do. Nigerian musicians always have prodigies under them whereas in Ghana it’s the opposite.