Lyor's Letter: The makings of a movement — talking Afropop with Tuma Basa

Aug 16, 2018 - Lyor's Letter

One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in the past five years or so is the rise of Afropop—mixing genres from around the continent, from Afrobeats in Nigeria to Gqom in South Africa—on the global stage. If you take the 25 most watched Sub-Saharan-Africa artists on YouTube, more than 70% of their views come from outside Africa. I’m really proud that YouTube has become the mainline for African artists to connect all over the globe, just as it is for Latin music.

We’re also excited to introduce you to Tuma Basa, who we brought onto the YouTube team this year. He was born in Congo, originally from Rwanda, but grew up between the States and Zimbabwe. We sat down to discuss what’s happening in Afropop and why YouTube is helping enable a global movement. Here are a few things we think you should be watching.

Lyor Cohen
Tuma Basa

What’s Happening in Afropop

Tuma: The way Atlanta is prolific in hip hop, Lagos is that place for Afrobeats. Undisputed, undefeated. Part of that success is due to numbers. There are over 190 million people in Nigeria and around 1.2 billion in Africa and that number doesn’t even include the diaspora.

Lyor: I have my own history with Africa. My family lived in Nigeria for over two decades. My brother was born there. Here’s the thing about Nigeria: If you cut a French person open, they’ll bleed cinema. It’s like that with music in Nigeria. It’s just part of your day, all day. It’s a vital element.

Tuma: The story of French Montana’s video for “Unforgettable”, which now has 740 million views, is a great example of how influential the culture has become. The song clearly has an Afrobeats

vibe and he shot the video in Uganda after seeing a YouTube video of the Triplet Ghetto Kids dancing to Eddy Kenzo’s “Sitya Loss”. He literally flew to Uganda to find these kids. Its influence is profound in the Afroswing movement in the UK and Afrotrap in France. Who can forget when Drake and Wizkid’s “One Dance” song went #1 on Billboard. How much more evidence is needed in terms of the crossover potential of Afropop?

How YouTube has become African Music’s Mainline

Tuma: The thing with African music is that there has always been barriers to entry. There’s no barriers to entry on YouTube. You can upload, you can put songs out. And with video on YouTube, you can see the culture, you can see the dances, which is so important. It’s the dances that are helping the sound of Africa to spread. The most streamed video out of this scene, “Johnny” by Yemi Alade, has almost 100 million views and it was fan dances that helped it go viral. Part of what made the Childish Gambino “This is America” video so dope was the Gwara Gwara and Shaku Shaku dances incorporated by choreographer Sherrie Silver (my fellow Rwandan). Shout-out to her. And Shout-out to Rihanna for dancing Gwara Gwara at the Grammys last year. She did that.

Lyor: Afropop is making clearer that melody is the international language of music, of culture in general. It’s like the beat is beating from one village to another, from the diaspora in Houston, which has a big Nigerian population, to Lagos. There’s a direct flight connecting those two places now, but there’s also a musical culture connecting them. We are seeing in Africa what we saw in Asia over the last few years: millions of people flocking to the internet, which means a lot of new people accessing, creating and sharing music on YouTube. YouTube is a mainline between everywhere.

Tuma: Yes - YouTube is really the enabler here, it opens the world of African music, beyond just the sound of it. Especially African youth culture. Growing up, the African music that was popular in the States was more folky music that was labeled “World Music.” The kind of music that Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel liked. But now it’s what the streets like. What the youth likes. The youth of the continent and their cousins in the diaspora. That western co-sign doesn’t determine what pops off. The youth on Youtube determines that now.

Why It’s Essential to Plug in to Afropop

Lyor: If you are not clued in to the Afropop movement, you are missing so much. Africa is setting the tempo all around the globe. And, by the way, we need this: Streaming is fantastic, but it does concern me that all over the world a lot of us are listening to the same things. I think people still want the real thing - this is why African music is spreading. Just look at Burna Boy and the video for his song “Ye”. The blend of sounds, the homage to Fela, the message of tenacity—it’s a style and perspective we don’t see everyday, an exciting moment that feels really true to who he is as an artist, and it’s making a mark everywhere.

Tuma: For the first time this year, the BET Awards televised their International Act category. The category already existed, it was just always presented off-camera. It was a big moment because before it was kind of like how the Grammy for Hip Hop wasn’t presented on-air back in the day. I'm old enough to remember Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince boycotting the Grammys despite winning. Well Davido won and he used the platform to give a heartwarming speech. Acknowledging former G.O.O.D. music artist, D’Banj, who helped pave the way.

Lyor: This is not the first generation to do this. Whether it's Fela or King Sunny Ade or Brenda Fassie, Africa has always been a net exporter of really high quality music. But now, I believe it’s become much more accessible. You can be in the African continent, and YouTube is your mainline all over the globe. The music world should just jump on it.

With love and respect,

Tuma and Lyor.