It’s a fascinating and complicated time to be an Afropop lover, with so many people outside of Africa joining the ranks. Consider Afrobeats, a broad subgenre under the even broader umbrella of African pop, which earned 2.5 billion streams by the midpoint of 2023, per Luminate, an entertainment analytics company. That represented a 34 percent jump in streams over the year before. All of this newfound attention has made for great music, collaborations, and IRL spaces to jam — from Atlanta to Amsterdam to Abuja — but has also raised concerns around ownership, opportunities, and who gets acclaim.
In February, the Grammys will present its first award specific to African music. About six decades ago, way-makers like South African singer Miriam Makeba and Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti were crossing borders and gaining a U.S. audience, right as the Grammy Awards were getting off the ground. While the appetite for African music has only grown stronger since “Pata Pata” and Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos, it’s taken the Recording Academy all this time to recognize it formally. This is likely because the past few years in particular have been full of back-to-back milestones for African artists and fans, people who are connecting more quickly and deeply than ever before.
2024 is set to be another major year in the world of Afropop. Here’s what we’re wondering about its immediate future.
What does Tems have up her sleeve?
We’re anxiously awaiting Tems’ debut album, which she recently told The Cut was in its final stages ahead of the holidays. After last year’s Grammys, Ghanaian producer GuiltyBeatz (a close collaborator with whom she co-wrote Beyoncé’s “Move” on Renaissance) told Rolling Stone that he’s executive producing the record. She’s dropped two singles, “Me & U” and “Not An Angel,” which are both spiritual and gorgeous but haven’t created the fervor of her hit “Free Mind” or breakthrough feature on Wizkid’s “Essence” (yet). Those are high bars — Tems’ unforgettable chorus on “Essence” propelled her to her rightful place among the stars and the Top 10 of the Hot 100, a rare feat for Afrobeats and the first of its kind with 10-year veteran artist Wizkid at the helm. Then, if it felt like her solo single “Free Mind” was everywhere, it’s because it was. It was a standout on her first EP, 2020’s For Broken Ears, but gained a fervent following after “Essence” blew up in 2021. It spent over four months as Number One on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, meaning it was constantly on Black radio in America. The song is a testament to her grounded lyricism and ethereal energy, and a reminder that sometimes Tems’ music catches on in a slow burn rather than a quick blaze.
Are women taking the lead?
Though they haven’t had a level playing field, women like Tems, Tyla, Libianca, Ayra Starr, and Amaarae have shepherded a significant share of Afropop’s U.S. breakthrough. Together, the women have earned well over 2 billion streams combined, much of that over just the past four years. All five artists take cues from Nigerian pop (Tems and Starr are Nigerian themselves), and the country’s integral music industry has historically been a difficult one for women, according to many folks on the ground. You can still see it in the charts today: According to Spotify data, not a single woman ranked in the Top 10 most streamed artists in Nigeria in 2023, despite Ayra Starr and Tems being two of the entire continent’s most exported artists. Starr and Libianca were the two of the platform’s most globally streamed Afrobeats artists.
Across his work, Rolling Stone contributor Nelson C.J. tracks these disparities, and artists and executives have reported that men leading Afrobeats operations have been culturally and financially hesitant to invest in women. “Women have to spend as much time curating a conventionally acceptable image, being pretty or sexually attractive, as they do trying to make good music,” writes C.J. “It is a situation their male counterparts aren’t necessarily subjected to.” Starr is currently the only woman signed to Mavin Records, her storied Nigerian label. There were only two before her, Tiwa Savage and the lesser-known Dija. Tems herself has spoken to her industry’s inequity: “If I had the power, I will just open everybody’s eyes and they will realize for themselves the differences that will happen when women are given more opportunities,” she’s said. “And the magic will be made.”
Who will have the biggest breakout year?
Recent history has been marked by explosive years for a handful of Afrobeats stars, often just one or two at a time. In 2021, on the heels of “Essence” mania and a year after dropping his fourth and greatest album to date, Made in Lagos, Wizkid, a stalwart in the scene, hit a career pinnacle with finally-firm crossover success in the U.S. That was followed in 2022 by the world obsessing over Tems’ solo work after falling in love with her vital “Essence” contributions. Simultaneously, Asake was everywhere with his blend of both traditional and more modern Nigerian music and elements from the burgeoning amapiano phenomenon. Finally, after many great songs (several better than “Calm Down”) since his debut nearly five years ago, Rema broke all kinds of records, including becoming the first African artist as a lead to earn over a billion streams for one song on Spotify. He was the platform’s most exported African artist of 2023, the company tells us.
Two acts that may be in the lead when it comes to the 2024 race to the top are Ayra Starr and Libianca. Starr, a Generation Z goddess with vocal chops and oodles of style, scored a major hit with her casually inspirationally song “Rush,” which earned her a nomination for the inaugural Grammy for African Music Performance. But it still doesn’t quite seem like she’s had her widest breakthrough, even after a magnificent debut album and deluxe, standout feature on Wizkid’s More Love, Less Ego, and an impressive but modest North American tour. We’ve been saying she’s The One since the summer of 2021 — maybe this is the year that becomes unmistakable.
Libianca is a Cameroonian-American singer also has serious pipes and has complimented them with her striking vulnerability. After an adolescence dedicated to music and a spin as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice, she branched out into making Afro soul of her own. “People,” an emotional ode to loneliness and depression, was one of the biggest songs of 2023, earning well over 708 million streams across the original (which dropped in late 2022) and its remixes. This doesn’t count the myriad more popular ways music moves around the world, particularly in Africa.
We’re also keeping an eye on:
- Omah Lay (sad and sensual crooner with crazy melodic capacities)
- Bloody Civilian (an edgy Nigerian singer-songwriter who produces all her own stuff)
- Crayon (a lilting lover boy, consistent with two standouts over the past two years — “Ijo (Laba Laba)” and “Ngozi” with label mate Ayra Starr)
- Odumodublvck (brash rapper from Abuja signed to legendary hip-hop label Def Jam with a partnership with Native Records)
What’s in store for rap out of Africa?
Speaking of Odumodublvck — whose slick “Declan Rice” was one of our top Afropop songs of 2023 — he, plus fellow Nigerian rappers like Blaqbonez and Shallipopi (who’s been breaking out recently with hard-hitting bangers like “Cast” featuring Odumodublvck), are putting on for a new generation of African hip-hop. Burna Boy earned a Grammy nomination outside of the Global and African categories this year, for Best Melodic Rap, on behalf of his strictly hip-hop “Sittin’ on Top of the World” with 21 Savage. This is a testament to the borderless prowess of the continent. Phyno, a Nigerian rapper who’s performed in Igbo over his 20-year career, seems to be off to a great start this year with a remix of his dark and bold song “Do I” featuring Burna Boy.
Blaqbonez released a solid album last year, and Ghanaian sensation Black Sherif told a frantic hometown crowd of tens of thousands of people at the Afrofuture Festival that he’s working on his next record. From South Africa, Nasty C is good for a feel-good rap track, and producer Tyler ICU, perhaps best known at the moment for amapiano anthems “Mnike” and “Dalie,” has also been bridging the dance genre with rap. From Kenya, we’re obsessed with slick talker Sabi Wu, who goes crazy mashing Nairobi hip-hop and East Coast club rap on his song “Mi Na Wewe.”
Will Afropop become a pillar of festival season?
Tems, Tyla, and DJ Spinall will play Coachella this year, following South African amapiano DJ Uncle Waffles and Sierra-Leonean-British actor/DJ Idris Elba on the bill last spring. Last year, Glastonbury saw Wizkid headline one of its largest stages, too. According to Luminate, Afrobeats fans in particular spend 121 percent more money per month than the average U.S. music listener on music items and experiences like concerts and festivals, leaving fertile ground and abundant opportunity for entertainment companies to build a customer base. African entrepreneurs are building their own platforms too. This December, Afrofuture put on a premium music festival with a range of African artists and activations in Accra, Ghana. Its co-founder and CEO Abdul Karim Abdullah wrote on X that over 40,000 people attended. Afro Nation, a competitor, has serious potential, with seemingly successful fests in Miami and Detroit last year, though it had rocky reports come out of its festivals in Portugal and Puerto Rico with patrons complaining of disorganization. Editions in Nigeria and Mexico have previously been canned.
Where else will amapiano go – and what will it bring with it?
Amapiano is one of the strongest and most influential scenes to emerge out of Africa in recent years, and it is everywhere. Its origins and heartbeat come from South Africa, and its elements are now in three out of five songs nominated for the African Music Performance Grammy — it’s even the name of one. These tracks, though, aren’t particularly pure amapiano, which has its own distinct patterns of horns, shakers, maximalist percussion, and minimalist chords. Asake’s “Amapiano,” Davido and Musa Keys’ “Unavailable,” and Tyla’s “Water” — all African Performance Grammy nominees — are far more like fusions, implementing the genre’s signature log drum and select styles in mashups of Afrobeats, R&B, and more.
South African music journalist and Rolling Stone contributor Madzadza Miya notes this is likely becoming a phenomenon in part because many artists, especially from Nigeria, are not necessarily working with South African producers on their tracks. In turn, these fusions have influenced artists from even farther away, like Kali Uchis, whose “Diosa” has just the faintest air of amapiano. South Africa is an emerging market with massive growth potential — streaming is skyrocketing there and interest in English-language music is declining, according to figures from Luminate. This year, will the amapiano originators and their South African peers get the shine and spots they deserve as the source?
What will happen to the Big Three?
Having emerged around roughly the same time over a decade ago, Davido, Wizkid, and Burna Boy have become synonymous with Afrobeats. After his breakthrough Grammy win in 2022 for Best Global Album following Twice as Tall, Burna Boy is up four awards in four different categories this year. He kicked off a U.S. arena tour in November that will pick back up next month following a break around the holidays. In the spring of 2022, he became the first Nigerian artist to headline New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Wizkid followed with his first turn on the MSG headline marquee that November. We’ve already listed some of his major accolades and influence, and he’s been a steady, reliable hitmaker for Afropop lovers since his 2011 debut, Superstar. He released an excellent EP, S2, in late December, though it hasn’t yet felt as ubiquitous as the star can be. Last March, he postponed his impending More Love, Less Ego tour to the fall, but the run never came to fruition.
Davido will take his turn at MSG this April, following shows at London’s O2 Arena and Paris’ Accor Arena. He’ll later hit Montreal and Orlando. His album Timeless was one of 2023’s best, and the single “Unavailable” was met with a viral dance and much enthusiasm. His Grammy nod for the song is his first.
But we say all this to say: While the giants are roaming, the landscape is changing as streaming democratizes and widens it. In every genre, the era of the mega-superstar may be coming to an end, with far more niche artists on the rise. How big can the Big Three stay?