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How the Grammys Came to Celebrate African Music

The explosion of Afrobeats has been one of the biggest stories in the music industry over the past five years, with acts like Burna Boy, Davido, Asake, and Tems becoming global superstars. As Africa’s musical imprint around the world continues to become more prominent, its artists now have a Grammy category all to themselves: Best African Music Performance. 

“It makes sense, given that reggae or spoken word have their own categories,” says Gracey Mae, a U.K.-based PR and marketing consultant and Recording Academy member who co-authored the proposal for the award. “It just felt like it was the right time to celebrate African music.”

Afrobeats has been represented at the Grammys recently — with Burna Boy winning Best Global Music Album in 2021, and nominations for both him and Wizkid in the Best Global Music Performance category since that award was introduced two Grammys ago. But the genre has seen major growth as a commercial force not just overseas but in the U.S. In June, Rema’s remix of “Calm Down” featuring Selena Gomez reached Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100.

“African music is now on a global stage, where we’re mainstream,” says Mae. “Afrobeats provided that extra vim and boldness everyone needed. That spiked into TikTok, Instagram, the Billboard charts, and music festivals.” In 2023, Burna Boy appeared at Coachella for a second time — far higher on the bill than in 2019 — and headlined day one of the Afro Nation Miami festival. 

A category specifically for African music gives the Grammys a chance to recognize those accomplishments while (potentially) opening room in Best Global Music Performance for other international acts to get recognition as well.

“I don’t think any human can deny the fact that the music has exploded. It exploded in the U.K. first and then it made its way to the United States, and we’re seeing artists selling out arenas,” Shawn Thwaites, a genre manager at the Recording Academy, said of separating African music from the broader Global Music Performance category. “Afrobeats — and other genres as well — have become pop, in a sense.”

Going into the 66th Grammys, the inaugural nomination slate is Asake and Olamide‘s “Amapiano,” Burna Boy’s “City Boys,” Davido’s “Unavailable” featuring Musa Keys, Ayra Starr’s “Rush,” and Tyla‘s “Water.” The category gives African artists assured representation at what remains music’s most prestigious award ceremony, but some insiders express concern that this new Grammy category may not fully recognize Africa. Afrobeats has taken off commercially in the mainstream music industry, which is increasingly focused on global stars, whether they’re from Nigeria or South Korea. As such, Afrobeats may showcase the artists most recognizable to Grammy voters in the U.S., but it’s one genre among many on the African continent — one genre among many just in Nigeria and Ghana, where Afrobeats is rooted. 

“There are people in East Africa that are killing it, people in French Africa who are breaking into France and other parts of Europe, but they’re not playing French African music on the radio in Nigeria,” says Aibee Abidoye, executive vice president at Nigerian record label Chocolate City Music Group. “Think of other parts of Africa like Ghana — they have great Afrobeats, but it isn’t in English fully, so they may be at a disadvantage.”

Burna Boy

Simple Stupid*

Indeed, each nomination in the category was an English-language track and was mainly Afrobeats or amapiano, the South African House genre that’s grown increasingly popular over the past several years.

A key step in better representing the African diaspora, Abidoye says, is expanding Recording Academy membership. “They’re getting more members from other parts of Africa, that’s for sure,” she says. “But I don’t think that we have enough Africans represented on the board to make very informed decisions about the music from Africa.” 

Still, as Abidoye says, “I’m more on the optimistic side, largely because there’s something about being represented that makes all of us understand that we can do it.”

Thwaites acknowledged that Afrobeats is the most popular genre coming from the continent right now, also mentioning amapiano, but said the award also focused on recognizing the diversity of African music. 

“We spoke with African leaders in the academy about all of those nuances and the naming of the category,” he says. “It couldn’t be called just Afrobeats because there’s 54 countries in Africa, so we have to pay homage to all of them. We just have to respect what’s coming out of the continent.”

Mae, who is also on the academy’s recruitment team for Africa, agrees that the academy wants more representation from across the continent and calls the award a first step in what she hopes will be a wider swath of genres. 

“This should be the start of something new,” Mae says. “We’ve seen with other categories, it starts with one and expands to something bigger.” She notes the emergence of the Latin Grammys 23 years ago, when Latin music first began to make its mainstream commercial breakthrough. “I’m hoping African music will follow suit. There’s over 60 genres on the continent. If we could get to a place where there’s Best African Male, Best African Female, Best African Rap, Best East, South African, I feel like that will help with translating the music past the borders of the continent and shine a light more accurately on the amazing artists doing amazing work.”

Still, with 94 Grammy categories for the upcoming awards — the most since before the Recording Academy shrunk to 78 from a bloated 109 more than a decade ago — the academy is careful about adding categories when appropriate, and it’s not clear if more will come right away.

“I think we need to take it one step at a time,” Thwaites says. “I think we need to see how it all plays out, just how this played out. To add different categories isn’t taken lightly. We have 94 already, so we have to see how it plays out and move accordingly.”

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