African Music is Evolving

New genres with new flavors

It is understood that black American music has many different genres — rap, r&b, trap, etcetera —so pervasive that people forget some genres originated in black culture, like jazz, or rock and roll which diverged from jazz and blues. To get really philosophical, almost all music originates from Africa, almost all basic concepts of musical instruments — strummed strings, bowed strings, wind instruments, drums — originated in Africa, because it is the cradle of humanity itself.

But when will people come to see modern African music as diverse and broad-reaching as it is? Not just one genre but many — Afrobeats, Gqom, Bongo and the new, yet unnamed genres that have been budding and flowering this spring.

Modern African music, too, is evolving. In the short time that has elapsed since I wrote “Why you should listen to modern African Music”, categories are splitting in half, niche groups and artists are attracting larger followings, and momentum is coming from the places you least expect.

Artist Santi (left) behind the scenes on a music video (via instagram)

Lastly, a tangent: I have been compelled to write these posts because, everywhere I look to see articles or thoughts on African music, I’ve been disappointed. Where is the analysis? Where are deep dives of influences from pop culture blending with the artist’s personal background, where is the literary analysis of lyrics, where is the comparison of bass lines with traditional music and present trends? I have not been able to find the New-Yorker-style artist profiles that I would desperately want to read, or the sophisticated breakdowns that people do of American rap albums on YouTube. Where is an accessible voice who can tell me where African music came from and where it is going? An entire Vox video was devoted to “Lemon” by N.E.R.D ft. Rihanna and its relationship with New Orleans bounce, where is this kind of content for African music? If it does exist somewhere please point it my way, but for now, I feel I have to create it myself.

Most importantly, we need writers, we need authoritative critics in African music, because that is what will shape how the culture influences the masses, from audiences to artists. That is what gives categories names, defines genres, gives people words to talk about themselves, gives artists words with which to market themselves. Right now, we are floating along a loud din of voices, from big platforms like Spotify to little blogs like my own, and its creating confusion and dispersion — seen most clearly in the lack of a clear, official name for the child of Afrobeats, this new emerging genre.

An Argument for Alté

Afrobeats is splitting down the middle — or maybe it has always had two sides of itself, but one is becoming more pronounced, more popular, and is fighting for its official name.

The genre of Afrobeats, rooted in West African flavors, has always had high BPM, dance and party-ready hits in addition to slower, more melodic songs, meant purely for listening rather than moving. But the slower side has been steadily evolving and taking over my Instagram feed and Spotify playlists. I saw it when Kobi Jonz opened for a Mr Eazi show, when Nonso Amadi’s “Emergency” got landed on two playlists, Spotify’s “Afro Pop” and “Alte Cruise”.

Spotify describes this as “the contemporary new wave of alternative, genre-bending afro-fusion music” but I think rather than “genre-bending” it is becoming it’s own genre altogether, with defined rules. It’s just that one of those rules is not following the rules — but the sound is still there, still specific.

People have been floundering for words — Nonso and many others describe themselves as R&B which I find a little inaccurate, and “afro-fusion” feels like yet another Western broad-faced misnomer for what is actually a more specific and defined sound. (Plus I hate that term “fusion” with what, exactly?)

“Afrofusion” is one name floating out there for this genre, but I vote for Alté, pronounced “Alt-ay”. There’s a growing popularity of this kind of soft-beat, alternative vibe popular with Odunsi and Juls. Referred to as either “Alte” or “Alté” (with the accent), this term is fighting with “afrofusion” to be the official title of this new flavor, and has been referenced by music writers and critics. But Alté is referenced by those local to the source of the music, where “afrofusion” seems to be originating from places like Spotify and Western DJs.

I wish I were popular enough to coin something the way that a European DJ coined “afrobeats”, but I can at least advocate for this term (Alté) and this genre. The “é”, the accent, is a subtle mark that provides the afro-flavor to this genre, makes it not simply the Western “alt” music. It gives it some connection to its predecessor, Afrobeats, which was distinguished from Fela Kuti’s “afrobeat” with a simple “s”.

I hope that whatever the name ends up being, giving distinct terms for our music will in turn provide distinction and recognition, rather than leaving me floundering trying to explain to others that not all African music is the same, and it’s not all afrobeats.

Examples of Alté artists: Kobi Jonz, Nonso Amadi, Odunsi, Sarz, WurlD, LADIPOE, Santi

Examples of Alté songs: “Tonight” by Nonso, “O Gbono” by Kobi, “Tipsy” by Odunsi, “Sparky” by Santi, “Liar” by Tolani

A note: Sarz, the father of the global afrobeats sound, can of course do many genres, but recently produced “Ego” by WurlD among others, perhaps an indicator of the growth of Alté. In my eyes (or rather, ears?) Kobi Jonz and perhaps Juls also straddle the space between Alté and Afrobeats, but always providing good vibes.

I’m sure some of these artists might argue they are something else entirely, and certainly I’m not trying to put people into boxes — artists can express multiple genres and experiment with different sounds. But so far, the Alté vibe is what I get from them. Feel free to disagree — I want to know what everyone else thinks, too.

While most of these artists are Nigerian, there’s evidence this type of sound is growing in popularity in other places too. Look at the rise of South African Sun El Musician (a personal favorite) who took Gqom’s intense, bass-heavy tendencies and mellowed them out, soothed them with soft vocals and melancholy lyrics.

On a final note, I love Santi’s Spotify bio as a clear argument for why the genre should be called Alté. He cites Blink182 and Vampire Weekend as influences, along with Fela and Shabba Ranks. How much more alternative — or more pan-African— can you get?

Forecasting New Genres

There’s other things that I don’t know what to call, but I have a feeling will grow in prevalence and popularity. What’s “Uyo Meyo” by Teni? It’s softer and slower but it’s not Alté, it actually feels more traditional. When I heard “Lenge Lenge” by Patoranking, it somehow reminded me of the drum-focused, call-and-response music from my childhood, and present across many different African countries and cultures. I realized as much as the West African music scene has started exploring new and futuristic sounds, there’s also been a reach back into roots, a respect for tradition, a few attempts to bring the deeply cultural sounds or even instruments back into the fold.

“Jealous” by Fireboy DML gave me that same, almost nostalgic feeling but in a completely different way. The instruments, the beat — it feels more traditional too. Paired with modern visuals in the music video, it seems to communicate that cultural roots have a solid place in modern Africa — and of course it does, but it’s good to see artists waking up to the idea more and more.

On a completely different note, there’s also an emerging category of diaspora music, like Kelela and VanJess.

The dance routine at 0:56 in this VanJess music video contains some classic afro dance moves— the Gweta is clearly identifiable, and other motions familiar from viral dance challenge videos, whether vaguely modified or distinct. The sound is almost Alte but a little too American, characterized by Kaytranada collabs, in English, no accent. What place will this creative form have in the future of African music, as the diaspora, too, embrace the genre, the culture, the title, but add in their own flavors to the mix?

Let me know if you have observed any similar trends, or have any predictions for what else is coming next…

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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