Silk Road Drums

African music and its unexpected influences

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“You hear that?”

A fuzzy clip of South African hit “Eyadini” by Manqonqo plays in the background of my friend Chris’s voice message, which he sent to me via WeChat.

“You hear what the shifu is playing?”

Shifu (师傅) is a polite Mandarin phrase like “sir” or “mister”, but used specifically for blue collar workers such as taxi or Didi drivers (Didi is the Chinese equivalent of Uber).

You could occasionally hear Chinese taxi drivers playing hits like “Eyadini” on the radio. Few people in America, Europe, or even some other African countries would have heard of “Eyadini”. While West African afrobeats has had healthy growth and recognition on the international music scene, South African house or gqom has yet to break out in that way. Still, it was playing on a taxi radio in Shanghai, China.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how African music is constantly evolving. But it was practically old news — the modern afrobeats scene stretches from Lagos to Los Angeles to London and back again, and these highways of information and enthusiasm are now up and constantly running. It is only a matter of time before afrobeats in particular (which is not the only African genre of course) hits some of the same milestones that Korean pop music did, like BTS at the Billboard Music Awards, and we wonder if it can even reach greater heights than that. In 2019, the music industry is very different than years past, possibly in a way that’s good for African music — in an age where a viral TikTok challenge can propel Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus to the top of global music charts, anything is possible.

Yet I have wondered, since the time I spent in Shanghai, if the next frontier for African music might actually be where no one is really looking: Asia, especially China.

Following the Diaspora

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Photo taken from Quartz

First, some context: we all know that African music first follows Africans, spreading as diaspora move around the world. Asia is one overlooked place that has now amassed African diaspora in large numbers, so its no wonder that music and culture should follow them, too.

There are many different diaspora in Asia, but I’ll generalize to two large, important categories which overlap somewhat — working professionals or business people, and students.

The business people are fascinating to me, and the more diverse group of the two. There are the typical and expected — exporters and importers, software engineers, contractors, a never ending supply of young people teaching English and seeking global experiences.

But there are also the lesser known. I was curious when, sitting at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Min Hang district across from a newly-made Tanzanian friend, she was telling me about her time in Malaysia, and how all the nightclubs are run by Nigerian businessmen. Malaysia is, in her opinion, best place to party in all of Asia.

There are Ethiopians in Guangzhou that run restaurants, and people like the Congolese woman who braided my hair. There are many, many creative ways to survive and thrive here, perhaps more so than in the West. Often, rules are a little more flexible, and despite the media’s perspective on big, authoritarian governments like China’s, it is often easier for foreigners to start businesses or work there than in the United States or even Canada.

Furthermore, when I decided to get my hair braided, I was referred to a business on WeChat (Chinese social media) called “Favor Salon”, comprised of freelance braiders who come directly to your home. The service was convenient and inexpensive; I set up the appointment by texting back and forth on WeChat, paying electronically with Alipay. After an hour or so of conversation with the Congolese woman who came to my home, I admired my new cornrows in the mirror. I paid the “owner” of the company that I had been texting on WeChat, who then paid out to the actual braiders.

Different immigration and freedom of movement regulations are what makes this possible. The process in China is somewhat backwards to US immigration — business, tourist, and student visas are generously distributed and easy to renew, but permanent residency or citizenship is near impossible to acquire. That said, permanent status is also functionally unnecessary — I met Cameroonians who had been living in China for 8–10 years on visas and permits with little to no inconvenience in their daily lives.

Traveling around Asia, too, is easier for those with less passport privilege than Westerners. It is easier for an African international student in Shanghai or Tokyo to visit most southeast Asian countries than it is for one studying in New York to drive across the border to Canada.

“Africa is changing China as much as China is Changing Africa”

The fact is, as put by Quartz writer Lily Kuo, “Africa is changing China as much as China is changing Africa”. As far back as 2017, China overtook the US and UK as the top destination for anglophone African international students.

How the culture and music comes with all these people is best illustrated in a dinner conversation I had with Mike Happi, a Cameroonian and IT professional who has been working in Shanghai for the last 8 years. He has worked for French and German companies, and on the day we had dinner, he had just come back from running a marathon in Singapore. He is also one of the founders of Bendo Na Bendo, a nonprofit group that holds monthly Afrobeats parties around Shanghai.

Like everything else in China, Bendo is organized on WeChat.

“There’s a reason we don’t do it every week,” Mike tells me, over ramen at a Japanese Izakaya in Xuhui district. “There are only so many Africans around, and many of them are students. We know that we couldn’t get a big crowd every week, so we hold it less often than that. But still, the group is always growing.”

The events being monthly also help build up anticipation and turn out. In Boston, where I live, clubs and bars are mandated to close at around 2AM. In Shanghai, people would head home at 6 or 7 in the morning. Bendo na Bendo, as well as a few other entertainment initiatives, would play exclusively African and diaspora music.

“We don’t charge anything right now, it’s just for fun. But soon, we think maybe we can charge a little for tickets and raise money for charity back home.” Since I’ve left, Bendo has also started making the events themed around different figures or events in African history.

While the events are mostly diaspora and other expats, the energy inevitably seeps into Chinese society as well — radios in taxis being prime examples. While having lunch with my aunt at a mall downtown, I steal glances at a table across from us, where a young Chinese women is conversing animatedly with her friends — and wearing a dashiki.

Test Grounds and Springboards

China partially credits its economic success to the testing model introduced by Deng Xiaoping, the “special economic zones” that helped China test out and phase in economic modernization slowly. Since then, no policy has ever been implemented across all of China without first being tested in a small province or cohort.

African music, too, has started to use China as a sort of tests grounds.

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While its rare for big-name artists to tour in China, I was surprised when scrolling Instagram I saw a digital poster for Nonso Amadi performing in Hainan Province for the ISY music festival. At the time, Nonso was a lesser-known Alte artist, with a very different sound than the typical Afrobeats vibe. Since his Sanya appearance, he has taken off along with Santi, Odunsi, and others of that new, alternative genre. Audiences are unpredictable and it’s hard to point a single factor contributing to an artists career — but I would argue that Nonso’s Sanya performance was a jumping-off platform, a springboard toward success.

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Performers for the Afrobeats stage at the ISY Music Festival in Sanya

It dawned on me that Asia — a place with Nigerian nightclub owners and a strong diaspora presence, but somehow still often overlooked by Africans — is a good place to test things out. As an artist’s early career begins to ramp up, it is hard to break into mainstream audiences and big stages in New York or London. But how about Beijing instead?

A digital poster for A-Star’s performance in Beijing

“24/7 I Be Dancing”

Last but perhaps most important, how could we ever forget that African music and African dance are tightly intertwined.

There, too, you can see indicators of African music’s expansion into Asia. More people take up Afrobeats dance as hobbies and share their work on Instagram — fueled, again, by the diaspora who are there.

@salim_murekezi is a dancer on instagram, often pictured in collaborations with local @xiaxuxiying

Again, lesser known genres seem to have more room to breathe in this environment. Kizomba dance from Angola, which I had never heard of, was a popular activity among expats of all nations and some adventurous Chinese in Shanghai.

Suffice to say that I will be watching closely for more indicators of this interesting progression in African music.

You heard it here first ✌️

Written by

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

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