Award winning musicians in the mould of Skepta, Stormzy, Sampha and Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Lethal B represent the tip of a much deeper iceberg when it comes to the music of the UK’s diaspora. It goes back to the 1970’s London’s Soul scene which made a dramatic shift away from American Soul and had much more of a ‘London’ flavour in the sound. ‘The bands were not just taking the American sound but creating something that was distinctly British… using the influences from Africa and the Caribbean as well as the States.’ Lloyd Bradley’s chronicle notes. Some 47 years on, traditional Afrobeat heritage and Caribbean influences continue to shape a new generation of UK musicians, while the shadow of American Hip-Hop looms over much of ‘Black culture’.
The ferocious early days of Grime have mellowed into commercial success and in its place a cross pollination of both African and Caribbean heritage in London has begun to take shape and rise up from the underground. This new wave of British African musicians are taking ownership of a new scene: Moelogo, J Hus, Jae5, G.A. and Kojo Funds may be amongst the best known currently, but under the surface a slew of other artists and producers have been working together collaboratively, laying the foundations for a genuine reinterpretation of Afrobeats music that speaks to a new generation.
As one of the earliest promoters of UK Afrobeats, Afro B has witnessed the scene’s evolution from a ground level. Born in London to Ivorian parents, Afro B started out as a DJ before making the transition to recording artist. When we met up in Greenwich, South East London, Afro B recalled where it all started: “A club called NW10, that’s where I built my fanbase, because at that time no one was really pushing the African sound. It was all Bashment, Bashment, Bashment, Hip-Hop, Hip-Hop, Hip-Hop, so I came with my set and that’s what separated me from the other DJ’s.” it was around 2012 / 2013 that, “the sound for UK Afrobeats was kind of Azonto-y funky.”
UK Afrobeats mix and blend all of the cultural and musical reference points the millennial generation has grown up with through the ‘90’s. Tracks like Beenie Man’s ‘Girls Dem Sugar’, Mr. Vegas’ ‘Heads High’, Wayne Wonder’s ‘No Letting Go’ and Sean Paul’s ‘Like Glue’ are just some of the popular songs that combined together make the soundtrack to many teenage years. Added to this, the P. Diddy era of ‘90’s R’n’B followed by the rise and fall some of America’s most memorable vocal groups, Jodeci, Boys II Men, SWV and TLC amongst them.
Unlike the segregation seen in America, the UK’s working class boroughs have always been made up of a mixture of nationalities whether they are Turkish, Greek, Jamaican or African. Children of immigrants live together alongside white working class families on estates, going through school together, growing up, getting married and starting families of their own. So it’s no surprise UK Afrobeats artists reference the popular Caribbean and American influences they’ve been immersed in since childhood. What we see with UK Afrobeats is the fruit from years of cultural mixing being voiced by musicians finally old enough to express themselves.
As a musician who is always looking to go left and find his own originality Afro B began releasing music as well as putting on events and DJing. His first tune was a song with both Tribal Man and Omo Frenchie entitled ‘Oh My’ which was followed by ‘Sweet Cocoa’, “at that time everyone was kind of doing the fast stuff, so I think that’s why the song took off because it was different to what everyone was used to, I don’t like following fashion so, I laid that one down and then I released a tune for French speaking people. Most artists are either Ghanaian or Nigerian so I was only hearing Yoruba or Twi – that’s all I was hearing, and I was thinking there’s nothing for us to like, represent. You get me? That’s when I did a tune called ‘Decalè’. It’s a well known dance in Ivory Coast. Well, it’s like a genre – like, proper upbeat.”
“At that time, because I was a DJ not everyone took me serious as an artist. Cause they think ‘why’s he trying to make tracks?’ Do you know what I mean? So I kept on having to drop hits to prove it’s not a fluke.” By consistently running and promoting his own events across the country at University Union’s Afro B harnessed the interest of students outside of London and began to introduce them to the genre gearing up to be the next big thing. “I had to keep on releasing tracks to prove what I was doing made sense, and I’m actually good at what I’m doing. And that came with time, I think people respect the hustle.”
When it comes to growth in the UK Afrobeats scene however, Afro B still sees the potential: “In this country it’s not as big as it could be because there’s not many of us here.” Unlike the tribal crew rivalries in the days of Heartless Crew, Pay As You Go Cartel and So Solid Crew; the UK Afrobeats scene is a lot more collaborative, “everyone’s cool like, we’re all from South – if we see each other it’s all cool. My first collab was with Tribal Man and Frenchie.” Afro B met Tribal Man in what he calls his ‘skanking times’: “I turned up to one of his video shoots, I was a fan of his song Tribal Man.” Omo Frenchie, Tribal Man, N2TheA and Naira Marley are some of the artists and producers alongside Afro B that have been experimenting with the boundaries of Afrobeats music alongside the better known names like G.A., Kojo Funds, Timbo, Sneakbo, Moelogo, J Hus and Jae5.
The UK kind of wave stuff, what everyone else is doing is a fusion of Hip-Hop, elements of Dancehall, Afrobeats melodies from the vocalist, Dancehall melodies, references from R’n’B tracks.
“I call it Afrowave,” he says when I ask what this nameless genre is, “but to be honest I would just call it fusion coz it’s a mix of every sound. But ‘fusion’ sounds kinda dead. UK Afrobeats is more authentic, it’s more like what you would hear back home, it’s quite traditional and you hear more of the traditional language. The UK kind of wave stuff, what everyone else is doing is a fusion of Hip-Hop, elements of Dancehall, Afrobeats melodies from the vocalist, Dancehall melodies, references from R’n’B tracks. It’s just everything fused into one – it’s just a vibe.”
Like his recently released ‘Afrowave EP’, Afro B brought together the best strands of UK Afrobeats music and the other ‘fusion’ elements that have been turning heads in recent months, “I worked with my producers Team Salut, N2TheA – in a way, he kind of invented the sound because a lot of the UK Afrobeats guys were going to him for beats. That’s how it started off – he makes it easier for the fusion to happen, he doesn’t use authentic sounds. He’ll use elements of Dubstep or Hip-Hop or Dancehall in one instrumental. He kicked it off with a guy called G.A. who currently produces for Kojo Funds. There was a phase where Timbo was making a lot of noise with Sneakbo.” He continues, “You know what the guy who kind of kicked off this wave yeah, but people don’t recognise it is a guy called Naira Marley cause he made a tune called ‘Marry Juana’. So he was rapping over this dancehall instrumental and at the time that was just different to everyone and that blew up.”
Much like DJ Edu, Afro B saw his role as a DJ as more than just a party starter, he felt it was up to him to show audiences what else was available outside Bashment and Hip-Hop. “I had a show called ‘Afrobeats with Afro B’, I had it trending weekly, and that was just pushing the sound in the UK. My good friend Kenny Allstar, he had a show on [Reprezent] already, what made my show different to everyone else’s is that I promoted UK Afrobeats. I had [artists] in as guests, I had them do cyphers – all of that.”
Afro B takes me back to his time as a DJ in the days before the success of his radio show, “obviously when I started DJing it was predominantly Bashment. So literally, my sets, yeah they would be 10-15 minutes long. I’d be lucky if I got 15 minutes! But now there’s clubs that play Afrobeats, you can have sets up to an hour playing the genre so the time says everything like, how much it’s developed over time. But definitely when I started like seven year ago DJing it was hard. I couldn’t play Afrobeats everywhere. There were some venues where they didn’t like it at all, that’s when the dance floor would just scatter – I had some shocking times! I was clearing dance floors, there was a bit of space at a few places still – I was sweating! But if you don’t play it [people] won’t learn init? And look where it’s at today I think the UK as a culture has accepted the African as much as the Caribbean now especially because of the culture we bring there’s a lot of us, our sound can kind of gel to the Caribbean sound.”
The release of the ‘AfroWave’ mixtape continues to silence critics, Afro B’s ‘Juice and Power’ featuring Yxng Bane has already been labelled as one of the sounds of summer 2017. At well over 200,000 streams, it’s safe to say Afro B’s ‘Afrowave’ is doing numbers. His latest, a feature on Da Beatfreakz ‘Quavo’ alongside Sneakbo, Moelogo and Sona is just another rung on Afro B’s ladder to the success he wants for himself.
Afro B’s AfroWave mixtape is out now and he’s also curated ‘MOVES: The Sounds Of UK Afrobeats’, the compilation which is released on May 19th featuring Belly Squad, Harlem Spartans, NSG, IRAY MVMT, Vianni, Naira Marley and many more.