In 2013 journalist Lloyd Bradley published a chronicle of black music in London, Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital tells the story about how fluid immigrant communities have pushed and pioneered new musical styles from Calypso to Lovers Rock and eventually Grime and beyond. Bradley’s book illuminates the impact immigrant communities have had on ‘urban’ culture, and reminds us that these global influences have been present shaping UK music history since the 1920’s.
‘During the first two decades after the second world war, by far the greater proportion of Africans who arrived in London were from Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana.’ Often the punchline of TV comedies, African culture had yet to be fully understood, musically however, they were pioneering a new type of sound: ‘when three Ghanaians, one Nigerian, one Trinidadian, one Grenadian and an Antiguan came together as Osibisa, in a Finsbury Park rehearsal space in 1969, they became the first example of the genuine Londonising of immigrant music. Here was a band aiming, right from the start, to create a sound that came from an African perspective but was of London, rather than simply being in London. The idea was to come out with a fusion of original African drums and Western instruments. Of African melodies, and also the jazz and rock and the Caribbean music and other western music… If something like that was ever going to happen anywhere, it would be in this city, London, because everything it needed could be found here.’
Skip forward to 2017 and it is radio presenter and columnist DJ Edu who’s the satellite orbiting around UK and continental Afrobeats music. Host of the longest running African music show on the BBC: ‘Destination Africa’ on 1Xtra reflects not only the diversity in African culture but opens the door to an entirely different scene, giving his British listeners front row seats as Afrobeats icons are born. “It’s one of those things, for me it’s like a duty. I’m lucky to be in a position that is constant, artists come and go but the DJ is always there. I was born and bred on the continent, I only came out to the UK when I was much older. People might think where did he pop up from? Because I only went to Audio Engineering school here – all my friends were from different parts of the world. That situation made me miss home, what made me comfortable here was the African parties, the independence parties. When you go to them you’re like ‘wow this is home away from home!’ So I fell in love with the music.“
We meet at another long running ‘home away from home’, down in the basement of London’s best known North African restaurant Momo in Mayfair. Its music venue otherwise known as the Black Dice bar is decorated to reflect an authentic Moroccan Souk with plush seating, exotic fixtures, dark recessed lighting and large mirrors combined to create an effortlessly glamorous North African den. And it’s also right here in the underbelly of Mayfair that Edu has frequently played out as a DJ, I ask him what happens when tradition comes up against innovation, “African’s being very cultural, they’ll fight over who has the best Jollof rice for example, so when it comes to music that you’ve grown up on, music that you love the older generation being more cultured and these things being passed on from grandparents to kids you almost cannot mess up with the stories about African culture and passing it on. So when you remix something and switch it from it’s original content to make it something else, it’s kind of like you’re breaking the culture.”
Music is a very integral part of African culture. I think from a spiritual and from a deep African purist point of view that’s why Afrobeats got the stick it did.
So how does Edu define the distinction between Afrobeat versus Afrobeats, “So the little ‘s’ for here in the UK is like oh it’s vibey and it’s a different beat but to some people, it’s how they pass down their stories, this is their culture, how they were brought up, the lessons, how to bring up your family and be a family unit. So Afrobeats seems like it’s altering what took so many years to build – music is a very integral part of African culture. I think from a spiritual and from a deep African purist point of view that’s why Afrobeats got the stick it did.” He continues, “Afrobeat is obviously where the phrase Afrobeats was coined from, and Afrobeat to people like my mum, my dad, my uncles and people around that age who were going out in the ‘70’s is still a big factor to them you know? They fight against this ‘Afrobeats’ terminology. They’ve given up recently because it’s become a different, new wave, and it’s become very different from the sound they used to listen to. The biggest problem they had was it was called Afrobeats and it didn’t have the elements of [traditional] Afrobeat.”
I was always twisting and turning – do the degree for the parents, then live your life.
When African students came to the UK throughout the ‘60’s and ‘70’s they were often only in England long enough to obtain a degree qualification before returning home. Qualifications and conventional academia remain first priority for any African family, be they on the continent or in the diaspora – creative pursuits are barely recognised as legitimate. But, the rise and rise of Afrobeats music and culture over the last 10 years has meant success as a creative is a more palatable dream than before, “I think recently, after some of the success of some of the artists and [Afrobeats] being able to break into places that Afrobeat never got to go – making it commercial, people are making money from it, you know? Idols are being born, it’s creating avenues for people to get work: managers, accountants, lawyers. Like, my parents never wanted me to DJ until I was much later in my life, and my mum was like ‘I should have let him do it’. I thought I’d be a Lawyer because I like to talk a lot, but then my grades took me to Botany. But I was like ‘I’m not studying plants’, then I ended up doing Marketing, and then audio engineering. So you see, I was always twisting and turning – do the degree for the parents, then live your life. But by that time, you know people have been doing it since 14, 15, 16 by the time you’re catching up in your mid to late 20’s, they’re already professionals and you’re just starting out.”
We talk for a while about the state of UK Afrobeats and the nameless fusion genre that’s currently being evolved by artists and producers like Afro B, Omo Frenchie, N2TheA, Niara Marley, Jae 5, J Hus and Kojo Funds. Afro Wave to some, Afro Swing to others, I ask Edu whether these labels are even important? “For me, whatever gets the music out. Doesn’t matter to me, it can be called whatever it’s called. The music has a sound, it has a signature, it comes from a vibe. On the other hand, when you’re trying to sell a product to a commericialised industry it becomes very different and confusing – I mean it’s confusing like that because no one has taken ownership like; [traditional] Afrobeat had pioneers.”
Edu’s ‘Destination Africa’ show thrives on its diversity, he relishes introducing listeners across the UK to the variety on offer in continental Africa and educating listeners on the key distinctions to the music in each African region. “When you hear a song from somewhere in South Africa it doesn’t sound like a song from West Africa. But when you turn on your TV to watch Eurovision, you can tell this is Europe because it sounds so similar it’s just different languages. But it’s cheesy, Pop-y because that’s the template they have in Europe. In Africa: South Africa is House, Angola’s got an edgier, funkier House. West Africa has that JuJu influence, that Shockie, Aztonto vibe. It’s Benga in Kenya, North Africa has Moroccan, ancient Egyptian horns and that kind of vibe coming through. In central Africa it’s Rumba, there’s so many different types and flavours, Africa is like a buffet now and the buffet is on show on social media, you can have a dip and a taste and see what kind of thing you like.”
Technology’s role in bringing people together cannot be overstated and music reaction videos on YouTube are more popular than ever, one platform that has set out to bridge the gap between black youth in the diaspora and those on the continent is the social music sharing channel that goes by the name Ubunifu Space, split between Kenya and the UK this YouTube channel is dedicated to the kind of cultural education and sharing that has only been made possible thanks to advances in technology. Kenyan youth are introduced to UK artists like Wretch 32, Avelino and J Hus, while their UK counterparts are schooled on Rosa Ree and Kama Kawaida. This type of music sharing is easily valuable and more effective than any tone deaf corporate campaign designed to appeal to millennials.
With Funky House, and the kind of Afro-Tribal House that comes from South Africa – just because they come from the House family, doesn’t mean they’re the same
Drake’s recent ‘More Life’ project had people declaring that he had single-handedly resurrected Funky House. The track ‘Get It Together’ featured South African House music hero Black Coffee so I ask for Edu’s take on the idea that Drake had resurrected the Funky House genre: “with Funky House, and the kind of Afro-Tribal House that comes from South Africa – just because they come from the House family, doesn’t mean they’re the same. There are these little sub genres which are very distinct, you know? You can hear a Black Coffee tune and his inspiration, just how he’s put the tune together – it’s construction has references to Kwaito. Old school South African grooves. Kwaito is the backbone of South African House. They loved House, but it didn’t speak to them the way it was. So they slowed it down and added chants and big bass grooves. That became their answer to House.” A sound that was born and evolved completely apart from what we know in the UK as ‘Funky House’, born of the Townships, South African House music, and Black Coffee in particular has done a great deal to shift perceptions of what South Africa has to offer.
Some of the artists have done more for African unity than politicians. Because, politics sort of divides Africa, but these kids come together to collaborate and make friends
DJ Edu’s knowledge is undeniable, as you would expect for a DJ of his calibre he lives for the music and the countless parts that create the whole. His passion is evident immediately, but what makes the conversation more enjoyable is his utter lack of pretension. Edu is a lover of music first and foremost he recognises the power of music in bringing people together, “A lot of stars have been born, and a lot of icons are flying flag Africa, and showing different side to Africa. I always used to tell them before that some of the artists have done more for African unity than politicians. Because, politics sort of divides Africa, but these kids come together to collaborate and make friends right across the continent where before it was very difficult.”
There is only one time during our conversation that Edu bristles, he says he cannot stand this idea that anyone is putting Africa ‘on the map’, “it is on the map. What I don’t like, is when someone says ‘but it’s Africa though’ Jay-Z, Timbaland have been sampling, going to number one, made big hit records with African rhythms. When you listen to Aaliyah and Timbaland productions, it’s all North African, Moroccan vibes. Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’ – Egyptian vibes. Michael Jackson mama say mamakossa. That’s from Cameroon. So, they’ve been borrowing from African music for a long time but just not giving it the credit. But now, when it comes time to give the credit there’s a spin on it – to now say they’re putting it on the map. It’s already on the map, for crying out loud! When you spin the globe, Africa comes up. It’s just that [Africans] are not in [American] circles and the music is not going through the channels they deem relevant – it’s not top 40 or Billboard Hot 100.”
The rise and rise of this new #Afronation is international. From Wizkid’s collaboration with Drake, Ed Sheeran’s gap year experience in Ghana with Fuse ODG, Tekno’s ‘Pana’ and Yemi Alade’s ‘Johnny’ the richness of the African continent is once again coming into focus for a new generation, “especially Africans from the diaspora have become proud to be African again. Before, it was cool to be Caribbean. Dancehall was the thing. So I think [Afrobeats has] just helped break down some of stereotypes and hit the refresh button and show people young Africa. Because a lot of businesses are going there, the labels are going down and setting up shop in Africa, just to be able to tap into this new talent, this new sound that’s so dynamic. It has people moving and shaking, and when you’re selling Africa in the way young people see it, it’s very different to the way a media agency has a preconception of Africa, of ‘poor’ Africa – that child that never grows up that I’ve been seeing. This poor child from Somalia since I was young, they’re still exactly the same age and still asking for money, a dollar a day goes a long way, you know? So the artists and the way they perceive themselves as ‘new’ Africa has brought a big shift in how people are looking at Africa.”