Advances in technology have levelled the playing field when it comes to granting aspiring musicians the opportunity to make themselves heard and in 2017 the chances of success remain open whether you are signed to a major label or an independent artist. The UK music scene is bopping on all levels, and you can be tuning into the mainstream level of Skepta or Sampha or deeply immersed in the rising underground stars; whatever this current mix and blend ethos is – it’s got the ingredients of a major sauce. When it comes to evolving genres, London is the city that birthed Lover’s Rock, Jungle, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Garage, Grime and Dubstep – and now the UK is birthing it’s own sound of Afrobeats.
I head to Peckham’s Rye Wax to meet Congolese Omo Frenchie, to talk Afrobeats and his new ‘Diamond In The Dirt’ EP over beer. The opening track on the EP, ‘D.I.T.D’ – is fluid and atmospheric, languid bass grooves and chants make way for his conspicuous London accent ‘another Afrobeat bredda with a shit flow’ he goes on to mock. Raised in Peckham, London, childhood memories of Congo have faded; but Frenchie maintains pride in his heritage by remaining “clued up on that kind of stuff. If you don’t really know about it, it’s kind of hard to try and express yourself in that kind of aspect of things. Because then I think, you see it as more of genre whereas I think in the UK [Afrobeats] is more about the person you are, it’s about if it’s natural to you. You might not have what I’d class as an Afrobeat instrument but depending on how you express yourself on that tune; that’s when you start categorising things – whether it’s Afrobeats or not.”
Genre blending is what makes UK Afrobeats such an exciting prospect and yet in some ways also difficult to define right now. So I ask Frenchie for his opinion on it, “the blend for me, I would say I’m a victim of the blend. Just for the simple fact [that in] some of the songs you might hear a bit of patois, you might hear a bit of Nigerian lingo, Ghanaian lingo – because at the end of the day, I’m expressing myself and I express my experiences. The part of London I’m from, there’s not a lot of Congolese people in the community I grew up in. It’s predominantly Nigerians, Ghanaians and Jamaicans – those three nationalities to be specific, is what I’ve grown up around. And I’m a person – I’m always interested in other people’s culture – so if I’m showing interest from young and Jamaicans are teaching me about patois, how to pronounce certain things then I’m going to put it in my songs – it’s what I know, it makes me who I am today.”
Similarly another Tsunami-sized wave has risen around Birmingham’s MIST, his appeal having expanded to the Asian fanbase with his use of Punjabi lingo in his lyrics ‘Karla’s, Apnas and Goras’. Omo’s cultural blend itself is similar in his approach to lacing his lyrics with French and Lingala slang and genre blending with Afrobeats, Coupe Decale and South African sounds, “I think the right way to take part in art is to express what’s within, when I’m expressing myself and I know everything is coming from me, it gives me that extra satisfaction like: ‘okay, I didn’t need to pretend to be someone that I’m not’.”
When it comes to specifying genres, I ask Frenchie whether ‘Afrobeats’ is even the correct way to class him as an artist, “I may be classed as an Afrobeats artist, not personally, maybe for argument’s sake. I’m just an artist in general because I like to appreciate all types of music, when it comes to expressing myself, I’m from African heritage, I’m somewhat clued up to a bit of the history in Africa and what’s going on in Africa so it’s more or less second nature.” He continues, “When I got home [from school] my parents showed me what our culture is about. And, not only should they should they show me, I just had a genuine interest so I took the initiative of learning to speak French and Lingala to the best of my ability and it makes me feel like I know who I am.”
Although today, the overlap between African and Caribbean cultures is decidedly more relaxed, growing up African in London – this hasn’t always been the case. While children of immigrants were raised alongside one another, for a long time African culture and simply having an African background has been viewed as a series of two dimensional, mud hut, tribal clichès that were removed from the ‘acceptable’ laid back, weed smoking, steel pan playing Caribbean stereotypes, “there was a point, a lot of people were ashamed to be African and I don’t think I was ever in that stage, I was always proud of where I came from. In primary school, I’d tell people where I come from and they’d be like: where’s that? To them it’s a completely new country that they’ve never heard of but it didn’t demoralise me or put me down in any way. I was always proud of where I’m from because there’s good things about it – as much as the media might put a negative light to it there’s good things happening.”
Over eight tracks Frenchie has given himself enough room to flex his multi-faceted creative range with his debut EP. Kwamz & Flava, Suspect OTB and Abra Cadabra all feature and when it comes to his creative process, Frenchie always favours an immersive approach to music making, he engineers himself and composes his own beats as well as verses “I’m very, very proactive. More time I start with the drum pattern [and] keep working on that until I can hear a melody. I can put two percussion instruments down and kinda hear a melody, so I’ll quickly open up a synth or guitar – there’s not really an order, it’s what kinda emotion I can bring out of the instrumental.”
I’m at a point I don’t write lyrics no more I literally go on the mic and figure myself out like, as I go along
When it comes to writing rhymes, he says, “I used to write with iPhone or pen and paper. But now, I’m at a point I don’t write lyrics no more I literally go on the mic and figure myself out like, as I go along. The thought of sitting down writing I find really boring. The EP, I tried to tackle it from many different angles, my aim was to have a variety of different songs on there – cause I express myself in so many different ways. So at least each song I want to express things differently. [There’s an] Afro-dancehall kinda song I done with Abra Cadabra, there’s another kind of Trappy kind of sound, that’s the song I done with Suspect. And not only express myself like, I also want to make statements. So I’ve got a song on there ‘BE2GEDDA’ featuring Kwamz & Flava, what I done there, from the name of the song to the whole aspect of the song to symbolise unity in the industry.”
When it comes to industry unity Frenchie finds it easy to give love and support. Before this interview, Afro B had already name checked Frenchie; not just as a talent in the UK Afrobeats scene, but someone always keen to twist and turn and experiment with the sound. Their collaboration on Afro B’s 2013 single ‘Oh My’ – his first as an Afrobeats artist – alongside Tribal Man only served to firm their friendship, “Afro B has been a good friend of mine for a while, from his DJ days so anything he does I’ll support him because he’s a friend before anything init.”
There’s a lot of people in the industry that have that mentality of ‘well when I was coming up no one wanted to help me’. Never feel that this person owes you.
I ask Frenchie about the collaborative nature of the UK Afrobeats scene, why artists and producers seem so much less territorial than the early days of Grime, “I think that all boils down to the African mentality. African people are really sharing like, obviously, you’ve got your one few who are in it for themselves but the majority; they’re helpful people. I love helping people and I don’t see why not.”
On the scene, there are a number of musicians with Frenchie’s respect: “Naira Marley is another old friend, we’ve been friends more than 10 years now. N2TheA, I have the utmost respect for because he’s definitely one of the first, first, first producers of this whole UK Afrobeats industry, even my first solo single I released he produced that as well, so from there we’ve always had a relationship. The most important thing is about uniting and getting things done, there’s a lot of people in the industry that have that mentality of ‘well when I was coming up no one wanted to help me’. Never feel that this person owes you, nah because at the end of the day they’re not writing your songs for you, recording your songs for you, shooting videos for you. Anything you do, do is out of the kindness in your heart. Don’t worry about if this person’s going to return the favour or not, at the end of the day, God is always going to bless you.”
UK Afrobeats is a scene that is yet to reach it’s peak, and today audiences around the world can be a part of a scene in real time – this time you get a front seat look at a new LDN genre on the rise and making waves.
Omo Frenchie’s ‘Diamond In The Dirt’ EP is released 26th May