Sade, Seal and Jonathan Butler are all mind-blowing musicians who share a single common thread sown deeper than the music: they are all African-born, and have impacted the world stage. Their long, lucrative careers cashed in on the big payday associated with breaking overseas where the all-conquering myopic of the “first world” monolith claimed them as its own. Stripped of their cultural identity, they were tossed into the melding pot and touted as “great British exports” or “amazing American bands”—not Nigerian, not Tanzanian, not Zanzi, not even Capetonian. Anything but African.
But now that’s all transforming. Africa is now! The Internet has democratized music and threatened the major label’s cash cows. Radio and TV are no longer the only barriers to entry, and the borders are wide open. Our blinders are off, and we are exposed to music from all parts of the globe via the interwebs.
We get down to South Korean K-Pop Gangnam style with Psy. Senegalese’s Akon is no longer lonely. South Africa’s Die Antwoord rhymed on the main stage at Coachella. Australian White girls are spitting fancy Southern rap lyrics, and we are swallowing it all hook, line and sinker. Meanwhile, Jay Z is sending his cousin to Nigeria to source talent.
The over-farmed first world music plantation no longer bears sustainable fruit for starving artists young and old to feed the bottomless corporations, but the teat of the motherland is ripe with low hung fruit. American acts of the 1990s like Joe, Kenny Lattimore and Boyz II Men are seeing a widening revenue stream via touring Africa. For the first time since there was a Rumble in the Jungle, the idea of killing it on tour in Africa has taken shape. Everyone is embracing their roots, taking DNA tests and cashing in on the New African gold rush. Africa is the future; a new frontier for brands big and small who embrace the diaspora and become “transafrican.”
Weeks back, the BET Awards hosted the Viewers Choice Best New International Artist for the first time ever, compromised of three of the hottest new acts from Africa and three from the UK: Cassper Nyovest (South Africa), Eddy Kenzo (Uganda), MzVee (Ghana) and George the Poet (UK), MiC Lowry (UK) and Novelist (UK). BET knows there’s a simmering international market out there that wants to be seen and heard; congrats to winner Eddy Kenzo.
It seems BET discovered that, beyond the boundaries of the first world, there’s an entire Black planet out there listening to and influenced by American-made music, and sponsors are willing to pay top advertising dollar to be associated with the cool kids. It’s cultural colonization. Stop. Drop. Open up shop… in another country and ship the money back to Viacom.
Yes, now there’s BET International, BET Africa, MTV Base UK and MTV Base Africa, in addition to the over 160 channels around the globe pumping foreign money right back to Viacom.
When the Best International Act category was first introduced during the 2010 BET Awards, the nominees were Dizzee Rascal (UK) Kojo Antwi (Ghana), Chipmunk (UK) and Estelle (UK), Hip Hop Pantsula (South Africa), K’Naan (Somalia), M.I. (Nigeria), P-Square (Nigeria), Corinne Baily Rae (UK) and Sade (UK). Could the participants in the category have been any broader? Dizzee won. Go figure.
It is no mistake that acts representing the biggest regions in Africa serviced by the BET signal were in L.A. last month competing for Best International Act Africa. AKA (South Africa), Sarkodie (Ghana), Wizkid (Nigeria), Fally Ipupa (DRC), Stonebwoy (Ghana), Sauti Sol (Kenya), The Soil (South Africa) and Yemi Alade (Nigeria) joined the likes of Smokey Robinson, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Diddy and an assorted who’s who of African-American Music on the red carpet in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, they were not included in the televised ceremony. It’s been the practice in the past to present the awards prior to the main ceremony and later place it into the international broadcast package to give regional viewers the feeling of being a part of the actual show. (Ahh, the power of the edit.)
Having had enough of this tradition, invited UK based artist Fuse ODG took to Twitter and expressed his sentiment: “Dear @BET, the reason why I didn’t come is because you give our awards backstage! You have no respect for out hard work and achievements.” Nigeria’s Wizkid also commented: “Same reason I didn’t come backstage to pick up the award when I won the first time. But I won’t be attending ur preshows and nominee parties if I’m getting the award at 10AM before the main show.”
Not to be left out, Yemi Alade spoke out in full caps on Instagram: “@Bet_Intl AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY!!!..IT IS WRONG TO NOMINATE HUGE AFRICAN STARTS AND PUBLICALY TRY TO HUMILIATE AFRICA. WHY ON EARTH IS THE AFRICAN CATEGORY OF THE AWARDS HELD HOURS BEFORE THE MAIN EVENT? IF AFRICAN ARTISTS ARE NOT WORTHY IN YOUR SIGHT, PLS BY ALL MEANS CANCEL, DELETE, OMMIT THE “BEST INTERNATIONAL ACT (AFRICA) CATEFORY OUT OF THIS GLORIFIED AWARD, THIS IS WRONG!”
BET International fired back via their Instagram: “shame you couldn’t accept our invite to see the Best Intl Act Award Presented on the main #BetAwards stage,” then thanked Eddie Kenzo for reppin Uganda by winning in his viewer choice category.
Now ask yourself: “Have I ever seen any of these African music videos on BET?” Your answer is probably “no,” unless you live in the UK or Africa. Will winning this award make a difference in the lives of these artists? French-speaking Fally Ipupa informed me via translator that he thought so. “Winning a BET would make me so proud. It would also help me having more visibility in the US.” Bless his heart.
The winner in the Best International Act Africa category, Stonebwoy received his award hours before the main event, in a nearly empty auditorium.
And so when have we seen any of the international acts on the BET playlist? Neveruary. But on YouTube, Yemi Alade’s “Johnny” is pushing over 20 million views alone, and she’s got the most YouTube hits of any female African musician. The hot new Davido track “Fans Mi” features Meek Mil, and scored a million YouTube views in less than two weeks.
Other bands like PSquare, Sarkodie and Fally Ipupa enjoy YouTube hits in the upper millions. Yet when these acts perform in the US, the shows usually boast barely more than a few thousand in attendance, if that. Without the continued support of the major mainstream print, TV and radio platforms, club DJs and promoters like Live Nation, these acts may never reach the critical mass necessary to crossover.
BET is seen to be a critical piece in this equation. But with the type of hype these artists enjoy at home, it’s actually BET who might benefit more from the association.
African acts boast social media followings in the millions and flourish with performance fees of well over $100K in their home countries. Lately, acts like Sarkodie have resorted to paying appearance fees to international acts like Ace Hood to perform on their tracks. But without limiting themselves or their talents, where is all this heading? Beatlemania? Hopefully. But not likely.
Until then, acts like Stonebwoy and AKA are not actually targeting Americans. They’re hip to their lanes. Kiernan “AKA” Forbes shared his perspective fresh from the Tim Westwood show freestyle booth in London. “We are going through a resurgence of African love,” he says. “In the UK, they’re on Afrobeat. When I go to L.A., I’m targeting the diaspora. I’m not after Americans, I’m targeting my people from Africa.
“For Ice Prince to be on The Breakfast Club, that works for him,” he continues. “But I’m after Africans out there in the diaspora. Our people are now more informed about what’s happening in other countries. Africa for me is a base for spreading my music around the world.”
After a sold-out show in Canada, Stonebwoy relayed, “My optimum goal is to rather bridge the gap between Africa and the West for easier transfer and access to our arts music and culture. Africa is the new gold rush, where I originate and belong.”
Suede has spent a decade between the America, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.