Grammys showcase Nigeria’s ‘soft power’ on world stage

Feb 5, 2024

Nigerian singer Burna Boy performs at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. 

Nigerian singer Burna Boy performs at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. 
| Photo Credit: AFP

When artists step onto the stage for the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, all except one of the nominees for the newly created Best African Music category will be Nigerians.

For the country’s creative industry leaders, the dominance of Afrobeats stars like Burna Boy and Ayra Starr at music’s biggest accolade is recognition of Nigeria’s growing “soft power” influence — and not just in music.

From Paris hotel lobbies to Mexico City nightclubs, the Afrobeats sounds of Nigeria’s hottest stars get played far from the streets of Lagos, as “naija” culture crosses increasingly into the mainstream.

Even before the Grammys, Nigerian stars were already selling out London’s O2 Arena and collaborating with global names like Selena Gomez and Drake.

“Some people think it is a wave, I think it is the beginning of the future. What has happened is the soft power has kind of evolved on its own,” said Obi Asika, a record executive recently named director of the National Council for Arts and Culture. “Music is the driving force, but with the music comes what I call Afrobeats culture, so you get the fashion, you get the dance, you get the attitude.”

With his blend of Nigerian pidgin and Yoruba lyrics, Burna Boy, who already won a Grammy, is nominated for four awards this year. Artists Asake and Olamide are nominated for “Amapiano” — referring to South Africa’s own popular genre.

Davido is nominated three times, including for his African award title “Unavailable”. Female singer Starr is up for her title “Rush”. “African music has been dominant for years, if you are asking me if we should have gotten recognition since? Definitely,” Davido told France24..

“I always knew that if we were given the opportunity to be heard, I always knew people would love it. The culture as a whole. Not only music, food, fashion, and the list goes on.”

‘Long time coming’

Nigerian music executive Motolani Alake said the Grammy category was a “long time coming”, not just for Nigeria but for Africa. “It can’t be anything than a blessing for Africa,” he said.

Afrobeats is not new — more than a decade of work is behind its growth as a genre — but interest from abroad has exploded in recent years.

Much of the overseas interest in Nigerian music traces back to Fela Kuti, the 1970s Afrobeat star who won applause for his new sound and stage presence.

Nigeria’s large diaspora in Britain and the United States has also been key in its wider popularity, said music historian and documentary maker Ed Keazor.

With a population of around 200 million — 20 million in Lagos alone — and most Nigerians under the age of 30, demographics also have a part.

Siya Metane, at South African music publication SlikourOnLife, said Nigeria’s proximity to London, large diaspora and especially the work, investment and collaborations with global stars paid off.

“All of those things are ingredients for a genre to really start spreading out and reaching the whole world,” Metane said.

Abuchi Ugwu, chief executive of one of Nigeria’s largest labels Chocolate City, said the Grammy category is “acknowledgement” but argued African musicians should be competing head-to-head with other stars. “Africa is not just Afrobeats,” he said.

Music is not the only area where Nigerian creativity is gaining visibility — Nollywood, its prolific movie industry, is reaching a more global market.

The Oscars Academy last year invited a group of Nollywood directors, writers and an actor to its membership, including CJ Obasi whose film “Mami Wata” won a prize at Sundance.

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