Nigeria’s Afrobeat finds rhythm and reward in western markets
It is a cold evening in Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, famous for diamonds, beer, art and high-end fashion. Inside a small restaurant, a mix of the latest American pop and rap — clearly enjoyed by diners — is playing on a radio.
Nigerians Olalekan Adetiran and Adaobi Okereke, enjoying a kebab dinner, are startled when the radio begins playing the unmistakable Ma Lo, a catchy, midtempo and bass-laden song by popular Nigerian artists Tiwa Savage and Wizkid.
The song, a hit across Africa, awakens thoughts of home in the two men; they cannot stop smiling at the pleasant surprise. They are visiting Belgium as part of a tour of European countries and their cultural landmarks.
A week earlier, two months after its release, the eye-popping video of the song had been viewed on YouTube more than 10-million times and counting.
For Adetiran, hearing Ma Lo on a Belgian radio station not known to cater to African communities confirms that music from Naija (as Nigerians fondly refer to their country) is going places. It reflects the greater reach of a new generation of Nigerian artists.
Just like the country’s movie industry, Nollywood, Nigerian music is drawing interest from beyond its borders, showcasing the vitality of a creative industry the government is now depending on, among other sectors, to diversify the economy and foster development.
Last November Wizkid won the best international act category at the 2017 Mobo (Music of Black Origin) Awards held in London, the first for an Africa-based artist. He beat competition from more established global celebrities such as Jay-Z, Drake, DJ Khaled and Kendrick Lamar. Davido, another Nigerian artist, took home the best African act award for If, one of his hit songs, a love-themed ballad that blends Nigerian rhythms and R&B.
Since its release in February 2017, the official If video has racked up 60-million views on YouTube, the highest number of YouTube views for any Nigerian music video and one of the highest recorded for a song by an African artist.
Across the continent other musical groups, such as Kenya’s Sauti Sol, Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz and SA’s Mafikizolo, have collaborated with or featured Nigerian stars in attempts to gain international appeal. The Nigerian government is looking to the creative industries, including performing arts and music, to generate revenues.
In rebasing or recalculating its GDP in 2013, the Nigerian government included formerly neglected sectors, such as the entertainment industries led by Nollywood. As a result, the country’s GDP increased sharply, from $270bn to $510bn, overtaking SA that year as the continent’s biggest economy.
The Brookings Institution, a US-based nonprofit public policy think-tank, reports that the GDP rise did not show an increase in wealth and that a recent crash in the price of oil, the country’s main export, is slowing economic growth. Nigerian music sales revenues were estimated at $56m in 2014, according to PwC. The firm projects sales revenues to reach $88m by 2019.
Globally, the creative industry is among the most dynamic economic sectors. It "provides new opportunities for developing countries to leapfrog into emerging high-growth areas of the world economy", the UN Conference on Trade and Development, a UN body that deals with trade, investment and development issues, said in a 2016 report.
Over the last decade, Europe had been the largest exporter of creative products, although exports from developing countries were growing fast too, the UN reported.
According to PwC, lumped together, annual revenues from music, movies, art and fashion in Nigeria will grow from $4.8bn in 2015 to more than $8bn in 2019.
Nigeria’s bureau of statistics reports that the local music sector grew "in real terms by 8.4% for the first three months of 2016" and that in the first quarter of 2017, the sector grew by 12% compared with the same period the year before.
The growth may be attributed to a reversal in music consumption patterns, local media reports say.
Up to the early 2000s, the music in Nigerian clubs and on the country’s radio stations was dominated by British and US hit songs. Not anymore. Reportedly, most Nigerians now prefer songs by local artists to those by foreigners, even the big ones in the West.
"When I go out, I want to hear songs by Davido or Whizkid or Tekno; like other people, I cannot enjoy myself listening to songs by foreign artists anymore," says Benjamin Gabriel, who lives in Abuja.
With a population of about 180-million, Nigerian artists have a huge market to tap into. The big ones like Whizkid and Davido are feeling the love.
"We are ready to explore and exploit the ‘new oil’," Nigeria’s minister of information and culture Lai Mohammed said ahead of a creative industry financing conference held in Lagos in 2017. "When we talk about diversifying the economy it is not just about agriculture or solid minerals alone, it is about the creative industry — about the films, theatre and music."
He was reacting to UN findings that the creative industry contributed £84.1bn to the British economy in 2014 and $698bn to the US economy that same year. "Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind," he said.
The Nigerian government is already providing incentives to investors in the sector, including a $1m venture capital fund to provide seed money for young and talented Nigerians looking to set up a business in the creative sector. The government is also allowing the industry "pioneer status", meaning those investing in motion picture, video and television production, music production, publishing, distribution, exhibition and photography can enjoy a three-to five-year tax holiday.
Other incentives, such as government-backed and privately backed investment funds, are also being implemented. Yet as hopes of a vibrant industry rise, pervasive copyright violations could stunt its growth.
In December 2017, Nigerian police charged three people in Lagos with copyright violations. Their arrests had been widely reported in the country.
Alaba market in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, is famous for electronics, but it is also notorious for all things fake and cheap, attracting customers from across West Africa to East Africa. Recent efforts by the authorities to fight piracy led to police raids of Alaba and other markets in the country, resulting in the seizure of pirated items worth $40m.
Despite such raids, the business of pirated music and DVDs continues unabated, turning enforcement efforts into a game of Whack-A-Mole. With minimal returns from CD sales, Nigerian artists rely on ringtone sales, corporate sponsorship contracts and paid performances to make ends meet. Most Nigerian artists now prefer online releases of their songs.
Still, online release poses its own challenges. For example, Adetiran and Okereke recall visiting a club in Dakar, Senegal in March 2017, where DJs played Nigerian beats nonstop. The two realised only much later that those songs had been downloaded from the internet.
"When you create your content and put it out, it’s scattered," Harrysong, a Nigerian singer, told the New York Times in June 2017, echoing Adetiran and Okereke’s experience. He was expressing performers’ sense of powerlessness as they lose control of sales and distribution of their music.
The Times summed it up like this: "Nigeria’s Afrobeat music scene is booming, but profits go to pirates."