Afrobeats and the poetics of a sonic muddle – Agunbiade Kehinde

During Rema’s acceptance speech for the Best Male Artiste of the year award at the last Headies Award, a salient issue was brought to the fore: the multiplicities of sounds and styles in Afrobeats music.

His words: “be it Afrorave, Afro this, Afro that, last last, we go jam for Afrobeats award.”

While his attempt at embracing the diversity is appreciated, it calls to question whether or not the globally acclaimed genre of music is fast becoming a sonic muddle.

What is the fusion of a fusion of a fusion? Confusion,” writes Dami Ajayi in one of his Substack pieces on music. And, indeed, this must spark an interesting dialogue about the multiplicities of sounds and styles presently obtainable from Afrobeats music. Equally important, this essay is premised on a cursory look at how these multiplicities have engendered a scourge of disparate artistic concerns and, consequently outright individualism in a postmodern manner.

In an interview with BET, Fireboy perpetuates this individualistic rhetoric by explaining why he considers his sound “different” from others. He says, “I needed to find an identity for my sound, because I knew from time that my sound was different. I knew that I was bringing something new to the table. The Afrobeats scene before I came in. It was built on vibes.” This inadvertently situates a Self/Other relationship in the Afrobeats music scene.


Image source The Punch

Afrobeats music has become subject to varying degrees of singularity, thereby experiencing different christenings from one point to another: AfroRave, Afro-Soul, Afro-Adura, Afro-Fusion, Afro-Pop, Afro-Life. A tweep even jokingly categorized Odumodu’s foray into the scene as Afro-EPL, another called it Afro-Cultism. While almost every new Afrobeats artiste tries to establish their “uniqueness”, the everyday taxonomy betrays its local provenance, the potpourri of local sounds, and any claims to artistic vision/purpose. For instance, any reference to Fela’s Afrobeat and its distinctive features by any current Afrobeats artiste as their artistic grounding is more or less a tongue-in-cheek claim.

At its present core, Afrobeats is a fusion of sounds, a melting pot of musical traditions that span the African continent and beyond. From the pulsating rhythms of West African highlife to the infectious grooves of Caribbean dancehall, from the soulful melodies of R&B to the electronic textures of hip-hop, Afrobeats seamlessly incorporates a melange of styles. This sonic amalgamation reflects the fluidity of identity and the erosion of cultural boundaries that characterize the postmodern age.

Afrobeats has become a genre that resists essentialism, rejecting the notion of a singular, unified artistic vision in favor of a vibrant, ever-evolving pastiche. Here, Wande Coal’s Legend or No Legend album and Asake’s Sunshine come to mind.  

Yet, beneath the veneer of this seemingly chaotic amalgam lies a poetic coherence. Afrobeats artists embrace this multiplicity, crafting soundscapes that are at once familiar and foreign, comforting and confrontational. They revel in the interplay of contrasts, juxtaposing local rhythmic patterns with global production techniques, blurring the divide between oral traditions and foreign influences. Now the question is: is Afrobeats  a sonic muddle?

Afrobeats’ very essence is rooted in postmodern ideals – a rejection of rigid boundaries, a celebration of cultural hybridity, and an embrace of the fragmented, the plural, the multi-faceted. Yet, it is this postmodern temperament that has inadvertently given rise to questions about whether the genre has become an indecipherable sonic muddle. As Afrobeats artists eagerly fold an ever-expanding array of sonic influences into their work, they leave the audience to wonder if this unbridled eclecticism has muddled the artistic waters, rendering the music a cacophonous pastiche devoid of focus or cohesion.

The postmodern aesthetics of Afrobeats  must not necessarily be met with reproach.  The genre’s mélange of sounds is not merely a haphazard collage but a rich tapestry spun from the threads of diverse musical traditions. Its “sonic muddle” is therefore a mirror held up to the complexities of the postmodern experience, reflecting the fluidity of identity, the blurring of cultural boundaries, and the constant negotiation between the local and the global. Afrobeats artistes do not seek to impose order upon this chaos; rather, they revel in its dissonances, finding beauty in the interplay of contrasts and harmonies.

Moreover, to dismiss Afrobeats as a sonic muddle is to fundamentally misunderstand the postmodern ethos that underpins it. This genre does not strive for artistic purity or adherence to prescribed forms; instead, it embraces a polyglottism that, refuses to be constrained by the boundaries of genre or tradition.

The resultant effect is that the pervasive individualism that undergirds its production seems to erode it of a consistent artistic focus or concern.


**Agunbiade Kehinde is an artist, writer, and critic whose penchant for cadence is unflinching.


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