Why the UK Afrobeats chart is so confusing?

On July 21st, 2020, the UK launched its Official Afrobeats Chart in collaboration with the music festival, 'Afronation'.

Image Credits: Official UK Afrobeats Charts - Fair use disclaimer: used for comment and/or criticism.

According to the Official Charts Company website, the chart highlights 'The UK's biggest Afrobeats songs of the week (top 20 in this case) based on sales and streams across a seven-day period'.


The launch of the chart recognises the growing influence of 'Afrobeats' not only in the UK, but also globally.


However, it simultaneously raises questions about how we define Afrobeats, the categorisation of African music and who has the power to decide these characteristics or categories.


Launching a chart for Afrobeats in the UK was always going to be complicated because the term is still much debated in the West African nations where it originates. The word 'Afrobeats' is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to popular music from West Africa and its diaspora.


Afrobeats' position as less of a fixed genre in the conventional sense and more so as a descriptor for contemporary music originating in West Africa is evident by the fact that its flag bearers incorporate a variety of genres. Examples of genres combined include: Afrobeat, Hiplife, Jùjú, Highlife, House, R&B, Hip-Hop, Dancehall etc. Afrobeats artists also refer to their music using different terms. Grammy-nominated Nigerian artist Burna Boy describes his music as 'Afro-fusion' and used the analogy of a pizza to explain this decision in an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. In his description, the dough of the pizza is 'Afrobeat' - the genre pioneered by Nigerian legend Fela-Kuti - while other genres such as Hip-Hop and Dancehall act as the pizza toppings. This label is in contrast to another Nigerian artist Mr Eazi who refers to his sound as 'Banku music,' his distinct fusion of Ghanaian Highlife and Nigerian chord progression and patterns. The fact that both artists class themselves under the broader category of Afrobeats speaks to the term's diversity and shows just how hard it is to pin down.


The fact that Afrobeats was not a term chosen by its artists but instead imposed, contributes to the difficulty of defining it.


In 2012, London DJ Abrantee used the word 'Afrobeats' in an interview to explain the growing popularity of Nigerian and Ghanaian pop music in the UK; specifically in African immigrant communities and to present the sound to British audiences. By taking the already well-known genre of 'Afrobeat' popularised by Fela Kuti and repurposing it for this new term, Abrantee unknowingly bestowed the never-ending task of explaining and distinguishing 'Afrobeat' and 'Afrobeats' -which are constantly conflated- upon its devotees. Afrobeat, in contrast to its rival, is identifiable by its fusion of Highlife, Jazz, Fuji, Funk and very political nature. Today, some 'Afrobeats' artists even prefer using the term 'Afropop' to prevent this confusion. However, it does not strictly refer to pop music from the West African region and can be used to refer to pop music more generally across the African continent.


Nowadays, it seems like all contemporary African music regardless of its sound or origin is classified as Afrobeats once it leaves the continent.


This miscategorisation was shown on a 2017 episode of the popular U.S radio show The Breakfast Club when South African Hip-Hop artist Cassper Nyovest was mistakenly referred to as an Afrobeats artist by one of the show's hosts. The UK Afrobeats chart is also guilty of this type of misclassification and generalisation with Gospel-influenced house songs like the South African hit, 'Jerusalema' and 'Must Be' by Afro-swing artist J Hus all categorised as Afrobeats on the chart. The use of Afrobeats in this all-encompassing manner can serve to erase genres such as Afro-swing which, although influenced in some part by 'Afrobeats' is distinct from it and pioneered by Black British artists. Similarly, it can work to the detriment of genres from non-West African countries such as Amapiano and Gqom from South Africa. Although such genres may benefit from increased interest due the visibility Afrobeats has directed towards African music, they may also equally be mislabeled and underappreciated in the process.


Another significant issue with the UK's Afrobeats chart is its description of itself as 'one of the world's official charts for the genre.' Although well-meaning and intended to recognise the rise of the movement to global recognition, it does in some ways frame the chart as the main way in which listeners can keep up with the latest Afrobeats songs and pop culture. The UK chart is indeed one of the first official global charts to use the term 'Afrobeats,' but arguably local charts in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana where the sound originates already operate 'Afrobeats' charts although they may not use the term in that way.


Artists, DJs, audiences and other stakeholders domestically and regionally shape the culture of Afrobeats as a movement and point towards what songs and artists should be listened to before this is then exported and consumed by members of the diaspora and global community.


There is no doubt that the UK and London specifically contribute significantly to the movement that is Afrobeats and its pop culture. The popularity of songs such as Azonto by Fuse ODG or more recently Drogba (Joanna) by British-Ivorian artist Afro B illustrates this. Still, this chart is in no way the centre of the movement.


Overall, the main reason why the UK's Afrobeats chart is confusing is because of the use of the term 'Afrobeats' despite the chart itself incorporating not only artists and songs not only from that genre but from genres across the continent and African diaspora. As Afrobeats continues to grow in popularity in the UK, it is crucial to not de-centre the leaders and nations of the movement or impose the term on other types of music such as Amapiano where it is not welcome. Given the diverse continental and diaspora African voices that appear on the chart a way to resolve the conflict would be to drop the term 'Afrobeats' from its title and simply call it the UK Official African Music Chart.