Inside Beyoncé’s Bold Bet to Get Americans to Listen to African Music
Yemi Alade had a cold.
Last month, the Nigerian star, who recently passed the one-million-subscribers mark on YouTube, flew to Los Angeles to work on a project by Beyoncé. But when Alade landed, she discovered she no longer had a singing voice. “I couldn’t understand what had happened to me,” she says. “I could talk, but I couldn’t even hit the lowest key.”
Panicked, she immediately went into full recovery mode. “I went for a steaming so I could get more moisture,” Alade recalls. “I jacked up on vitamin C. I went in on lemon and ginger. I felt like an herbalist, I was going in on everything.”
When Alade hit the studio the next morning, “the excitement awoke my voice” — she could sing. As a result, she appears twice on Beyoncé‘s The Lion King: The Gift, which is both a companion album to accompany the release of a new version of Disney’s famous film from 1994 and a tribute to several strains of contemporary African pop from one of the United States’ biggest stars. Alade is joined by other Nigerian luminaries: Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, Tekno, Mr. Eazi, and Wizkid. Beyoncé also looked beyond Nigeria as well, recruiting Shatta Wale (Ghana), Salatiel (Cameroon), Moonchild Sanelly (South Africa), and Busiswa (also South Africa) to contribute to The Gift.
Artists and producers involved in the album believe it will be a major boost for their international footprint — especially in America, the world’s biggest music market, which has been far less welcoming to African artists than the U.K. or France. “There have been samples [of African music in American pop] here and there, things like Drake and Wizkid collaborating [on ‘One Dance’],” says Guilty Beatz, the Ghanian producer who worked on three different tracks from The Gift. “But it’s just been little things. Now that Beyoncé released a whole album, this will open the gateway.”
Word of The Gift started to spread in the music industry at the end of spring. “Mid-may we started hearing rumblings of Beyoncé working on a Lion King project,” says James Supreme, an A&R at Universal Music Publishing Group. “One of our colleagues, Ari Gelaw, has a great relationship with Beyoncé‘s A&R, Mariel Gomerez. We reached out, and Mariel opened her arms.”
Supreme put Gomerez in touch with a young writer-producer named Michael Uzowuru, a first-generation Nigerian American whose credit list includes Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Jorja Smith’s Lost & Found. “There was a very specific vision [on The Gift], and Michael really knows how to execute a vision,” Supreme says. That vision, according to Salatiel, was to make the album “very African.” “[Beyoncé] insisted on having the African spirit on it,” Salatiel adds.
Sureeta Nayyar — who does international A&R for UMPG and has a keen ear for Nigerian acts — also entered into conversations with Beyoncé‘s team. “As a company, we have a really strong international presence, with Burna Boy [who is signed to UMPG] being the most significant African artist right now,” Nayyar says. “We were jumping on a moving train,” she continues, but Burna Boy ended up being one of the few artists other than Beyoncé to get a solo showcase on The Gift.
Much of The Gift came together in a studio complex in Los Angeles. “For almost two months, Michael went to the studio every single day,” Supreme says. “The way he put it was there were so many different rooms, with creatives cycling in and out.” “There were several studios, and every room had a theme,” Alade adds.
Many of the artists who worked on The Life are cagey about the details of its creation thanks to what one participant calls an “ironclad NDA.” But several of the African singers and producers traveled to L.A. to oversee songs in person. When Burna Boy arrived at the studio, he watched the trailer for The Lion King reboot to get into the right mindset before writing “Ja Ara E.” “It’s a new Lion King where [the animals] actually look like [real] lions,” he says. “I hadn’t seen that — it tripped me out. The management team was there give me one or two notes; they had to tell me what was going on.”
Guilty Beatz also flew out from London for a five-day stint on the West Coast working on instrumentals. “I didn’t know who would end up on which song,” he says. But the producer knew what he wanted his beats to sound like: “I’m Ghanaian, so I wanted to bring that cultural sound [of the genre] highlife.”
Compared to the programmed pulse of contemporary Nigerian afrobeats, “highlife is more guitar-based, slower, with shakers and more percussion elements like congas and bongos,” Guilty Beatz explains. This influence creeps into two of the most effective beats on The Gift: “Find Your Way Back,” with its featherweight guitar riffs, co-produced by Bubele Boii and Magwenzi, and most of all in “Keys to the Kingdom,” where languid verses give way to an insistent, jabbing hook.
The South African producer DJ Lag also spent a week in L.A. tinkering with “My Power,” which channels the style known as gqom. Unlike gentle highlife and swaying, mid-tempo afrobeats, gqom is skeletal, smacking music set around 126 beats per minute. DJ Lag sent six instrumentals to Beyoncé ahead of time; the singer took two of them. When he got to L.A., “they already had chosen what they wanted,” he says. “The only thing I did at the studio was work with the voices and add Busiswa’s part on the beat.”
By the time Alade arrived in L.A. in June — and recovered her voice — she says Beyoncé had already amassed a stockpile of around 150 songs. “There was a huge board with all of the artists that were supposed to be a part of the project,” she recalls. Alade was armed with “some songs that were not going to make it onto my upcoming album;” Beyoncé’s team “also played some ideas that they had,” including early versions of “Don’t Jealous Me” and “My Power,” the album’s two most propulsive tracks. Alade hopped on both.
For Alade, the timing of The Gift is fortuitous: She has a new album, Woman of Steel, arriving before the end of the summer. The same is true for Burna Boy, who will release African Giant next week, and DJ Lag, who released the Steam Rooms EP with Okzharp on Friday.
The Gift is also a shrewdly timed release for Beyoncé, who gets to embrace and elevate styles of music that are currently rising in popularity around the globe, even if they have not yet crashed into the American mainstream. Beyoncé now plays a role in potentially pushing some of this music into places it has not yet reached.
Uzowuru sees Beyoncé’s latest album as an afrobeats starter-kit for curious listeners. “This will give a great reference point for people to get into that music who haven’t before,” he says. “People need something like this to understand the rhythm, the melodies, the grooves. Beyoncé made a great job of making it accessible.”
Alade calls The Gift “yet another awakening, another step in the right direction.” Collaborative albums like this one have “advantages on both sides, for the U.S. and for Africa,” the singer says.
But there is still more work to do. “The idea,” Alade adds, “is to close the gap.”
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